Phd Design Research

RMIT University, Candidate School of Architecture and Design

I am a PhD candidate at RMIT in the School of Architecture and Design and working towards a 2022 graduation. My research explores designing visitor experiences in complex heritage settings to keep cultural heritage alive. My research is situated at Montsalvat, a significant site registered as Australia’s oldest living artisan colony since settlement. My exploration of service design, cultural heritage, design anthropology and place-centred design has encouraged new methods to support designers to unravel, locate, surface and transmit intangible heritage values. These methods dig below the surface of a complex setting to identify stories vital to communicating a site’s significance and meaning. The research has been developed through creative practice and supports my interest in working with communities and heritage to keep diverse cultures alive.

The research has deepened my appreciation of design’s collaborative and relational nature to influence change in dissonant settings. Designs’ capacity to create small moments of human connection is vital to moving the process forwards. The human correspondences (Gatt and Ingold 2020) that designers create help move design from a state of ‘being’ to ‘becoming’ something else (Kimbell 2011; Akama and Prendiville 2013). And our capacity as designers to lean into the invisible in-between spaces of human relationships (Akama and Prendiville 2013) is vital to achieving transformative change in complex settings. The experience highlights designs capacity to transform ourselves, those we work with, and the world around us (Akama and Prendiville 2013).

The following images illustrate some of the inquiries I conducted that led to methods to unravel, locate, surface and transmit intangible heritage values to keep them alive.

Embedding into the community

In 2019 I embedded into Montsalvat’s artisan community. I worked as a design researcher from the Jewellery Studio two days a week for just over one year.

Making research probes & design artefacts

I adopted a community value of making by hand and made a series of research probes and design artefacts. The research probes included a map of the grounds, a set of narrative cubes, and a diorama, and I integrated them into community research to locate buried memories and stories. I also made a series of design artefacts or posters called artist profile posters. The posters focused on several figures from the site’s founding community; they traced the figures careers and creative practice through apprentice, journeyman and mastery stages. Making the probes and artefacts helped me come to terms with the site, the buildings and the founding community. They also identified critical stories missing from the history and vital to communicating its significance and meaning.

Researching with the community

I conducted interviews with the community to understand their memories and experiences and locate their stories on the grounds. I was also interested in the artisan’s lived experience of visitors touring the grounds. Research insights helped me understand how to surface memories and stories by entwining them into the buildings to achieve ‘locational authenticity’ and encourage ‘generational transmission’ (Beazley 2005). Participatory research included marginalised voices; it also ensured an ethical approach to developing an inclusive and critical heritage narrative.

Prototyping a walking tour

My final inquiry prototyped a sensory walking tour that aimed to immerse and reconnect the community to the site’s buried heritage. The tour included a booklet, a mobile application and several sensory boxes. The booklet helped audiences get the walking tour on their phones; and contained a map of each destination on the grounds, with post-tour reading for those interested in the site’s history. The walking tour’s content sensorily immersed audiences via visual, auditory and tactile methods identified as key to heightening audience perception as they moved through a museum environment (Nanda 2005). I prototyped a range of video, audio, visual content to help bring heritage stories to life by placing them in the locations where they had occurred. I also incorporated tactile experiences into the tour and prototyped several sensory boxes; they offered audiences a different way to connect to the site’s heritage and sensory aesthetic. The tactile prototypes focused on the wisteria, the pine forest and the peacocks at Montsalvat. Their contents included scent, pressed flowers, feathers, clay disks, photos and links to videos highlighting the sensorial qualities of these features in the grounds.