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Fleur Elkerton

Dissertation Title

Mechanical Microcosms: Medieval Automata as Transmitters of Design Knowledge

Fleur Elkerton

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My research during the course has broadly focused on replication, reproduction and knowledge transference of medieval design technologies - in both modern and medieval contexts. My object essay focused on a 1870s plaster cast held at the V&A. It was cast in-situ, in pink textured plaster, from the external ornamental decoration of Sultan Hasan’s mosque (1356-63) in Cairo, before being recast into white fine plaster in-house in South Kensington. It is ultimately representative of an educational yet 'othering' relationship with medieval and non-Western architecture in nineteenth century Britain, and how reproductive technologies enabled this.

Researched in New York whilst on exchange to Bard Graduate Centre, my historiography essay explored the integration of ‘Gothic’ styles with early New York skyscraper design. In particular I examined how this generated a diverse,multivalent field of scholarship spanning the last century and beyond. I concluded that the very flexibility of the 'Skyscraper Gothic' enables it to retain relevance and be constantly adapted, generating new and contemporary insights in design historiography.

My dissertation centres around medieval automata as highly designed and technical objects, whilst exploring the presence of collaborative design practice in a world where the word ‘design’ didn’t yet exist. Striving to broaden the design historical chronology, my research aims to examine the transfer of highly specialised design knowledge of automata from the medieval Islamicate world to medieval Europe. It continues to analyse how knowledge of complex machinery and metallurgy was transferred between craft/artisanal practitioners and scholars in emerging medieval European universities. This is evidenced by proving that there was a collaborative language of craft, and shared cultural awareness of automata which suggests the potential for physical collaboration to create and build automata. Finally my argument covers the performative nature of medieval automata in Europe, how this perceived form of ‘foreign’ design knowledge was elevated to promote and entertain the elite. Ultimately I conclude how these mechanical devices not only illustrate sophisticated application of and understanding of engineering design, but global transferences of this knowledge. Alongside this they can highlight medieval attitudes towards nature, and control over the natural world through technological innovation.

Whilst on the MA I continued to curate my digital project, Sustainable Histories, which is a platform to showcase historical objects which demonstrate repair, repurposing or reuse, and recently wrote about this for the V&A Blog (LINK). I have also co-founded, with Anna Talley, in the spring of 2020 a rapid-response digital archive, Design in Quarantine, to collate design responses to COVID-19. I am currently Curatorial Assistant at the University of Reading - Art Collections, and an active member of the V&A Youth Collective.