Display cases

I managed to find several photographs I took of the display cases in the School of Museum Studies in the downstairs entrance lobby. Unfortunately I have none of the stairs or upstairs – there is one large display case at the top of the stairs and films can be projected in the stair well onto a large back wall. The walls in the public corridors upstairs have also been used effectively for exhibitions. Hopefully someone else might have a photograph to illustrate these? Until then here are some images of the display cases that are downstairs. The exhibition was an early one in the School using material loaned from staff and museums concerning war and conflict. This first image shows a wide shot of the entrance lobby – the main entrance doors are on the extreme right of the picture. I am looking towards the double doors which lead to the upstairs offices and lecture rooms. There are two display cases in this part of the hallway.

MS display case 4

This second image shows a close-up of the case towards the back of the first picture. It is next to the double doors leading upstairs. As you can see it has 3 shelves – you can walk around to the “back” of the case.

MS Display case 1

This next image is a close up of the second display case in the first image. It is the first case you see when you enter the School and is to the right of Reception / front office.

MS display case 2

This next image is taken from the case next to the double doors leading upstairs looking across the entrance lobby. You might just about make out another display case in the background, behind the pillar, which is to the left of the entrance doors as you enter the school.

MS display case 5

Here is a close up of that case, which has one shelf inside.

MS display case 3

One of the text panels from this exhibition.
MS example text panel
With the next two pictures you have to use a bit of imagination as they were not taken with the display cases in mind! In the blurry background you might just make out a series of display cases – these cases are not in the public area. There are four cases in total.
MS display cases 7
MS display cases 6
I hope that gives you a better idea of the opportunities for display we have in the School.


Meet the participants 5!

Please welcome Janine Hatter….

Striking a Balance: Your Research, Public Engagement and Museum Exhibitions


As an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Hull, my research interests centre on nineteenth-century literature, science, art and culture, with particular emphasis on popular fiction. I have published material from my doctorate on Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s short fiction, as well as on my wider research interests of twenty-first century Science Fiction and the Gothic, but I relish this opportunity to explore public engagement in more detail and learn the practical skills with which to effectively translate my own research into another form – that of museum exhibitions. Creating interesting and meaningful exhibitions for the public is a new challenge for me, one which I am excitingly apprehensive about as it will test new skills such as my artistic creativity, while also helping me to develop collaborative partnerships. ‘Research in Translation’ is particularly ground-breaking because it gives us all the opportunity to be part of a cultivated, emerging core group of public engagement researchers who can learn about each other’s research in order to work together to create our own group exhibition.

This joint venture creates its own challenges and advantages when considering public engagement. English Literature as a discipline is traditionally text heavy, which introduces some practical challenges to translating your research into an exhibition. The biggest hurdle is transforming blocks of written material into different formats, be that snippet quotations, sound bites or timelines. These alternative, shorter pieces of information need to convey the heart of the message, while also remaining entertaining and insightful when portraying your argument – not something easily achieved for someone as verbose as myself!

English Literature is also well-known for being theoretically dense, and so this creates the added challenge of developing the researcher’s skills at adapting sometimes difficult subject matter so that people of all ages and cultures can understand its meaning. This can be accomplished through scaffolding, in which you build up more complex ideas in steps over the entire exhibition – which leads to ‘The Final Problem’, as it were. These practical challenges are worth it though for the advantages that researchers can gain from participating in public engagement.

The advantages of doing public engagement for English Literature scholars are prompting discussions around your research with a broader, more diverse set of voices. For me, public engagement is about sharing your knowledge with the community for the benefit of the public and having the public provide you with an additional perspective that you may not have thought about; it is a two-way conversation. This can occur through exhibition feedback, a Q and A after a public lecture, or school children undertaking activities based on your research and providing insights into their own knowledge and experience of the work. Moreover, on a ‘developing your research skills’ level, it also means that you can experiment with working with other formats and mediums, such as music, videos, artwork, modelling and sculpture. This increases your knowledge of the best ways to communicate your research to others and allows for cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional initiatives.

The benefits of cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional initiatives are almost innumerable, especially as they can have unforeseen outcomes years down the line. The main benefits, for me, are building long-lasting and productive partnerships with public institutions and other universities. You may have information that could help them, while they will have knowledge and resources they will like to share with you; it is about finding a balance and sharing what you both know for the benefit of each other and the wider public. These collaborations also allow you to engage in interdisciplinary discussions, which provides another perspective on your own work. For instance, as a trained Literature scholar, it is always worth finding out and exploring what a medic thinks about a character’s illness and diagnosis, or what an artist considers the most expressive aspect about descriptive passages of text. Diverse people will see various features and influences in your research and we should embrace these, sometime contradictory, perspectives because they enliven and revitalise our own thinking.

Other advantages to these collaborative initiatives are working with experts in the field and learning how to utilise new mediums to effectively communicate your research. In particular, I am looking forward to learning how to translate my research into a more visual format through imagery and video, because I think this would create a more interactive and engaging narrative for the audience, rather than straightforward text and illustrations. Finally, these initiatives put you in touch with members of the public from different areas – areas that may otherwise be geographically distant from you. This allows you to build community-centred research projects that can regenerate community values and promote prosperity, or disseminate your research to a wider population and therefore gain more diverse feedback.

Overall, public engagement is an enjoyable, rewarding and fruitful element of academic work, and a valuable contribution to researchers’ impact, while cross-institutional ventures – such as this ‘Research in Translation’ training programme – are vital in helping ECRs to develop beyond their own disciplinary field.

Meet the participants 4!

Say hello to Jennifer Thorburn…

My name is Jennifer Thorburn and I’m a Lecturer in Sociolinguistics at Newcastle University. I started at Newcastle in February 2014 after completing my PhD in Canada at Memorial University.

Broadly speaking, my research is concerned with language variation and change. This covers a range of topics, including how social factors such as age, ethnicity, social networks, and sex affect language use; how languages and dialects change over time; and how people feel about and react to the different language varieties in their communities. (A language variety can be a dialect or a language.) Most of my research has been focused on language attitudes and use in Aboriginal communities in northern Canada, but I have also worked on regional dialects of English in North America. I’m currently involved in an AHRC Connected Communities project on language and migration in Northern Ireland. Under the direction of Karen Corrigan, this project explores the experiences of young people who have recently migrated to Northern Ireland and their acquisition of English as a second or third language, important issues in Northern Ireland given the recent increase in immigration to the region and the divisions amongst the major ethnic groups. Part of the project’s mandate is to showcase our results for the public in meaningful and accessible ways, which includes a museum exhibition at the Mellon Centre for Migration Studies in Omagh, Northern Ireland next year. This exhibition is intended to highlight linguistic and cultural diversity and to draw parallels between the experiences of these recent immigrants with the experiences that Irish emigrants had when they relocated to America in the 18th century, which another team member will be analysing over the duration of the grant. I hope that the Research in Translation programme will inspire me to come up with creative and accessible ways to share and discuss these ideas with a non-academic audience, in addition to giving me a stronger foundation in collaborative and interdisciplinary public engagement.

Some linguists are already doing wonderful public outreach in conjunction with sound academic research. One thing they all have in common? Strong relationships with the communities they partner with, based on mutual understanding and respect. These linguists have long-standing working partnerships and friendships with the people who live in their research sites, relationships built not only on academic pursuits but also what Walt Wolfram has described as the principle of linguistic gratuity, which encourages researchers to “pursue positive ways in which they can return linguistic favors to the community” (Wolfram 1993: 227). In fact, one great example of linguists engaging with communities is the North Carolina Language and Life Project (NCLLP). The staff and students involved in the NCLLP, including Walt, have done so much to raise awareness of language-related issues in the state—making documentaries, CDs, museum displays, dialect awareness curriculum, and more. They have shown people the value of linguistic research in ways that are easily accessible to non-academics, by sharing oral histories, showcasing dialect as something to be proud of, and celebrating community members.

Of course, these relationships don’t emerge overnight. It takes time to build trust and develop a working relationship. This can be particularly challenging if you are a postgraduate student with time-sensitive funding. There are a lot of external pressures for doctoral students to finish their dissertations on time, which can make it difficult to build a meaningful relationship with a community, especially if there are members of the community who are mistrustful. When I was doing my dissertation fieldwork, for example, one resident asked me point blank who I was really working for, even thought I had explained what the interview was about. He was the exception to the rule, as most residents were receptive to my presence and volunteered to be interviewed.

Another challenge of public engagement about language is that people often have strong opinions on the subject. It can be difficult to dialogue with people because they have staunch beliefs about what is right and wrong with language. “Kids these days” is a statement you’re probably familiar with, with people lamenting how language is changing (and not for the better). In fact, language change is natural. After all, we don’t sound the way people did in Chaucer’s or Shakespeare’s time. Like any living organism, language needs to change and develop, but this can be a hard notion for people to wrap their heads around. The value of dialect is another topic that sometimes gets pushback. Society has trained us on prescriptive grammars that tell us what is or is not “proper” language. As a sociolinguist, I want people to understand that all dialects are valid, that they have systematic variation and grammatical systems just like the “proper” language, and that everyone speaks a dialect. There can be a lot of resistance to ideas like these because people know about language. But this is also an advantage. People aren’t afraid to express their opinions about language and this can spark a wonderful and productive dialogue between academics and non-academics, as well as more generally.

Language can also have inextirpable links with culture, such that a language is a link to your heritage and traditions. You can see this in many communities around the globe, but my own experiences come from working with Aboriginal groups. In many Aboriginal communities in Canada, the heritage language is endangered, meaning that children are not learning the language from their parents and that it is not used as the day-to-day language of the community. Community elders comment that young people who don’t know the language are losing not just a part of their heritage but also the ability to discuss traditional knowledge. In one of my interviews, I asked someone to describe building a snow house, and it was hard for him to describe the tools that he needed in English because there is no exact counterpart. Without his heritage language (Inuktitut), he didn’t have the necessary vocabulary to describe this traditional practice.

The close relationships language has with culture and identity can be a strength in public engagement work since the community is invested in the outcomes of the research. Residents probably aren’t interested in the frequency with which a particular language feature is used but they do want to hear the oral histories collected in the interview process. Engaging with the community, or community organisations, lets you tailor your research instrument in a way that answers the pressing academic questions while servicing the community you’re working with. I was lucky enough to have an MA supervisor, Marguerite MacKenzie, who has been working with the Innu in Labrador, Canada, for decades. In partnership with the Innu, Marguerite and her team have built dictionaries, translated classroom materials into different dialects, generated booklets of vocabulary, compiled traditional stories, and developed a website about the language that houses many of these resources. Working with Marguerite, and other mentors, has taught me a lot about partnering with communities – my MA thesis was a direct response to a community request – and I look forward to building and maintaining similar ties with interested communities.

All that being said, linguists don’t typically receive training in how to do public engagement. I’ve learned what I know from mentors but there isn’t a formal system in place, which is why I was so excited when I heard about the Research in Translation programme. This programme will help me figure out how to convey information in meaningful and digestible ways, through museum displays and exhibitions. The programme is collaborative and interdisciplinary in nature and I look forward to working with other Early Career Researchers from diverse backgrounds. A collaborative, cross-disciplinary approach is necessary to keep things fresh and accessible and I can’t wait to start brainstorming creative and engaging ways to start conversations with the public about language, identity, and culture. I hope that the Research in Translation programme will educate and inspire me so that I can, in turn, educate and inspire people about language issues.

Meet the participants 3!

A big welcome for Irina Marin….

I am Irina Marin. I am a Leverhulme Early-Career Fellow affiliated with the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Leicester. Since 2013 I have been working on a new project examining the circulation of rumour and violence across the border between Tsarist Russia, Austria-Hungary and Romania at the end of the 19th, beginning of the 20th century. As I come from an eclectic academic background (BA in Philology, MA in Cultural Studies, PhD in History), I always get asked in job interviews ‘What exactly are you?’. I look upon myself as an all-round, interdisciplinary historian, who can use vital linguistic skills to tap into original foreign-language sources and who appreciates the great value of input from other disciplines such as art, literature, sociology, economics, etc., to enhance and transform the understanding of a subject.

I think the great benefits of cross-disciplinary, cross-institutional initiatives such as ‘Research in Translation’ are cross-fertilization, symbiosis and dissemination. Cross-fertilization, in the sense that ideas and practices from one subject can trigger revelations in a another field and put new life into old ways of doing things and thus spark off creative flows. Symbiosis in the sense of the great necessity of different disciplines of comparing notes, of working as a team and exchanging insights that other disciplines may not have produced but can certainly benefit from and build on. To paraphrase John Donne, ‘No discipline is an island entire of itself; every discipline is a piece of the continent, a part of the main’. Dissemination is perhaps the most important of the benefits of this approach as by building bridges and channels of communication between subjects and disciplines the intellectual gains from one field are made readily available for another field and gradually percolate and inform the perceptions and outlook of the general public. Thus a more complex and more effective feedback loop is established.

One would expect public engagement to come easily to historians. It suffices to count all the history programmes on TV, radio and other media to conclude this. There is lots of history around in the form of films, documentaries, museum exhibitions, magazines, school textbooks, verbal clichés and hearsay. We live and breathe history, it informs our perception of ourselves, our country, of the others, of far and near in both space and time. And yet the type of history that more often than not reaches ordinary people is oversimplified and theoretically impoverished.  There are pet topics, which will never go out of fashion, such as episodes of mass murder and extermination (so-called extreme histories); there are pet regions and time periods, which appear again and again in public coverage. In counterpoint to these, there are huge blank swathes (regions, time periods, peoples), which never seem to attract public attention and for which a historian is at pains making a case.  More often than not, history as presented to the general public is offered as a seamless narrative, full of colourful, exciting, flashy detail, but with little indication of the dilemmas behind a historian’s craft, of the filters (graphic, linguistic, cultural), the distortions, the feats of interpretation, the fundamental uncertainties that characterize the writing of history.

I believe that the sort of public engagement that brings home to the general public the dilemmas and challenges of a historian’s craft and raises awareness how information is filtered through to them by various media would not only allow ordinary people to critically engage with historical narratives but also positively affect how they view and assess any narrative circulated in public discourse. It will thus leave them better prepared to deal with everyday demagogic politics, with rumours that might affect the wellbeing of whole communities, with present-day propaganda from various quarters. There are facts about reliability of sources, their function, their purpose and impact that are self-evident to professional historians but that have not yet seeped through to the general public. It is this rigour of thought that would enable the population at large to better participate in, and more effectively shape, public policy and hold politicians and governing bodies to account.

Meet the participants 2!

Next up it’s Emma Login…

My name is Emma, I’m a final year PhD student from the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage at the University of Birmingham. My research looks at war memorials and their long term development over time, examining war memorials to common soldiers and civilians ranging from 1860 through to the present day. Within this I am particularly interested in the engagement with war memorials that takes place many years after the events they commemorate. To study this I examine the many ways in which memorials are reused and appropriated with new meanings as time passes from their construction.  This includes both physical re-appropriation, when alterations are made to the object itself, (e.g. adding names of previously excluded groups such as women/ soldiers shot at dawn), symbolic re-appropriation, when subtle changes occur in the way the object is perceived (e.g. appropriation of the Cenotaph for ‘Queer Remembrance Day’ to promote equality for homosexual soldiers) and also negative appropriation, when the object is treated in a way that is detrimental to its preservation (e.g. spraying a memorial with graffiti, stealing or destroying its structure).

My research compares these processes of war memorialisation in the UK, France and the USA.  To explore this I have had the opportunity to undertake many exciting research trips in each of my study areas. These have included field work in France studying Franco-Prussian War memorials along the eastern border, and detailed field and archive research on the battlefield of Gettysburg.  I have also had the opportunity to study at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Research carried out at the Library sought to understand the ways in which groups, who consider themselves to be previously marginalised or excluded from past conflict narratives, exert their claim on these conflicts through the urban environment.  As I am entering the final stage of my PhD thesis the ‘Research in Translation’ project will give me a great opportunity to think critically and reflexively about the research I have carried out so far, and the ways that this can be presented to a wide range of audiences

No one alive today has any living memory of the First World War and yet interest in commemorating this conflict continues to grow. The centenary of the First World War has been valuable in increasing public interest in war memory and memorials. This has been beneficial to public outreach in this field as it has brought new and diverse audiences to war memorials.  The Research in Translation project will give me the skills necessary to encourage engagement amongst those who have previously felt no connection to these objects. Learning from museum professionals, I not only aim to present the results of my own memorial research in a new and interesting way, but also to encourage individuals to visit and engage with memorials in their own community. War memorials are so ubiquitous, and have become such a familiar part of the British landscape, that it is easy to pass by without noticing them. It is my aim through this project to give greater visibility to all memorials, not just those from the First World War, and to demonstrate their changing roles in society.

Public engagement projects that have involved research into the names listed on memorials have proved particularly challenging for the discipline. This research has, in some cases, revealed the names of individuals who have been missed off the memorial, and resulted in calls to have these missing names added.  Yet, many names were excluded, not because of clerical error, but because family members did not wish to see the name of their loved one on the memorial and deliberately requested that it not be included. Any alterations would, as a result, go against the wishes of original family members. In addition, many war memorials are now almost 100 years old, and any contemporary additions of historic names would obviously have implications for the integrity of the object.  Tensions can arise therefore between the desires of contemporary relatives and those in the past and, the need to respect the integrity of the memorial as an historical object in its own right. Consequently, it is important to encourage engagement in a way that respects the heritage of the object, but which is also sensitive to the needs of contemporary individuals to whom the memorial may have a deep personal meaning.

Such examples illustrate the difficulties surrounding public engagement with emotional objects such as memorials. Whilst the centenary has been beneficial in increasing public interest in memorials, the extensive media coverage of the First World War has also served to perpetuate myths surrounding the conflict. Perceptions of the ways in which memorials were used in the past can affect their understanding in the present. Presenting results of research which challenges these preconceived understandings can necessarily be very problematic. War memorials are highly emotive objects to which some individuals feel a strong personal connection. Working in a multi-disciplinary environment will give me the opportunity to learn from those who also work with sensitive subject matters and to find ways to present more contentious results of my research; challenging people’s preconceptions about the past, whilst maintaining sensitivity and respect for this delicate subject matter.

Cross-disciplinary initiatives, such as ‘Research in Translation,’ are crucial for providing new perspectives on my research. The familiarity with the subject, which comes from carrying out detailed research, often prevents connections being made which may appear obvious to those from other disciplines. Working in a multi-disciplinary environment provides the ideal context for links to be made between my research and that of other ECRs and to develop collaborative contacts. It is very important to be able to present research beyond the academic environment. Working within a professional museum environment, and learning from specialists in this field will provide the opportunity to learn the skills necessary to present my research to a wide range of different audiences. In doing so, I will be able to make my research stand out in an environment of increasing numbers of projects relating to the memory of conflict.

Meet the participants!

In only two days we start our programme, Research in Translation, with our first workshop at the Museum Collections Centre in Nechells, Birmingham. It does not seem that long ago when the idea was just a small germinating seed… now we are ready to welcome our participants and get thinking about public engagement. But before the first workshop we would like you to meet some of our participants in a series of blog posts. First up, Cynthia Johnston….

‘Isn’t what you do a bit precious?’; Medieval Books and Public Engagement

I submitted my PhD dissertation in July of this year, and as I write I am anxiously awaiting my viva on 2nd October. I am a medievalist by trade, originally working on fourteenth-century literature, but eventually transferring my study to the physical books themselves. I have an MSt in Medieval Studies from Oxford University and my AHRC-funded doctorate was undertaken at the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London. I wrote on the development of penwork decoration to books in England from 1180 to 1280, the crucible for the commercial book. My supervisor was Professor Michelle Brown. I am currently the Course Tutor for the MA in the History of the Book at IES, SAS.

When I tell people outside of the field of Medieval Studies what I do, they uniformly comment on the subject’s obscurity. This reaction seems to imply the irrelevance of this study outside of academia. Someone recently asked me if what I did wasn’t a ‘bit precious’. This question sums up the difficulty in explaining the relevance, beauty and fascination of medieval manuscripts without resorting to the visual. All medieval books are fascinating, for what they say and how they are illustrated and illuminated. For the modern general audience they also carry problems in interpretation with regard to language and subject matter. The British Library blog does an admirable job of treading the line between presenting medieval books as amusing artifacts and important works of art. This light-hearted approach is possibly less appropriate for exhibition as the value of the book as a cultural and art historical object is interrogated by its selection for display. The traditional way of displaying medieval manuscripts in glass cases, further removes them from the world of the observer. These books cannot be touched nor their pages turned. They become the inverse of their original intent as objects to be used, often on a day-to-day basis, by ordinary people.

Last year I organized an AHRC-funded exhibition of ten manuscripts and early printed books from Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery at Senate House Library at the University of London with a team of graduate students from three different institutions: Sarah J. Biggs from the Courtauld Institute and the British Library, Tony Harris from Cambridge and Courtnay Konshuh from Winchester. We used traditional display methods of perplex glass cases with interpretive captions, along with two large display banners with background information on the collector, R.E. Hart, a rope-maker, and the late nineteenth-century passion for collecting. We also produced a traditional catalogue as well as a blog (http://blackhartbooks.wordpress.com) along with a dedicated twitter account. The project concluded with a one-day conference. While we felt that we succeeded in raising the profile of the collection, as well as highlighting the difficulties of caring for collections like this in understaffed and underfunded museums, I felt that the essence of the books themselves was almost impossible to communicate. This exhibition was intended for an academic audience but the books have an immense amount to tell outside of that specialist context.

Following on from this experience, I am currently co-curating with Dr Jack Hartnell of the Courtauld an exhibition for 2 Temple Place in London that will tell the stories of ten collectors from the Industrial Northwest. This show will highlight collections from three museums of Pennine Lancashire: Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, Towneley Hall in Burnley and the Haworth Museum and Art Gallery in Accrington. Collections of books, coins, Japanese prints, icons, ivories, taxidermied birds, preserved beetles, book illustrations and Tiffany glass as well as undisplayed Turner watercolours and prints by Millais and Landseer will be displayed along with ‘the Cloud Man’, a 12th century Peruvian mummy. These eclectic collections have much to say not only about the objects themselves but also about the men who assembled them and their motivations for doing so. We would like to present these collections to a national and international audience without making them overly ‘precious’ although many of these items are indeed priceless. Regardless of their status with regard to value or rarity, these items were part of people’s lives, and they were handled and poured over by those who collected them. This is the essence of what we would like to communicate perhaps using non-traditional methods.



The Blackburn Psalter (Oxford? c. 1260-80) and a late fifteenth-century Book of Hours, from the R.E. Hart collection at Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery. ( MS Hart 21001 and 20932)

Learning about the approaches those in different fields from a variety of institutions take to engaging the public with their research will help to resolve my own conundrums. I am searching for innovative ways to use contemporary media and cutting-edge display formats to demonstrate the relevance and delight to be found in the medieval book. If the ideal way to communicate the unique quality of the medieval book is to place it in one’s hands, perhaps there is a way to replicate this experience for the general public. Public institutions hold most collections of medieval manuscripts and in that way they are the property of us all. To me this is the essence of public engagement with these objects. Its central contradiction being that these books that have survived centuries of use and abuse from water, worms and candle wax are now suspended in cyber-states whereby they can only be handled by experts, while they belong to every one of us.