Monthly Archives: August 2013

Connecting the Circle: Blog #3 by Niki Black

The Afterlife of Heritage, Research to Public

With all four of my festival engagement events now completed, time to reflect on what my involvement with the project has taught me and what has been achieved. I had held an exhibition and art activity at four festivals in Northumberland between March and July this year. These festivals make up the case studies of my research into the impact of such events on the social sustainability of their host communities: as such they have common variables of type and form but also display huge variations in their character, location and the visiting public with which I was engaging. Although this may seem obvious, it is something easily overlooked when preparing activities designed to be repeated on a number of occasions. I found myself challenged by practicalities such as varying weather conditions (try carrying out a paper-based art activity in a windy field!), and locations which didn’t appear on any maps alongside the variety of responses from different publics with different expectations of art workshops and academic research. What I really perceived, however, was never presume what people’s responses will be! I was constantly reminding myself of this: the teenage huddle which I was reluctant to approach turned out to be really interested and involved!

‘Arriving at the festival - beginning public engagement’

‘Arriving at the festival – beginning public engagement’

The art workshops worked best when I was based indoors (at two of the festivals): however, even though the conditions were challenging and the response was less at one of the outdoor events, the presence of an artist and the potential to engage practically drew a greater number of people to the exhibition who then engaged with me directly in conversation about the research, even if they didn’t actually pick up a pencil! The age range of those who engaged was huge (all ages from 2 to 82) which I doubt would have been so broad without the practical element. So although it may have been easy to say – ‘don’t try this outdoors, are you stupid!’, in conclusion attempting it with all its difficulties proved more rewarding than not! ‘Nothing ventured’ and all that. My ‘partners’ in this project have been the organisers behind these festivals. I was under no illusion from the start that I would be mostly working on this on my own (and with my assisting artist). As voluntary organisers with very busy schedules and for the majority, separate professions alongside, they were all very supportive and really enthusiastic for the project but none were able to spare time beyond occasional meetings and conversations to discuss the format. In this, my project possibly differs from other ‘engagement’ projects in the Afterlife programme though I believe it hasn’t hindered my ability to engage with the public in any way. On reflection, taking part in this project has for me been about ‘Connecting the Circle’. By this I mean enabling connections to be made and reinforced through linking the academic ideas which inform my own research with the ideas and perceptions of those visiting and involved with the festivals which in turn connects and feeds into my research development. It has been an extremely useful process in reviewing the purpose of my own research and its future direction and helped my intention to display findings from my work in the ‘non-academic’ world in an entertaining and approachable way. Responses to my research during the evolution of the methodology helped to inform the direction of my data gathering process and steer me towards considering elements of the data from different aspects. In turn, I hope displaying my research and the many conversations I had with the hundreds of festival goers may have challenged or opened new reflections on the contribution which small-scale cultural festivals make to their communities.

‘Creating responses to research through an art workshop’

‘Creating responses to research through an art workshop’

Niki Black, PhD Researcher ICCHS, Newcastle University


James West

A few thoughts on my contribution to the Afterlife of Heritage Research Project, which has been developed in collaboration with the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre – an extension of the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust which was established following the racially motivated killing of a student at Burnage High School in Manchester. (If you aren’t aware of the Centre and the incredible work it does please take the time to visit their website.) This project is composed of three main elements – a series of seminars offered to Manchester schools affiliated with the Race Relations Centre which tied into the current A-Level curriculum, screenings of a series of documentary films, and the establishment of an online archive feeding into the work of the Race Relations Centre and influenced by my own field of research which focuses on African American history.

The Afterlife of Heritage Research Project has been a great experience and really broadened my ideas of how to expand a public engagement project. Before attending any of the Afterlife events I had a nice neat little idea for a project in my head focused on schools, but seeing the really innovative ideas of other participants was a real challenge to try and make the most out of the Project and broaden its appeal. Some of the ideas really blew my mind – in particular Becky’s plan for a social history trail in the forest where she focuses her research was something I thought was great, in large part because it made me realize how predictable my original ideas had been. It was also great to engage with people who were so enthusiastic about their research (or at least good at pretending to be enthusiastic!)

I think that a lot of PhD students like to get drawn into the ‘woe-is-me’ vibe that lurks ominously in many postgraduate common rooms. It made me realize that quite often the reason people get in a funk about their own research is because they can’t see how it’s making an impact in the real world. From speaking to other participants I think if we had just developed these projects on our own, a lot of us would have come out with pretty similar results – maybe a couple of workshops in schools, or a one-off event – and that would have been it. Working alongside other participants and seeing the breadth and variety of project ideas on display really opened up a lot of new avenues for thinking about how to challenge ourselves to make better, more interactive and longer lasting projects.

A key component of the Afterlife project for me was the challenge of establishing some kind of lasting impact from whatever public engagement events or projects we developed. From past experience it is relatively easy to drum up initial support and to run successful one-off events, but establishing a longer lasting connection that continues to develop and prove beneficial is often difficult. Very early on in the project we established an online presence through a blog and research archive which has fed into the related features of the project – This has continued to expand and develop, and has started to become more of an interactive process which is really exciting.

To date a total of 6 seminars have been delivered in high schools and colleges around Manchester. These sessions were developed to give students an idea of the learning process at University, to supplement their own AS and A-Level study in the humanities, and to establish connections with the schools which could then be continued online. The feedback we got from students and teachers was really positive but also pointed in the direction we hoped – towards a more interactive student role in the development of the seminars. Through the website students have offered suggestions for future seminars and workshops they would like to see delivered in their schools. What we had hoped for was that the relationship established in individual workshops and events would be maintained and expanded through the website, and early indications are looking promising.

In September we will be hosting the first documentary screening ‘In the Land of the Free’ which focuses on racial inequalities within the US Prison system. We are hoping that the director will be able to attend the screening and give a short talk and a Q&A with the audience which is a big bonus! We are really looking to make these screenings appealing to the general public – one of the concerns we had was that by developing seminars and workshops for high schools or colleges we weren’t doing enough to engage with the general public, which is the main aim of the screenings. The Race Relations Centre has strong connections within the local Manchester community and this project should help develop those links further and engage more people with the website.

To be continued…


Louise Senior – Finding the Path

I’d had my brilliant idea for engaging the public with my research, my cultural partner, the Dunnet Forestry Trust, had offered me wholehearted support for the project, and, importantly, I had managed to secure the Afterlife of Heritage funding to put my plan into action. I thought the difficult parts were over and I was raring to get going – this should be the easy bit, right? Not so. I have lost my way countless times over the past few months and my original idea has had to be tweaked over and again. This blog post presents the story of how some of the complications I experienced were overcome – partly through creative thinking, but mainly through having developed an honest and effective working relationship with the people who represent my cultural partner.

My research employs ethnographic fieldwork in rural northern Scotland to explore how people relate to an ever-changing environment. For the Afterlife of Heritage project, I wanted to focus in detail on one aspect of the Caithness environment where a lot of my research has taken place: Dunnet Forest, the most northerly community-managed forest on the British mainland. Dunnet Forest lies within a SSSI and there are mountains of archived paperwork recording all kinds of data and statistics on birds and bees, moths and trees, wildflowers, soil types…the list goes on. However, during the course of my fieldwork I have been told many fascinating tales of human activities in the forest, tales that haven’t been recorded anywhere, and I wanted to share these with the local community and other forest users. My idea for a social history trail through the forest seemed a good way to share these stories with a fairly dispersed and often transient population.

Sitting down to put my proposal into action, I recognised that my decision to use the term ‘trail’ was perhaps slightly misleading: I had no intention – and nowhere near enough funds! – to build a path, although luckily I don’t believe anyone expected me to, but I also realised that I was reluctant to direct people to walk around the forest in any particular way. One of the delights of the forest is arriving upon some unexpected feature out of the blue – I didn’t want to take that joy away from people by creating something that instructed them to take a particular path. My initial confidence in my idea began to crumble as I wondered how to avoid this outcome.

I was still struggling with how to address this quandary when, along with a director of the Dunnet Forestry Trust, I met with the designer who would create the leaflet to accompany the trail. As we discussed my increasingly vague plan for a “trail” and I described the leaflet-come-map that I envisaged to accompany it, he cast his eye over the existing maps we had of the forest and explained that they were not up-to-scratch for the job. New maps would have to be drawn, he said. This would be an incredibly costly and time-consuming task requiring specialist skills – certainly not possible for this project. I felt my plan begin to fall apart.

As our conversation progressed, I suggested that I would like to include in the leaflet up to twenty of the stories I had collected. This was possible, explained our designer, but would make for a messy and hard to decipher leaflet. The amount of words on the leaflet could easily put people off reading it. He showed us some examples of overly-wordy pamphlets and I was forced to agree. Pages and pages of text with a scruffy map would be unlikely to engage anyone with my research. At this point, I was almost ready to give up on the project altogether.

We scheduled another meeting to give me the opportunity to reconsider my strategy. Unfortunately, the plan I came up with to salvage the project resembled a very boring and basic forest information leaflet. Luckily, having shared many long conversations over tea and biscuits during the preceding weeks, the designer and director both had a good understanding of what my research is about and gently steered me away from this pathway to disaster, reminding me that the project was to present my research, not provide an advert for the forest.

Between us, and with the aid of more tea and biscuits, we came up with a solution which we have called ‘Hidden Forest’. The artefact we have designed comprises a beautiful A3 aerial photograph of the forest and surrounding landscape – kindly taken for us by a contact of the Dunnet Forestry Trust – and just seven of the stories I have collected, but told in sufficient detail to grab a readers’ imagination and allowing space for personal quotes from those who told the stories to me originally. We are developing an accompanying blog to tell more of the stories and to allow people who are inspired by the stories they read to contribute their own. We will officially launch ‘Hidden Forest’ at the Marymass Fair, held in the vicinity of the forest, next week.

Through a Glass Darkly :Connecting Schools and Universities at Glamorgan Archives

On 4th September I’ll be speaking at the ‘Enhancing Impact, Inspiring Excellence’ Conference at the University of Birmingham.  The Conference, organised by the National Archives and the University of Birmingham in association with Research Libraries UK, aims to examine collaborative approaches between archives and universities.


Delegates will include academics, students and archivists who will be discussing existing partnerships and identifying new partnerships for the future.  The Conference will showcase collaborative projects between archives and academia, highlight good practice, and emphasise the benefits to both archives and universities that result from partnership working.


The day will be filled with a series of papers combined with shorter, more intensive case studies of particular projects.  As a non-academic I’m glad that I’ll be delivering one of the latter!  In my case study, I aim to explain how Charlotte Boman and I came to work together in partnership with support and funding from Afterlife of Heritage, the challenges we faced, and the opportunities offered by our collaboration.


More details on ‘Enhancing Impact, Inspiring Excellence’ can be found at :


Rhian Phillips

Glamorgan Archives

Sarah Younan – blog post 3

Towards a digital dream space

 Museums create fictional universes, much like the original cabinet of curiosities they aim  they construct model universes by collecting, ordering and displaying overviews of the external world. These have been used over time to support and reinforce current understandings of the world. Despite their emphasis on real and original items museums ultimately produce fiction, their very own brand of surrealism. In my project with digital scans of museum objects I have covetted and encouraged this museum surrealism and found myself straying into the ‘museum dream space’…

 Objects can become staging grounds for symbolic action. When objects enter the museum, they are removed from primary experience and embeded in narrative; their practical value is replaced by “exhibition value” (Benjamin, 1973).  There is no guarantee that the story told by the museum is identical with the viewer’s reading (Hein, 2000). Museum objects can elucidate historical or scientific knowledge, they can be of aesthetic and educational value. However they can also elicit personal memories (Kavanagh, 2000), blending inner and outer experience into one. In my work with digital models of museum artefacts I have sought to explore how digital models of museum objects can trigger our imagination, emotions, senses and memories.

 Going into the museum storage to scan objects I was confronted with a myriad of pieces to choose from. I selected objects based on how they ‘called out’ to me. The emotional impact or “push” of an object (Thrift, 2004: 64) is variable, my response to the museum pieces was influenced by my place within history and culture (Hooper-Greenhill, 2000) and the emotional state I was in at the time of the encounter. The objects I found myself attracted to became the chosen ones, and were digitized in order to be shared with a number of artists used to create new artworks based on the historical artefacts.

 In this context the scans can be seen as moulds, shaped voids into which artists could pour their emotions, creativity and memories. Often the artists interaction with the digital models and the works they create from them have little to do with the original historic artefacts, I found the artists where tapping into what Gaynor Kavanagh describes as the museum “dream space” (Kavanagh, 2000). In her book Dream Spaces: Memory and the Museum Kavanagh describes the dream space as a level of interaction with museum objects, which triggers private associations, thoughts and memories.

 In dream space many things might tumble through our minds: bits of songs, half-written shopping lists, things left unsaid. (Kavanagh, 2000)

 Kavanagh is building on theories on symbolic museum interaction put forward by Sheldon Annis in his essay The museum as a staging ground for symbolic action (1986).  In this essay Annis examines ways in which viewers construct meaning from museum objects and describes three levels of object-viewer interaction, which he calls ‘spaces’; the cognitive space, the pragmatic space, and the dream space (Annis, 1986).  The cognitive space describes the rational contemplation of the museum.  This space is informed by signage and display design, meaning is assigned to objects through curative choices. The pragmatic, or “social” space (Kavanagh, 2000) is the field in which the viewer moves and interacts with other people, and in which we act out our social roles in the museum. The dream space is the field of interaction between the object and the viewer’s subrational consciousness.

 The viewer’s mind and eye subrationally seize upon certain objects that jolt memory or recognition and provoke internal associations of fantasy, desire and anxiety. (Annis, 1986)

 3D scanning allowed me to take these emotional triggers home, and to share them with artists internationally. The digital models of the museum artefacts became gateways into the dream space; they acted as “liminal objects” (Murray, 1997). Liminal objects are located “on the threshold between external reality and our own minds” (Murray, 1997). The concept of the liminal object has its origins in Winicott’s notion of the “transitional object”, a material object to which an infant attributes special emotional value (Winnicott, 1971). Liminal objects exist on the threshold of reality and imagination, through creatively re-imagining the museum artefacts the dreamspace can take form.

 Digital media enable audiences to step into museum fiction and re-imagine events. My favorite example from this project is a pre-hispanic Mexican clay mask from the storage at the National Museum of Wales. This artefact lacks background information; the museum has no infromation on when the piece was aquired and from whom. It is presumed to be Mexican, perhaps from the Teotihuacán region in the Central highlands, and dated to around AD 500. Mario Padilla, a Mexican artist who is working with me on this project, has chosen to work with this mask, he sees it as his ‘cultural responsibility’ and will be contacting experts in Mexico to try and discover more information on the piece. 

 Not only will the mask be taken out of storage and exhibited for the first time, it is also gaining a story, and has, in some way, even made its way back to Mexico.

 Step by step the digital models are feeding information, emotions and stories back into the museum. This project will conclude with an exhibition at the National Museum of Wales in April 2014. I am still taking on new participants, for more information and to access scans contact sayounan(at) by December 2013.

 ANNIS, S. 1986. The museum as a staging ground for symbolic action. Museum International, 38, 168-171.

BENJAMIN, W. 1973. Illuminations, London, Fontana.

HEIN, H. S. 2000. The Museum in Transition; A Philosophical Perspective, Washington and London, Smithsonian Institution Press.

HOOPER-GREENHILL, E. 2000. Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture, Routledge.

KAVANAGH, G. 2000. Dream Spaces: Memory and the Museum, London, Continuum.

MURRAY, J. H. 1997. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, New York, Free Press.

WINNICOTT, D. W. 1971. Playing and reality, London, Tavisctock Publications.


‘An Evening of Art, Music, Fashion and Marcel Proust’ Reflective blog #3

‘An Evening of Art, Music, Fashion and Marcel Proust’ Reflective blog #3

By Wendy Ligon Smith and Sophie Preston

On the day

After getting little sleep the night before, the day of ‘An Evening of Art, Music, Fashion and Marcel Proust’ arrived. Wendy and I were both excited but anxious due to the gallery’s concern regarding the potential number of people set to attend the event. With 180 free tickets accounted for, MAG emailed preparing us for the worst, explaining visitors might feel underwhelmed if they could not hear or see what was happening due to throngs of visitors. We were also informed on the morning of the event, we needed to attend a meeting that afternoon. Sophie went along to this meeting and met with the team and together they discussed the format of the evening. The gallery asked if we could create a playlist and a PowerPoint presentation for the evening, Wendy and I were able to complete the latter task, but felt it was too late notice to make a playlist for the evening.

After the meeting we spent some time with Ben and Andy from Bellevue Productions who were filming the evening on behalf of Heritage Afterlife. We took the crew on a tour of the gallery, allowing them to plan their shots and were interviewed by Ben and Andy who asked us about the development of the tour. Time went quickly and the entrance foyer of the gallery soon began to fill up. Unfortunately no sign had been made by the gallery stating there would be two tours and where they would start, the visitor assistant welcoming guests was also unclear on the night’s proceedings – this was a shame as this had been discussed in the earlier meeting.

Nevertheless, all went to plan. Over 85 people assembled on the balcony and listened to the solo violinist create the right mood.  The tour then began, with Sophie welcoming the visitors and explaining the format of the tour, contextualising Proust’s relationship to Manchester and discussing the first painting. The violinist played again and the crowds filtered through into the next room where Wendy discussed Proust and Venice using the Canaletto paintings on display. Next, he harpist played three beautiful pieces and Sophie led the tour into the next room and discussed Proust’s relationship to Pre–Raphaelite art. The tour continued in the final gallery where the flute trio played and Wendy and Sophie discussed episodes of the novel using relevant art works, and finally Wendy finished the tour discussing Proust and the dress designer Mariano Fortuny, whose famous ‘delphos’ gown is on display in the gallery. We received excellent feedback after the tour and greatly enjoyed chatting  to visitors afterwards. The tours apparent success was a huge relief. We quickly composed ourselves and began the next tour with a crowd of over 45. This tour went just as well, but  we had to finish a little sooner due to the gallery needing to close. For us both, It was a wonderful evening that went far too quickly.


Working together

With having the same supervisor and similar research interests, Wendy and Sophie have been the perfect team to work on this project. Wendy, on seeing the application for an AHRC funded public engagement event asked Sophie if she would like to work together on a project. Sophie was thrilled at the opportunity and from day one, working together has been nothing but a positive experience. Wendy has taken overall charge of the event due to her experience as final year PhD researcher and Sophie feels, as only a first year PhD researcher, she has benefitted a lot from Wendy’s knowledge.  Both Wendy and Sophie wrote their own scripts, while Wendy took charge of the paperwork and organised the music for the evening. Together they created the tour’s format.

Working with the musicians

It was convenient that RNCM has an efficient program for booking musicians.  Wendy’s contact, Abigail Collins, organises the student bookings and made the process quite easy.  She gave us every confidence that the musicians would be professional quality, on time, and eager to make to contributing to making the event a success.  We signed a contract with them and specific music and dress, and timings were agreed. All of the business end of the agreement was handled with Abigail, in whom we trusted greatly, which put us at ease.

On the night the musicians were on time, friendly, prepared, and knowledgeable.  Their performances enhanced the event dramatically.  So many guests commented on their enjoyment of the music and how it was so interesting and unique to bring other senses into their experiences of visual art.  We would, without hesitation, work with these musicians and with RNCM again. It was such a positive experience.

Interactive Research! – Niki Black second post

Interactive Research!

The start of July and I’m drawing to the end of my engagement with both the Afterlife of heritage project and my own intense period of data gathering for my PhD research. As the sun continues to shine and the university empties of its undergraduates, my own work load has intensified and the constant battle between the urge (and the need) to engage with my research and the temptation of getting out into the garden rages!

I’m actually very lucky. The events at which I’m engaging the public are my case study festivals, the majority of which take place during the summer. So, I’ve been blessed by this gorgeous weather and can’t complain!

So what can I report?! It’s been very interesting how varied the public response has been, depending on the location of the events, both physically and geographically. Although all events are held predominantly outdoors, I have had a variety of bases, indoor as well as outdoor. The practicalities of setting up an exhibition stand and carrying out paper-based arts activities on a windy day can probably be imagined. The last festival I attended was in a field – beautiful sunshine but quite a stiff breeze. We entertained the adjacent stall holders with our attempts to set up and then eventually had to abandon the art activities as the wind increased or risk losing all our materials round the festival field! When we’d been based indoors, we obviously didn’t have this problem. However, although we’d had a good response to the bunting making indoors, it was much harder to engage with the public in interview and discussion. Interesting!

Very varied response from the public and certainly not always what was expected. It goes to show as a reminder to try not to judge a book by its cover! Some of whom I presumed would be the least ‘likely-to-be-engaged’ members of the public, turned out to have a huge amount of interest and interesting things to say. And vice-a-versa.

Off to my final event this weekend which I hope will come off well.

Niki Black, PhD Researcher  (ICCHS, Newcastle University)