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, September 01, 2008

A (very late) Research Week Review: Day Two morning session

It seems a bit backwards to post this review but because Amy has beat me to writing the reviews of the research week papers in the afternoon by a superb margin, you are now getting the presentations from the morning. But hey, we're PhD students and we can put up with such confusion right? You might also want to scroll down a lot of messages to look at the glorious pictures that Amy took in case you want to match names with faces.

What follows is a brief review of each of the papers; following each of these there was a lengthy interrogation process from the assembled academics and students and it was a credit to each student that they kept their cool despite the questions coming thick and fast. I always like research week because for most of the year it is a complete mystery as to what people are up to, sometimes you might catch a glimpse or a snatched conversation, so its great to be able to come together and share our experiences.

Pippa (Sherriff) set the standard for the day by introducing us to two of the hardest words in the English language: phenomenography and the author Csikszentmihalyi. Her paper looked at how she was about to start her fieldwork at Lady Lever Art gallery, investigating the relationship between people and objects and how that relationship may be mediated through drawing. It will involve her asking such questions as how do people represent objects when they draw them and what is the nature of a meaningful experience? Phenomenography will be helpful in this respect because it focuses on the experiences of others in understanding the phenomenon, so through studying the individual meanings that people make, the commonalities, variations and 'uniqueness' can be ascertained so to give the collective meaning. It sounded very ambitious and I very much look forward to hearing more about Pippa encourages adults (with all their barriers and insecurities) to have a go at drawing.

Next up was Amy (Barnes) forsaking her usual focus on the Cultural Revolution of China to a critique the exhibition 'Che Guevara - Revolutionary and Icon' which was on display at the V&A in 2006. And how would the museum display a famous revolutionary and anti-Western icon? By focusing on the design aspects rather than getting entangled in the messy political elements, much to the chagrin of the curator! Amy very effectively showed how any political meanings that might be invested in Che were neutralized and contained by the design and interpretation of the exhibition, down to the gift shop packed full of Che t-shirts, dolls and other Commie kitsch designed to appeal to irony-loving Western audiences. It was interesting to hear about the political wrangles that go on behind the shiny facades of exhibitions, most of which remain fairly shadowy to the audiences which visit, and to have it reinforced how mainstream culture seeks to appropriate potentially dangerous figures like Che in order to make them 'familiar' and 'safe'; to subvert their meaning into something more palatable for Western audiences looking for someone cool to latch on to. An image used by the Church of England which morphed Jesus into the iconic image of Che Guevara however was enough in my mind to make poor Che deeply un-cool for eternity...

The remaining three presentations are very hazy in my mind since it has been quite a while since Research Week so apologies for not covering them in as much depth. Sally (Hughes)'s presentation looked at the relationship between exhibition catalogues and the exhibition that spawned them, the focus of her research being how museum books are produced and received (or consumed) by museum audiences. Museum publications can be seen as part of the whole experience of the visit; within that, the text itself can be seen as a 'para-text' (an idea advanced by Gérard Genette in the 1980s) so not only taking into account its content but also the effect of the wider context of the publication and how elements such as the jacket, typography and layout may effect the mediation between the exhibition and the audience/reader. There are limitations with this approach however so the theory of 'site' was also advanced, taking the approach that museums can and do use books as 'sites' to communicate to their audiences. This was illustrated with an example from an exhibition by the Wellcome Collection 'Sleeping and Dreaming.' It was interesting to see the developments in Sally's thinking and to think about the limitations of the different theories and how these could be 'overcome' using a combination rather than relying on one theory to provide the 'answer' to the research puzzle.

Alan (Kirwan) presented an overview of his research proposal which looks at 'Irish Museums in the construction of a diverse and inclusive society.' Alan had only recently started his research so his presentation covered some of the areas in which he was interested. The context for his research focuses on museums in Ireland (Eire) which are failing to engage with the social inclusion agenda despite a rapidly diversifying population. The motivation behind his research is the idea that museums can, and should, play a role in the creation of a 'diverse and inclusive society' despite claims to the contrary. I look forward to finding out about how Alan will tackle this ambitious and complex topic!

The final presentation of the morning was given by Heather (Hollins) and focused on organisational change using the case study of the Holocaust Museum where Heather works. I found that the management theory was very new to me and so I find it difficult to remember much of it, however there was a very visual and compelling slide which equated the attempt at organisational change to be like 'herding cats.' This simple image has stayed with me and perhaps explains better than any words how Heather found the process of organisational change to be! It was made very relevant to her larger research project and it was heartening to see that PhD research can have a lasting impact on the context in which we work and study.

For those who study with us at Leicester, most of the presentations are available to download from Blackboard (some got mangled by the digital recorder for which I am very sorry) and associated material such as presentation slides. Thank you to everyone who gave a paper at Research Week, I really enjoyed listening to everyone's progress and look forward to next year!

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