In the late eighteenth century, in the UK the Plymouth Porcelain Factory produced sets of figures designed to represent what were then known as the four Continents: Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas. As objects of middle-class consumption, they were designed not only to represent current ideas about the qualities of these continents, but also to allow consumers to have a relationship with places of which they had no first-hand knowledge, creating a geographical experience. Taking the historical nature of these figurines into consideration, this research considers whether it is possible to co-opt such artefacts into a twenty-first century geographical experience. Using a multi-modal, experiential approach to design research that includes not only looking at the original context of objects, but also displaying the artefacts through the lens of twenty-first century technologies such as 3-D scanning and asking individuals to respond creatively to the figurines, this paper explores how an interaction with past experiences of geography might help us to understand our current perceptions of the world.
While these quasi-archaeological approaches are useful in determining some of the facts surrounding these figures, by reducing them to their place in a series of visual trends or technical discussions they treat them as passive recipients of cultural and material developments rather than as objects of material consumption that were active participants in the experiences of their consumers. In histories of eighteenth-century porcelain more generally, this is a problem addressed by Richards (1999) and Cavanaugh & Yonan (2016), who argue for the analysis of porcelain products as imbued with ‘conceptual and metaphorical values’ beyond technical or visual analysis (Cavanaugh & Yonan 6). One of these values is the idea of global geographies, represented literally by the figurines but also metaphorically by the story of porcelain, and of Cookworthy himself, whose story was framed by travelling, a metaphor explored most recently by Edmund de Waal in The White Road (2015). By teasing out the cultural life of Cookworthy’s continents, it is possible to think about how the experience of viewing and handling the figurines might have actively played a part in shaping the geographical understanding of the eighteenth-century consumer, and this question forms the first part of the paper.
Moreover, as Susan Pearce (1994), amongst others, has argued, treating an object as an active constituent of the consumer’s experience implies that its importance is not limited to its moment of conception, but that their function can be re-framed as they continue to act upon consumers in the context of a collection. This means that these figures, and the geographical metaphors they represent, are constantly being re-experienced in a global context that is very different to their original setting, and the remainder of the paper is devoted to the re-experiencing of these figures by contemporary viewers. Given current debates about the presence in public spaces of cultural objects that represent colonialist geographies, this research, which seeks to deconstruct the modern viewer’s reaction to historic geographical metaphors, seems particularly timely.