Research Week Review: Tuesday, 22nd May 2007 (morning session)

By Amy Jane Barnes

Ceri Jones kicked off the first session of the second day of PhD Research Week with a thought-provoking discussion about what we take for granted when learning theory. Using her research topic of how the medieval past is portrayed and how we gain a sense of that past through museums, Ceri took us on a whistle-stop tour of some of the theoretical perspectives that have been applied to the learning of history.

Along the way she asked us to consider whether history was now a legitimate subject for study, whether is was - in fact - 'dead'; and how postmodernist thinkers had revealed it to be a discourse, a kind of fiction which privileges different histories over others at any given time in order to construct a narrative of who 'we' are in the present. Ceri felt strongly that we pick up underlying beliefs about history in the family setting as children, before we even set foot in school, and we take as given what we are taught of history, because it is constructed to appear logical and progressive.

Ceri went on to outline her thoughts about simulations and how they can enable young people to experience and 'understand' history, and the attraction of history as portrayed by the film industry, with its human-focused narratives with an apparently 'natural' beginning, middle and end, creating coherence out of the chaos of history, but inevitably carrying with it ideologies and messages intended for the audience (Mel Gibson's Braveheart being a case in point). Crucially, history is more about us than the past.

Our newest addition to the PhD cohort, Pippa Sherriff, next described her recent MA dissertation research which came out of her placement at the V&A last summer. In an engaging and sometimes moving account, Pippa brought home of the real potential of art and museums to transcend cultural and social boundaries and make a tangible difference to individual lives.

Engaged by the V&A to create an adult learning programme, Pippa developed a cart of art materials situated in the sculpture galleries. On hand to provide encouragement and advice, Pippa's aim was to enable people to really engage with objects and the contexts of objects. Highly successful, over a six week pilot period, over 1,000 visitors participated, using the resource to borrow and supplement materials. Many enthused about the project, having never experienced anything like it - created especially with adults in mind. Some opted to leave their drawings behind, creating an informal community gallery which helped to arouse visitors' curiosity in the project, and offered inspiration to people with a breadth of techniques and abilities. In particular, Pippa singled out two of her 'regulars', Ibrahim and Tricia, whose individual stories genuinely brought a tear to my eye. The success of the project can be measured in the interest from other museums and institutions that Pippa's recent presentation at a conference of museum educators in Amsterdam engendered.

After a brief coffee break we returned for Sally Hughes' presentation on her research, which looks into aspects of museum publishing. For her focus here, she concentrated on commercially available print media which supports museums, its exhibitions and/or its collections.

Exhibition catalogues, the production of which is most usually confined to the national museums due to financial constraints, operate in support of exhibitions (often temporary), but provide an additional level of information, most notably by making 'visible' the authors of the exhibition. In addition they constitute a permanent record of the exhibition and its message, thus extending the museum's communication through time and across space. With this goes the authority of the museum, enhanced by international collaborations, association with high status institutions/sponsors and high production values. Sally asked if the authoritative nature of these productions actually freeze out diversity of view, and cancel debate.

Additionally the purchase of these texts can say something about us, the consumers. As well as operating as souvenirs, they advertise to the world an image we have of ourselves. They are, as Sally suggested, the physical equivalent of the snapshot with an iconic image. Museum books and catalogues enable us to possess the unpossessible.

The final presentation of the morning session was by Theopisti Stylianou-Lambert, who was - being as she is, so close to completion - able to offer a brief overview of the outcomes of her PhD research (giving those of us who are unable to imagine ever getting to the end, some much needed inspiration and reassurance!).

Theopisti's research into the different ways people in Cyprus perceive of art museums and galleries, offered real insight into people's relationships with cultural institutions. Without giving the game away (I'm aware that Theopisti might wish to keep her conclusions under wraps until her thesis is submitted!), she has identified several categories of visitors - or 'perceptual filters', based on the feelings they attach to a museum visit, ranging from very frequent to non-visitors.

All in all, this brief snapshot of the morning's presentations shows - I think - the very real diversity of high-quality and, crucially, exciting and inspirational research being undertaken by PhD students in the Department of Museum Studies. Well done all and keep up the good work!


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