The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Monday, November 24, 2014

School of Museum Studies Research Seminar Wednesday 22nd October 2014, Professor Simon Gunn The Strange Death of Industrial England

On Wednesday 22nd October 2014 Professor Simon Gunn, Professor of Urban History at the Centre for Urban History, a research centre within the University of Leicester’s School of History, and author of books including:  History and cultural theory (2006) and The public culture of the Victorian middle class:  ritual and authority and the English industrial city, 1840-1914 (2000), visited the University of Leicester School of Museum Studies Research Seminar Series to speak on the topic of ‘The Strange Death of Industrial England’.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Museums Alive! conference

The PhD students at the University of Leicester School of Museum Studies recently partnered with the Migration Museum Project to present the sixth School of Museum Studies PhD student led conference Museums Alive! Exploring How Museums Behave Like Living Beings 3-5 November. This conference attracted delegates and presenters from 22 different countries. Over half of the delegates came from either the museum profession or from other universities and academic departments. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Dear Fellow PhD Students

I think it's high time we wrote a letter to you, because I know at least a few of you follow this blog, and a few more have since graduated, but started following us when you were students.

If you've finished, congratulations! I hope your careers are going well for you.

If you haven't finished, I promise there is a light at the end of the tunnel, though you may not yet be close enough to the end to see it. But it is there.

I know this, because up until three months ago there was no light. It was just a long and very dark tunnel and I had begun to lose hope. But there's a light now, and it's been growing steadily brighter ever since it appeared. And I can almost - almost - glimpse the shape of that light. It's sort of curved at the top, and flat on the bottom and sides. It's starting to look more like a tunnel exit (or entrance).

I have just, literally, started the last 30 days of my PhD. In 30 days I have to have edited, proofread, printed and submitted my thesis, because in 30 days I have to be on an airplane. Which is one of those deadlines that is rather...set in stone, as it were. Or in metal.

And I thought, in admits all that work, that I'd stop for a moment and share what life is like for me right now. Because, I admit, I don't think most people talk about the last couple of months of their PhD, because they are too stressed or anxious or overworked to stop and have that talk with others. And that's unfortunate, because it's just as important a time as any other month in your PhD. But I've concluded that I really had no idea what this month would consist of, and perhaps knowing ahead of time would have been better for me; mentally, at least.

Everyone is different and everyone's timeline is different, but the last month roughly consists of finishing edits, having your work reviewed by your supervisors, proofreading and finally printing the copies to submit (or having them printed for you).

I have found, so far, that all of it is a bit anti-climatic. And I don't say that to worry you, just to make you aware. I though the overwhelming excitement and relief of each step in this last final push would be wonderful and exciting and any other words you can think of. But it's not. I'm tired. I really, really am exhausted after a very busy six months of trying to get this finished. It's winter. I'm cold. The department is growing quiet after the new influx of students have slowly dispersed to work on their own PhDs. Last week, I submitted my draft to my second supervisor, after having gone through my first supervisor's edits. And I thought I'd feel elated. I really, honestly, did. Instead, I wondered around the department for the rest of the day in something of a mental fugue, wondering what exactly I was supposed to do with myself for the interim. I'm still not quite sure, even though I have my edits from the 2nd back now (the first round, that is). I found it far too easy to fall out of the habit of writing after I finished in September, and even easier to fall out of the habit that editing brings. I have been left to poke at things, which is fine; poking still gets stuff done, but I'm not as focused or as driven as I was a few weeks ago. And perhaps that's normal. Perhaps it isn't normal. I'm not certain, because people don't talk about these last few weeks of edits.

But I'm sharing my experience with you now, not because I expect yours will be/has been the same, but because I wanted those of you who are reaching this point (or will reach it) to know that everyone goes through it. That it's not easier or harder than anything that came before. That it's going to be strange and new and weird, because everything you've gone through in your PhD experience has been that way (unless you're on your second PhD, and if so, congratulations). I guess, in the end, what I really want is for people to talk more. Not just at the beginning about how scared they are, or in the middle about how tired they are, but all the time, to people who are behind you and people who are in front of you and at all the stages in between. Because I have found that, singlehandedly, the most helpful thing in my PhD has been to discuss the experience with others.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Heritage Career Day in Birmingham

AAH Art History Careers Day! 
Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham 
Saturday 25 October

The event will bring together a wide-range of speakers from leading cultural institutions who will share their professional experiences and expertise in areas including curatorship, art management, gallery marketing and education, and research.

Tickets (includes lunch and refreshments): 
AAH members £8; non-members £12

Places are limited and tickets must be bought online in advance: www.aah.org.uk/events/careers-in-art-history

Speakers include: 
Reyahn King (Head of Heritage Lottery Fund, West Midlands) 
Dr Connie Wan (Pop Art Curator, Wolverhampton Art Gallery) 
Sarah Shirley-Priest (Senior Specialist and Branch Manager, Bonhams) 
Jane Thompson Webb (Conservator, Birmingham Museums Trust) 
Alex Jolly (Learning & Access Assistant, Barber Institute of Fine Arts) 
Hannah Carroll (Marketing Officer, Birmingham Museums) 
Carly Hegenbarth (Doctoral Researcher, University of Birmingham) 
Chris Packham (Careers Consultant, Arts and Law, University of Birmingham)

Facebook event: 
https://www.facebook.com/events/1469125306681559/

Careers Day | AAH - Association of Art Historians
www.aah.org.uk

Monday, July 28, 2014

RIII (Richard III) – Dynasty, Death and Discovery

It’s the opening weekend of Leicester’s brand spanking new Richard III Visitor Centre (KRIII), right across from the Cathedral’s brand spanking new gardens, in the heart of Leicester’s oldest quarter. The sun is shining, the weather has been too hot for more than a week, and a gardener is out, madly trying to water all the new plants before they die.

St Martins is a short laneway leading to Peacock Lane, and is still partly under construction due to the new gardens in front of the Cathedral that now create a pedestrianized walking area between the Church and the Centre. It’s away from the hustle and bustle of the main city centre, and with Castle Garden’s Richard III statue now pointing the way from the Cathedral (Richard’s final resting place next year) and the Centre, there is a peaceful contemplation to the area that has never previously been there.

The Centre itself is an old school, now converted following £4 million pounds of funding into a Visitor Centre. Or maybe a visitor attraction is closer to the mark, like Bosworth Battlefield on the outskirts of Leicester. There is a certain symmetry now, between the two. The city got lucky with the old school, conveniently located next door to the 2012 dig site and with an extension towards the west, the Centre now encompasses the ruins of Grey Friar’s Church and a 500 year old grave, now empty.

I will start with the positives, because I don’t want to make it sound like I don’t support this new Leicester initiative. I do. I wholeheartedly do. I hope it’s popular and interesting, and that visitors flock to the place for many years to come. Leicester deserves to be known by non-residents, as it boasts a wonderful cultural amalgamation and a great yearly calendar of events.

The architectural additions to the old school are quite well done, preserving the original (glorious) architecture, but still creating a space that can house a modern exhibition. The décor in the lobby and café is tasteful. Care has clearly been taken to use some nicer-than-average building materials in the glass entryway leading to the ‘tomb’. The exhibition styles on the ground floor and the first floor are as different as night and day, but they work with the themes presented and there’s a good deal of space devoted to exhibition. I appreciated the wood that has been added in many places and the continuing theme of the RIII Centre’s logo, with the crown and fleur-de-lis. On the ground floor, just by the café and before the trip upstairs to the second half of the exhibition, there is a text panel telling visitors about the history of the building. It’s well placed, on the way to the washrooms and in obvious view of the (too industrial looking, I think) staircase.

The Centre has undertaken timed entry, which will no doubt be useful when the place becomes very busy, but on opening day there wasn’t a huge number of visitors (at least when we were there at 11am). This will, hopefully, change when word gets around that the Centre is open, as the visitor target for the first year is 100,000. A long ramp leads from the (woefully inadequate) gift shop up to the first room. It’s there to set the mood, to take the visitor away from the outside world and get them to understand that they are walking into history, to a place where they will learn about death and betrayal and all the other wonderful aspects of fifteenth century England. However, it somewhat fails in this scene-setting by the fact that the huge entrance door is so big that all the sound from the lobby just echoes through the space and makes getting into the mood a bit difficult. A smaller doorway might have solved this problem, or an offset one that might have blocked the sound. The first room is all digital, with projections on the floor and far wall. While this is a nice touch, I worry about what happens on the day that the first projector bulb goes. One assumes they’ve taken this into account, but my own thesis research (dealing with exactly this topic) suggests that heritage centres rarely consider breakage after the fact, or the skyrocketing costs that come with fixing broken technology. I appreciate the need for a ‘wow’ factor to give visitors their money’s worth, but this may backfire at a later stage (inevitably it will one day, tech doesn’t last forever).

From this entrance room there is a room to the left that is bright and cheerful and appears to be temporary exhibition space. I appreciate this addition to the Centre, though the current exhibition of paintings – appropriately-themed works by a local painter - didn’t grab my interest at all. It could be a useful space later, and would certainly work as commercial space for events and parties (which is perhaps the true purpose, I didn’t think to ask the staff this).

On the right, a claustrophobic and dark corridor leads into the main exhibit. I’d be fine with this, normally, except it’s going to be a constant bottleneck space with even half the normal visitor numbers and those always bug me. They had limited space in the old school to create the exhibits, but there are ways around tight spaces. The few text panels in this corridor space are set remarkably high (I’m average height for a woman) and with the press of bodies, visitors stopping to read them isn’t likely anyways.

The main downstairs exhibition is, at first glance, pretty, though horribly dark. The mood lighting is obvious, but without artefacts to take care of, the darkness is sometimes annoying and at other times plain frustrating, particularly towards the back of the room. Even a short line of people is going to hold the whole place up, as people stop to read the text (and it’s ALL text in here). The ground floor exhibit details the history of the late fifteenth century in England, explaining King Edward and the War of the Roses, though in a way that suggests the intended audience will have no prior knowledge of either (good assumptions for foreign visitors, less good for locals – there’s been enough documentaries on BBC in the last two years). I admit to having lost interest in the text panels quite quickly (I’m more a history buff than most) and also getting tired of waiting for people to move on. A solitary interactive tucked into a corner at the back of the first section of the gallery seems more geared at children, but with the overwhelming amount of text, the dark lighting and a lack of interactivity, this place is not made for children.

Following the path around (there’s only one route in here, like it or leave), there is the barest glimpse of an artifact (a ring donated by the Leicester Museums) and a few reproductions that (in one case fail to state it’s a reproduction) hardly stand in for actual objects, more of which could be seen in the tiny Guildhall exhibit that’s been on the last year. Shame that, as even a floor tile or two would have been more interesting to look at. The few resin objects, for example, could easily be replaced by ‘real’ examples from the Leicester Arts and Museum Service collection.

More projection screens tell the story of Richard’s reign and fall, with more text to read in darkened spaces. An ‘interactive’ which lets visitors open doors to look at figures and read the accompanying text could have been great fun…except for the lack of light in which to see it. It could easily be missed by visitors not paying attention.

A back corner of the gallery offers a few nice quotes about Richard throughout history, though an extra text panel has obviously been added this week, listing the original contributors of the quotes, a slight miss. However, the most worrying aspect of the gallery is the ‘display’ of halberds (by which I mean a recreations, arranged to stick out from the wall at various angles) is fine, though presents an awful lot of sharp points at child level.

An issue that is clear from the start is that there is already subtle damage to the text panels and displays, even within the first couple of hours of opening day. Things will wear quite quickly from visitor touching and children will touch, peel and destroy everything they can. To have not taken this into account shows a severe lack of foresight in the design. There are already fingerprints on everything, and a final clean was clearly missed before the Centre opened, particularly in the grave room.

A minor issue is the font used for the headings in the lower gallery, a gothic type script set well above eye-level in most cases and, in the dark, takes a bit of concentration to read. It fits the mood, but will be a challenge for some visitors. The main text, at least, is clear and easy to read, though sometimes more difficult in lower light.

A regular door leads out to the café area from the dark gallery and here we encounter perhaps the greatest problem of all with the Centre: the café is only accessible to paying visitors. There is no other way to get to it except to pass the ticketing desk. A staff member said that gift aid (yet to be set up) will allow a year’s access to the café, but as not everyone will/can ‘gift aid’ this seems a big miss. I have wracked my brains all day but have failed to come up with another visitor centre or museum in Britain where the café is not publically accessible. As it is a nice café with a good and affordable menu, they have missed the boat, particularly with a good sized courtyard for the summer months (though with insufficient tables and chairs outside on opening day) and a nice fresh menu with plenty of options for adults and kids.

The entrance outside the café then leads by stair or lift to the first floor, a bright (almost shockingly so after the lower gallery) space that explores the archaeological and scientific processes of the ‘discovery’ of Richard III. It’s well done and the information is well presented (although eagle eyes might spot a few typos in the interpretive text!). A few interactives help visitors explore in more depth and a great 3D digital rendering of Leicester then and now is a wonderful addition. Several problems with the space, however, include the fact that the audio for the interactives is much too low to be heard in anything other than a completely silent gallery and the speakers are aimed in the wrong directions. Also, the inclusion of ‘artefacts’ from the dig are, well, a bit of a joke, really. Again, several things from the Guildhall exhibit could have been placed here, but instead hi-vis jackets and Phillipa Langley’s wellies take pride of place. A mistake, I feel.

The first section of the gallery nicely features information about portrayals of Richard III over the years, from Shakespeare to 2014’s ‘The White Queen’ mini-series (it’s already out of date – no Martin Freeman in 2014's summer production of Richard III in London) and includes a reproduction (why not the original?) of Ian McKellan’s Richard III costume. This leads into an overview of the dig itself, ending in a section featuring small photos of the skeleton in situ, in its grave. No doubt an effort to treat the body of a king with dignity, but having seen the bones in multiple photos over the last two years, this ‘dignity’ seems highly unnecessary.

The final space is about what has happened since the dig, from DNA sequencing through scientific evaluation and the identification of the bones as being those of Richard III. This last section, I feel, is where the Centre really comes into its own, as it’s interesting and informative, well designed and features displays about each aspect of the process, and has a lovely central interactive based around an MRI machine with a recreated skeleton that uses HUD technology to show different parts of the skeleton.

The famous portrait and the reconstructed head that was based on the skull are also on display, before the stairs that lead you back down (a lovely wooden staircase) to the central glazed promenade between the lobby and the café. Here is a space that should be quiet, though with sound from the café and the lobby it’s less so. It leads to a ‘gold’ sliding door and into an area that feels remarkably tomb-like. Here is the ultimate ‘wow’, a glass floor over the gravesite, exactly as it looked two years ago when I last saw it, standing at the edge of the archaeological dig. It’s a lovely space (though the seats and quote on the wall emphasis ‘tomb’ and almost go too far towards a meditative space which will be available in the Cathedral this time next year). Still, it’s the most architecturally stunning part of the whole Centre and might be worth the admission price alone, if you’ve did not have the chance to see the site on dig open days. A projection that comes and goes shows you how the skeleton lay in the shallow cramped space for 500 years. The space is only truly let down by the dirty finger smudges all over the ‘gold’ door and up to the ceiling. Someone find a cleaner STAT!

In all, the entry price is reasonable, in comparison with other places around Britain, and the Centre should attract tourists from far and wide. It has enough of a wow factor and information to appeal to the general public (though not, you may have noticed, a museum professional!). The staff seem enthusiastic (for now) and there are certainly enough of them around, almost too many staff, but this may change after opening weekend.

There need to be more activities for the kids, however, to make it worth the price of their admission. The kids that were there were running about ignoring everything, so clearly they were already bored before they had got half way. A shame, really, as the history and science lend themselves to much more interactivity; the only true interactive being a ‘dig’ station upstairs that does not work as well as the designer intended it too. A station more akin to what Jewry Wall put in for the Millennium addition would have been much more hands on.

Lastly, comment cards are readily available, with a chance to win a Richard III goody bag (whatever that is), however there is no box to leave them in and, therefore, they must be handed to staff, which requires a certain amount of trust, not least in respect of the personal details, required to enter the draw.

In all, however, visitors will likely enjoy the trip (though only once – I wonder whether the Centre will get repeat visitors?) and hopefully it will gain Leicester that much coveted reputation as a tourist destination. Time will tell.



*All views presented in this article are those of MuseumWriter, and are not the views of The Attic or the School of Museum Studies at Leicester.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Museum Studies’ ‘Cabinet’ receives new award — University of Leicester

We don't normally toot our own horns here, but this is such a wonderful project that the department has been involved with that it's hard not to share it. This has been a collaboration between RCMG here at the School of Museum Studies and artist Mat Fraser. It has just won the Observer Ethical Award for Arts and Culture.



But I'm posting about it because this award is a culmination of an amazing project between RCMG and and various museum institutions surrounding disability. And it is worth checking out. The link also provides several media reviews of the project and a few lovely videos to watch.



Museum Studies’ ‘Cabinet’ receives new award — University of Leicester

Monday, June 16, 2014

Postdigital Design

What came out of last week's University Museums Group conference was an understanding that we really, as a discipline that is both professional and academic, need to talk a lot more. This might seem like such a simple thing, but over the years of attending conferences and meeting with academics in the heritage sector, it's not simple at all. It's not simple because we don't do it.

On Thursday, James Davis, who is the Project (Programme) Manager of the Google Cultural Institute declared something that I've been thinking about for a while, but that came as a shock (judging by the whispers) to a lot of the museum audience.

Technology is advancing faster than museums can keep up. Stop trying.

It's logical. It's simple. But museums are not doing it. They are still trying to second guess the next great tech revolution in exhibition design. Point in proof is the Horizon Reports Museum Edition, which exists to tell museums every year what the tech outlook is for the following year. What tech they need to adopt in order to stay with the times.

Which sounds great if you're the BM or the Science Museum, but since 99% of us don't work there, there is a decided reality disconnect going on between what we 'should' be doing and what actually happens. Face it, we who are not the Big Nationals don't have the money.  And if we don't have the money, talking about how to keep up with the tech revolution on a tiny budget is a waste of breath.

Instead, Davis suggests that there is another way. Understand that you can't keep up. Give up. There is plenty of other things museums can do without spending their precious time and resources deciding if iPads will still be viable in 2 years time. Digital must become part of an organisation. Adopt the digital that is easy to adopt, the digital that doesn't take much money, that evolves slower and changes more gradually. But adopt it everywhere and in everything. Go digital. Whether it's your director, your curator, your volunteer coordinator, make sure they buy in and are on board. We don't all need to be tech wizes to do that. But there is something to be said for training (or hiring) staff to use digital in all aspects of their job. Once you get a digital institution, it's easier to adopt other digital and decide what works for you and what doesn't.

It was a great start to the one-day conference. It certainly got a lot of us thinking, but it especially appealed to me. Because one of the things that comes out of my research is the fact that most of the issues are because museums jumped on the tech bandwagon before they had any understanding of it and now they are suffering from the 'well, it's outdated, what do we do now?' response. And their answer seems to be to put more tech in. Davis knows that won't work. I know that won't work. But museums are still doing it.

Which means we need to talk a lot more about what we do and why we do it. We need to admit what didn't work (to each other, not just ourselves). We need to stand up at conferences and declare 'we did this entire programme last month and not a wit of it was digital' and not worry about being lynched (bad example).

Which brings me onto the topic of the postdigital, which was the final panel theme. Ross Parry dreamed this one up, as you might imagine, and brought it to the conference as a new way for the audience to start looking at how they do digital.

Basically, postdigital means looking at digital through a backward facing lens. Digital is not new. It's not sudden. It's not going to solve our problems. Digital has existed for ages (really, technology in the museums goes back 100 years) and yet we are still treating it as some kind of wonder, even while we live and breath digital in our everyday lives. No more. This has to stop. We live in a postdigital world and we have to admit that. We have to start considering digital as part of everything we do, not as something special we now do.

I pitched a paper on 'postdigital design', because it had something to do with my thesis. It meant a lot of work shoving two things together, but in the end it works. It works because my thesis is about children and technology. And if we are going to talk about children and technology in anything resembling a useful way, we first have to admit we live in a postdigital world.

Because I believe that children and technology already exist in a postdigital world. And you can tweet me on that (others already have).