(Some of) The Legacies of ‘Research in Translation’

This film is one of the outcomes of the project Research in Translation: Public Engagement through Exhibition Displays. But what was Research in Translation exactly? What were its aims? It was a collaborative international effort, which saw the School of Museum Studies (University of Leicester), UCL Qatar (University College London), the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage (University of Birmingham), Birmingham Museums, and two design consultancies, Land Design Studio and Metaphor, join forces to share expertise and skills in the field of creative exhibition-making and knowledge translation.

The project provided an exciting opportunity for 12 Early Career Researchers (ECRs) representing 7 UK universities and a variety of disciplines across the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, to develop the skills and confidence to ‘translate’ their research into a collaborative exhibition that sought to engage their scholarly research with a wider and more diverse audience.

In an effort to question rigid disciplinary boundaries and favour fruitful interdisciplinary collaborations, participants collaborated with a number of museum researchers, practitioners and design professionals. They were invited and supported to take risks and think creatively about how to communicate their scholarly research to a wider, non-specialised audience, and move beyond disseminating their work within their own specialised academic communities.

The main result of this pioneering collaboration is the exhibition Research in Translation, on display in the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester until February 2016. ‘Research in Translation’ was funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)’s Collaborative Skills Development call, Early Career Researcher (ECR)-led strand, 2013.The exhibition and the overall project were led and curated by Dr Ceri Jones, University of Leicester (cj36@leicester.ac.uk; @CeriatLeicester), and Dr Serena Iervolino, UCL Qatar, Doha (s.iervolino@ucl.ac.uk; @SerenaIervolino).

This film was produced by  Mutual Shoots and was funded by UCL Qatar (University College London). Its aim is to provide some insights on the project, its rationale, its leaders’ goals and ambitions, and the experience of the 12 participants. We hope it will be of interest and inspire anyone interested in public engagement, knowledge dissemination and, more broadly, in transforming the ‘Ivory Tower’.

Here is a short Exhibition Guide for those of you who will not be able to see the exhibition in Leicester.

Hearing from the participants: Irina Marin

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This is a great blog post about being involved in the process of Research in Translation by Dr Irina Marin http://fearacrossborders.blogspot.co.uk/, the author of the ‘Book of Riots’ which is now on display in the School of Museum Studies. Irina describes her experiences of the project and getting to grips with “translating” her research in new ways, which has resulted in a fantastic display exploring how the “messiness” of riots is dissected, analysed and communicated to the public in much more simplistic ways, ultimately blaming particular groups for causing the riot. It is a challenging subject but Irina’s approach has helped retain the complexity of the historical situations whilst presenting them in an accessible, and striking, format.

You can come and see Irina’s Book of Riots, along with all the other brilliant displays, at the School of Museum Studies, the exhibition is on until early February next year.

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Reflections: Developing the project briefs

I wanted to quickly reflect on the process of developing the project briefs from the perspective of a project “manager” rather than a participant. The process was very different because rather than focus on developing one display, we oversaw the development of all 12 displays within the (imagined) framework of an entire exhibition. Having not been involved in a similar experience before (although as a book reviews editor for a journal I am often commenting on the creative efforts of others) it was an eye opening, even challenging experience. With my lack of experience in developing an exhibition I often felt as though I did not have the “authority” to comment on the efforts of others, it seemed unfair somehow. Fortunately working with Serena in a collaborative process dispelled some of those doubts, and as the shape of the exhibition started to coalesce around some exciting themes and emerging ideas, the process began to make more and more sense.

One thing I did appreciate was the ability to have an overview of each participant’s ideas from their conception, to initial ideas after the first workshop, to more developed ideas after the second workshop, then crystallised in the project brief. I always wondered if the participants struggled a bit working on their displays in isolation (albeit with their mentors) and whether we needed a third workshop to develop the ideas around the exhibition itself. We could have then worked with the participants to place the displays around the building, and iron out any issues with position and location before the installation. Theming the displays around the building might also have worked slightly better if the participants came together a third time, there might also have been some additional collaborations in the space. It is something to bear in mind if we do it again (!) and prevent some of the unknowns of the installation process taking us by surprise.

Preparing all the materials for printing was one of the most challenging aspects of the entire exhibition for me, I felt as though there was a lot riding on getting it right – and there was! Unfortunately this was also one of the most rushed stages of the project, which led to quite a few mistakes. I am assured that this happens in museums too so this made me feel better. Again, I could have been better prepared for this stage if I had known far more about what it entailed. A third workshop where some of the practical elements were worked out – the size of the panels, images and types of materials needed – again would have been helpful.

Watching the development of the displays through the project briefs was a fascinating process and I hope it was not too onerous for the participants. It was interesting to see that some of the initial ideas laid down in the first workshop remained fairly constant throughout the project, whilst other ideas changed quite radically. In my next post I want to reflect on the installation of the exhibition but also provide some images of the exhibition itself, which will be much more interesting than my musings!

Reflections on Research in Translation: Workshop 2

It has taken me a while to return to the blog after the excitement (and hard work) of Workshop 2, project development and exhibition installation. I meant to reflect separately on each of these stages but life seems to be running ahead of me at the moment and I am desperately trying to catch up! However, now I have some time to think about what Research in Translation has meant overall I will endeavour to post my reflections about each of these three stages. First, I start with the second workshop which was held way back in January.

Research key words

Workshop 2

Workshop 2 of Research in Translation was held at the School of Museum Studies on Monday 19 and Tuesday 20 January. It was set up as a “design masterclass”, with the participants working closely with Dr Suzanne MacLeod (School of Museum Studies), designers Peter Higgins (Land Design Studio) and Stephen Greenberg (Metaphor), and their mentors to develop their display ideas. I remember it being a very intense two days, at the end of which the participants’ ideas for their displays had begun to take real shape. I have their initial design ideas spread out in front of me over the floor and it will be interesting to compare those initial ideas with the finished displays here in the School.

The first day was a chance for participants to introduce themselves to Suzanne and to Peter, to describe their research focus and capture their display ideas in a couple of sentences. I did a presentation on the importance of thinking about audiences when developing an exhibition or display, thinking about the visitor experience in terms of participation (who is the audience), experience (the learning experience) and engagement (an active audience). Peter Higgins talked to the group about ‘designing narrative environments’, drawing on his expertise from backgrounds as diverse as film, television and architecture to design museum spaces, exhibitions and displays. These included the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth, which was shaped like the ship’s hull and gives a snapshot of the vessel 10 minutes before it sank, ‘International Baroque’ at the V&A, London, Pompei and Herculaneum at the British Museum, and Ice Station Antarctica at the Natural History Museum, London, which invited children to take on the role of a research scientist in Antarctica. Peter’s top tips (as I have written them down) were “Be brave”, “enjoy it and believe it” and your ideas are important, it does not have to be perfect in the execution. I think we can say that our participants stuck to these tips throughout, at least I hope they enjoyed it, they were certainly brave enough to see the project out to the end! Suzanne provided an insightful look into ‘design for use’, focusing on the Imperial War Museum North, which was purposefully designed to be challenging, difficult and disorientating as a visitor experience. Important findings from the project carried out with staff from the museum included the importance of managing the visitor experience as visitors move through the space e.g. by facilitating emotional, physical and cognitive experiences, designing structures to facilitate visitor engagement – what kind of engagement do we want visitors to have? – and thinking about what changes could be made to help visitors use the space differently.

At the end of the first day, my notes refer to a certain amount of confusion amongst some of the participants over their ideas, but with most having a growing sense of focus over what to concentrate on. This set the scene for the second day, which would include a greater focus on working through their ideas with their mentors and the two designers. Stephen Greenberg from Metaphor initially described his experiences in ‘Design that tells stories’; unlike Peter, he came from an architectural background in which he practised for 20 years before going into museum design, a discipline that was, at the time, still in its infancy. He talked about the importance of story, and the importance of audience, the tension between the museum as the building containing works of art or is the museum a work of art in itself. He showed us examples of his work including the renovated Cast Court at the V&A in London and the exhibition Surreal Things. I noted down the importance of symbols, colour and eyelines. Emptiness can be just as powerful as presence. “Making the ordinary extraordinary” and the importance of the threshold of the museum for giving visitors a sense of orientation. The interplay between the two designers was a fun element of the day, although they have very different ways of working there was a sense that they respected each other’s work hugely and shared a sense of having no limits except their own imaginations.

The rest of the day was devoted to developing display ideas in the ‘Studio’ time and to report back to the rest of the group towards the end of the day. I have the notes I made from each participants’ report back to the group and I am going to detail them here partly as a reminder but also as part evidence of how these ideas changed (or did not change) between the workshop and the final exhibition.

Workshop 2 ideas

Rebecca – research starts with discovery and questions, exploration, mystery, the “lost box” in the corner, filing cabinet, copies of photographs for visitors to take away, add questions on post-its, building an archive of questions, take away what they find but keep a record, print out photos but keep a record of what people take away, heavier copies stay in box, table, couple of people working at the same time, memo pad telling you what it is about, sit down at a table with a box of photos, make it look like a study desk, shabby, underwhelming, bit of old rubbish, low tech process of research

Janine – 20th century newspapers versus 19th c, “kill or cure”, discovered in 19th c compared to now, mat to leave dirt and dust behind you, OCD and microbes, image on back case, ECT machine, treatments and cures, Doctor’s set up, Patient names and phobias, pick treatment, pills, hand sanitiser, gloves, creates a barrier, clinical, info sheet to take away, something to read which need to put gloves on, glass case, very pure

Jennifer – exploring concepts of home through historical and contemporary experience, letters, interviews, highlight words, migration to Northern Ireland, duality and parallels in experience, except historical letter, new migrants experience, glass box – 2 opened sides, 2 covered sides, contemplative, reflective (static in case), object relates to narrative (could be in letter), images at base of display, artwork, contemporary / historical, if valuable does not need case (replica) more powerful, solid blocks of colour?, object could link contemporary and historical, food e.g. old wrappings, E Europe, glass jars, pickling, cherry jam, graphics low down = hard to read, throw out case – tables, panels, objects on table

Rosie – communal making is powerful, scrapbooks are great, everyday epherema is important (messages), options, display case of scrapbooks, TV showing images from inside, pamphlet for more info, magazine layout in production on wall / table, content out of magazines (link), village hall aesthetic, chairs and table, sitting down in a social way, chairs and tables stacked in corner, physical engagement with scrapbooks, facsimile for people to read, transforming viewpoint for audience (scrapbook as concentina), contemporary magazine writing about the scapbook, issue not addressing rural life, scarpbook as flat plan with gaps, intervene to add captions or could use highlighter pens, activity space for people to look in their pockets to contribute, stick into something communal effort like scrapbook, not magazine but would look stunning, not pacing like a magazine but would have different affect, randomness lovely, social impact of everyday things

Emma – temporary shrine behind memorial, link to Leicester war memorial, immediacy to remember straight away, recreate temporary shrine from 1917 – unexpected, alone on wall, handwritten lists, dried flowers, visual display of shrine evolving into war memorial – postcard images e.g. ceremony, unveiling, photo of original shrine and make copy, power of super grahpics – fill the space with an image, next to toilets, shocking on everyday level, visual axis important as could be in a busy space – meant to be seen

Irina – Book of riots, more than one event, a selection of riots (need to research these), mediated / filtered is how we know about the past, dual structure report of event and actual confusion of event, how to convey confusion – embed audio file into the book (like children’s books) – tabs in margins give information about the riots, page = spin and gloss, no direct link to past, confused reality on ground, could start recently and go back, contemporary riots e.g. UK riots in Summer, 3-4 riots, Giant Red Top e.g. the Sun, giant newspaper book, printed on heavy fabric, frayed edges, lead books open on one page covered with gesso, watercolour and pencil drawing on top, series of 3-4 books open on one page, easier for sound files if wired in old encyclopaedias – glue down page on top

Sophie – linguistic diversity and endangerment focus (message), experience of the whistling language = exciting, contextualise people find ways throughout history to communicate, endangered and what can we do about it, digital tablet and app?, interactive app where people pick the topics they are interested in, want an element of play, experential, relate to the individual, get people thinking, modular so can add in more, could do museum of language, need focus, beware of sound pollution, hairdryer with sound in it, 3 sides, box with speakers in, big print of the gorge, 2 men whilstling across the gorge to each other, old ladies whistling to each other – film, split screen, too noisy?

Hannah – The Box of Delights, cabinet of curiosities (archaeological), books and toys over the centuries defy categorisation – miscellany, toy box as the model, image at the back of 19th century toy box arranged as shelves, objects e.g. composite, specific toys at front, objects as well as images, small crudely made objects often attributed to children, Eye Spy activity, the more you look the more you see, people could make own composites e.g. paper doll, velcro / moveable parts, aesthetic = bricolage, collage

Elaine – women in 19th century prison, series of triangles along the corrdor area – person looking down will see mug shots of prisoners one way, other way will see letters giving another view of prison life, see different views depending on which way you look, step inbetween the two see the two images together

Tyr – focus on the story of chickens, the lens of disease, staircase, little cupboards which physically open, picture on front and the disease inside, “descent of the chicken”, types of chicken in their environment, Thailand, broiler chicken deformed (KFC), fighting cocks (bones with evidence of fighting), Punic funerary monuments, Romans moved infectious diseases around the world, special breeds, romantic views of chickens, drawers need to be large enough to fit on the stairs, timeline / hierarchical story, fix drawers to wall, simple light boxes, women still part of the story but where?

Sam – focus = girl teen film and how music video aesthetics makes things that are everyday fun and into spectacle, postcard = see more, film in two sections, trailer film emphasises banality of events as spectacle, Hollywood voiceover, images flat and not pleasing aesthetically – clip from film showing transformation, by magic of music video aesthetics

Cynthia – Following the Traces, process through time, graphic design and text, animation / cartoon telling story of manuscript, marginalia in edges of text, medieval text in background, hint at in back, digital image 1190, 1200, 1230 – stimulate vellum, print onto it?, graffitti wall, rest is a commentary, medieval and bored (marginalia), iPad watch it – drawing cartoon, draw it / do it, draw and upload to Twitter, (may be too much), pre-printed colour in sheets which people could tear off and take home, brass rubbing, take art home, rubber stamps & ink pad, project pattern onto paper and draw over it

It is amazing how many of the display ideas were fully formed by the end of Workshop 2, with only a few tweaks needed to get them into their final form. Other ideas were quite radically changed (or returned back to original conceptions) by the time the first exhibition display drafts were produced. It was an exciting two days that showed the great potential when working with experts who are open to sharing and discussing ideas, as well as drawing on the decades of research into museum design and audience engagement that has been carried out in the School. I came away from the two days feeling very excited and keen to progress to the next stage – although I in reality had very little to do with it as it was up to the participants to develop their first design brief.

Wrap up event & exhibition opening

Thursday 18 June 2015, 4 – 5 pm Learning Studio, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester

The AHRC-funded project, Research in Translation: Public Engagement through Exhibition Displays, supported 12 Early Career Researchers from the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences working in a number of UK universities to produce a small, collaborative exhibition presenting their research. The project sought to provide participants with an opportunity to think creatively and critically about their research and disseminate it widely using the exhibition medium.

Join us for a public debate, drinks and a tour of the exhibition as we wrap up the project and think about its impact and future developments and reflect upon the possibilities that Research in Translation indicates for the future of knowledge production and dissemination in the Humanities.

The event will include:

A presentation from the project leaders, Dr Ceri Jones (University of Leicester) and Dr Serena Iervolino (UCL Qatar)
Exhibition opening and tour
‘In conversation with the team’…. Ceri and Serena talk to some of the participants and mentors from the project, to find out about their experiences of working on the exhibition, to discuss the project’s challenges, opportunities and impact.

We hope you can join us!

Ceri and Serena

Carol Scott on The Cultural Value of Engaging with Museums and Galleries

Cultural Value Project Blog

For the past month or so I’ve been immersed in reading books, papers, articles, and reports relating to the cultural value of engaging with museums and galleries, as part of the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries University of Leicester team involved in the project. We have been interviewing colleagues in the field to get perspectives on the strengths, weaknesses and gaps in this existing body of research. It’s been an exciting exercise to undertake a major critical review of literature produced over the last two decades.

We have a compelling body of data.  Numerous studies have set out to describe, understand, measure and evidence what impacts and benefits result from museums and galleries. Many of these studies have sought to demonstrate the achievement of museums and galleries against policy determinants such as social inclusion, learning, and well being.  Though users are necessary respondents in these studies there is less…

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Post Workshop 1 Reflections – Rosemary Shirley

The first Research in Translation workshops were a rich learning experience which have left me with a lot of questions about the possibilities and problems of devising meaningful exhibitions which communicate research but also become catalysts for new ideas and directions.

My background is as a Fine Artist who has wandered haphazardly into first writing about art and then writing about visual culture, everyday life and rural places. I’ve spent some time working in different sorts of art gallery; public and private, contemporary and historical, and one of the most startling things I realised over these two day workshops was how different galleries are to museums and how out of my comfort zone I am.

Firstly let’s talk about display cases. In contemporary art practice you put something in a display case and you are introducing a stack of references and connotations. Jeff Koons put a basketball in a vitrine and bam! It’s all about fetishization of the object in postmodern consumer society. Susan Hiller places random objects in archive boxes all housed in big glass case and we’re into the territory of institutional critique with a side order of memory and psychoanalysis. These structures are loaded with the power to change the objects displayed inside and it feels really strange for me when they are treated as if they are as semiologically transparent as they are physically. I’m sure critical museology also has a lot to say about display cases, after two days I’m certainly no expert. However, I can see that from a practical exhibition design perspective the damn things keep objects, safe, dry, away from sticky fingers and out of visitors pockets, so what’s the alternative? This is something I am keen to explore.

We had the opportunity to view a technological alternative in the form of table sized tablet computers, which allow the viewer to access multiple images and pieces of information, enlarging and juxtaposing content at will. While I could see some of the possibilities this technology, especially in terms of allowing visitors to interact more meaningfully with book and archive materials, it paradoxically somehow feels like an impoverished encounter which etiolates the material connection with objects.

The second big difference is how we feel about clarity. Over the two days we talked a lot about making things clear. Guidelines for good practice in writing interpretative text for museum exhibitions emphasise this virtue: one point per sentence, one theme per paragraph, write as if the reader were a 12 year old child, use an active voice, create a narrative, start with the object, it is frustrating when the label does not answer the questions you want to ask…

How to anticipate all possible questions, why shouldn’t the object remain mute, refuse to give away its secrets, provoke the viewer – by its silence – into flights of imaginative fancy or perhaps rigorous research of their own. There is also a value in ambiguity, of letting objects speak for themselves and to each other. Allowing space for audiences to join up the dots, or create new patterns and connections altogether. Is there room for this approach in Research in Translation? Every act of translation is an act of re-making and in this process I am excited to see what new connections, ideas, theories become apparent.

Dr Rosemary Shirley is a Senior Lecturer in Art History at Manchester School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University.

Post Workshop 1 reflections – Hannah Field

Be-Virtued,—Be-Pictured,—Be-Butterflied, and Be-Fiddled


The first volume of Tristram Shandy contains a bit of object-worship that I’ve been thinking about since the Research in Translation workshop. Uncle Toby obsessively inspects his map of Namur, and in the process the boundary between person and object dissolves:

The more my uncle Toby pored over his map, the more he took a liking to it!—by the same process and electrical assimilation, as I told you, thro’ which I ween the souls of connoisseurs themselves, by long friction and incumbition, have the happiness, at length, to get all be-virtued,—be-pictured,—be-butterflied, and be-fiddled.

I love this passage as an entry-point to thinking about Research in Translation for a number of reasons. First, Laurence Sterne’s miscellany of pictures, butterflies, and fiddles reminds me of the store room at the Museum Collections Centre in Birmingham, where every cabinet is stuffed with a different object of virtue not currently on display in the main museums or gallery: from stuffed domestic longhair cats to 1960s nylon pantyhose to Ancient Egyptian shabti figures.

Second, Sterne’s focus on the connoisseur’s relationship to objects seems the opposite of the norms of museum interpretation and translation that we learned about in Birmingham: the requirement that descriptions should assume museum visitors have a reading age of twelve, for example. What would a museum for connoisseurs—a museum that favoured idiosyncrasy, arcana, and personal obsession in its descriptions—look like? (Perhaps like a materialized and inhabitable version of an academic journal? Perish the thought.)

But this passage from Tristram Shandy also conveys something broader about what I realised at Research in Translation. In short, I hadn’t quite understood how be-virtued and be-butterflied my own soul had become: not as a connoisseur but as a scholar. I came to Research in Translation thinking exclusively about objects—about what things I might show in our final exhibition and how they would look. Midway through the workshop, I started to think more about ideas.

As an academic, my focus is on how books—often thought of principally as carriers for ideas—are things, too. I explore this subject using low-status items: not illuminated manuscripts or artists’ books, which also of course make a similar point, but novelty and movable books for children, which are sniffed at even by scholars sympathetic to children’s literature and popular culture. I’m interested in the cultural discomfort associated with novelty books, and by association with the idea that, even when we do think about books as objects, we prefer them to be a certain sort of object.

And so I’d initially thought about exhibiting some of the items I studied for my DPhil as part of Research in Translation. These items are rare, fragile, and of considerable general interest. I’ve tried this before: I suggested a Victorian movable book for the Bodleian Library’s exhibition of children’s books in summer 2013, for example. Novelty books for children certainly introduce interesting challenges to an exhibition. They often rely on gimmicks—on movement, as the description movable book would suggest. The exhibition visitor cannot fully grasp the physical workings of the book without seeing it move, and so the best way to display them might be ‘in the flesh’ while at the same time using interactive graphics (perhaps displayed alongside or even overlaid or projected onto the material book).

I’m still interested in finding strategies for exhibiting such objects, but our two days in Birmingham gave me other ideas (rather than other objects) to consider. How, for instance, could we use an exhibition display to convey the importance of the miniature in children’s literature? The preoccupation with and manipulation of scale in children’s literature is well-known. It’s what leads to, for example, the Borrowers repurposing postage-stamps as paintings, or children in Rumer Godden’s doll-stories using Japanese pencil-boxes as doll’s-house cupboards. Indeed, in his book Feeling like a Kid (Johns Hopkins, 2006), the children’s literature critic Jerry Griswold identifies smallness as one of five characteristic themes that persist across children’s literature. (The others, charmingly, are snugness, scariness, lightness, and aliveness.) Quite a bit of my published work relates to dolls and doll’s-houses, both as depicted within books and as packaged alongside them, so scale and the child (reader) are research interests of mine.

The touch tables we used at the Digital Prototyping Hall at the University of Birmingham made me think about scale and the object in new ways. By marvellous—indeed, almost alchemical—multi-angle photography, touch tables can zoom in on the details of even the smallest objects. (We looked at examples of greatly magnified treasures from the Staffordshire Hoard.) But such cutting-edge technology might also offer new ways of thinking about the size of material objects. A fellow delegate mentioned seeing children try to enlarge a picture in a book by ‘pinching out’ with thumb and index figure, as they could on a touchscreen. A fresh example, I thought, of the association between children, media, and issues of scale and perspective.

So how, then, can I make an exhibition display that starts from ideas rather than individual objects—from ideas about how and why scale, material objects, and childhood are important to one another? How can I convey these ideas in a way that’s not just coherent, but also visually arresting and (dreams are free) delightful? And what is the place of the hopelessly ‘be-virtued,—be-pictured,—be-butterflied, and be-fiddled’ soul in the contemporary exhibition space? Suggestions welcome.

Bio: Hannah Field is a lecturer in English literature at the University of Lincoln. She has published various articles concerning the intersections between literary and material culture, on topics including Regency-era paper dolls, Dickens’s use of toys, and the cherry-coloured coat in Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester. She is currently revising her doctoral thesis on Victorian novelty books for children (recently completed at the University of Oxford) into a book. She is from Aotearoa New Zealand.

Post Workshop 1 Reflections – Cynthia Johnston

Immersion, Revision, Inspiration

When I arrived at our first two-day training session for Research in Translation, I had already established in my own mind the project that I would like to do. I was just about to sit my viva, as many of you may have heard (I could have been just the tiniest bit boring about it), and I was certain that I had a feasible action plan for the planned exhibition at the end of the project. Preparation for my defense had led me to develop all sorts of strategies to make sure that every single one of my points within my dissertation was watertight. What I didn’t perceive at that point, was the virtue of letting the waters flow in and move things around slightly. The learning curve that I experienced during the course of the two-day session inspired me to look at my work in a different light. It also challenged me to think of an answer to a very legitimate question which any member of the public would be perfectly entitled to ask me which is ‘Why does this stuff matter and why should I find it of interest?’ In fact, those two questions came up just at the end of my examination, and thanks to RIT, I was well prepared with an answer!

My area of academic research is the development of decorative embellishment to thirteenth-century manuscripts produced in commercial environments. In my dissertation I argue that the distinctive decorative frame for the late medieval page developed from scribal work in late twelfth-century Bologna associated with legal textbooks produced for the students there. I have traced the development of these scribal techniques from Bologna to Paris and Oxford, where they are adopted enthusiastically by the makers of books for the luxury market.

Medieval Manuscript

My original idea was to display a medieval manuscript in a case that would be enhanced by perhaps audio material. I envisioned perhaps making a recording of the text of the book to be listened to via headphones while the manuscript was examined and the information panels about the manuscript were read. I thought this would accomplish several things for my viewer in that firstly the book would be heard aloud, as it no doubt would have been by its medieval user. The Latin content could be heard as background first, and then translated. (Some medieval law is really very scintillating I promise!). This paradigm promised the viewer a fairly close-up interaction with a medieval book and some of the experience of the original owner could be shared with the modern observer.

This idea survived our first day’s session fairly unchanged but it disappeared very early on the morning of the second day. The content of the first day’s session all made perfect sense to me. Use accessible language, make sure your text panels are concise, correct and large enough for a wide variety of readers to see. Make the point of your communication quickly understood. Respect the approaches of others towards your subject. I found the information describing the display of Islamic calligraphy to be particularly fascinating, especially the consultation with the local community with regard to the display. However, it was the next day’s session at Birmingham Museum in the morning and at the University in the afternoon that completely revised my approach to the project.

The new gallery on the history of the city of Birmingham was one of the most effective and creative arrangements that I have seen installed anywhere. From the diorama enhanced with medieval sounds to the interpretation of medieval people performed by students of the University, I was completely entranced. The afternoon session in which we were encouraged to interact with a variety of digital technologies was an extraordinary experience. Instead of imagining my viewers having a fairly static experience with the manuscript I decided to display, I began to think laterally. What if the manuscript itself were not needed for display? Could digital representations of several examples of the development of decorative technique in Paris and Oxford as well as Bologna be presented in digital form? And could digital technology be used to engage the viewer with the idea of my research as opposed to just bringing the viewer sort of alongside it?

What I began to see was the imposition of digital images on a map of northern Europe whereby the viewer could move a lense over a particular spot and a specific type of manuscript embellishment would appear beneath the lense over the geographic location. Further information could be added onto lenses, almost speech bubbles around the decorative example. The viewer could then move the lense at their own pace and see for themselves the relationships between the books produced at distant centers.

Whether or not this idea will work at all I am unsure of, but the important thing for me is not the success or failure of this one vision. The essential experince for me is the abilty to think quite literally outisde of the box or, in this instance, case. This photo encapsulates what I feel that we as researchers must achieve theoretically, we must move outside of the case to viscerally connect with the public.

Collections Centre, Birmingham Museums and Galleries

I am very much looking forward to hearing about how everyone else’s projects are devloping when we meet in January.

Cynthia Johnston

Post Workshop 1 Reflections by Elaine Farrell

Filling my glass (case)

With my head already swimming with ideas from the Research in Translation workshop the day before, I took a seat in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery on the morning of Friday 19 September 2014. My mind was occupied with other thoughts as well; although the teaching semester at Queen’s University Belfast would not begin for another week, the days leading up to the workshop had been spent furiously planning classes for my new final-year ‘Crime and Punishment’ module. Friday night was also Culture Night and my involvement in the Research in Translation programme meant that I’d had to refuse invitations to participate in history-related activities at home. Admittedly, as I took my seat alongside other delegates, my mind was also wandering to arrangements for the night ahead. I’d planned to attend a colleague’s party on Friday night and I was anxious that Flybe wouldn’t interfere with my plans to go directly from Belfast City Airport to the party.

While some participants seemed to have clear ideas about their exhibitions by Friday morning, I hadn’t yet decided how best to present my research on women in nineteenth-century Irish prisons. The presentations had been fascinating up to that point. These, and the ‘behind the scenes’ walk around the Birmingham Museum Collections Centre at Duddeston, had revealed the many possibilities available. Although I had begun to think about the types of objects that I could potentially display, I hadn’t settled on the overarching concept behind my project. I was, however, considerably more informed than I had been about the importance of audience research, the ways to engage diverse audiences, the deliberations that should accompany decisions about the layout of the exhibition, and the impact of seemingly insignificant details like colour and texture of background fabrics or panels. Thursday’s discussion had also included valuable advice about choosing images for marketing purposes. I had also developed a new appreciation for museum and gallery labels. Presentations had highlighted the various levels of understanding that labels need to address, and the type of words that should and should not feature.

The themes that were discussed on Friday morning at the Birmingham Museum, the manner in which museum can convey various levels of meaning to different individuals, the way that messages can be implied rather than overtly stated, and the juxtaposition of very different ideas, images and objects, fascinated me. Exhibitions Manager Andy Horn spoke about grouping objects by era or by theme, but also by colour or intuition, and emphasised the ways that exhibitions can be playful. He explained how the viewer can be encouraged to draw connections between seemingly separate objects and described how curators work with the objects that they have to create exhibitions on very diverse subjects. As he explained, the same object might feature in several seemingly unrelated exhibitions. And then the realisation hit me: I could present the entire argument of my (in progress) monograph in a single glass case. True, the small exhibition wouldn’t include all of the case studies that will ultimately feature in the book, the argument wouldn’t be supported by statistical calculations or be rigorously footnoted, and the discussion wouldn’t be placed in a wider international context. But the essence of the monograph’s argument could still be conveyed in the exhibition. Now it’s just a matter of locating my objects and securing permission for their display. And then there’s the small task of co-ordinating their safe transfer across the Irish Sea!

The relaxed atmosphere and collegial spirit encouraged much discussion across the two days. Ample time had been allowed for questions and conversations, and hands-on activities had been built into the schedule on both days. It wasn’t without its hiccups – I got separated from the main group at one point, and from my jacket at another – but it was an extremely informative and valuable two days and immense fun with smart, interesting, and good-humoured delegates, facilitators and mentors. It was worth the effort, time and money to travel from Belfast. And I made it to the party, duty-free bottle of whiskey in one hand and my suitcase in the other.

Dr Elaine Farrell
Lecturer in Irish Social and Economic History, Queen’s University Belfast