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


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