On arriving at the Museum Collections Centre for Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery (BMAG) on 18th September, I was delighted to see from the name badges on the table that an old friend from the University of Birmingham, Emma Login, was also going to be part of the workshop. This turned out to be a good omen for an extremely enjoyable two days defined primarily for me by the people involved.
That is not to say that the facilities were not superb, and it was brilliant to be able to explore aspects of Birmingham’s heritage resources which were either new to me or which have changed since I last saw them. The BMAG Collections Centre was the new discovery of this workshop. Being able to explore the storage spaces, and also examine the ways in which the curators have chosen to group objects, was extremely rewarding. Storage usually by type, sometimes with elements of historical information on labels, and for the most part on secure but open shelving invites viewers to engage in conversations with and about the objects, juxtaposing categories such as egg-cups and stuffed animals with ancient Egyptian artifacts and costume collections, and always keeping the focus on the materiality of the items in the collection. It also highlighted the breadth of the museum collection and the extent to which the richness of holdings underpins the displays possible.
On the second day it was great to visit BMAG itself and especially, for me, to have a short introduction to the gallery space dedicated to medieval Birmingham by one of the curators. This gallery (well worth a visit for locals and visitors alike) showcases innovative and high-end display techniques such as interactive touchscreens, sound effects and video footage, but all grounded in an extremely human approach to some complex historical sources.
This was followed by a short jaunt back to my recent stomping grounds, and the Digital Humanities Hub on the University of Birmingham campus. This exciting complex of digital resource and humanities scholars is funded by the ERC and focuses on the uses of visualization in display and research. Dr Richard Clay conveyed the excitement that this combination can inspire as he explained some of the challenges which the group is dealing with, such as multi-user interface touch screen technology to allow visitors not only to interact with information in museum contexts, but to allow them to interact with each other by examining the material available. At around £20K per touch-table (bare-minimum…) this technology may not feature in our exhibition, but it seemed to give a lot of us ideas for possible future ventures, and above all served as a reminder of why and how (a conversation I have had with another technologically minded friend) conversations between computer scientists and humanities scholars can enrich the questions both are asking.
Despite these wonderful and very rewarding experiences of places, however, the aspect of these two days, which made the most lasting impression on me, was of the group of people involved. The mixture of late-stage PhD students and Early Career Researchers also gave the gathering a specific atmosphere, of collective solidarity, sympathy and keen focus both on the philosophical aims of presenting research on the on the more practical aspects of working in the humanities today. These are not forces which I would ever wish necessarily to cast as positive and negative respectively, and the dynamic of the two will always provide opportunity as well as constraint, and so it proved here. It was exciting to be in a room full of people talking within a framework of needing to convince people outside the academy of the significance of good quality and exciting research. As esoteric as many of the subjects represented may sound (my own most definitely included) nobody seemed keen to be studying theirs in an ivory tower.
And the topics on display certainly were exciting, from Victorian phobias to endangered West African languages, medieval money and manuscripts to the osteology of poultry. For a scholar in the humanities who firmly believes that we have something important to offer and that explaining that is not the same as ‘justifying ourselves’ in the narrow, and defensive sense used by much humanities rhetoric, to be in a room full of people equally enthusiastic about the possibilities (but very much aware of the challenges) of doing so was invigorating. I went away with a sense that this will be an exciting group to work with.
There were also some really intriguing ideas for display and what exhibition might mean, which will hopefully be fun to explore in more detail. How does one display, for example, something that has no physical form, a sound or an electronic artefact? This was a question recently posed in a lunchtime talk in the British Museum Citi Money Gallery with respect to displaying Bitcoins, and was a question I was glad to revisit in a different context. It also had the effect of helping me to think harder about the ideas I am interested in displaying, especially moving beyond artefacts towards processes and activities. Obviously where these ideas take me will be a matter for future display, but for now the question I am thinking with is how one might display act of doing academic research rather than its output? How does one exhibit being a historian?
Dr Rebecca Darley
Research Associate, Warburg Institute, University of London.