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.

Post Workshop 1 Reflections – Irina Marin

I found the first workshop of Research in Translation hugely beneficial in that it opened the door on to a ‘brave new world’ for me: the world of museum studies, exhibitions and presenting information as if to an ‘intelligent 12 year old’. It showed both the great potential and the inevitable limits, or how one is conditioned by this medium, and, not the least, it got me thinking about my own research and message and how that could be put across to a general audience.

As my research material is for the most part archival (manuscripts, official documents, memoirs, literature etc.) and I could not hope to rely on eye-catching physical objects, I was a bit worried that the sort of message I wanted to convey was not compatible with a museum exhibition environment. And this is where the September workshop brought the revelation (probably completely old hat in museum studies – but definitely a novelty to me) that in order to mount an exhibit you don’t have to have an object, that the source of meaning is actually in the clever and striking combination of available materials (be they visual or audio or just plain juxtapositions or spatial positioning). This was a great discovery for me and also a corroboration of insights from other disciplines, such as art and literature, and their reception, which stressed the essentially participative nature of artistic content – i.e. the fact that the audience is instrumental in creating meaning just as much as the artist is.

I found particularly inspiring the presentations which stressed the use of space, positioning and distances in drawing the audience in and subtly directing their attention towards various aspects of the display. I enjoyed a lot the first presentation on Arabic calligraphy because it showed the range of creative possibilities of bringing to life what would otherwise be an obscure subject to many people, and rendering a script exciting, engrossing and very topical. The juxtapositions between samples of calligraphy and contemporary art pieces inspired by old calligraphy were, I think, a great solution for making the subject relevant and contemporary, making it ‘leap out’ to the audience.

Of particular relevance to me was the medieval exhibition at Birmingham Museum, where the curator talked about collaborating with academics and their concerns that their scholarship might be oversimplified and distorted in the process of transposing it into a museum display. Given the target audience and the purpose of museum displays, what came out of that presentation was the need for a compromise between academic accuracy and the imaginative reconstitution of an age – a museum exhibition is meant to convey a vision of the past that attracts people, whets their appetite for the subject; it does not aim for a full-blown academic lecture, although it does strive to preserve as much scholarly accuracy as possible. It was very useful to listen to this presentation because it pointed out a conceptual strategy which I think will come in handy when translating my own research into a museum display: that is, instead of highlighting places, it is much more engaging (and empathetic) to highlight people and use 1st person narrators – this would personalize the whole display, give a ‘lived’ feel to it.

The workshop was very rewarding also because the sort of challenge it held out to us participants (that of boiling down our research to a striking, meaningful display that would speak to, and engross, an uninitiated audience) presupposed using not only our academic knowledge in news way but doing so in a creative way.

One of the things that I took away from this first workshop was the great room offered by the museum environment for resourcefulness: combining different media and waxing creative. After having seen and listened to the presentations of the first workshop, I now feel much more confident to use elements that I wouldn’t have thought of using before (or would have discarded as ‘funny ideas’). I am for instance thinking of using music as a mood enhancer, as an element of suggestion. A lot of my research revolves around the notion of communication and around emotions such as fear and hope. But how do you begin to portray fear? You can do it through images, of people gripped by fear or looking fearful, but also through music. So at the moment I am toying with the idea of using snippets of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to punctuate the voices of revolution in my display. It’s the sort of visceral music that best conveys the combination of fear and hope, that sounds ominous and promising at the same time, and is disjointed enough to suggest the atmosphere of times out of joint, of revolution. That, as well as the fact that it is music roughly contemporary with the events I’m describing.

schrei

I am very much looking forward to the second workshop and I’m hoping that at least some of my ideas will eventually find their way into the final exhibit, although I expect that there’ll be lots of pruning and changing involved and this second workshop will be the test of reality and feasibility for all our projects.

Dr Irina Marin, University of Leicester

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

Reflections on Workshop 1 – Janine Hatter

Following Workshop 1, we asked participants to write a summary of their thoughts and reflections on Workshop 1. We will be posting these up over the next few days. Enjoy!

Beginning the Research Translation Journey by Janine Hatter

For me, Research in Translation got off to a mysterious start. While the majority of the group met in central Birmingham, I ventured alone to find Museum Collections Centre – mistake number 1! I found the building easily enough, but the entrance itself alluded me. It had been described almost like a secret lair with which you need a password and indeed it seemed like Aladdin’s Cave – impossible to find. But, having found the group and been let in through a security door, our training to exhibit our research treasures was underway…

Day 1 started with a talk on Rebecca Bridgman’s experiences of curating the Islamic Calligraphy exhibition, with tips on how to juxtapose old and new objects, develop a human narrative and how to incorporate family trails. This was followed by an exploration of Aladdin’s Cave itself; we were let loose to wander around the Museum’s stores and explore the rare and unusual objects not on display.

Picture 2

After lunch, came Katie Hall’s workshop on how to write exhibition panels and object display labels. As a Literature student I thought I was on safe ground – mistake number 2! I had underestimated the care and detail needed to write clear, effective and easy to understand material for a wide audience; so what I thought would be one of my strengths quickly became the most challenging aspect of curating a museum exhibition. Day 1 was rounded off by us interpreting ethnographic photographs with Adam Jaffer, so we could experience the questions and dilemmas our own exhibition audience might go through to understand their perspective. Why are these objects together? What do they tells us about the subject and our own perceptions? And what point are they trying to make? – These are questions we need our displays to answer.

Picture 3

For Day 2 we met at another Cave of Wonders – Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. This time Andy Horn taught us how to have an eye-catching gateway piece to draw people into the exhibition and not to block the audience’s view of the exhibition as they move around. We then explored the History galleries with Henrietta Lockhart and learnt how interpretation is key. Having thought that museums would be objective in their displays (mistake number 3!), my preconception was quickly corrected – museums are more biased than people realise, but they aim to let the objects speak for themselves, rather than interpreting them for the audience. Finally, we visited the Digital Prototyping Hall of the University of Birmingham, where we got to play with the newly-developed touch tables that have revolutionized museum exhibitions. These tables have opened up visitor interactions and developed different levels of knowledge – people can now delve deeper into an object’s information if they so wish. Overall, these two days exposed us to the inner workings of museums and how their visitors think, leaving us to ponder how we can translate our own research into something fun, accessible and relevant to our audience.

To begin thinking about our own research we were asked to provide 3 key words; mine were phobia, anxiety and society. For me, these three ideas triangulate to make up the main thrust of my research: phobias produce specific anxieties in individuals, but society’s constructs have a strong influence over what people fear and how they can overcome them. Thus, in my exhibition I want each aspect to be represented. My main concern for my display is that it will be a static collection of generic representations of traditional phobias (such as spiders, germs and small spaces), and so I am looking forward to working with the designers in Workshop 2 to develop my ideas into a moving, interactive exhibition. Engaging with the process as a whole will hopefully enliven the audience’s experience, while not losing the essence that diagnoses of phobias have increased significantly since the nineteenth century in direct correlation to society’s expansion and development of new technologies, scientific advancements and environmental changes.

Overall, my appreciation for the curator’s role has broadened now I understand the complexities of label writing, placing objects together for significant effect and light levels. I look forward to developing these skills myself to create an exhibition that is meaningful for its audience and can hopefully facilitate knowledge exchange.

100 Stories of Migration

The 100 Stories of Migration exhibition currently on at the School of Museum Studies (until 13 February 2014) is a striking example of a photographic exhibition that uses the spaces within the School building to full effect.

The display cases have been ‘taken over’ by large scale images.

IMG_4424

A shot of the corridor that runs at the back of the building on the ground floor, showing the two display cases available.

IMG_4428

The large-scale images are powerful, bringing you face to face with the people within the photos.

IMG_4429

This image fills the entire corridor next to the Collections Room.

IMG_4425

A wider shot of the ground floor corridor, showing two more display cases.

IMG_4430

Images displayed next to the lift. Close by is a seating area for visitors.

IMG_4431

The view from the seating area looking towards the School entrance.

IMG_4432

Both black and white and colour photos are used.

IMG_4435

A view across the entrance hall, looking towards the doors which lead to the first floor.

IMG_4436

Tablets are used to provide more information about the images (also see the headphones attached to the wall).

IMG_4437

More images affixed to the display case.

IMG_4438

Going upstairs….. more examples of images and information panels.

IMG_4439

IMG_4440

IMG_4441

Finally, the stairs have been used to transmit images in slideshow format. Unfortunately this was not switched on the day I visited the School but here are some images of the space available. First image is looking down the stairs (apologies for fuzziness) – images are projected onto the large white wall facing you as you descend.

IMG_4443

Looking back up the stairs towards the “screen” – the shining crescent shape is the ceiling light!

IMG_4444

A better view of the screen (also showing the ceiling light in full).

IMG_4442

All photos taken by Ceri Jones.

Display cases

I managed to find several photographs I took of the display cases in the School of Museum Studies in the downstairs entrance lobby. Unfortunately I have none of the stairs or upstairs – there is one large display case at the top of the stairs and films can be projected in the stair well onto a large back wall. The walls in the public corridors upstairs have also been used effectively for exhibitions. Hopefully someone else might have a photograph to illustrate these? Until then here are some images of the display cases that are downstairs. The exhibition was an early one in the School using material loaned from staff and museums concerning war and conflict. This first image shows a wide shot of the entrance lobby – the main entrance doors are on the extreme right of the picture. I am looking towards the double doors which lead to the upstairs offices and lecture rooms. There are two display cases in this part of the hallway.

MS display case 4

This second image shows a close-up of the case towards the back of the first picture. It is next to the double doors leading upstairs. As you can see it has 3 shelves – you can walk around to the “back” of the case.

MS Display case 1

This next image is a close up of the second display case in the first image. It is the first case you see when you enter the School and is to the right of Reception / front office.

MS display case 2

This next image is taken from the case next to the double doors leading upstairs looking across the entrance lobby. You might just about make out another display case in the background, behind the pillar, which is to the left of the entrance doors as you enter the school.

MS display case 5

Here is a close up of that case, which has one shelf inside.

MS display case 3

One of the text panels from this exhibition.
MS example text panel
With the next two pictures you have to use a bit of imagination as they were not taken with the display cases in mind! In the blurry background you might just make out a series of display cases – these cases are not in the public area. There are four cases in total.
MS display cases 7
MS display cases 6
I hope that gives you a better idea of the opportunities for display we have in the School.

Meet the participants 5!

Please welcome Janine Hatter….

Striking a Balance: Your Research, Public Engagement and Museum Exhibitions

image1

As an Honorary Research Associate at the University of Hull, my research interests centre on nineteenth-century literature, science, art and culture, with particular emphasis on popular fiction. I have published material from my doctorate on Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s short fiction, as well as on my wider research interests of twenty-first century Science Fiction and the Gothic, but I relish this opportunity to explore public engagement in more detail and learn the practical skills with which to effectively translate my own research into another form – that of museum exhibitions. Creating interesting and meaningful exhibitions for the public is a new challenge for me, one which I am excitingly apprehensive about as it will test new skills such as my artistic creativity, while also helping me to develop collaborative partnerships. ‘Research in Translation’ is particularly ground-breaking because it gives us all the opportunity to be part of a cultivated, emerging core group of public engagement researchers who can learn about each other’s research in order to work together to create our own group exhibition.

This joint venture creates its own challenges and advantages when considering public engagement. English Literature as a discipline is traditionally text heavy, which introduces some practical challenges to translating your research into an exhibition. The biggest hurdle is transforming blocks of written material into different formats, be that snippet quotations, sound bites or timelines. These alternative, shorter pieces of information need to convey the heart of the message, while also remaining entertaining and insightful when portraying your argument – not something easily achieved for someone as verbose as myself!

English Literature is also well-known for being theoretically dense, and so this creates the added challenge of developing the researcher’s skills at adapting sometimes difficult subject matter so that people of all ages and cultures can understand its meaning. This can be accomplished through scaffolding, in which you build up more complex ideas in steps over the entire exhibition – which leads to ‘The Final Problem’, as it were. These practical challenges are worth it though for the advantages that researchers can gain from participating in public engagement.

The advantages of doing public engagement for English Literature scholars are prompting discussions around your research with a broader, more diverse set of voices. For me, public engagement is about sharing your knowledge with the community for the benefit of the public and having the public provide you with an additional perspective that you may not have thought about; it is a two-way conversation. This can occur through exhibition feedback, a Q and A after a public lecture, or school children undertaking activities based on your research and providing insights into their own knowledge and experience of the work. Moreover, on a ‘developing your research skills’ level, it also means that you can experiment with working with other formats and mediums, such as music, videos, artwork, modelling and sculpture. This increases your knowledge of the best ways to communicate your research to others and allows for cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional initiatives.

The benefits of cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional initiatives are almost innumerable, especially as they can have unforeseen outcomes years down the line. The main benefits, for me, are building long-lasting and productive partnerships with public institutions and other universities. You may have information that could help them, while they will have knowledge and resources they will like to share with you; it is about finding a balance and sharing what you both know for the benefit of each other and the wider public. These collaborations also allow you to engage in interdisciplinary discussions, which provides another perspective on your own work. For instance, as a trained Literature scholar, it is always worth finding out and exploring what a medic thinks about a character’s illness and diagnosis, or what an artist considers the most expressive aspect about descriptive passages of text. Diverse people will see various features and influences in your research and we should embrace these, sometime contradictory, perspectives because they enliven and revitalise our own thinking.

Other advantages to these collaborative initiatives are working with experts in the field and learning how to utilise new mediums to effectively communicate your research. In particular, I am looking forward to learning how to translate my research into a more visual format through imagery and video, because I think this would create a more interactive and engaging narrative for the audience, rather than straightforward text and illustrations. Finally, these initiatives put you in touch with members of the public from different areas – areas that may otherwise be geographically distant from you. This allows you to build community-centred research projects that can regenerate community values and promote prosperity, or disseminate your research to a wider population and therefore gain more diverse feedback.

Overall, public engagement is an enjoyable, rewarding and fruitful element of academic work, and a valuable contribution to researchers’ impact, while cross-institutional ventures – such as this ‘Research in Translation’ training programme – are vital in helping ECRs to develop beyond their own disciplinary field.