Monthly Archives: February 2014

Chapter 1 – Being Encouraged to Think ‘Outside the Box’: Academic Research and Public Engagement

Dr. Serena Iervolino, Centre for Cultural Policy Studies, University of Warwick
E-mail: s.iervolino@warwick.ac,uk; Twitter: @SerenaIervolino

It is February 2014, my ‘engagement project’ with Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery entitled ‘Women and Colonial Photography: Subjects of Knowledge or Objects of Desire?’ is a far-off memory now. I have finally some time to look back and reflect upon my participation in the Afterlife of Heritage Research (AHR) programme and, more specifically, on my ‘engagement project’. 2013 was one of those no-stop years for me! Since submitting my PhD in March, life has been really hectic; I would say even more hectic than it used to be. I imagine that those readers who are currently in the process of writing-up their doctoral thesis may find it hard to believe that their life will get even busier after completion. ‘Busier than this?’ they might ask themselves with a terrified face. This has been my experience at least. Writing this piece many months after the AHR ‘adventure’ began and also reached its conclusion last July, it is hoped that I am now suitably detached from the practicality (and the challenges) of the process of translating my ‘engagement project’ from a vague idea into a concrete museum output to be able to evaluate the ‘entire thing’ with sufficient distance and perspective. Before describing the project, however, I would like to begin by going back to ‘square one’ and tell you more about how this ‘adventurous adventure’ started.

The Beginnings (or Attempting to Escape the ‘Ivory Tower’)

It all began with an e-mail I received sometime in November 2012. I was working on the conclusion of my doctoral thesis and the end of the PhD was in sight. I was looking forward to the day when I would finally leave the ‘ivory tower’ I had inhabited since July 2012, where I had been ‘crafting’ the very final version of my thesis. I was fervently hoping that an opportunity would present itself for me to escape the ‘world of ideas’ and provide some sort of concrete application to the findings of my PhD research. You may ask: ‘Isn’t a doctoral thesis (of about 80,000 words or more than 400 pages) already a concrete, even tangible output of a process of rigorous, theoretical investigation?’ Unquestionably it is but I was unsatisfied. In the end, my interest in how museums are shaped by and in turn shape cultural diversity policies and politics, and particularly in how they represent, engage with, and negotiate issues of differences marking contemporary societies had never been an end-in-itself. In fact, my interest in this area of scholarly enquiry has always been driven by a strong desire to inform museum practices and cultural policies. Besides, I have always had very little interest in pure or basic research. In other words, the quest for new knowledge that has no practical application has never appealed to me. This is one of the reasons why I chose the interdisciplinary field of museum studies for my doctoral research, which crossed a number of disciplines including museum studies, cultural policy studies, political theory, and postcolonial studies. Through studying concrete museums – operating in the ‘real world’ – interested in actively and ethically responding to contemporary cultural diversity, I hoped that my research could impact upon museum practices and cultural policies, and contribute to broader societal change. I am aware that the idea of museums as institutions with a social agency that have the potential and, therefore, the responsibility to contribute to broader societal change may be unusual to some. I would like to clarify from the very beginning that this is how I – as well as many others (Dodd and Sandell 2001; Iervolino 2013; Janes and Conaty 2005; Marstine 2011; Sandell 2003) – approach and theorise museums today.

Now, let’s go back to November 2012, back to that desk where I was working on my PhD. With the ‘end’ approaching the question of what the afterlife of my heritage research would have been exactly had started moving – slowly but steadily – from the back to the front of my mind. How could I translate some of the ideas of my doctoral research into something more concrete than a thesis? What shape could this translation take in practice? A partial answer to these questions came to me unexpectedly – as it is often the case – through the above-mentioned e-mail. Apparently, the University of Manchester was inviting PhD students and Early Career Researchers in the Humanities to submit an ‘Expression of Interest’ to participate in the AHRC-funded ‘Afterlife of Heritage Research’ programme. This initiative sought to provide successful applicants with training as well as concrete opportunities to translate their research in ‘real-life’ contexts. Through the Research2Public strand of the programme, the possibility to develop a real project in collaboration with a cultural or heritage institution was offered to a restricted number of participants. The ‘princess’ (aka PhD candidate busy with the writing up of her thesis) – who was feeling increasingly suffocated in her ‘ivory tower’ – could not believe her eyes. For a moment she wondered whether the project’s organisers had been overhearing her thoughts. To avoid any paranoid thoughts she convinced herself that it was only a fortunate coincidence. To cut a long story short, I was one the lucky 16 applicants to the Research2Public strand whose ‘Expression of Interest’ was selected. The basic idea of the public engagement project I proposed was to design and deliver a series of events/activities that, taking as a starting point the (ethnographic) collections of a museum, would explore ‘themes of contemporary relevance from different perspectives, and attempt to bring together individuals from diverse backgrounds that might hold dissimilar views.’

Up in Manchester with Like-minded Folks (or The Great Escape)

Having being selected for the project the ‘princess’ felt she had sufficient justification to escape the ‘ivory tower’ and travel to Manchester to attend two informative and engaging workshops: ‘Understanding the public impact of your research’ (January 2013) and ‘Turning your research into a public output’ (February 2013). The success of the two workshops was due, I believe, to a combination of knowledgeable and skilled facilitators, a good mixture of theory and practice, carefully planned activities as well as the great diversity of research interests of the project’s participants working on exciting research projects in different disciplinary fields across the Humanities. What we all had in common, however, was a shared interest – although to different extents – in better understanding and further exploring the public relevance and impact of our research. Surely the Research Councils UK (RCUK) would have been very pleased to see (some of) the members of the next generation of UK academics embracing the impact discourse and ethics with such an enthusiasm and commitment, even when having little or no awareness of the RCUK’s Pathways to Impact. It is hard to say whether the AHR’s participants are only a few members of a small group of ‘enlightened’ researchers committed to achieve excellence in research with impacts or there are many others who increasingly think along the same lines. The high number of applications that the AHR project received gives some hopes that the latter option might be accurate.

Workshop 2 was particularly stimulating as it took place in the Manchester Museum and was attended not only by the project participants – that is, those ‘enlightened’, ‘converted’ researchers interested in public engagement – but also by a number of heritage professionals wishing to initiate fruitful collaborations with young researchers. After all, if academic research is to be carried out in more participatory and collaborative ways, it is essential that organisations outside academia understand and value the positive impact of collaborations with academics. The heritage professionals who attended the workshop seemed to be very well aware of such a positive impact.

Once the workshops had been delivered, all participants were asked to submit a reviewed engagement project proposal. Indeed, the competitive element of the project was not over as yet; the Research2Public strand could fund only a number of project proposals to be selected through a competitive process. Participants soon turned from amicable participants into competitive rivals! As well as providing information about the specific institution we intended to co-produce our ‘engagement project’ with, in the final project proposal we were asked to offer a detailed account of the nature of the activities we planned to carry out, the project’s outputs, and a rough budget. At this point I had to confront the first challenge. Which institution was the best host of my engagement project? As is well known, finding a suitable partner for any sort of collaborative endeavour is a very delicate step. I was fortunate enough to identify the appropriate collaborator to bring my idea to life! To know more about this, well, I am afraid you will need to wait until my next blog post.

I will be back soon, hopefully.

Reference list

Dodd, J. and Sandell, R. (2001) Including Museums. Perspectives on Museums, Galleries and Social Inclusion. Leicester: RCMG.

Iervolino, S. (2013), ‘Museums, Migrant Communities and Intercultural Dialogue in Italy’ in V. Golding, and W. Modest, W. (eds.) Museums and Communites:
Curators, Collections and Collaboration. London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 113-129.

Janes, R. R. and Conaty, G. T. (2005) Looking reality in the eye: museums and social responsibility. Calgary: University of Calgary Press.

Marstine, J. (2011) (eds.) The Routledge companion to museum ethics: redefining ethics for the twenty-first century museum. London: Routledge.

Sandell, R. (2002) (eds.) Museum, Society, Inequality. London: Routledge.

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Reflection: Afterlife of Heritage Research – Showcase Event

On 29 October, the Manchester Museum hosted the ‘Afterlife of Heritage Research Showcase’, a sampling of postgraduate research students’ collaborative projects in the heritage sector from across several universities. Funded by the AHRC, PhD students were trained from November 2012 to November 2013 to develop professional skills for careers in the heritage sector (the career being the ‘afterlife’ of a PhD). Collaborative institutions included the University of Manchester, the University of Salford, the Manchester Museum, the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester Beacon, Renaissance North West, and Vitae North West (critical friend).

Dr. Kostas Arvanitis explained how students’ projects took one of three main ‘strands’, though in reality, the strands are interconnected. The first strand, taking research to the public, focused on understanding how a PhD student’s research could impact and be communicated to non-experts through things such as learning programs, special events, and performances. The research to profession strand placed students in internships in the heritage sector, and the research to business strand paired students with industrial mentors in the Manchester Enterprise Centre on how to turn their heritage research into a business.

Katherine Crouch from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Manchester began the program with a presentation titled ‘Displaying the Dead at the Manchester Museum’ in which she explored visitor reactions via ‘stealth observation’ to the mummies and other human remains in the museum’s Ancient Worlds gallery. While the museum decreased the number of mummies on display from fourteen to three, it wasn’t until the mummies were shrouded in 2008 that visitors protested.

Ms. Crouch’s methodology included mapping visitors’ paths around the gallery and recording time spent observing specific parts of the gallery. She found that, while the Manchester Museum attempted to shift the focus of its ancient Egypt exhibition from the exceptionally morbid to a more holistic cultural view, visitors were still fascinated by the mummies. She also noticed a wide range of reactions to the mummies on display, from crouching to intently peer into the sarcophagus, to literally holding up a hand by the eyes to avoid seeing the display. There was a general pattern of visitors referring to the mummy as ‘it’ or ‘the dead body’ as opposed to he or she or using the mummy’s given name, signalling an objectification of the body and separating the dead from a ‘living’ identity.

The second presentation, by Sarah Younan from Cardiff School of Art and Design, was titled ‘Immaterial Artefacts: The museum as a digital repository for artistic investigation’. The science of digital heritage is relatively new, and Ms. Younan recounted her experiments (and sometimes challenges) of using a laser three-dimensional scanner to document some ceramic objects in the National Museum of Wales’ collection. Her choice of artefacts was purely personal; Ms. Younan chose the particular pieces with which she felt an emotional connection. The only other criteria were that the objects be undisplayed and of uncertain provenance, so that by scanning them, Ms. Younan would be giving them an ‘afterlife’ of a digital sort.

After scanning and editing the scans of the objects, Ms. Younan invited artists create works of art based on the digitized scans, which she has been collecting for use in an online and physical exhibition to debut mid-2014. By sharing three-dimensional digital representations of objects in a museum’s stores, Ms. Younan hopes to include more voices in the objects’ biographies, thereby creating a more holistic narrative of the objects. Her presentation underscored, at least for me, the personal connection visitors make with museum objects; meaning can be constructed differently for each visitor, and emotional connects are deeply personal and rooted in memory.

In discussing the two presentations, several questions surfaced as to museum-community interactions. For example, in the case of the way mummies (or other human remains) are displayed in museums, how can curators’ decisions be informed by visitors’ opinions, and to what extent? And would it be useful if curators reflected on their work and reasoning behind a particular display, and then made their reflections available to the public? The idea of expanding the digital heritage exhibition to include writers and musicians as well as artists was also suggested in continuation of the theme of creating a holistic narrative.

Ms. Crouch and Ms. Younan offered advice for future participants in the ‘Afterlife’ program, such as planning carefully and managing time effectively, especially in terms of the time it takes to analyze data. Both agreed that participating in ‘Afterlife’ during their first year of their PhD courses influenced and concentrated the direction of their research, even if this new direction was significantly different from their initial project proposals. As Ms. Crouch put it, engaging in the ‘Afterlife’ program can send you off in ‘weird and wonderful directions’. Overall, their experiences were positive, and they said participating in these projects helped them bring their academic research to the public in an accessible and understandable way

In ‘Burning Bright: Presenting William Blake in the exhibition and on the World Wide Web’, Naomi Billingsley from the University of Manchester explored how Christ is represented in Blake’s engravings through collections at the John Rylands Library. Her project culminated in three series of events: school workshops, a ‘Collection Encounter’ and tour, and an online Legacy Web Exhibition. In the school workshops, which she called ‘The Old and the New Testaments are the Great Code of Art’, students observed Blake’s illustrations of the Book of Job, and then created their own illustrations of the Parable of the Good Samaritan using Blake’s style. Though she struggled somewhat with cancellations and unknown audiences, Ms. Billingsley commented that there were also ‘unexpected positive outcomes’ in the way students identified with Blake’s work.

In the ‘Collection Encounter’ and tour, called ‘Blake and the Gothic’, Ms. Billingsley linked the William Blake exhibition within the John Rylands Library with the neo-Gothic architecture of the building, drawing on Blake’s interest in Gothic architecture and how it influenced his artistic style. This particular event was not as well attended as Ms. Billingsley would have hoped, and unearthed challenges in collection knowledge and interdisciplinary communication.

Finally, the online Legacy Web Exhibition about William Blake includes a browsable guide to the physical exhibition on the John Rylands’ website. While setbacks with communication and technical problems did occur, the website is up and running and provides information about Blake, the exhibition, and showcases students’ reflections. By uploading images of Blake’s work—some of which are not available anywhere else—the exhibition is available to researchers as well as the public.

In the last presentation of the morning, Alex McDonagh from the University of Salford reflected on his project, ‘Ancient Worlds Online: Identifying the role of digital heritage applications in the Ancient Worlds exhibition at Manchester Museum’. Mr. McDonagh used anonymous questionnaires—both online and in person—to elicit visitor feedback about a web application for two museum objects, the Corinthian Helmet and the Tomb of the Two Brothers. In doing so, he hoped to determine the demand for online access to collections, and to explore how the interpretation of digital representation of artifacts differed from the interpretation of physical artifacts.

Mr. McDonagh admitted several challenges in his approach, including his own nervousness; it’s admittedly difficult to approach visitors with questions without anxiety about rejection. The way questions are worded can also affect responses, even eliciting information the researcher wasn’t looking for originally. He also found that museums are quite often associated with family outings and experiences, which are difficult to recreate digitally. And in responses received about the online exhibition, Mr. McDonagh found people were more interested in the aesthetic aspects of the website than they were the actual artifact information offered. Likewise, as with any technology, there are ‘bugs’ that can interfere with interactive portions of online exhibitions, thus delaying or inhibiting visitors’ experiences.

There are several benefits to digital representation, however. For one thing, technology allows visitors to interact with objects in three-dimensional images by zooming in and out to view detail and to see how objects literally would have been used, which isn’t always possible in a physical museum space. Virtual exhibitions could even encourage physical visitation to museums, acting as a teaser for the ‘real thing.’ As a museum-goer, I don’t think I would personally prefer digital representation over visiting a museum, but perhaps that reflects a certain cultural value of museums as places of meaningful experiences and not just educational facilities.

Discussion of these presentations underscored the usefulness of the ‘Afterlife’ program to its participants. Mr. McDonagh said he personally felt his research at the Manchester Museum gave him more confidence, and Ms. Billingsley remarked that she realized how much she enjoyed interacting with the public as opposed to simply doing independent, book research. Both students and institution representatives agreed that face-to-face communication between institutions and researchers at various stages during projects was crucial for success, but the time constraints of the program made communication difficult at times.

As a Masters student, I find it enlightening to listen to presentations from the ‘next stage’ in my academic career. While I’m not sure I’ll pursue a PhD in the near future (or ever), the heritage and digital representation sectors are constantly evolving, and are understandably important to how museums will interact with visitors now and in the future.

Sophie Everest, Andy Hardman (and Benjamin Knowles, in absentia), PhD students at the University of Manchester and the creators of Belle Vue Productions started off the afternoon session with their presentation; ‘Producing Research: starting a research-led production company in the arts and heritage sector.’ They took part in the Research to Business workshop, forming a company of their own, tapping into all their skills and creating a career for themselves where they work with print, web, and film as a production company based here in Manchester.

You have impressed: PhD students who also created a business…working out the details of running a successful one, handling a heavy workload while also working on their research, and trying to keep the projects, Belle Vue Productions takes on true to their research and as close to their personal vision for the business as possible. Belle Vue Productions even had a role documenting Afterlife of Heritage Research, creating showcases of the various projects, and documenting the methodologies of the researchers and the final or projected outcomes; creating a lasting testament to these researchers and their projects.

Juliet Carroll, who studies at Liverpool John Moores University, gave her presentation on ‘a celebration of the Della Robbia Pottery of Birkenhead,’ in which she described the process of creating a ceramics workshop.  Her PhD research focuses on Della Robbia Pottery of Birkenhead as a unique response to the Luca Della Robbia Potter of Italy, informed by the rise of cultural tourism in the 19th century. And so, taking advantage of the collection of work at the Williamson Art Gallery, she created a workshop that allowed a deeper understanding of the objects through producing their own ceramic work of art, in the same artistic manner. Personally, I found the concept of a researcher focusing on an art form that resisted mass production in the 19th century (a core element of the Arts and Craft movement,) fascinating. She chose to not only study and teach people through lecture, but thought to educate through actual production of the ceramics, thus bringing back the original intent of the Della Robbia Pottery of Birkenhead.

Another topic she discussed during her presentation was one of audience selection. She specifically chose not to focus on families with children and instead looked to sections of the museum community that are sometimes left out, such as older viewers or young adults, which Cultural Institutions can sometimes find it hard to appeal to.  She reached out to multiple organizations in an attempt to commit people to her workshops, one, which I had not heard of before, was University of the Third Age which is an institute for further education for people who’ve retired. She mentioned how difficult she found it to establish connections with groups and other institutions, while she advertised the event. In the end the workshop was about thirty people who all needed to register for a place. The workshop was two sessions, where the attendees created and decorated their pots over a span of two weeks, and the museum was so thrilled by the response she was able to generate they are hoping to offer the program again.

After the presentations, the question of how their Afterlife project might inform their PhD research was discussed. Ms Carroll let us know that she is in the process of creating a 2015 exhibit on Cultural Tourism, her success in the creation of the workshop gives her confidence and show others her level of professionalism. And in terms of writing her thesis, participating in the process of creating a ceramic from start to finish, allowed her another view of her subject matter. In a practice based PhD, such as Ms Everest is undertaking, the project gave her confidence and skills, allowing her to think more carefully on what skills a researcher needs and requires.

This additional insight of procedural knowledge is very important, as they kept mentioning, the the deeper understanding of their subject matter was vital to the completion of their PhDs. As they said, the ‘first time you put yourself out on your own steam, it’s intimidating, you have to make yourself do it or nothing ever changes,’ even the most thrilling subject research can become dull without the experience of new things. As Ms Everest said, ‘If you don’t push yourself and change, why are you doing this?’

The final presentation of the afternoon was by Wendy Ligon Smith and Sophie Preston who are studying at the University of Manchester. Their presentation, ‘Film: An Evening of Fashion, Music, Art and Marcel Proust’ was an account of how their idea to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication of the first book of In Search of Lost Time, evolved into an evening event including music and a guided tour. They decided to explore the Manchester Art Gallery not only through the single sense of sight, but to engage the audience in the salon culture Proust wrote about, in a very deliberate decision to create an event about Proust that did not require the audience to have read the literature. They proposed a Late Thursday event, which involved participation from the Royal Northern College of Music, where music that would have been played in the Salons from Proust’s writings filled the galleries.

Many of the discussions during the conference brought up the healthy and positive relationships students had with their cultural partners. It was we learned, a bit more challenging for Ms Smith and Ms Preston. But, as their presentation showed, the event was a success, in fact the tour, which was only supposed to run once during the event, was given twice to accommodate the number of visitors. As was mentioned in their showcase video, ‘something that animates the work and shows another side of it,’ is a wonderful way to get an audience interested, especially in the case of permanent exhibits.

As I mentioned, due to the various challenges, much of the discussion revolved around questions of cultural partners. The projects presented during the conference were bound to the specific research of the PhD of the individual student, so the idea for projects did not often come from the institution where the researcher had been placed. Ms Smith and Ms Preston both agreed that communication is key to helping the researchers understand the limitations of their cultural partner, and that seeing so much from the museum side, now in hindsight they can see how difficult it might be for cultural partners to accept and foster the events proposed by the researcher.

After all seven presentations were over Dr. Arvanitis took to the front once more to briefly examine the Afterlife of the Afterlife of Heritage Research Project.  The lessons learned, should they offer the programme again, were clearly expressed by the discussions and presentations heard today: Creating a closer relationship with, and earlier involvement of, the cultural partners. Making sure that students understand an institution’s policy and the practice related context of cultural organizations. Working to identify the skills gap between student and the cultural organization and the project they plan on undertaking. Fostering a co-creation and co-design of public engagement projects between cultural partners and students. And to implement a reflective practice, which would be key to the students’ conceptualizations of public engagement in their research.

The legacy of the Afterlife of Heritage Research Project comes in the form of four guides for cultural institutes that detail out the procedures and findings gleaned from the past two years, should other institutes which to adopt similar programs. The guides will be made available on the programme’s website that will also include the showcase films created by Belle Vue Productions and all the reflective blog posts created during the Afterlife of Heritage Research Programme.

Today’s conference really emphasized the power and worth of experience to me. Looking at research not only in terms of pouring over books in a library, but through the lens of public engagement, be it as a successful business, or as a workshop that can be recreated again, or an event that becomes the confidence that inspires another to be hosted, illustrates the incredible skills and experience the researchers gained when they took part in the Afterlife of Heritage Research Skills Training Project.