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