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.