Category Archives: Museums

PhD Fieldwork – the Realities

Over the last year I have been working on my methods chapter and reading about amazing work that other people have done with different communities. I will leave the actual details to my chapter, but there is a underlying problem with a lot of the fieldwork accounts that are out there…they lie about what it is really like! They are perfectly documented and amazingly executed methods where participants are on time (or even turn up at all) and engage fully with the project from start to finish wiperfect meetingth no hitches. There is no chasing of appointments or survey responses. There is no mess, no one has better things to do than come along to an information session or a museum visit.

My project has been some crazy Venn diagram of when people are available, when I am available (and not at work), when the museum is open, when they don’t forget, when the children are alert and engaged, when everyone is not hungry, when it is not organised too far in the future, when it is organise with enough notice, if it isn’t raining…in fact, I am surprised that I have managed to get any families to visit the museum with me sometimes! Don’t get me wrong, I love the people and the families I work with, but they have real lives that don’t put my project at the top of their priorities list (and it shouldn’t be anyway). So when I spend an hour waiting outside the museum for a group, I don’t actually mind.

Symmetrical_5-set_Venn_diagram.svgIn the long run there is a reason for an absence and it’s not because they didn’t want to come.

Then there is the methods. It’s great asking people to take photos with you. In the past I have used disposable cameras and taken them away to be developed. This has it’s own problems of children not knowing how they work (this was hilarious the first time – “where can I see the photo when I am taking it?” and “How can I delete ones I don’t like?”), fingers over the view finders and over winding by the more zealous participants.  It all leads to no data. I was not (and am still not) in a position to buy lovely digital cameras to give out to families. So I asked my families to use their phones and share pictures with me. Perfect! They took loads going around the museum of each other, of things they liked or made them laugh…but the actual act of sharing those gets more complicated. You get a “yeah, sure” and one photo or two. This then makes the next step of discussing those photos more complicated because there are no photos, and the getting together to talk about these, well see Venn diagram problem.

The above issues all happen after you have found a group to work with. They are out there, but sometimes the gatekeepers can be tricky. However, if you go and have a chat and a cuppa about your project and how you can help them it all turns out lovely. People genuinely want to help!

I am halfway through my fieldwork and originally I had planned it to be one academic year with one group of people. At the end of the summer term the group fell apart for a number of reasons, and I lost regular contact quite quickly. I wondered what I was going to do as I wasn’t finished and it seemed a bit of an imposition to ask for further meetings – they had other things on their minds. I potentially have a new group now. So a contrast maybe, but also a new start with some of the lessons learnt from last year. I also have the assurance that this crazy process is “normal”. So if it is normal, please please write about it! Let’s not let other researchers and students feel like they are failing because the course of research does not run smooth.



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Filed under Distractions, Hints & Tips, Methodologies, Museums, PhD, Supervision, Uncategorized, Visual Methods

Museums & Wellbeing

So apparently there is a Museums and Wellbeing Week.  This is quite exciting for me as my PhD has taken a wellbeing turn (see below) and now I find a week where museums are promoting wellbeing.

Museums & Wellbeing Week Information

Anyway, I have been working hard on my PhD to the point where I have put in to present at two conferences this year. One with a poster and one with a Pecha-Kucha.  To do this I had to communicate my PhD topic in a more academic fashion than my blog post about is earlier this year.  So I got my head around my literature review plan, and wrote this:

I am exploring how museums can better engage with audiences of diverse communities, such as the communities in Leicester.  Drawing on the work of Chatterjee & Noble (2013), I will be looking at how local museums can better support local communities by creating a sense of belonging.   This will include building on the museums inclusivity in relation to identity and race (Crang & Tolia-Kelly, 2010).

Initially I will be looking into the experiences of family groups from the local Leicester area in the local authority museums focusing on their emotional and sensory experiences (Roberts, 2013; Munro, 2014) to better understand the senses of well-being and belonging in the museum.   I hope that this will be a basis on which museums can better represent their local communities and contribute to wellbeing and create an inclusive museum.

This is what I have submitted to see if anyone wants to hear about my research, and it has been successful.  The poster submission deadline passed and today I found out that I shall be presenting my poster at the Museums in the Global Contemporary Conference in Leicester in April.  The other deadline is the beginning of March so I have a little wait for that one.

Chatterjee, H. and Noble, G. (2013) Museums, health and well-being Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate
Crang, M. and Tolia-Kelly, D.P. (2010) Nation, race and affect: senses and sensibilities at National Heritage sites Environment and planning A., 42 (10) 2315
Munro, E. (2014) Doing emotion work in museums: reconceptualising the role of community engagement practitioners Museums and Society March 2014 12(1) 44-60
Roberts, R.C., (2013) Questions of museum essence: Being, Being With, and finding connection in conversation Museums and Social Issues 8:1&2 pp. 89-101

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Filed under Conferences, Museums, PhD, Uncategorized

One busy day at work… Eight Mummies and Wicked Bodies.

Yesterday was a long and tiring day and had it’s ups and downs. I went to London to represent the University at an Access to HE Fair.  The incredibly early morning and fair went well.  We spoke to a lot of potential students who were tkaing the Access to HE route into university and told them about our courses, finances, what it is like and tried to encourage them to aim high.   There was also the obligatory comparison of our pens against other universities freebies.  That is not really what I wanted to write about though.


I had some time after the fair to go into the British Museum and have a look at the new Eight Mummies, Eight Lives, Eight Stories exhibition.   I was mightily impressed.  The researchers at the BM have used CT scanning to reveal the inner workings of 8 mummies from different eras without having to use invasive methods. The presentation of the findings were clear and detailed.  Each mummy has at least one screen showing the CT scan revealing the under wrappings or internal organs with pointers of what to look for and why.  Some even have touch activated winding wheels that means you can control how fast the outer layers disappear and show what is hidden underneath.   The attention to detail is amazing, even down to the 3D printing of the funerary ornaments wrapped amoungst the cloth on the Egyptian mummy.   Only one thing bothered me.  The mummies are in there with the CT scanning images, but you get transfixed with the shiney technology and have to remember that the original artefacts and people are still there too.

I had a little time left over to managed to get into the Witches and Wicked Bodies exhibition.  This is in the prints and drawings gallery and comprises of woodcuts, etchings, sketches and lithographs on the subject, organised in chronological order.   I took a sneaky picture of one print…


The orderings of the display allows for the progression of ideas and themes to show through.  The 15th Century prints include fantastical beasts a la Bosch (sadly no Bosch in there though).  It occured to me as I went through the exhibition that many artists stopped using fantastical beasts, I wonder if this was because all beasts in the world had been discovered…   On the whole though, I loved this exhibition.


Ok two sneaky pictures!

Following that I headed back to the train station.  Now here is my rant about yesterday.
The British are famed for their queuing – except when it comes to getting on a train.  This particular train was late, but even before it had arrived a herd had formed that was clammering to get onto a train that wasn’t there.  People were slipping past each other as it wasn’t a queue to be respected but a battle to be first on the train.  The train was over full, and there were a lot of reserved seats (in fact all of them seemed to be reserved). The train filled and there was a push to get to a seat whether reserved or not.  People were pushing past each other, dragging bags and generally being incredibly rude to each other.  It was absolutely awful and then made worse by a lady putting her suitcase onto my broken toe.

I just don’t understand this behaviour, we don’t do it on buses, so why trains!?!

Anyway I got home to the friendly face of the cat eventually.


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Look how far I have come!

Working for a university at this time of year raises quite a few discussions in the office about qualificaitons, exam results and degrees.  Combined with a friend who has decided to embark on a PhD herself It got me thinking about what I have done and where I am now.    Warning:  this is quite a long post.

Going back to my school days, I was a bright kid.  I performed well in my GCSEs, I got nine all together, all As and Bs.  I didn’t do so well in my A-levels though coming out with 2 1/2 in the end.  In this day and age this is not enough to get me into university!  But I got in to do a BA in Art and Art History at Aberystwyth, so it wasn’t a problem, it didn’t even get mentioned.

I stumbled through my degree, I dropped the Art part and carried on with the Art History bit.  I scraped a 2:2.  I could have been more engaged, but there were a lot of interesting things going on at university.    I had a degree and remember once thinking about a masters back then, but dismissing it quickly due to money and only having a 2:2.

I thought that is where I would stop.  I needed to earn money, got a job and ended up in a profession entirely unrelated to my interests.   Then the most amazing thing happened.  I was made redundant, with a fairly chunky redundancy package.    All of a sudden I was thinking about what I really wanted to do rather than what I needed to do and it was brilliant.

I volunteered at the local museum and applied to the best MA in Museum Studies in the country.  Question was, after a nine year gap, experience in an entirely different profession and a 2:2, would they let me enrol on their course…   The answer was “write us an essay to show us you can do it.”  So I did, and they let me on.

I worked hard on my MA, but in hindsight I could have worked harder.  I had a new goal though, I wanted to do a PhD.   I had an idea and everything.   Getting onto the course had also meant a change in career as well and I was working in a more community based area.    I was going to combine all of these things into one!  It would be amazing!

I finished my MA, my average being less than 1% under a merit.    I was proud of myself.  I applied for a PhD, I was turned down.  To be fair the feedback I got was invaluable.   It does seem a little extreme but I was told to get published, get more research experience and apply again.    I was heartbroken.  Then I pulled myself together and worked out a solution.

Entirely by chance an academic publisher emailed me and said they wanted to publish my MA dissertation.  I looked them up, checked the deal they were offering and went for it.  2 whole copies have been sold to date (thats is about 2 years)!  But it is published! And in the University Library too!  So getting published….tick.

Me and my work in the library

Me and my work in the library

I applied for a masters by research (MRes), these masters degrees are all about research methods with a much greater focus on the final dissertation and putting your research methods into action.   To be quite honest this was exactly what I had needed.  I had no idea about research methods until completing this.  The training you are given on standard masters degrees barely touches the surface of what you can do with research.   My marks were coming back as merits and distinctions.    So, more experience in research methods….tick.

On top of that, I had an academic poster displayed at a conference, attended other conferences (actually an important part of learning more) became a Trustee of our local museums and had gained valuable experience of working with museums and audiences.   People were starting to listen to me when I had an opinion on these things as well.

Working on the MRes dissertation had given me a new idea for a PhD project that is much more innovative and hasd a much better grounding in theory and methodology.   I was going to wait to apply for a PhD, get my proposal completely right and take my time, but potential funding applications came up.  I didn’t rush the process and once again the School of Museum Studies gave me loads of advice, they liked the idea and the potential outcomes.

I got an interview, I answered the questions.  I got turned down.    I really wanted to do my PhD with them!  I went for feedback.   There was nothing wrong with my proposal, I was just in the wrong place.  They didn’t have anyone who could really supervise it as the research methods could pose problems, I wanted to work with toddlers.   It felt a bit like I wasn’t going to get anywhere with this.

So I resorted to posting about my sadness on Facebook, where some wise PhD student friends said “find the supervisor who will take you on, don’t think about which university they are at or which department they are in.”    So I thought I would give that a go.  I emailed a potential supervisor who specialised in working with film and photography in research.  She emailed back quickly but had just relocated to Australia so couldn’t take me on.  She did recommend someone to me though.     I emailed them, fifteen minutes later I had a supervisor!

The whole official application process took another six nervewracking weeks, but now I am actually going to start this PhD.    It is with another university, but I think that will make me work harder.  They don’t know me, I have to prove myself.

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Filed under Dissertation, Museums, PhD

Learning curves

So, today I did my first day as what felt like a real researcher. I have conducted interviews before, asking a series of questions of various people in various situations, but today felt different. I had to get a proper buy-in from my participants. I managed to get four families to agree to take photographs for me during their visits to the Ashmolean. Three were happy to be interviewed at a later date (two within the weekend and one over the summer when I can pop back) and one wanted to be interviewed on the day. This is where the learning curve came in:
– getting camera developed within an hour is fine, provided you don’t have a deadline.
– taking 20 minutes out to go and fetch the cameras invariably leads to missing people dropping cameras off and arranging set times for the interviews.
So, I have an interview completed, one for Monday and two that require arrangement. I am hoping that I achieve all four interviews. If not, it is not a problem as long as I achieve two interviews which is my self determined target for any museum at which I am researching.

Other things I have encountered today were things such as a lovely man with five hats on, that if you are doing anything with some sort of authority in a museum people will ask you things and most people who go to the Ashmolean are relatively well dressed (I am not sure why as there isn’t really a dress code in museums). One of the other things I noticed was that toddlers adore revolving doors. After watching a few parents with toddlers (and I have to admit there were quite a few who had come in to meet other parents with toddlers) that a toddler led tour of a museum could be an amazing thing. Just follow the direction they are pointing in and see what exciting thing they have seen. One father seemed to be doing just that and he looked like he was having an enormous amount of fun!

Many of the visitors seemed genuinely interested in my research whether they fitted my requirements or not. The museum staff were lovely, helpful and welcoming.

I will try and work out some of the logistical issues before my next museum, but at least I now know that it can be done and this dissertation will have data!

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Cultural Heritage? Banksy and the Elgin Marbles

It seems that the shoe is on the other foot. The Banksy Mural that has been removed from the wall of a Poundland shop in North London is up for auction in America. The auctioneer says it is all above board, enquiries have been made and the sale is legitimate. I believe him. No self respecting art auction house would put themselves in the position of selling stolen Banksys. The legitimacy of the sale is not really the point though. Banksy creates street art, not commercial pieces designed to be sold to the highest bidder. He appeals to the general public to spread political messages or just entertain. Marc Shiller uses the phrase “location specific commentary” to describe the works and also this:

“I’m not buying the argument that because Banksy put a piece in public it gives a person the right to steal and resell it,” he said. “When he is on the street he is giving his work to the public to enjoy for a day, a month, a year or more. His position has been that if you take his work out of its context it’s not his work any more, it’s no longer a Banksy.”

From the Guardian

Apparently the auction house has received threatening phone calls and messages about their involvement in the sale of this piece of work. There is outrage, there are also secrets, the seller has not made themselves public. This is within the seller’s right to remain anonymous, but by doing so is creating a furore about who they are and what right they had to remove the mural. For all we know this is Banksy himself trying to prove a point.

Maybe, though we should be looking at this from a different viewpoint. Is this how the people of Greece felt when the Elgin Marbles were removed and put into a museum for the British public to see? Did they wonder who had the right to remove these works that they had access to and could see on a daily basis if they wanted to and take them to another country? I am sure they did (and still do). According to the British authorities all the paperwork was in order and legitimate, nothing untoward had been done. I am not going to go into the minutiae of the Elgin Marbles case, but I want to highlight the longstanding debate about having cultural objects in museums.

I felt that my understanding of this issue was highlighted when I saw Henry VIII’s armour in the Met Museum in New York. I knew it was in there, I had seen it on a (admittedly trashy) tv show. However, when I stood there in front of it, I had a feeling of resentment. Why was it in this museum? What did they know about Henry VIII? Why wasn’t it in the Tower of London or at the Royal Armouries? It is housed in a room with armour from all over the world, but I didn’t have the same feeling about the other pieces in there. It was because it felt personal. I then realised that I was a little more enlightened about how other people must feel about the Elgin Marbles, and now the Banksy.

There are many objects that are in museums that are from other cultures, that must have a specific meaning to peoples and cultures. These objects are part of what makes museums places to go, all part of the experience. I don’t have an answer to the long standing debate, I am a supporter of original objects in museums, but also support the legitimate acquisition of these objects. I just feel that everyone should see something in a museum that gives them the feeling that it is theirs in order to better understand this debate.

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