Exploring the BT Design Register: representing sensory experience online

The Board of Trade Design Register is unusual in combining text, images and artefacts, and so presents challenges for both access and preservation. It comprises registration records and representations of nearly 3 million designs, registered for copyright protection between 1839 and 1991, for a wide range of materials and products.

Discovery, the online catalogue of The National Archives, provides series-level information on the whole collection, and has recently provided item-level access to the text-based registration records in Series BT 43/44, covering 1842-1883/4. Enhancing access to the designs themselves, whether in person or online, is challenging for many reasons, e.g. the millions of designs, the large size and weight of the volumes, and the diverse media, scale and condition of the representations.

We’re investigating ways to present online the sensory appeal of some representations, e.g. the smooth, shiny finish of ‘chintz’ textiles, the embossed surfaces of some papers, and the texture of straw-work. Filming provides one way to capture the experience of handling, examining and recording the designs.

The following film evokes the rhythm and repetition of page-turning, and of unfolding and refolding designs; it is not a documentary but an attempt to present texture in both image and sound. This film was made by the film-maker Anna Brass, whose work was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The film is posted on the AHRC YouTube channel.

This short film, called The Volunteer Experience, reflects aspects of volunteers’ recent work with the BT Design Register at The National Archives.

Another way of representing texture online is the image capture and processing technique known polynomial texture mapping (PTM). This allows online virtual re-lighting of the designs and can provide a hyper-real, sensory experience. Listed below are the links to the PTMS previously posted on The National Archives’ blog. The first four feature designs in the BT Design Register; the last features the wax impression of a medieval seal.

Anna Brass has made two other films featuring designs in the BT Design Register: They Knew It Would Sell and So Few Did.

They Knew It Would Sell shows designs registered in 1908 and features a printed cotton cloth designed for sale in Africa.

So Few Did includes printed kerchiefs registered in 1914.


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