Author Archives: heritageafterlife

Forest Reflections – Louise Senior

This weekend, amidst the crowning of the Marymas Queen, the Highland dancing and the tunes of the Thurso pipe band, we officially launched our ‘Hidden Forest’ trail. The Caithness winds were gusting at up to 50mph, forcing the Marymas Fair into the local village hall, which lent a different kind of atmosphere to events. Nevertheless, alongside the chair of the Dunnet Forestry Trust, we set up our stall in the corner of the hall and, in-between the fancy dress competitions and the bake-off awards, we were able to show off our glossy new leaflet and talk to numerous people about the stories of social history hidden in Dunnet Forest – and even collect a few new ones. For me, this was the culmination of months of collaboration with the Dunnet Forestry Trust on a social history trail through the forest which began when I attended the Afterlife of Heritage training workshops.

So what have I achieved over the past few months since entering into this process? Firstly, the project itself has received some really positive feedback from local people. The very idea of a forest having a ‘social history’ has intrigued many folk and everyone I have spoken with has enjoyed learning about the stories that I have collected, and have often responded by giving me a story of their own. Aside from this enthusiasm for forest stories, people have often become interested in the wider context of my research. The stories provide a good starting point for discussing the more theoretical angles of my PhD and this has allowed me to develop a number of new contacts, thus improving the overall quality and depth of my research.

The idea of engaging the public with a fairly philosophical research topic had seemed daunting to me when I applied to take part in the Afterlife of Heritage training, but the most valuable lesson I have learned during this process, and which has been a running theme throughout, is the importance of starting where people are at.  My initial ideas for this project had included talks or displays at local museums or heritage centres, but by making the forest itself the host of the project we have hopefully ensured that we are reaching a captive audience. With more time and money, it would be beneficial to branch out of the forest and deliver some kind of outreach sessions to attract a wider audience, but I think we have made the most of our current capability by focusing on the forest and its users.

Similarly, our ideas for launching the trail leaflet had included targeted events, but I believe that by piggy-backing on an existing event with close links to the forest, we were able to reach a far wider audience. The very broad appeal of the Marymas Fair allowed us to speak to all sorts of people who would have been unlikely to attend a specific ‘forest talk’ type event.

Reflecting back, there are a few things that I would do differently next time. On a very practical level, I underestimated the amount of time that I would need to devote to the project and was overambitious about my design ideas. I think that consultation with my designer earlier on in the process could have helped me to plan the project more accurately from the outset. The uncertainty that these factors created led me to lose confidence midway through my project (see blog #2, ‘Finding the Path’), which probably affected my approach to launching the trail leaflet. Luckily, my cultural partner maintained confidence in the project and supported me with the launch, demonstrating the utility of an effective working partnership.

I’m glad to say that, although the bulk of my Afterlife of Heritage project is now complete, I don’t think it will ever really be finished in the true sense of the word. The history of the forest keeps on unfolding and new stories of life in Dunnet Forest will continue to emerge. I hope to hear many more of them and the forest blog that we are working on will offer a place to record these stories, providing a resource for the community to draw upon and to contribute to. In this sense, the process initiated by attending the Afterlife of Heritage training is an ongoing one which doesn’t end with my role in our joint project, but which continues its journey in the hands of the community here.

Burning Bright, Part 3: glowing on a computer screen near you

The final part of my R2P project is now live on the web: an online version of the exhibition ‘Burning Bright: William Blake and the Art of the Book’, which took place at the John Rylands Library, Manchester, earlier this year (see my first and second posts for details of the other aspects of my project).

Translating a physical exhibition into an online format was an interesting exercise, which highlighted for me important differences about how we (or I at least) engage with material physically and digitally:

– In a physical exhibition, there are spatial limits on the items displayed; with books, this is compounded because it is only possible to show one opening (this was partially overcome by the inclusion of a digital reader showing digital surrogates of the two star books in the exhibition), and the grouping of items is partly dictated by the size of the display cases.

– In the virtual exhibition, it became possible to make more images available (thanks to the Afterlife funds, it was possible to commission new digitalisation) and to group material with greater freedom. However, there was a restriction on the format for displaying images so that only a ‘slice’ of each is shown on the exhibition webpages (although the full images can be accessed from the webpages), which is more effective in some cases than others.

– In both cases, the ‘visitor’ is distanced from the act of physically engaging with the book as an object, be it locked in a glass case or only being present ‘virtually.’

– We read in different ways in an exhibition setting and on a computer screen. Neither is the same as when we sit down to read a book: we tend to ‘scan’ in both cases, wanting to absorb the information quickly. What the online exhibition has allowed is more length, and therefore detail, about the items, but it’s a completely different sort of writing to the chapter of my thesis I was working on at the same time.

My PhD examines the figure of Christ in Blake’s visual works and I have been able to include a small amount about some of the images I am exploring in my PhD in the online exhibition. Researching and writing the online exhibition also led me to look at material from a different perspective and helped me to discover and spot various things which will feed into my thesis.

The online exhibition also showcases work produced in various activities which took place alongside the physical exhibition (including a workshop for schools which I devised), so that it acts as a legacy to the exhibition as a ‘package.’ The inclusion of the creative fruits of the exhibition resonates with the theme of the exhibition itself, which explores Blake’s influence on subsequent generations of artists, writers and designers.

The online exhibition will continue to ‘burn’ and I look forward to seeing what it might kindle.

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

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.

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.