Training week for Second Year Collaborative Doctoral Partnership (CDP) students
[Note: The V&A and a number of other cultural organisations co-supervise several cohorts of CDP students. CDP students are a category of AHRC-funded PhD students, who work closely with both a university and a cultural organisation and are supervised by both.]
For four days in November, we second-year CDP students hopped from one heritage institution to another, hearing from a range of professionals working there and taking part in practical workshops on important aspects of work in a cultural heritage organisation. It was a real treat and what follows is a general outline of the programme, along with a few of my personal highlights!
Day One: An Introduction to Public Engagement at the National Maritime Museum
‘Making a Difference’
This is the uplifting phrase used by J D Hill, Head of Research at the British Museum and our mentor throughout the week, to define the slippery term ‘research impact’. It formed the basis of his introduction to ensuring impact, knowledge transfer and public engagement within a museum context. J D encouraged us to consider fundamental questions, which we would continually return to throughout the week: the whos, whats, hows and whys of the museum world.
We then heard about public engagement at The National Archives. Andrew Payne, Head of Education and Outreach, stressed the importance of quality when it came to public engagement projects. It is time, he says, to move beyond the bog-standard participant feedback form! Nick Barratt and Sean Cunningham spoke about a project on the 1947 Indian Partition, which involved meeting Indian people who moved to the UK in 1947 and archiving their stories. By enabling people to engage with the archive on a personal level, and indeed to further contribute to that archive, researchers were able to facilitate a deeper level of engagement with the research happening at the Archives.
‘Creating moments that people want to share’
Mike Sarna, Director of Programming and Exhibitions at Royal Museums Greenwich, spoke engagingly of his approach to developing a museum programme. Using the National History Museum’s award-winning exhibition, ‘Sexual Nature’, as a starting point, he underlined the importance of ensuring that exhibitions have contemporary relevance. This helps galvanize public interest and creates moments that people instinctively want to share. Importantly, he also spoke of collaboration as essential to the process of museum programming. As ‘collaborative’ doctoral students, it is heartening to hear creativity described as a social process!
Case Study: Nelson, Navy and Nation
In the afternoon, we had a snoop around the new ‘Nelson, Navy and Nation’ gallery and fed our thoughts back to Anna Salaman, Head of Formal Learning; Claire Warrior, Senior Exhibitions Interpretations Curator; and James Davey, Curator of Naval History. It was an interesting and rewarding opportunity to hear about their learning approach, curatorial aims, and design phases. Together they outlined the processes behind developing the gallery, touching on issues around narrative, audiences, interpretation, design and the project team.
Day Two: Making Exhibitions and Galleries, Victoria and Albert Museum
‘Multimedia journeys through space with a beginning, a middle and an end’
The practicalities of ‘making’ exhibitions and galleries were the focus of the second day, held in the V&A’s beautiful Lecture Theatre. Rosie Wanek, Senior Exhibitions Co-ordinator, started the day off, suggesting the quotation above as the definition of what an exhibition should achieve. She went on to outline the strategic objectives behind exhibitions at the V&A.
Interestingly, she spoke of a recent shift towards more politically-focused exhibition making, which sees museums beginning to engage more actively with the ethical issues around material culture. One of the manifestations of this at the V&A is the new Rapid Response Collecting initiative.
We then heard from three members of the Theatre and Performance Department.
First, Kate Dorney, Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Performance, discussed the role of the curator. Starting with a semantic analysis of the word, she explained that ‘cura-’ means to care physically for, but also to arrange, interpret and research. She developed these ideas through a discussion of the curatorial process behind the museum’s permanent theatre and performance galleries.
Kate Bailey, Curator of Scenography in the Theatre and Performance Department, spoke about the making of the recently-opened exhibition ‘Russian Avant-Garde Theatre: 1913-33 War, Revolution and Design’ and Keith Lodwick, Assistant Curator in the Department of Theatre and Performance, talked about planning ‘Hollywood Costume’.
These two case studies provided tangible examples of the overall development of an exhibition, from concept to opening. They both explored how narrative works in a physical space, highlighting the importance of aspects such as soundtrack and lighting.
In the Q&A we were also joined by Dr Lesley Miller, Curator of the V&A’s Europe 1600-1800 Galleries, which will open in early 2015. Questions ranged from how curators and conservators work together on exhibition and gallery projects, to how technology can be used to enhance the visitor experience.
Afternoon Workshop: Making Exhibitions
In the afternoon, we had the opportunity to work in pairs to develop exhibition concepts based on our own research.
It was fantastic to learn more about each other’s projects. We are a varied bunch, with projects ranging from the Scottish Medieval Castle to the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill. During the workshop, we helped each other develop an engaging narrative and choose appropriate objects to communicate our ‘Big Story’.
Day 3: Writing for a Public Audience, British Museum
‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’ – Albert Einstein
The main focus of the third day was on the text in and around exhibitions, from panels and labels in the exhibition itself, to text about the exhibition on the web.
In the morning, Claire Edwards, Interpretation Officer; Alexandra Fletcher, Assistant Keeper in the Department of the Middle East and Sarah Longair, who worked on the recently-opened exhibition ‘Connecting Continents: Indian Ocean Trade and Exchange’ kindly shared with us their panel and label writing ‘Golden Rules’. Their key message was to keep it succinct, lively and informative. This is easier said than done, as we discovered in the practical exercise, which involved distilling our ideas and enthusiasm about an object into 40-60 words!
In the afternoon, Marion Downie, Managing Editor of The National Archives’ website, and Shelley Manion, Senior Content Producer for the British Museum website, discussed how visitors engage with online content. Through a variety of practical exercises we analysed museum websites, as well as blogs, and discussed the various merits of other social media platforms.
Day 4: Using Film and Photography in your Research, National Portrait Gallery
‘A visual glossary of the world’
We spent the final training day considering the power and potential of images, both still and moving, within a research context.
In the morning, Philip Prodger, Head of Photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, took us through the fascinating history of photography, using objects from the NPG’s collections.
Hilary Roberts, Research Curator of Photography at Imperial War Museums, then spoke about curating war photographs. Touching on issues of authenticity and responsibility, she carefully delineated many of the ways in which photography can be used in research and outlined the tools necessary for photographical analysis.
In the afternoon, Tim Boom, Head of Research and Public History for the Science Museum, and Toby Haggarth, Senior Curator in IWM’s Research Department, suggested ways of incorporating film and television into our research.
Tim and Toby spoke compellingly about the value and importance of the moving image, from a socio-historical point of view. Describing the medium as a ‘visual glossary of the world’, they talked us through the history of film and television, sharing intriguing archival footage with us.
A Big Thank You
These four days offered an invaluable insight into the world of working at museums and other organisations safeguarding our cultural heritage. My personal highlight was the opportunity to think together about how our projects might be used as the basis for an exhibition. Not only was this great fun, but it has also informed the way that many of us now think about and communicate the shape and narrative of our theses.
We would like to thank everyone who gave up their valuable time to share their expertise.