Ton Otto is Professor of Anthropology and Ethnography at Aarhus University, Denmark, and a Professor and Tropical Research Leader at James Cook University, Australia. Presently he is also Head of the Ethnographic Collections at Moesgaard Museum, Aarhus, and in charge of the new ethnographic exhibitions that opened in October 2014. Since 1986 he has conducted ethnographic field research in Papua New Guinea and published widely on issues of social and cultural change. He has a strong interest in the epistemology and methodology of ethnographic research, including visual and museum anthropology, and its relationship to innovation, intervention and design. His recent publications include the co-edited volumes Experiments in Holism: Theory and Practice in Contemporary Anthropology (with Nils Bubandt, Wiley–Blackwell, Oxford, 2010) and Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice (with Wendy Gunn & Rachel Smith, Berg, Oxford & New York, 2013). He also codirected the films Ngat is Dead: Studying Mortuary Traditions (with Christian Suhr & Steffen Dalsgaard, DER, 2009) and Unity through Culture (with Christian Suhr, DER, 2012).
This article addresses the aspect of historicity in design. Following the leads of designers and design historians and inspired by the philosophy of G. H. Mead, it argues that design includes not only an orientation towards future change, but also an imagery and narration of the past. This aspect of historicity establishes both a motivation for change and evokes the agentive identities that can act to achieve the desired change. By analysing three cases of innovative cultural performances, involving intentional cultural change, the article also aims to show how anthropologists can make a critical contribution to design by facilitating explicit reflections on and constructions of the past.