(Some of) The Legacies of ‘Research in Translation’

This film is one of the outcomes of the project Research in Translation: Public Engagement through Exhibition Displays. But what was Research in Translation exactly? What were its aims? It was a collaborative international effort, which saw the School of Museum Studies (University of Leicester), UCL Qatar (University College London), the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage (University of Birmingham), Birmingham Museums, and two design consultancies, Land Design Studio and Metaphor, join forces to share expertise and skills in the field of creative exhibition-making and knowledge translation.

The project provided an exciting opportunity for 12 Early Career Researchers (ECRs) representing 7 UK universities and a variety of disciplines across the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, to develop the skills and confidence to ‘translate’ their research into a collaborative exhibition that sought to engage their scholarly research with a wider and more diverse audience.

In an effort to question rigid disciplinary boundaries and favour fruitful interdisciplinary collaborations, participants collaborated with a number of museum researchers, practitioners and design professionals. They were invited and supported to take risks and think creatively about how to communicate their scholarly research to a wider, non-specialised audience, and move beyond disseminating their work within their own specialised academic communities.

The main result of this pioneering collaboration is the exhibition Research in Translation, on display in the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester until February 2016. ‘Research in Translation’ was funded by the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC)’s Collaborative Skills Development call, Early Career Researcher (ECR)-led strand, 2013.The exhibition and the overall project were led and curated by Dr Ceri Jones, University of Leicester (cj36@leicester.ac.uk; @CeriatLeicester), and Dr Serena Iervolino, UCL Qatar, Doha (s.iervolino@ucl.ac.uk; @SerenaIervolino).

This film was produced by  Mutual Shoots and was funded by UCL Qatar (University College London). Its aim is to provide some insights on the project, its rationale, its leaders’ goals and ambitions, and the experience of the 12 participants. We hope it will be of interest and inspire anyone interested in public engagement, knowledge dissemination and, more broadly, in transforming the ‘Ivory Tower’.

Here is a short Exhibition Guide for those of you who will not be able to see the exhibition in Leicester.


Hearing from the participants: Irina Marin

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This is a great blog post about being involved in the process of Research in Translation by Dr Irina Marin http://fearacrossborders.blogspot.co.uk/, the author of the ‘Book of Riots’ which is now on display in the School of Museum Studies. Irina describes her experiences of the project and getting to grips with “translating” her research in new ways, which has resulted in a fantastic display exploring how the “messiness” of riots is dissected, analysed and communicated to the public in much more simplistic ways, ultimately blaming particular groups for causing the riot. It is a challenging subject but Irina’s approach has helped retain the complexity of the historical situations whilst presenting them in an accessible, and striking, format.

You can come and see Irina’s Book of Riots, along with all the other brilliant displays, at the School of Museum Studies, the exhibition is on until early February next year.

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Wrap up event & exhibition opening

Thursday 18 June 2015, 4 – 5 pm Learning Studio, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester

The AHRC-funded project, Research in Translation: Public Engagement through Exhibition Displays, supported 12 Early Career Researchers from the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences working in a number of UK universities to produce a small, collaborative exhibition presenting their research. The project sought to provide participants with an opportunity to think creatively and critically about their research and disseminate it widely using the exhibition medium.

Join us for a public debate, drinks and a tour of the exhibition as we wrap up the project and think about its impact and future developments and reflect upon the possibilities that Research in Translation indicates for the future of knowledge production and dissemination in the Humanities.

The event will include:

A presentation from the project leaders, Dr Ceri Jones (University of Leicester) and Dr Serena Iervolino (UCL Qatar)
Exhibition opening and tour
‘In conversation with the team’…. Ceri and Serena talk to some of the participants and mentors from the project, to find out about their experiences of working on the exhibition, to discuss the project’s challenges, opportunities and impact.

We hope you can join us!

Ceri and Serena

Carol Scott on The Cultural Value of Engaging with Museums and Galleries

Cultural Value Project Blog

For the past month or so I’ve been immersed in reading books, papers, articles, and reports relating to the cultural value of engaging with museums and galleries, as part of the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries University of Leicester team involved in the project. We have been interviewing colleagues in the field to get perspectives on the strengths, weaknesses and gaps in this existing body of research. It’s been an exciting exercise to undertake a major critical review of literature produced over the last two decades.

We have a compelling body of data.  Numerous studies have set out to describe, understand, measure and evidence what impacts and benefits result from museums and galleries. Many of these studies have sought to demonstrate the achievement of museums and galleries against policy determinants such as social inclusion, learning, and well being.  Though users are necessary respondents in these studies there is less…

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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 – 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

Post Workshop 1 reflections – Sophie Salffner

Objects in museums – coming full circle

When my grandfather was a small boy in a small town in Germany, his own grandfather worked as a carpenter and caretaker in the local museum. Like the town, the museum was also rather small. It was located in an old mansion, had just a few rooms and was surrounded by a garden. For my grandfather, the place must have been an exciting playground when he visited his grandfather at work and he tells happy stories of running around the garden and sitting on an old and (again) rather small cannon.

When I grew up in the same town, our primary school class visited the same museum. I remember a dark, damp place, a chest with a secret lock mechanism, the usual assortment of shields and swords and of course also the cannon. Being a girl and going there with my class mates under the watchful eyes of the primary school teacher, we were of course not allowed to step on the grass, let alone ride the cannon.

Things were not much more entertaining in the bigger cities either. My grandparents had moved to another town and my grandfather would occasionally take me to the natural history museum there. Again, I remember a place that was mostly dark and very quiet, almost scarily so. There was a stuffed mammoth that seemed very large to a small girl, and there was another room that was particularly frightful: it showed an installation of a Neanderthal camp, all with fierce-looking spear-holding hairy men with bushy eyebrows and dark hair. When you switched on the light the whole installation lit up in all its glory and I was thoroughly terrified.

As I grew up I went to more museums: the Pergamon Museum, the Berlin Musical Instrument Museum, local museums around Germany and elsewhere. It was interesting, in principle I quite liked the idea of a museum but overall it wasn’t all that exciting. When it wasn’t damp and dark, it was still just you walking around looking at stuff, a rather passive experience.

Then I moved to Wales for a year, worked as an au-pair and one day the parents I worked for took me and the children to the Techniquest in Cardiff. I was expecting a museum about science, but I found an open, airy, well-lit space, bright colours, hands-on experiments, children completely soaked in water playing with pumps, and metal sticks illustrating standard electrode potentials. I had just written my chemistry A-level exams about stuff like that, and here it was in a museum for children and teenagers, and what’s more: it was fun! What a revelation!

Since then I have been to quite a few museums around the UK and I have seen great exhibits, but more importantly I have seen great ways of exploring objects through guided activities. My absolute favourite must be the mummy trail in the British Museum, especially the task with the mini carpet in the shape of a human torso and a set of stuffed toy organs. The organs represent those that would have been taken out of the dead bodies and put into different vases, and your task is to arrange the toy organs on the human torso carpet to figure out which ones the old Egyptians took out and where they took them from. The mummies are a bit scary, I know, and it could be a bit gross to think about taking out organs, but the way it’s done is wonderful and the objects seem far less intimidating and more meaningful afterwards.

With some of that in the back of my mind, I went off to Birmingham for the first of the two-day training workshops in creating museum exhibits to communicate our research to the wider public. Now, my research is a bit difficult to “put” in a museum. I work on language, in particular on spoken language and the way people use language in their everyday life. Language has no physical shape that you can put in a cabinet or on a plinth and exhibit like a dinosaur skeleton that you have dug out. Spoken language is so fleeting! You say something and it’s gone. You can’t really see it, and you can’t touch it.

Lucky for me though my research is based on audio and video recordings of the languages I study, or more precisely, it is based on audio and video recordings of the people who speak the languages that I study. So once I had settled for one of my ideas for an exhibit, it was quite clear for me that I would go digital. I want to show what systems of communication people had invented to talk to each other over long distances before there were mobile phones. Visitors may have heard of yodelling, a way to talk to one another in the Alps across deep valleys. But there are also elaborate whistling languages and drum languages. So I was thinking that objects and artefacts as exhibits in their own right are not for me. I want to go digital! I want video screens and headphones where visitors can see and hear whistling and drum languages, and whistles and drums where they can try it out themselves.

So when I was sitting in the training and we discussed glass cabinets and acquiring objects to exhibit I thought this was not all that relevant for me. But then we walked around the storage of the museums and saw some exhibits in museums. I listened to the discussions and to the ideas that participants had for bringing in material that didn’t necessarily represent their research but was related to it and fit in well as a background or a relevant contrast. And slowly, slowly artefacts and objects crept back into my thinking. I will not let go of the videos and headphones, they are essential for what I want to show. I really would like talking drums for people to play on and would happily bring in my own. I still would really like a can and string telephone because it’s just too much fun. But why not have something that illustrates the need for long-distance communication? A model of a thick forest with hunters and villages, and whistling languages and talking drums to communicate from one hunter to the other and from one village to the next? An artificial barrier to thread the string telephone through? Just to show the distances people have to overcome, and to really drive home the message that with shouting you’d just get a sore throat and alternatives are needed.

It seems that my childhood fear of dark, damp museum objects is going away. Ideas for objects and artefacts are popping into my head and by now I’d be almost a bit disappointed if there were no objects at all in my exhibit. Let’s see what the final exhibit will look like! Maybe nothing like what I am envisaging now, but I’m sure the journey there will be full of discoveries and fun, just like the journey so far.

Dr Sophie Salffner
Curation Assistant / Research Assistant
SOAS, University of London

Post Workshop 1 reflections – Rebecca Darley

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.