Monthly Archives: September 2013

Connecting Places – Julia Bennett

My project aimed to expand my PhD research and attempt to engage a community to think about how the place itself helps to make it what it is. My original idea was for a photography/story competition where people would photograph a place and tell the story of their connection to it. As photographic competitions tend to attract a particular kind of photography enthusiast, rather than the general community, my research partner – Saskia from Z-Arts in Hulme – felt it best to avoid the competitive element. So after securing the funding we set up an event to give tips on taking good photos with the idea that people would then go out and photograph their locality and put the photos and their related stories into an exhibition. This event was, unfortunately, not well attended. The fact that we’d chosen cup final day may have had something to do with this! Learning point: check the calendar for local and national events before picking a date.

So we decided to rebrand the event, go back to the competition element and re-advertise with an extended deadline for the entries.  This produced some entries, although we weren’t exactly overwhelmed with a total of six photos and short stories or comments connecting the places to the photographer. However the quality of the photos was excellent (they can be seen here: and we went ahead with the exhibition, printing the photos in A1 size to fill the space. They looked great. Z-Arts are keeping the pictures on display in their building, although we allowed the entrants to take their own photo if they wanted to.

A key element that I’m taking away from this experience is that community engagement only works where the community wants to be engaged! For me, one difficulty was that I was not familiar with Hulme or surrounding districts. My original hope was to engage with a cultural partner in Wigan where my PhD research took place and where I am familiar with the community and have various contacts. However this was not possible and the change of location meant that I had to quickly familiarise myself with this area of Manchester and the community groups there who might take part. Another issue may have been in explaining the project.  A subject which I have been fully engaged with for several years is not necessarily easy to explain to ‘lay’ people. More discussion around the naming and description of the initial event might have highlighted this, or some initial ‘market research’ amongst colleagues, perhaps.

 It has been a privilege to see the photos submitted and the enthusiasm and obvious affection these people have for Manchester, or particular places in Manchester. All of this really goes to confirm my thesis findings whereby for most of us, most of the time, places fade into the background of our lives. But when places, buildings, parks, shopping centres and so on, are brought to people’s attention their importance in telling a story of a life lived in a place becomes clear.


R2P: So what difference did it make? – Kyra Pollitt

Summer is drawing to a close and the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is upon us: an appropriate time, then, to reflect on and draw in / draw to a close/ draw together the fruits of my Research to Public events.

In the early summer I staged two ‘happenings’ at the Royal West of England Academy. Each coinciding with the major summer exhibition Drawing, each taking place in The Drawing Lab – a gallery space given over to interactivity. The happenings brought together, in embodied performance, three elements of my research: ‘sign language poetry’; art practice; and scholarly writing.

The whole premise of my research is to re-search (re-see) ‘sign language poetry’ as much more than poetry. In language and literary terms it is undoubtedly poetic, and there has been a deal of scholarly research into the form; focussing on line, prosody, phonology, metaphor and so on. But these accounts address only the language. Early in the process of research I had interviewed practitioners as well as fluent and naïve audiences- all of whom had alluded to additional aspects as being equally as important as language to their performance and enjoyment. In my thesis I name these as drawing, gesture-dance, cinematics, composition and social sculpture. Taken together with poetic use of language, these aspects constitute the synthesis of artforms, the potential Gesamtkunstwerk that I now prefer to call Signart.

I have been exploring each of these aspects of Signart as Gesamtkunstwerk through a ‘blurred methodology’ known as a/r/tography. In my research practice a/r/tography is a blend of art practice, translation and scholarly writing.

The happenings modelled (performed) my research practice. Richard Carter and Paul Scott took it in turns to stand or sit by a full length mirror on one side of the gallery space, performing and rehearsing their silent, visual, gestural works. In the centre of the room members of HATCH – a research-through-drawing collective- ‘translated’ their responses to the Signart onto paper through art practice, whilst I responded to both activities by scribing – on the wall-mounted blackboards – quotes from scholarly works which drew together or sought to question and stimulate both sets of artistic activities. Chairs, desks and paper were set out for members of the public who were invited to drift in and out or stay and contribute, effectively to engage in research. And they did, with active participants numbering approximately thirty over the two events.

So what difference did it make? Well, not none.

Just having Signart performed in a gallery space raised questions.

The obvious starter was that gallery staff, volunteers, and participants of all stripes realised that ‘public’ includes ‘deaf’, and became aware of adapting their communication accordingly. More profoundly, though, general perceptions of deafness (or more accurately deafhood) as disability or ‘special need’ began to fall away as the beauty and skill of Signart began to unfold. In the discussions at the end of each ‘happening’ (ably facilitated by interpreters Naomi Bearne and Pascale Maroney) some people found themselves engaged in deep and animated discussion with a deaf person for the first time in their lives.

And what they were talking about was art: about line, and mark-making, about the ephemeral and the permanent; about movement and stasis; about the properties of different media; about acts of translation; about forms of inscription and encoding; about image.

And that affected the Signartists. Informed that they were poets by years of research, and unused to a gallery audience, their reception encouraged them to perhaps reconsider their positioning. They found themselves talking about their work in quite new and different ways, their consciousness of certain aspects heightened. The same was true of the deaf members of the public, who were more accustomed to seeing ‘sign language poetry’ at their local Centre for Deaf People than in such prestigious and creative surroundings.

The happenings also raised questions for the HATCH members, who were interested in the aspects of Signart that resisted capture and exploration through drawing – what was lost (‘remaindered’) in translation.

And because a/r/tography is a ‘recursive’ methodology, the happenings affected the research too. The drawings, comments and contributions of Signartists, HATCH members, and those who took some time out of their days to observe, sit, draw, write, question or otherwise contribute were collected and are currently feeding directly into the PhD thesis.

And of course, the happenings also happened to me. This was the first time I had curated, the first time I had performed in any significant capacity in a gallery space. The whole process was a learning curve – from conception through to structuring a focussed written proposal, budgeting, liaising with key personnel, sourcing materials, organizing zero-budget publicity, managing the comfort of participants, health and safety, managing the events, performing the events, ensuring effective channels for feedback, cleaning up the space after the events, thanking everyone, paying everyone and documenting the process. The training I received through the Afterlife project, and the accommodating, insightful and gentle support of Gemma Brace (Exhibitions and Membership Manager at the RWA) combined to ensure that curve was gentle and the happenings happened successfully.

Morrissey, I think it made a difference.              @kyra_p

Rob McCombe, Manchester Museum with the Egyptian collection

As my previous blog discussed, the majority of my work at Manchester Museum has focused on investigating the history of the Egyptian collection. Specifically, I’ve been looking at the nineteenth century history of the mummies and the mummy known as Asru (donated in 1825 by the Garnett brothers) in particular. Constructing an object biography, would I hoped, allow me to explore ideas, connections and histories that weren’t readily available to viewers in the gallery. This object biographical approach, while valuable and for me, one of the most practical and useful approaches in this situation, is not without its potential problems.  A singular focus upon one object can lead to a narrow view of wider and more complex collections for instance, which in turn has led me to research into the broader historical context of this object. Furthermore, the creation of a successful biography depends upon accessible resources in archives. In this instance I’ve been relatively fortunate, but it has reflected upon the limitations of what’s achievable in a relatively small scale project in terms of both time and scope.

Ultimately, three distinct narrative strands emerged through this exploration of a single object/ person. These were the history of Asru herself, the history of the collection in Manchester and a broader historiography of Egyptology. Within each of these sections ideas of objectification and identity from the personal to the institutional can be traced. What I now want to briefly outline are some of the key resources that I encountered and the information that they provided so as to give some idea of the material and processes that I’ve used and encountered.

Initial research at the museum focused on the Accession Register compiled by Rosalie David in the 1970s, in order to establish which human remains had been donated at what point, forming a basic outline and chronology that I compared to the work of Sam Alberti on the history of Manchester Museum. Through this, I was able to identify that relatively few specimens pre-dated the twentieth century, something that would become increasingly relevant as I came to know and understand more about the collection’s genesis. From here, I approached the Annual Reports of the Museum, examining details of donations and management for the period 1889-1920. These reports began to provide with the initial context that I needed, building upon the secondary research that I was conducting. The extraordinary growth and development of the Museum and the Egyptian collections in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries became increasingly clear. What was also becoming apparent was that I’d need to look deeper into the Museum archives for relevant material directly concerning Asru. Back, in fact, before Manchester Museum was Manchester Museum.

For this I had to locate the archives themselves. Until recently, the Museum held and managed all of its own records, but in the past few years an increasing number of historical documents have been moved to the special collections of the University’s John Ryland’s collections. Here, at last, I was able to engage with some of the Museum’s oldest documents, including the Minutes of the Society for the Promotion of Natural history, Manchester Museum’s precursor. With these documents and early Museum guides as well as personal letters, transcripts and memorabilia such as invitations to the unwrapping of the Two Brothers by Margaret Murray in 1911, I was able to trace the evolution of the collection in some detail. Of particular interest was the early use and display of Asru alongside other human remains no longer present in the current collections. Guides from 1854 describe the old Peter St Museum as displaying the unwrapped mummy alongside bitumen coated Peruvian remains, a preserved Maori head and the remains of a local woman, Hannah Beswick, sold to the society by her physician and on display until 1868. This contrast with later scholarly and academic recognition is noticeable, but far from uncommon for the period, yet remains something that few viewers are aware of when they enter today’s galley.

Many of these details are fascinating in themselves, but the aim of this project has been to provide something more that a series of odd and quirky ‘facts’. To this end, my reading has expanded to examine how other remains were treated in nineteenth century Britain and America. Through this, I’m developing a far more detailed blog post for the Museum itself, in which I intend to examine the dissonance between Asru’s early existence as a ‘curiosity’ and her later emergence as one of the most prominent objects amongst Manchester’s sizeable collections. Ideas of patronage, exploitation, gender and the tension between the mummy as an individual and as an object will be key to this final outcome.