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V&A/RCA History of Design (MA)

John Binchy

John Binchy is an Irish design and art historian interested in 19th and 20th Century European cultural history, with an emphasis on decoloniality studies and indigenisation within the museum space. John started his higher education with a Bachelor of Arts degree from Trinity College Dublin in European Studies, from which he graduated with First Class Honours in 2021. In this programme, he became interested in 19th Century French cultural history, with a particular focus on design history - specifically on the circulation, consumption and reproduction of cashmere shawls. This allowed for a wider exploration of 19th Century ideas of femininity, colonialism and broader processes of modernity. This research sought to gather information on the use, iconography, function and materials of these shawls.

In this BA, John had the opportunity to do an Erasmus exchange in French with the Institut d'études politiques de Bordeaux (2019-2020). This is where he gained a broader understanding of European political history and culture which gave him a wide knowledge base from which to draw on during later projects. He learned about the role of language, food and culture in general in the formation of personal and national identity. 

With an interest in the French language and in 20th century colonial discourse, this History of Design MA - in collaboration with the Royal College of Art and the Victoria & Albert Museum - allowed John to explore the materiality and design of colonial expositions and the analogous materiality of contemporary anti-colonial protests. One of the reasons why John undertook this MA was because he wanted to learn more about the history of museology and how decoloniality studies play into this. 

John’s final independent research project for this MA - entitled

“Venez voir les sauvages!”: Transient and Permanent Material Constructions of Colonial Discourse in Early 20th Century Paris

- led him to research rarely studied anti-colonial activities in the 1930s, documented in records taken by the French police, held at Archives nationales d'outre-mer, and to an exploration of how these various methods of protest manifested in material form. For his dissertation, John centred specifically around the 1931 Exposition Coloniale in Paris and the various forms of indigenous representation at this Exposition. Then he traced a series of anti-colonial movements and events at the time, which culminated in a subversive anti-Colonial Exposition, held in parallel with the ‘official’ Exposition and organised by members of the French Surrealist movement.  

Other projects throughout this MA included looking at changes in the historiography of cast-iron decorative sculpture, focusing on the idea of civic identity and copyright issues. Added to this, John undertook several college-wide courses, such as one on Being Digital, which explored the problems of the art in the digital world as well as its potential, and Materialising Collaborations - which focused on the exploration of the relationship between collaboration and community, and the role of materiality within this theme.

Image: Photograph of a document taken at the exhibition La Vérité sur les colonies in the room organised by Aragon, Éluard and Tanguy in 1931(Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles).