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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.

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Afterlife of Heritage Research – Showcase Event

Afterlife of Heritage Research Showcase Event
Tuesday 29th October
Kanaris Theatre, Manchester Museum

The ‘Afterlife of Heritage Research’ Skills Training Project (2012-13; funded by the AHRC) aimed to support research students and early career researchers (ECRs) in developing skills, capacity and profiles for professional careers in the heritage sector. The project’s tailored training provision (including training guides, collaborative projects with cultural institutions, work placements and industrial mentoring) have assisted students and ECRs in identifying, understanding and ‘translating’ the benefits of their heritage research in ‘real-life’ public, professional and business contexts.

In this Showcase event, participating research students, ECRs and partner cultural organisations will reflect on the aims, process, challenges and outcomes of the collaborative public engagement activities and research placements.

This event would be of interest to research students, ECRs, University research developers and staff in arts and culture organisations.

 Programme

9.30am: Registration and Coffee/Tea
10.00: Introduction
10.20: Katherine Crouch (University of Manchester)Displaying the Dead at the Manchester Museum
10.40: Sarah Younan (Cardiff Metropolitan University)Towards a Digital Dream Space
11.00: Discussion
11.30: Break
12.00: Naomi Billingsley (University of Manchester), Burning Bright – presenting William Blake in the exhibition and on the World Wide Web
12.20: Alex McDonagh (University of Salford), Ancient Worlds Online. Identifying the role of digital heritage applications in the Ancient Worlds exhibition at Manchester Museum
12.40: Discussion
13.10: Lunch
14.00: Sophie Everest, Andy Hardman and Benjamin Knowles (Belle Vue Productions and University of Manchester)Producing Research: starting a research-led production company in the arts and heritage sector
14.20: Juliet Carroll (Liverpool John Moores University), A celebration of the Della Robbia Pottery of Birkenhead
14.40: Discussion
15.10: Break
15.30: Wendy Ligon Smith and Sophie Preston (University of Manchester), Film: An Evening of Fashion, Music, Art and Marcel Proust
16.00: Closing: The Afterlife of the Afterlife of Heritage Research

Poster: Louise Rebecca Senior (University of Aberdeen), Forest Encounters: The value of starting where the people are

Abstracts and Biographies

Please book a free place. If you are a research student in the UK and require funding for travel to attend the event, please contact artsmethods@manchester.ac.uk

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: http://www.flickr.com/photos/99599975@N04/sets/72157634859359950) 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.

 

www.kyrapollitt.com              @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.