It is normally infrequent to get to know the incipients of an academic project – whether it is a research, training or engagement project or a mix of them. It is even more rare to be told the reasons why a project was regarded as momentous and was pursued in the first instance. When presenting Research in Translation to its potential participants (and beyond), we wish to take a more open, transparent and personal approach. We want to begin by disclosing the reasons why we decided to initiate this programme. To do so, we wish to explain the interests, experiences and beliefs of the two main researchers behind the project – Dr Ceri Jones and Dr Serena Iervolino, as these were crucial to the development of the programme. Why did we decide to collaborate on this innovative training programme?
We carried out our PhDs (almost) concurrently at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, where we had the opportunity to work together on a number of projects, including the organisation of dissemination/training events such as the Conference Materiality and Intangibility: Contested Zones (2009). It is fair to say that we were fortunate enough to be trained as academics in an institution that fosters an interdisciplinary, collaborative and experimental approach to research, teaching and dissemination. For those readers who do not know much about the discipline of museum studies, this is a truly interdisciplinary field of knowledge; research (and teaching) is often conducted in collaboration with museum and cultural professionals as well as with academics working in other fields.
Through working at the School our already innate interest for and commitment to interdisciplinary and collaborative enquiry has now become second nature. Indeed, attention to the impact, public relevance and broad dissemination of our work and the ethical obligation to – directly or indirectly – contribute to the transformation of museums and professional practices through our rigorous, critical, interdisciplinary and cutting-edge research have been strongly cherished at Leicester. This has now become structural to the ways in which we carry out our work – both as researchers and trainers of future museum and cultural practitioners. As researchers we often employ participatory research methods (including ethnography and participant-observation) and frequently undertake research in collaboration with museums and community groups. Believing in the importance of widely disseminating our research findings, we often tend to privilege open source, peer-reviewed journals. As teachers we inspire our students to cross disciplinary boundaries and, when studying museum practice and cultural policy issues, we require them to engage with and draw upon a number of disciplines.
Having worked as a Research Assistant and Research Associate for RCMG since 2002, Ceri has a long experience of conducting collaborative research with museums and galleries in the UK and beyond. Indeed, RCMG is committed to initiating projects that explore and develop the social role of museums, ensuring that they are forward-facing, innovative and relevant institutions to a wide range of publics. In this same spirit, Ceri is committed to ensuring that in all her research the voices of the public are represented alongside the academic voice and she seeks to understand how people (from all different backgrounds) experience the world – she believes this is also fundamental to the museum’s purpose.
Apart from tending to privilege an ethnographic approach in her research, when possible, and having an extensive experience working – outside academia – in engagement and inclusion roles in cultural and social institutions, recently Serena has, for instance, conducted research collaboratively with the Science Museum whilst working as a Postdoc on the AHRC-funded All Our Stories project. In this context, she also contributed – as a participant-observer – to the process of co-design of the display case What makes your gender? in the Who Am I? gallery. This case was the main output of a collaborative project between the Science Museum and a group of trans young people from the organisation Gendered Intelligence entitled Who Am I? Hacking into the Science Museum.
The idea of Research in Translation started taking shape in Serena’s mind – although in a very rudimentary form – thanks to a training programme organised by the University of Manchester, the Afterlife of Heritage Research, which Serena was selected for and attended in 2013. The ‘Research to Public’ strand of the programme sought to ‘develop PGRs’ and ECRs skills in understanding the public impact of their research and how they can turn their research into a public output’. Serena was encouraged, and supported, to think creatively of innovative ways to engage members of the public with her research. This was also achieved through organising a public engagement project in collaboration with Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) – ‘Women and Colonial Photography: Subjects of Knowledge or Objects of Desire?’, which received AHRC funding through the Afterlife programme. While working on this engagement project, Serena started thinking of the possibility of using exhibition displays to engage members of the public with academic research. This idea came to form the starting point of Research in Translation. Not casually BMAG became one of key partners of this new training programme – in the persons of Zelina Garland (Curatorial Manager) and Adam Jaffer (Curator of World Cultures).
When the AHRC’s 2013 Collaborative Skills Development call (ECR-strand) came out, it provided the opportunity to turn this idea into something more concrete. It was then that Serena and Ceri joined forces to further develop this basic idea into a real programme. Drawing on our different but complementary skills, experiences and knowledges, during the summer of 2013 we worked together on the development of the programme. We can vividly remember our recurrent exchanges of e-mails and text messages whilst being (supposedly) relaxing on holiday. We were fortunate not only to form an efficient team but also to receive the enthusiastic support of colleagues in the School, including Dr Lisanne Gibson, as well as of other academics working across the College.
The School has always supported creative and risk-taking ideas, and nurtured an entrepreneurial attitude in its younger researchers, as it happened with Research in Translation. We were particularly privileged to find in Dr Suzanne MacLeod – Director and Head of the School – an enthusiastic and skilful ally. She accepted to act as the project’s mentor, a role for which she is particularly suitable. Training and working originally as a graphic designer, Dr MacLeod moved into academia in 1997 and has, since then, worked with museums to develop a more detailed understanding of museum architecture, exhibition design and interpretation. She has developed a series of publications and events exploring contemporary museum design, with a particular focus on design methodologies and the acknowledgment of the interpretative potential of design. She has also run three – very successful – UK-based Design Master-classes for museum professionals and two internationally in Taiwan and Hong-Kong. While drawing on Dr MacLeod’s professional network and experience of developing these Design Master-classes, Research in Translation will be distinct from these earlier programmes. Indeed, this innovative initiative represents the first time that – working with a number of museum practitioners, designer professionals and early-career museologists – a design training is developed for and specifically tailored to ECRs.
Apart from the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage at the University of Birmingham in the person of Dr Anna Woodham – a graduate of the School of Museum Studies – became one of the partners of the programme. In addition, Dr Amy Jane Barnes, Research Associate at the University of Leicester, and Dr Jenny Walklate, Independent Researcher, who both hold a PhD from the School of Museum Studies, were invited and accepted to contribute to the delivery of this project. Having already worked with them on a number of very successful programmes (when we were all at Leicester), we were keen to draw upon and include their skills and experiences in the development of the programme. Besides, we are currently working together on the development of Boundary Objects, a network for ECRs working with museums and collections to be launched soon. Through Dr MacLeod’s professional network, we were also able to involve in the project Peter Higgins of Land Design Studio and Stephen Greenberg of Metaphor, two very well-known international designers who, together with Dr MacLeod, will play a central role in the delivery of the second two-day workshop. This promises to be a very exciting and formative experience for the participants to the programme.
We wish to conclude by saying that we look forward to sharing our experience of public engagement and our commitment to public relevance and impact through Research in Translation. We hope that the programme will offer participants from different disciplines, but committed to similar values and beliefs, a platform that will enable them to work collaboratively and strengthen their cross disciplinary networks. After all, those who are early-career researchers today should become mid-career and senior researchers in the decades to come. It is our belief that the experience of participating in programmes like Research in Translation, and being part of their long-term networks, will be crucial in contributing to change academia – in the UK and beyond – for the better.
Serena Iervolino and Ceri Jones, April 2014