Design Museum Academy Online Lecture

Design History: Ai Weiwei and Chinese Material Culture

Explore how material culture connects with our intangible past and how it enables us to interact with bygone civilisations that shape who we are.

This one-hour online lecture, featuring exclusive curator interviews filmed in the Ai Weiwei: Making Sense exhibition space, will focus on the story of porcelain mass production in China. Discover this lost history of making and how it invites us to reconsider design history in the contemporary world.

Exhibition photography by Ed Reeve

What to expect

Ai Weiwei: Making Sense is the first exhibition to present Ai’s work as a commentary on design and what it reveals about our changing values. This lecture will explore those ideas by firstly looking more closely at the objects themselves and consider what picture of civilisation they conjure.

During this course we will focus on one material as an example, porcelain. Ai’s field of 200,000 porcelain spouts attest to the rigorous aesthetic standards of the Song dynasty. China has a history of technology that exists in parallel with the dominant Western narrative, stemming from different origin myths and embodying a distinct ethical tradition. We will explore how porcelain was a mass-produced product from the earliest times and how at their time of manufacture, Chinese porcelain objects were functional commodities, and embodied empirical industrial design.

In the early 1990s, Beijing’s markets were brimming with historical artefacts, deemed to be of little worth. This was when Ai began his obsession and fascination with traditional craftsmanship. We will explore his relationship with collecting and examining the visual diary he kept during this time. This affords us a window into a formative period, one that left a lasting impact on his practice.

With Design Museum Academy online courses, you can learn with others by joining our live lectures and raising questions in the Q&A or through receiving a recording of the events available for a week after the lecture has finished. There will be time available at the end of the hour-long session to answer questions.

Testimonials from Surrealism and Design: from Dali to AI online design history course

January/February 2023

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Rachel Hajek

Hajek is a curator, writer and researcher based in London. She is assistant curator at the Design Museum where she has contributed to numerous exhibitions and displays including Ai Weiwei: Making Sense, and has previously held positions at Tate Modern.

Justin McGuirk

McGuirk is a writer and curator based in London. He is the chief curator at the Design Museum and the director of Future Observatory, a new national programme supporting design research in achieving the UK’s environmental goals. In a diverse career, he has authored and edited books and magazines, been a newspaper critic, founded a digital publishing imprint and curated numerous high-profile exhibitions.

Rose Kerr

Kerr is Honorary Associate of the Needham Research Institute in Cambridge, after retiring as Keeper of the Far Eastern Department at the Victoria & Albert Museum. She teaches and lectures internationally and acts as Honorary Fellow at the University of Glasgow, Trustee of the Sir Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art, and Museum Expert Advisor for Hong Kong. In 2015 she was made an Honorary Citizen of Jingdezhen, the 'porcelain city' of China.


Booking informationn

Adult: £8
Early bird adult: £7
Student: £7
Early bird student: £6
Members: £6
Early bird members: £5

Early bird tickets are available until 1 June 2023.

Tickets are non-refundable and non-exchangeable. Visit our terms & conditions page for further information.

The exhibition

Ai Weiwei: Making Sense

Discover some of the artist’s most important works displayed alongside collections of objects that have never been seen and new commissions made for the exhibition.

Discover more

5 Unmissable Highlights from #MakingSense

From Ai Weiwei’s largest ever Lego work to a Marble Takeout Box – here’s five unmissable highlights.

Estimated reading time: 2 minutes