MA Culture, Materials and Design
About the programme
Our Core Vision: The material world is a world of social potential. Social scientists should be better equipped to engage with materials and objects through ethnographic, critical, analytical, presentational and collaborative skills. Designers, artists, engineers, architects and curators should be better equipped to work with people using similar skills.
The MA is one of the triage of material culture Masters programmes in the department. It is for people who are interested in developing their people-skills, and ways of thinking about culture and society, to work alongside, and with, designers, engineers, heritage professionals, environmentalists, materials scientists, and others with a pragmatic interest in materials and design. The course is about anthropological analytical skills and ethnographic methods, with some presentational and studio group-work skills. We mainly apply these skills to exploring the cultural and social implications of materials and design. We do social science in ways which have an affinity with design and related fields.
You should consider our MA if:
- You have a cultural interest in a particular Material, in Design, or in Crafts.
- You have a Professional background which uses materials and objects (design, art, engineering, architecture).
- You are interested in learning and researching through Doing and Making using materials and objects, as well as texts.
- The questions you are asking in your work are two-fold: firstly about Communities, and secondarily about institutional Audiences and Agendas (companies, NGOs, Governments, museums).
The CMD Masters includes a core course of lectures and seminars in the field of material culture (term 1) and design anthropology (term 2). Practical sessions running in parallel explore the anthropology of materials (term 1), and design ethnography practices and products (term 2). A group-based practical project, based on micro-ethnography for a client, is presented after Easter. Students undertake three optional courses, of which at least two are drawn from an official list of options in anthropology and archaeology. A dissertation is produced through the year, and submitted at the end of the summer.
We welcome part-time students (for EU citizens) who may wish to conduct the degree over two years while also continuing some kind of design, arts, materials-based or other professional practice.
The CMD core course is designed to give you a broad grounding in sociocultural approaches to materials and objects (more in the first term), and to design (more in the second).
After doing the first term of the core course, you will:
- Know a range of the kinds of questions which you can ask about material culture in general, and materials in particular.
- Be familiar with several key ways of thinking about, and the work of key theorists of, material culture, the culture of materials, and design.
- Be familiar with the contrasting ways in which different disciplines (anthropology, archaeology and materials science) approach materials and design.
- Have thought critically in broad terms about frameworks and contexts within which we commonly encounter and study materials and design.
In the second term, the core course builds an expertise in particular areas of design anthropology and the anthropology of design.
The core course runs in parallel with a series of practical sessions, which are more aimed at the development of skills and competencies, by the application of the knowledge explored in the core course. Where possible, the practical sessions address parallel issues to the core courses. In term one, practicals involve visits to materials libraries and resources, coupled with presentations back to the group. Students develop a corpus of ways to approach the subject of materials culturally, socially and experientially. In term two, the practicals work on ways of producing ethnographic products (video, sketching, representing, and making); students then divide into groups to work with an issue or problem posed by a client. This concerns finding and discovering ways of doing social research, and presenting it, in order to engage with designerly problems.
The CMD Optional Courses include nine possible courses taught in the anthropology department, and eleven in the department of archaeology (many of which focus on the archaeology of a particular material). Examples include:
- Anthropology of Art and Design
- Anthropology of the Built Environment
- Resource Use and Impacts
- Archaeological Ceramics and Plaster
- Managing Museums
Because we have students from different disciplinary backgrounds, we do try to facilitate students who wish to take one option in departments such as architecture, engineering, and fine arts, if such courses are relevant.
Each student will be assigned a supervisor who has a research profile compatible with the student's interests. The supervisor will help their student construct an individual research project to be submitted as a dissertation (15,000 words long) on any approved topic. The subject of a dissertation is broad - any anthropological or archaeological topic. Most students begin with a focus on design or materials, but your research journey can lead in different directions. A CMD dissertation should also conceive of what the potential audience for the research is, to indicate an awareness of what the potential engagement and wider role of the research might be.
Thesis topics range from materials, design and/or crafts, to broad cultural topics. Recent subjects which CMD students have researched in their theses include:
- Ways of making and crafting using forest and industrial materials in communities on the Orinoco river in the Amazon.
- New and traditional Fishskin materials.
- The Design Network of stakeholders around London’s new Double-Decker Design.
- Poker-playing and Changing Social Relations in Chinese Retirement Homes.
- The revived use of craft techniques, technologies and materials in a Scottish whiskey distillery.
- From ‘made in China’ to ‘designed in China’ in haut-couture fashion branding.
Research seminars and activities
A range of optional postgraduate Research Groups happen through the year in the department. These include a collaborative research group on heritage and properties, in which students research specific ethnographic artefacts for presentation to Massey University, New Zealand.
The products of design ethnography projects are displayed online as a part of the Material Life Studio, and are intended to form the basic for an ethnographic portfolio of anthropological work.
In most years, students voluntarily curate and display their practical work at a conference or exhibition, according to what relevant events are happening in that year. In 2012 and 2013, students also volunteered at EPIC conferences and events (Ethnographic Praxis in Industry), and organised the social agendas for these conferences.
The coordinator of the Culture, Materials & Design MA is Dr Adam Drazin, who teaches the core course and is the main liaison for helping CMD students develop a package of options and supervision which suits their research and vocational concerns.
Many of the students who apply to the programme have a specific interest in mind. This is often a particular kind of material, an area of design or craft, or a particular audience for anthropological work. Staff across the anthropology department cater for different interests, and in archaeology for many projects. Among the people who take an active interest in the programme, through running relevant options or else supervising students, are:
The material culture of socialism and post-socialism; modernist architecture and Urbanism in Russia and Kazakhstan; the archaeology of the recent past; ethnography of new materials and new technologies.
Anthropology of art; anthropology of techniques and technology; museum ethnography.
Anthropology of design, design anthropology, central & eastern Europe, the home, migration & home, ethnographic collections, Romania.
The material in art and design; the nature of innovation; the cognitive work of beauty; the relation between remembering and image making; the place of material manufacture in gift exchange.
Archaeology and ethnography of the Andes; ceramics production and social roles; material culture and technology.
Bill is the prime liaison for the MA withhin the Archaeology Department.
Archaeology, material culture and social identity; museums and tourism; artefact construction, ethnicity, heritage and identity in the western Pacific; contemporary and prehistoric landscapes, topography and monuments; rock art; residential gardens and gardening.
Our Steering Group
it is particularly interested in collaborative and interdisciplinary work, the
MA benefits from contacts with a steering group of design and materials
practitioners, who may run group events or are available to advise individual
Glenn Adamson is Deputy Head of Research and Head of Graduate
Studies at the Victoria and Albert Museum, where he leads a graduate programme in
the History of Design.
Linda Barron originally graduated in fashion design from St. Martins School of Art, working with Missoni in Milan for several years, consulting in New York and Paris, before founding Barron Gould with partner, John Gould, in 1984. Barron Gould are colour, finishes and process specialists, focusing on opportunities where product, service or communication can be unlocked through innovative use of technology. Linda is a founder of the Materials and Design Exchange, part of the Materials Knowledge Transfer Network.
Dinah Eastop is a Consultant in Conservation and Heritage Studies.
Geoff Hollington is a leading product design consultant and commentator. His products have won international awards and are held in museum collections. Geoff is currently working on projects in healthcare products, advanced manufacturing, lightweighting and waste materials re-use; he also sits on a number of public sector boards and committees.
Mark Miodownik is an engineer and scientist. He received his Ph.D in turbine jet engine alloys from Oxford University in 1996. He is Head of the Institute of Making at UCL. Mark is a broadcaster and writer on science and engineering issues, and believes passionately that to engineer is human.
Kaori O’Connor is a Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology, UCL, where she works on fibres, food and fashion; on culture and innovation; on age-related design and on materiality and the law. She is the leader of the Blue Project, which focuses on marine materials, scapes and resources, and marine-social interactions past, present and future, and acts as a consultant to firms that have included Dupont, Unilever and Logitech.
Margaret Pope sources materials and products for design consultants and architects. Her recent research has included sourcing materials and furniture for the award-winning Ashmolean Museum in Oxford for Rick Mather Architects. Working with Pentagram she has researched and sourced materials ranging from projects with international airlines, luxury hotels for both graphic materials and material finishes. Margaret is also a consultant to a number of universities helping to develop their material libraries and collections.
Camilla Sundwall trained as a product designer at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, graduated in 2008, and her work has a key emphasis towards materials, their specific properties and possible applications. She works as a designer and materials researcher at Chris Lefteri Design Ltd and YCN.
Sophie Thomas is the founding director of Thomas.Matthews, the UK pioneers in sustainable communication design, since 1998. She is co-founder of the social enterprise Three Trees Don't Make a Forest, set up in 2008 to educate and inspire communication designers through practical tools and advice. She sits on a number of advisory panels for sustainable design and is a trustee for the UK Design Council.
The unique combination of scientific and social science training will offer students career pathways in:
- Materials Consultancy: advising industry on different materials, old and new, and their technical and aesthetic properties in the design industry
- Product Marketing: employing ethnographic methodology to understand consumer choices
- Museums, Libraries and Heritage: with emphasis on careers in the growing sector of materials libraries, heritage consultancy (e.g. UNESCO and curatorship)
Find out more about London graduates' careers by visiting the Careers Group (University of London) website:
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