Monthly Archives: May 2013

Burning Bright, Part 1: Blog Post by Naomi Billingsley

Burning Bright. Part 1: KindlingImage

My project is linked to the exhibition “Burning Bright” at the John Rylands Library which examines William Blake and the world of the book.  The exhibition includes books illustrated by Blake and explores his impact on subsequent generations of artists and writers. Blake’s influence continues to “burn bright” and activities alongside the exhibition encourage visitors to take creative inspiration from his work.

Blake’s work as a visual artist is the focus of my PhD — specifically, I am examining the role of Christ in Blake’s images — so I had a ready-made opportunity to relate my research to public audiences. The Afterlife training has helped me to refine my ideas for contributing to the exhibition programme by examining some of the issues around public engagement and creating a space for discussion with other researchers and cultural organisations.

There are three strands to my project: creating a workshop for school groups inspired by the exhibition, devising a tour for the public programme, and contributing to an online version of the exhibition. After months of meetings, planning and looking at books in the reading room, things are coming together, so I’m going to share how things are shaping up.

Schools workshop: Blake and the Bible

Taking as its inspiration Blake’s Illustrations to the Book of Job, a copy of which is in the exhibition (and was only recently discovered in the Rylands collection), my workshop will explore different ways of retelling stories from the Bible, with students creating their own version of a Bible story. I’m going to give the students a choice of producing either a design in the format of Blake’s Job illustrations (which have an image in the centre with commentary and designs in the margin) or a newspaper article.

Preparing for this workshop has involved lots of discussion with the education team and I’ve sat in on some other workshops in the education programme to help get a feel for what works well. There are also two MA students, Liz and Amy, running workshops alongside the exhibition, and each of us has chosen a different theme. I sat in on one of Amy’s workshops last week, which was on personification, with pupils writing personification poems, and it was fantastic to see how well the pupils engaged with the theme.

I’m going to be running my session for five groups between years 7 – 10 in the middle of May and I’m looking forward to seeing what results come of it!

Advertising for the exhibition education programme.

Public tour: Blake and the Gothic

This tour will explore Blake’s fascination with the Gothic, inspired by the John Rylands Library itself which is a grand neo-Gothic building. This will be an opportunity to show visitors items from the collection not included in the exhibition — by Blake himself and by others interested in the Gothic to weave a narrative between Blake and the library building.

Preparation has involved lots of delving through books from the collection and I’ve been spoilt for choice because the collection is so rich in this area, so I have had to be very self-disciplined in deciding what to use. Stella Halkyard who looks after visual collections at the library and curated “Burning Bright” has been a great source of advice and arranged for me to see the massive volumes of Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery which contain some fantastically spooky engravings of subjects from Shakespeare by Blake’s friends and foes.

I’ll be running this tour twice in June.

Burning Bright online

Once all the books in the exhibition have been returned to the stores at the end of Jun, “Burning Bright” will continue to burn in the shape of an online exhibition. This will provide a legacy for the exhibition itself and for the activities which have taken place alongside it. Work produced in the schools workshops is being photographed as are the fruits of printing workshops offered as part of the public programme. I will also be writing up a version of my Gothic tour.

The funding from the Afterlife of Heritage Research Project will help to pay for the photography of items in the collection for the online exhibition. This proposal came in part from discussions during the Afterlife training and afterwards with the team at the library. The images will be a sustainable resource for the online exhibition itself and for other projects at the library, and will be useful for my own and others’ research.

I was part of a meeting about the online exhibition last week and the provisional designs look great, so I’m excited about seeing how it will come together. I’ve come up with an idea for the structure which I need to discuss with the web team, and I need to finalise my order for the photography department, then start writing it all up.

An example of work produced in a printing workshop, inspired by one of Blake’s Illustrations to the Book of Job.

Naomi Billingsley, PhD candidate in Religions and Theology, University of Manchester.


Inspiring Moments – Blog Post by Rebecca Louise Senior

Inspiring Moments

Suzanne’s instructions were to write a short statement that avoided jargon and captured the essence of our research, but also illustrated to a general audience what was important, relevant and interesting about our research.

No problem, I thought. Academic jargon has always left me cold. Using a word like ‘structuralism’ or ‘functionalism’ or ‘neo-liberalism’ in a sentence is a sure-fire way to exclude me from a conversation, because by the time I’ve worked out what the word means, and then fitted that into the context of the sentence, the whole debate has moved on.

My first attempt did not impress Suzanne: I will address key anthropological enquiries, particularly the role of power in person-environment relationships and processes of knowledge production, and broader strategic concerns such as the heritage of land management and rural inequalities.

“What does any of that even mean?” chastised Suzanne.

I tried again, this time making my statement more specific: I am researching the social history of a community managed forest in rural northern Scotland to explore the role of power in environmental knowledge production.

“But why would I care about that?” asked Suzanne. “Why should anybody care?”

“I’m doing ethnographic research into…” My words tailed off as Suzanne raised her eyebrow at the word ‘ethnographic’. I was beginning to feel as frustrated with this task as she must’ve been feeling with me.

“Why do you care about your research?” she probed. “Why do you think it’s interesting? What motivates you to keep going with it?”

“Oh, it’s brilliant!” I gushed. “There are all these fascinating stories that people tell me about the forest, stories about their experiences, about adventures and mishaps, local history stories and political stories…and nobody has ever recorded these stories so it’s all brand new and I’m finding that other people want to hear the stories too, so I just want to be able to share all these stories with everyone somehow!”

Suzanne was nodding her head and smiling at me. “NOW I’m interested,” she said. “That’s what you need to get across to people, that enthusiasm and joy. Not everybody cares about all the philosophical concepts in your PhD, and you don’t need to tell them to everybody. It doesn’t make what you’re doing any less important.”

For me, this informal exchange with Suzanne was the standout moment on the Afterlife of Heritage training, the moment when everything else clicked into place. I had come to the training believing that I was a good communicator, but hoping to gain a little confidence in my public speaking abilities and to learn some creative techniques for presenting my research. This moment made me realise that I was so caught up in my research and what it meant for me, that I had lost sight of the value of my research for other people, and thereby lost my ability to communicate about it effectively. Apart from my PhD supervisors and examiners, most people are unlikely to care whether or not I’ve got to grips with Foucault’s work on power or Ingold’s ideas about dwelling. I don’t need to explain the philosophical underpinnings of my research to everybody I meet, but I do need to be able to express my passion for my research.

After this, the rest was easy. I knew that I wanted to share stories of the forest with people so it made sense to approach Dunnet Forestry Trust with a proposal for a social history trail through the forest. We can’t wait to be able to let you know how our project goes…

Dancing in Unexpected Bodies – Video Blog Post – Lauren Guyer-Douglas

The first rehearsal of our project was an exciting one.  We were able to discuss the significance of our project’s aims, and get to know each other through a different dance context.  The session started with a debriefing regarding performance sites and ideas for where the movement would be generated.  ImageHelen, the project’s choreographer, taught a technical warm-up for the dancers, giving a rare opportunity for two dancers who typically receive training from only one facilitator.  From improvised limb-focused movements, to pedestrian inspired travelling, the first session gave the dancers, including the observing dancer (me), valuable perspective of how the next few weeks should be negotiated and the potential to create engaging art.

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Making a Festive Engagement – Blog Post by Niki Black

Making a festive engagement!

The Afterlife of Heritage, Research to Public

I’ve just received confirmation that I’ve been awarded one of the grants for the Research to Public strand of the Afterlife of Heritage Project. Time to celebrate you might think but no, I had to hit the ground running as my first public event was already looming large on the calendar merely a week after hearing the good news! Having planned my proposal in some detail, knowing that if I got the funding I’d have to leap into action, I immediately set off to contact printers, recover exhibition stands and track down willing artists!

But just to give a little context to this whirl of activity, perhaps I’d better explain what my research entails and how I intended to engage beyond the walls of my institution. My PhD research looks at how small-scale cultural festivals contribute to the social sustainability of their host communities. I’m aiming to do this through an examination of potential bonds and bridges of connectivity which such an event may influence, particularly the connections between place, artists and local residents through heritage practice and display at festivals.  It’s a case study focused project with all the events taking place in the county of Northumberland. The four case festivals I’ve selected take place between April and July and are my four ‘partner’ organisations in the Afterlife of Heritage project. My proposal was to put together an interactive exhibition and activity explaining and demonstrating my research whilst simultaneously working to gather data from visitors towards my thesis. This ‘two-angled’ approach was designed to engage the public in an educational sense, explaining not only my research but also opening a broader window onto research into the arts and humanities within universities. Secondly, the aim was to gather responses from the public which could then be fed into the development and future direction of my research and assist in ensuring appropriateness and relevance. The exhibition/activity was designed to be able to stand alone if I wasn’t present and thus potentially be displayed between events in venues in the respective communities.

I attended both preliminary training events in Manchester which were excellent, not least as they gave me an opportunity to meet fellow students and arts and heritage professionals from far flung parts of Britain. We discussed the challenges of putting our research work out to the broader ‘public’, in between cakes, coffee and a quick dash around the new exhibits at the Manchester museum. I already had my cultural partners lined up, being the organisers of the four case study festivals at the heart of my research although, owing to the scale of the events all are volunteers in their posts and tied up in other work when the Manchester training events took place and thus unable to come. When approached all four organisers readily agreed to take part in the project, although one was understandable a little reticent at first as to potential added work-loads. This reflects the pressures which voluntary-run festivals are under to provide high quality events for no financial reward, often in addition to holding down the day job.

Having a professional arts and interpretation background before embarking on my PhD, I was already convinced that I wanted to share and ‘display’ my research with the non-academic public in a colourful and interactive way (ie beyond the academic journal!). The training given at Manchester gave me the confidence to believe that what I wanted to do wasn’t just an overly ambitious or inappropriate idea and that I would be taken seriously! Putting together a proposal based around demonstrating my research but using activities which would appeal to children and adults in a colourful setting had huge appeal.

My final proposal took the overall theme through which I am exploring social impact, ‘Connections’. I designed a temporary exhibition split into three potential areas in which cultural festivals may connect with aspects of their host community. These are ‘place’, ‘cultural heritage’ and ‘people’. The display was intended to provoke public response through open statements and questions relating to my research in both text and image. The public were then invited to respond, either by joining in the supervised activity or by taking part in a short interview. The activity consisted of pre-cut bunting triangles which visitors were invited to decorate with their own responses to the sub-themes before being added to the exhibition. An artist was invited to help facilitate the activity. The end result, it was hoped, would be a visual demonstration of the connections made through festivals between people, places and the cultural heritage within.

So, that was made up my proposal and the thinking behind it! Now, having heard I’ve received funding I’d better launch into action and set off for the first event. More news on this later!

Niki Black, PhD Researcher

ICCHS, Newcastle University

Research to Profession – Workshop One 06/03/2013


The first Research to Profession workshop took place on 6th March 2013 in the Roscoe Building at the University of Manchester.  The aim of the session was to greet the shortlisted candidates for the Research to Profession strand and to outline expectations of the process.


The first question under consideration was: “what does a research to profession placement look like anyway?”.  The researchers in attendance shared ideas about the “perfect placement” and what that might look like (see photo above).  We also had a lively debate about what to call these partnerships – many believed that the word “placement” was not suitable for researchers and that “partnership” or even “researcher in residence” were perhaps more appropriate terms. As with the Research to Public workshops, we spent some time discussing the benefits of working with cultural organisations, as well as how researchers might work with cultural organisations when designing research partnerships.  The final part of the day was spent discussing the importance of reflective practice in the whole process.

It was an excellent opportunity to meet those who will be involved in research partnerships and we look forward to working with them as they embark on this exciting opportunity!

Research to Public – Workshop Two 28/02/2013


The second Research to Public workshop took place on 28th February 2013 in the Kinaris Lecture Theatre at the Manchester Museum with a great mix of researchers and representatives from cultural organisations in attendance.  The aim of the day was to discuss how researchers and cultural partners can better work together and to hear case studies, from both perspectives, of working together on cultural engagement/public engagement projects.

The Morning

The day began with an icebreaker exercise focussing on the meaning attributed to certain words associated with public and cultural engagement.  Everybody had the opportunity to pick a word and discuss what it meant to them – words such as “heritage”, “communication”, “impact”, “community” and “collections” were included.


Henry McGhie, Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology at the Manchester Museum (above) started the day’s talks with a fantastic account of the museum’s collections and the development of the Living Worlds gallery which opened in 2011.  Henry spoke of the importance of engaging visitors with research and debates.  His account took in the history of the collections and the involvement of Thomas Henry Huxley in engineering the University/Museum partnership, including a diagram, dating back to 1868 showcasing the public gallery and curator space.  These designs were pivotal in establishing the museum as a social, as well as an intellectual, space.  Henry also discussed the University’s third strategic goal, social responsibility, and how the museum contributes to the promotion of understanding between cultures and working towards a sustainable world.  Finally, Henry drew on the potential of collections and for cultural organisations to connect with the public through emerging technology, such as tablets and smart phones, and to collaborate with researchers – ensuring that each partner plays an important part in the process.


Henry’s talk was followed by a great presentation by Antonio Benitez (above), PhD Researcher at the University of Salford (Antonio’s slides can be accessed at the bottom of this post).  Antonio’s presentation focussed on a researcher’s perspective of University-museum partnerships.  Antonio’s research focusses on older audiences (post-75) and their engagement with museums and his work has involved cross-institutional collaborations with a number of cultural organisations across Manchester.  Antonio views these partnerships as an excellent opportunity to learn about developing projects with older people.  Antonio’s talk considered the many benefits of working with cultural organisations such as offering networking opportunities, insight, clarity, the development of ideas etc.  The most important feature of collaborations is to ensure that the expectations of both partners is realistic – both in terms of expectations and responsibilities.

Antonio’s talk was followed by Esme Ward’s presentation on Public Engagement and Audiences which included an excellent quote from Benjamin Franklin (see title photograph).  Esme focussed on the importance of involvement in learning, drawing on current research and expertise to understand what is happening in cultural spaces.  Esme’s talk went beyond the Humanities and considered the importance of science communication, moving from the “chalk and talk” to a more experiential form of learning.  She emphasised that researchers have the necessary skills and knowledge to engage large numbers of school audiences with their work, and acknowledge the immense value of this social form of learning and interaction.  Esme also touched upon the importance of practitioner research, highlighting that researchers can challenge museums to think differently (and vice versa).

The Afternoon

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After lunch, participants were divided into two groups.  The first group consisted of those who had a working proposal already (some of whom were accompanied on the day by their cultural partner).  They were tasked with fine-tuning their ideas by reflecting and critiquing.  The second group consisted of researchers and cultural partners who had not yet partnered up.  The aim of the session was to broker potential partnerships and to present back ideas on what works well and what might not work so well when researchers and cultural partners work together.  Suzanne Spicer presented a great document about “finding the right people” for partnerships which can be downloaded here: Reflecting on Your Planning Proposal.

Antonio’s slides are available here: Afterlife presentation