Esther Cleven


Preservation/Exhibition/Education: Shifting Views on Graphic Design History

In this talk I will draw on my experience as a curator and a university professor, to point out the existence of different approaches to and traditions of graphic design history and to reflect on the sometimes conflicting issues they raise. The graphic design history represented in museums, for example, is characterised by the physical artefact. In its walls, the ephemeral character of mass media is neutralised. What is more, museums and archives very often fail to describe the full territory of the graphic design practice, excluding less tangible traits and contexts. Oddly, whereas some professionals would like to see the field of graphic design represented in a wider perspective, there are also professional interests involved in the museological canonisation of graphic design. A different view on graphic design history is offered by the university context. Within academia over the years the interest in graphic design history has shifted in terms of approach and perspective. Remarkable parallels can be found with the more recent developments of graphic design theory, e.g. the turn towards craft, the digital or the social. Nevertheless, the new views of academic researchers dealing with graphic design history are mostly informed by issues of methodology and interpretation that are situated outside the trade of graphic design itself. Interestingly though, these issues also point to the role of the public which, it should be noted, has also been a major issue within the field of museum studies in recent years. Indeed, it could be argued that one of the most important questions to ask about graphic design history today is: at which audience is it aimed?

Esther Cleven has been working on and with the heritage of graphic design for about twenty years. Notably, she has been involved in the conception of the Graphic Design Museum in Breda (2001-2010), now known as MOTI, the Museum of the Image. In addition to being a curator she has been part-time professor of modern typography and graphic design at the Universiteit van Amsterdam. Prior to this she acted as advisor for graphic design at KPN Art & Design, and taught at the Department of Art History at Utrecht University, where she also received her PhD in 1999. In 2011 Cleven embarked on her second project of museum development, in the role of curator of applied arts and design, namely the forthcoming Bauhaus-Museum in Weimar, due to open in 2018. Esther Cleven has published on the history of graphic design, advertising and art, museology and historiography.