Post Workshop 1 Reflections – Rosemary Shirley

The first Research in Translation workshops were a rich learning experience which have left me with a lot of questions about the possibilities and problems of devising meaningful exhibitions which communicate research but also become catalysts for new ideas and directions.

My background is as a Fine Artist who has wandered haphazardly into first writing about art and then writing about visual culture, everyday life and rural places. I’ve spent some time working in different sorts of art gallery; public and private, contemporary and historical, and one of the most startling things I realised over these two day workshops was how different galleries are to museums and how out of my comfort zone I am.

Firstly let’s talk about display cases. In contemporary art practice you put something in a display case and you are introducing a stack of references and connotations. Jeff Koons put a basketball in a vitrine and bam! It’s all about fetishization of the object in postmodern consumer society. Susan Hiller places random objects in archive boxes all housed in big glass case and we’re into the territory of institutional critique with a side order of memory and psychoanalysis. These structures are loaded with the power to change the objects displayed inside and it feels really strange for me when they are treated as if they are as semiologically transparent as they are physically. I’m sure critical museology also has a lot to say about display cases, after two days I’m certainly no expert. However, I can see that from a practical exhibition design perspective the damn things keep objects, safe, dry, away from sticky fingers and out of visitors pockets, so what’s the alternative? This is something I am keen to explore.

We had the opportunity to view a technological alternative in the form of table sized tablet computers, which allow the viewer to access multiple images and pieces of information, enlarging and juxtaposing content at will. While I could see some of the possibilities this technology, especially in terms of allowing visitors to interact more meaningfully with book and archive materials, it paradoxically somehow feels like an impoverished encounter which etiolates the material connection with objects.

The second big difference is how we feel about clarity. Over the two days we talked a lot about making things clear. Guidelines for good practice in writing interpretative text for museum exhibitions emphasise this virtue: one point per sentence, one theme per paragraph, write as if the reader were a 12 year old child, use an active voice, create a narrative, start with the object, it is frustrating when the label does not answer the questions you want to ask…

How to anticipate all possible questions, why shouldn’t the object remain mute, refuse to give away its secrets, provoke the viewer – by its silence – into flights of imaginative fancy or perhaps rigorous research of their own. There is also a value in ambiguity, of letting objects speak for themselves and to each other. Allowing space for audiences to join up the dots, or create new patterns and connections altogether. Is there room for this approach in Research in Translation? Every act of translation is an act of re-making and in this process I am excited to see what new connections, ideas, theories become apparent.

Dr Rosemary Shirley is a Senior Lecturer in Art History at Manchester School of Art, Manchester Metropolitan University.


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

Post-Workshop 1 Reflections by “Tyr” Fothergill

Following Workshop 1 (18-19 September 2014), we asked participants to write a summary of their thoughts and reflections on Workshop 1. Below you find “Tyr” Fothergill’s reflections on the two-day workshop.

1. Poultry, Palaeopathology and the Public

As the Palaeopathology Post-Doctoral Research Associate on the AHRC Science in Culture Project: Cultural and Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions at the University of Leicester, much of my time is currently spent either examining archaeological chicken remains for signs of disease and injury or seeking out reports of pathology in excavated material.

The processes of describing ancient chicken pathologies, attempting to diagnose them and collating or synthesising these data are at the heart of my work on the Chicken Project. Lesions in animal bone are analysed within the framework of zooarchaeology, which is broadly defined as the study of past relationships between humans and other animals. These relationships, and any skeletal signs of injury or disease, are most meaningfully interpreted within the appropriate social and historical context. On the research side, this can often translate into pursuit of diverse lines of enquiry which are seemingly unrelated to archaeology. Positively, many of these approaches are linked to my personal research interests; one specific focus is the link between past animal health and husbandry, which can sometimes be directly connected to the development of certain diseases or high frequencies of injury types. I have researched animal husbandry and agriculture, early veterinary medicine and agrarian history in attempts to contextualise the archaeological evidence of past animal disease as deeply as possible.

The data and interpretations generated by my research are not only intellectually valuable to the zooarchaeological community, but also of potential interest to the public. Research in Translation caught my attention because I wanted to improve my research communication skills and develop a wider profile of impact. I also thought that it would be beneficial to my career. In fact, activities from the first workshop (especially discussing the development and installation of “Qalam: the art of beautiful writing”) have made me realise that engaging with communities outside of academia, sharing and reciprocating knowledge and spurring wider conversations is arguably more important than ensuring that other specialists are aware of my work. In my case, these exchanges would be about the archaeology and history of animal disease and welfare, the link between animal disease and human health and changing human perceptions of animals, all of which have present and future relevance. I have also begun to consider the ways in which I could make accessible guides or “label text” versions of certain pathologies and themes in zooarchaeology.

This is ideal not only with regard to my own research profile, but also within the context of the Chicken Project. Cultural and Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions was designed from its inception to engage with (and occasionally delight) a dizzyingly broad spectrum of communities ranging from breed specialists, members of the general public, back-garden chicken-keepers, the British Poultry Council, charities, schoolchildren and so forth. I am sure that creating a display for Research in Translation which captures the attention of the public and offers a tantalising, nuanced glimpse of past chicken-human relationships will be challenging but ultimately rewarding.

2. A Challenge I Can’t Refuse

In the process of accumulating archaeological and other evidence with the aim of more brightly illuminating past animal-human relationships, certain challenges have arisen. These include an implicit anthropocentric bias in perspective (the viewpoints and agencies of non-human animals are not common features of most zooarchaeological writing) and a lack of consideration for the role of gender in animal husbandry (narratives of past hunters and farmers interacting with animals only rarely include women). But in researching the past health and husbandry of poultry species, I found that women are a subject which cannot be overlooked: in these Isles, chicken-keeping has, until recently, been considered “women’s work”. Although archaeological portrayals of poultry (especially cockerels) abound, there is little in the way of material culture that is definitively linked to poultry husbandry apart from skeletal remnants. Housing for chickens is often archaeologically ephemeral and highly specialised tools were not required for successful poultry-keeping. Expert knowledge, skills and techniques, however, would have been essential for success, but are not easily traced through the archaeological record. Although I have wanted to communicate the vital contributions of women to the origins of the modern poultry industry and make their overall role in past animal husbandry more visible, I have been at a loss as to how I could accomplish this.

The Research in Translation programme is granting me two important opportunities: 1.) to gain the necessary skills and training which are needed to communicate effectively with the public on my research in an accessible, visual manner, and 2.) the chance to present an exciting aspect of the human past which does not easily lend itself to traditional dissemination within my discipline. In presenting this research, I will use a display to weave together the stories of diagnosed, pathological bones from poultry species and the lives of known, documented individuals in the past by linking poultry health with the innovative husbandry methods used by those specific women. The questions raised by the images of pathological bones can, at least in part, be visually answered by the display showing how three individuals ‘improved’ their poultry.

In reflecting upon the lectures, activities and experiences of the first workshop, the curatorial examples of exhibits which included painstaking care, community outreach and, in more than one case, literal translation, were inspiring and transformative. I am now more confident that (with substantial support and guidance) I could create a display that visually demonstrates the concepts behind the title: “Innovators and ‘Improvers’: Women and Poultry Husbandry AD 1500-1900” in a way which is accessible, meaningful and interesting to a range of audiences. I look forward to the second workshop with great anticipation.

Dr B. “Tyr” Fothergill
Post-doctoral Research Fellow, School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester

Research in Translation: Initial Thoughts and Lots of Questions by Samantha Colling

Following Workshop 1 (18-19 September 2014), we asked participants to write a summary of their thoughts and reflections on Workshop 1. Below you find Samantha Colling’s reflections on the two-day workshop.

Being part of the Research in Translation project has so far proved to be both exciting and challenging. The first workshop has made my mind work overtime, asking a lot of questions. My current research explores popular culture — specifically girl teen film — but I’m also experienced in theatre and filmmaking. Having a creative background, I presumed that I would find it relatively easy to adapt and translate my research into something tangible that other people would want to engage with. What I’ve found so far is that the cross-fertilization process that the RiT workshops have set-up have got me asking questions I might not otherwise have considered.

My research explores how Hollywood millennial girl teen films are designed to feel fun. Through re-evaluating notions of pleasure and fun it examines the recurring aesthetics in these films as a means to understand how the Hollywood (neoliberal, postfeminist) version of girlhood creates gendered ideas of fun. RiT has made me look at this research from a new perspective. How do I contextualise my research in an interesting way for other people? And who are these ‘people’ — who are my target audience? Film academics? Other researchers? Young people who are the usual target market of teen film? Or specifically teenage girls? Do I hope that teenage girls will start thinking about how films prescribe specific, gendered pleasures? How realistic is this hope? So first things first, I need to decide who I am trying to communicate with.

Secondly I need to work out what I want to communicate. Boiling 80,000 + words of research down, or picking out one facet of this large project is difficult — I feel a little precious about all of it! I suppose this comes back to thinking about my audience — what do I think they will find interesting? What part of my research is most communicable in a way that will make meaning without necessarily using lots of words?
This leads us to the question of how to communicate research. My gut reaction is, of course, to use moving image. Although, as part of the workshop, we had the opportunity to experience a great deal of exciting and new technology at the University of Birmingham’s Digital Humanities Hub, film seems the medium most appropriate to communicating research about film. However, this raises more questions for me: how do you make a film about film? How can I use my understanding of film as a complex sensory, experiential encounter to create something that people engage with that also communicates that understanding? Also how do I make a film about popular culture that is accessible but doesn’t just seem like a fan video?

I don’t have the answers to all these questions just yet but before the next RiT workshop I am determined to answer some of them. Let’s hope that by the end of the project I have an answer to all of them.

Dr Samantha Colling
Research Degrees Assistant and Associate Lecturer, Manchester Institute for Research and Innovation in Art and Design, Manchester Metropolitan University

Workshop 1, Reflections by Emma Login

Following Workshop 1 (18-19 September 2014), we asked participants to write a summary of their thoughts and reflections on Workshop 1. Below you find Emma Login’s reflections on the two-day workshop.

The first two days of workshops offered a fantastic opportunity to learn more about the project and to get to know the other participants. All of the workshops proved really helpful and have definitely given lots of food for thought.

Together the sessions highlighted the many different things that need to be taken into consideration when curating a museum exhibition. Having never organised an exhibition before the chance to hear about Rebecca Bridgmans’s experience putting together the recent Islamic Calligraphy exhibition was really helpful. Rebecca raised lots of very interesting points, including for example, the importance of community involvement for a successful project, particularly in relation to engaging with audiences that do not traditionally visit museums. The sensitive nature of some of the objects highlighted the importance of ensuring that the exhibition was thoughtfully curated in a way that respected the religious beliefs of individuals. This approach was very relevant to my research into memorials, as they can be very emotive objects, especially when viewed within the context of contemporary conflicts. Most thought provoking in the Calligraphy exhibition was the integration of historic and contemporary objects. Antique items displayed in the same context as contemporary writing and art pieces made really interesting connections within the exhibition, and I would definitely be interested in using a similar technique to explore the presentation of historic and contemporary attitudes towards memorials.

My research examines the development of war memorialisation in the last 150 years. I’m particularly interested in the ways that attitudes towards commemoration and memorialisation have changed over time. Much of my research is based on interviews and oral testimonies which are difficult to display using conventional museum methods. Consequently, the session on the display of photographic images was especially useful. War memorials can obviously be very sensitive and the workshop dealt with the thoughtful display and labelling of images. This exercise was also useful in demonstrating the preconceptions that individuals can bring with them when viewing any image or object. Each group interpreted the images placed before them through a lens of contemporary understandings. In the context of such challenging images the labels take on added importance. The session on ‘writing texts for museums’ was, as a result, very helpful and showed the importance of considering both the object and the audience when writing an object label. It demonstrated the impact and influence a label can exert over understandings of an object, and consequently over the viewer’s engagement with that object. The potential for a poorly thought through label to alienate the reader was especially striking.

Perhaps the most inspirational part of the first day was the visit to the Museum Collections Centre. The chance to chat to the other participants and learn about their research whilst walking around the centre was really helpful. I was able to gain some interesting perspectives on my own research and discuss potential exhibition ideas. The surreal juxtaposition of objects within the collections centre allowed creative connections to be made; something that was further developed the following day in Andy Horn’s presentation. The talk by Andy Horn demonstrated how unusual combinations of visual signs can be used to give objects a completely different meaning. This is definitely something that I would be really interested in exploring in my own exhibition. In particular, the ways in which attitudes to memorials in the past may appear controversial when juxtaposed with images of their use in the present, and conversely contemporary attitudes may seem inappropriate if viewed in a post-First World War context.

The session on digital technology was really helpful for thinking about the display of images and the spoken word in new and exciting ways. Particularly interesting were the ways in which little glimpses of images were used on the touch screen to invite people to see and learn about the whole image. I’m very interested in exploring the possibility of using recordings of oral testimonies from both contemporary respondents, and also those drawn from the Mass Observation archives, juxtaposed with some of the more challenging images from my research. Through this I hope to challenge the ways that people think about memorials.

One of the main lessons I learned from the workshops was the importance of considering the audience of the exhibition and the expectations that they might have. The digital technology session was very useful for exploring different levels of interpretation and the possibility of incorporating technologies that can give more information if required by the viewer. Equally important, and something that came through in all of the workshops, was the importance of storytelling and bringing in a human element. This was especially relevant to my research as the war memorials themselves often have no intrinsic artistic value. The stories that individuals attach to them, and in particular the stories behind the names, add to the interest and meaning of the objects. Using these stories provides an interesting way in which individuals can engage with a memorial regardless of their level of knowledge relating to the events being commemorated.

Overall the workshops provided a great introduction to the project and a really thought provoking insight into exhibition design. It was really nice to meet the other participants and hear about their varied backgrounds and research interests. The possibility for collaborative exhibitions is very exciting and I’m really looking forward to getting to know everyone better over the course of the project.

Emma Login
University of Birmingham