Researching Through Objects – The Casio F-91W

First year Research students at the Royal College of Art (RCA) are encouraged to participate in the “Research Methods Course”, which according to the website:

…has been developed specifically to prepare first-year MPhil and PhD students for research at a higher level and to explore cultures of research in art and design.

The course is taught by research-active staff drawn from all Schools and by invited speakers. Cited as a national example of good practice by the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA), the RMC aims also to develop the transferable and career skills of postgraduate researchers at the RCA.

I have mixed feelings about the course, I am sure that each session was relevant to at least some of the attendees, but it was never clear who that would be at the start of the day.  I either came away from it having learnt some useful things and feeling more assured in my abilities or having been introduced to abstract concepts that I could not get my head around and feeling uncertain, lost, and in some cases irritated.

I think that this is probably unavoidable in order to cater for the diverse departments and even more diverse research subjects at the RCA.  I believe that, luckily, the lessons in which I struggled, were not hugely relevant to me or my proposed method of research.

One of the most useful exercises so far, for me at least, was part of “Researching Through Objects” lead by Rick Poynor.  The instructions were simple:

  1. Go to the “Making the Modern World” exhibition at the Science Museum (handily a 4 minute walk from the South Kensington campus)
  2. Select an object or related group of objects from the permanent collection
  3. Research the object/group of objects
  4. Produce a piece of writing, 500 to 800 words, that reflects your interest in this exhibit
  5. Present the piece in a follow up session a couple weeks later
The “Making the Modern World” exhibition at the Science Museum, London (Credit: Science Museum)

Although at first glance, this seems like a fairly trivial exercise, it was not without its difficulties.  Actually deciding on on an object was a task in itself, one that warranted a couple more visits before a commitment could be made!  My first instinct was to go with one of the prominent objects with its own section and an already large perceived impact, something that I already had a little knowledge about like the “Flying Bedstead” ,  Apollo 10 CapsuleApple I or even Stephenson’s Rocket.  I then came across something that I thought was related to my research (albeit loosely), the prototype for the “Clock of the Long Now”, an ambitious project to create a clock suitable for 10,000 years use.  However, the more that I researched it, the more I realised that it had been covered extensively from many angles (technical, philosophical, aethetics etc.) by those with much greater knowledge than I, and that a summary would be redundant as it has an extensive website and Wikipedia page.

Luckily, after shuffling my feet around the “Technology in Everyday Life” cabinets along the North edge of the exhibit, and spending an inordinate amount of time looking at some of the familiar, but mostly obsolete articles in the c.1968-2000 section, I came across this unlabelled watch:

Casio F-91W in the Science Museum

Small, cheap, mass produced and practically disposable, it is almost the exact opposite of the clock of the long now.

I have owned this model, and quite a few other Casio watches since a young age, and lost almost all of them before the battery ran out, in some cases finding them years later still in a working state.  I decided to research the object further and found it fascinating, and that it may have had more of an impact that most people realise, although not necessarily in “making” the modern world.

As we were told we could write in any style that we liked, I attempted to use the opportunity to write in a lighter style that hadn’t previously explored. Unfortunately, as the brief was so open ended, the feedback during the review session was not extensive (or negative/critical), so any additional feedback would be appreciated.  (Yes, I know the opening quote is long, but it is my favourite opening page from my favourite book, so indulge me!)

Click “Read More” to see the work I submitted, it can also be downloaded as a PDF from this link. – Casio F-91W


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Research Background

In early 2014, I was sent a link to this on the Guardian website and here on the RCA website and thought “that looks interesting”.  As it was close to the application deadline, and in an attempt to make the opportunity relevant to my MSci in Geoscience, I very quickly put together a proposal based around the visualisation of the history of gaseous emissions (both natural and anthropomorphic).  While I was excited by the prospect, I did not think that I was in with a realistic chance of being offered it, which at the time was oddly reassuring and most probably influenced the way in which I wrote the proposal.

A few days later I received an invitation to an interview at the Royal College of Art.  All of a sudden I wasn’t so reassured, again I was excited, but now I knew I would have to introduce and defend myself in front of experts in the field, a field that I had no background in and was making an appeal to enter.  Luckily, everyone there was amiable and (despite my nerves and having misplaced my notes) the interview went well, at least I think that it did, or can infer that it did!  I was asked to make a presentation about myself, attempting to take on board Edward Tufte’s words about Powerpoint, I did this using Prezi which I would not call an alternative, but is an excellent piece of software in its own right.

When I was offered the studentship I was surprised, and after some serious thought about the future, I accepted.  A full description of the undertaking can now be found on the Royal College of Art website.

Before starting I had wrongly assumed that members of  the department (IDE) would predominantly have an art or design history and was (maybe a little pleasantly) surprised to find that is wasn’t the case, and that everyone came from an interesting and diverse background.  This is something that I think adds greatly to the environment, especially for the Masters students, who have a world class and almost unique opportunity.

So far the experience has been fascinating.  It is a real privilege to return a leaning environment and there aren’t many opportunities where you can focus on an important and interesting topic for 3 years and, in the process, (hopefully) become an expert.

I have also been able to explore avenues in formal education that thought I had closed long ago, having not taken history or art on to GCSE level, but having retained an interest in them.

I have started this blog 3 months late to document it in real time from start to finish, but I will attempt to catch up with myself, and document the more interesting aspects of it.

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