Joana Albernaz Delgado

Urban Planning Lawyer turned Design Historian. I am interested in connections between different scales of design, going from the city to the architecture and the object. My recent work, focusing on cantilever chairs, televisions and museum benches, uses mixed media approaches to challenge dominant historical narratives about 20th century design.

Research Project

De-scribing Museum Seats: Design and Art in the V&A’s Raphael Cartoons Galleries

My work looks at embedded messages and meanings in museum seats to reveal a different angle on how museums see their collections and themselves in different times.

Material Culture, Modern, Contemporary, Europe, Built Environment, Applied Arts, Interior Space, Museum Studies

Unknown author, The Raphael Room at the South Kensington Museum, London. Illustrated Times, 7 October 1865.

Museum seating has been an invisible subject to many. Its unobtrusiveness is usually part of its script, but it also reveals how the ‘material culture of everyday life’ of the museum world has been undervalued by historians and researchers. My dissertation aims to bring the history of museum seating to the fore by placing it within broader narratives of museum history and museum studies, finding it a ‘seat’ between the history of display and the history of viewing and experiencing.

Using the V&A’s Raphael Galleries – Gallery 94 and the succeeding Gallery 48a –, my dissertation seeks to know what museum seating can tells us about the way the V&A has been ‘framing’ the Raphael Cartoons, and, ultimately, what does that reveal about how the museum has been positioning itself in different times.

John Chillingworth, The Art Of Love, 1954, London, A Modern Pilgrim’s Progress, Picture Post no. 7114, 1954 (via Getty Images).
John Chillingworth, The Art Of Love, 1954, London, A Modern Pilgrim’s Progress, Picture Post no. 7114, 1954 (via Getty Images).
The methodology guiding this project draws upon Madeleine Akrich’s thesis on script analysis. Script analysis makes objects talk, revealing their inner ‘manual of instructions’. Indeed, museum seats have embedded messages that condition the way visitors experience museums.

In my project, the message inscribed by museums and the message that the seats effectively irradiate are more important than the script devised by furniture designers. Museums shape meaning, sometimes partially unconsciously, by interrelating architecture, space, objects, furniture and visitors. By using specific seats in specific locations, museums act like authors of a broader semantic and geographical script. Methodologically, my work ‘de-scribes’ (using Akrich’s terminology) museum seats in the Raphael Galleries, unpacking their script in context, to unveil the way the V&A has been framing the Cartoons. The ‘de-scription’ flows within a pictorial journey in time between 1865 and 2021 that reveals the evolution of museum seats in dialogue with space, objects and subjects in the Raphael Galleries.

Considering the lack of consistent primary sources about exhibition design decision processes and about visitors’ experience within such a long period of time, script analysis allows the extraction of primary information from the most stable sources available: material culture, covering visual evidence and, whenever possible, the museum seats themselves.

My investigation concludes that the Raphael Cartoons have been presented by the V&A in a dual, albeit non equal, form, which has fluctuated in time between displaying them as art or design objects. The pendular movement that embodies the presentation of the Cartoons is in itself an image of the way the V&A has been shaping its identity as an art and design museum, revealing how both the Cartoons and the museum have been symbiotically evolving over time.

Symposium Presentation ︎︎︎

The Design of Methodology Panel︎︎︎

In Addition

Talking seats: A visual celebration of museum benches

Shannon Finnegan has been designing museum benches for different art spaces since 2018. The series, called ‘Do you want us here or not’, is a poignant response to the lack of seating in museums, a form of seated protest that they shape with words written in all caps on the benches themselves. ‘I’D RATHER BE SITTING. SIT IF YOU AGREE.’, or ‘IT WAS HARD TO GET HERE. REST HERE IF YOU AGREE.’ are two examples of how they use museum benches as art, focusing on the frequently invisible disabled audience.

Although my research does not focus on accessibility or museum fatigue, I borrowed inspiration from Finnegan’s benches to celebrate my own work on the history of museum seating. Using photographs taken at the V&A, these visual snippets embody some of my conclusions about the power of museum seats and their historical importance. Museum seats convey a specific script on how visitors should experience museums, and therefore they also reveal how museums see their own collections and themselves. Here, they are a graphic expression of my thoughts, an encounter between content and shape, substance and form.

Museum seats irradiate, but they also absorb. They are often covered with scribbles, doodles and scratches, layers of deliberate damage carved through the decades. These visual musings also pay tribute to the rich, albeit hard life of museum seating. They do not intend to praise vandalism and mischief. By inscribing my conclusions on these benches, I intend to acknowledge museum seats as repositories of memories and material instruments of a primary human need to be remembered, to leave a mark, to make an indent. They are also, in their own way, wonderful witnesses of the relationship between humans, their history and their past.

©2022 by V&A/RCA History of Design MA