What's the link between this seemingly disparate list of topics:
- Martian meterorites and 3D laser technology
- the Reformation
- and finally, a load of boxes of tombstone fragments in East Anglia?
This is the question that was addressed in this week's Brown Bag session, 'Representing Re-Formation'. Presented by a diverse group of academics, the session aimed to share this exciting, innovative and truly cross-disciplinary research project being undertaken thanks to funding from the Science and Heritage programme of the AHRC/EPSRC by people from several institutions (including the Yale Center for British Art, Norfolk Museums and Archaeology Service, English Heritage and the Universities of Oxford and Leicester - including space research, archaeology, history and art history departments). The session was presented in a conversational format by Dr Jackie Hall (archaeologist - Leicester), Kirsten Claiden-Yardley (PhD historian - Merton College, Oxford), Nishad Karim (PhD physics researcher - Leicester) and our very own Dr Ross Parry (museums and digital media - Leicester).
Described as 'using space technology to crack a medieval mystery', in which techniques used to produce 3D scans of moon rock are being used to scan fragments of monuments from the C16th Dukes of Norfolk's tombs to work out how/if/why they fit together and where they came from, this project uses cutting edge technology to unpick historical narratives of the Reformation. But not only this, one of the key components of the research, and one which I find particularly exciting, is to be transparent about the process of the research itself, to 'research out loud', as Ross Parry explained, in a participatory way, letting go of curatorial authority, and opening up this story for public conversation, not least through the website and blog.
I will admit here that since I am not a historian (having abandoned the subject pre-GCSE), my knowledge of the ins and outs of the Reformation is basic, and I did not follow every aspect of the complex stories of the Dukes of Norfolk, and their relationships with the monarchy and the church during the periods before and after the Reformation, relationships which led to the complex and mysterious circumstances by which their tombs and fragments thereof were (possibly) moved between Thetford Priory and Framlingham Parish Church some 40 miles away. The background section on the project website explains this complex and controversial history in depth and it is Kirsten's role to place the family history into its social, religious and political context, looking at how the Dukes of Norfolk (the very important Howard family) coped with the change of state religion.
Jackie's role is to look at the material culture of the tombs themselves: she was first called upon by English Heritage in 2006, to look at some 200 boxes of excavation material from Thetford Priory which were taking up valuable space in the stores, and as such were possible contenders for deaccessioning. That is until she uncovered what they were: extremely significant tomb monuments from the Tudor Renaissance, connected with the Howard family and excavated in the 1930s. Amongst other things, her role is to investigate these further, building a picture of Thetford priory and its tombs, and exploring through the material, what the impact of the dissolution would have been.
As a space researcher, Nishad is using x-ray spectroscopy and laser technology to reconstruct the tombs virtually. Indeed, she has even set up a museum store deep within the physics department (alongside a high security 'mission'!) where the fragments are temporarily housed while they are scanned. She is able to develop complicated algorithms which teach the modelling software e.g. that a head fragment should sit on top of a neck fragment, and so on, and then databases will be created to help match up all the fragments. Wow! Clever stuff, and I found this particularly pertinent having been to Museums Sheffield the day before to hear about their joint JISC project with Sheffield Hallam University to digitise the metalwork collection in 3D using similar (but different) laser technology.
Alongside all this cutting edge cross-disciplinary research, there is also going to be an exhibition, complete with online learning resources for schools. An app will be created as well, possibly involving things such as crowd-sourced 3D models, augmented reality etc. The project team has its own audience advocate, Dr Adair Richards, whose job is to involve communities in promoting awareness of the project, and the idea is that there will be several campaigns to involve the public in uncovering this mysterious story further. In addition, there's a Twitter stream: @RepReformation and a Research Associate post currently being advertised. So a vast amount of very exciting activity!
What I find potentially most significant about this project for the museums sector is its openness to new voices and its willingness to acknowledge and share doubt. Museums and galleries are (arguably) very good at being objective authorities, at giving the 'right' answer, at painting one 'true' picture of the status quo. They are traditionally less good at sharing doubt, at admitting failure, or even at taking risks, including that of encouraging subjective response or even 'unknowing'. It is this aspect of the research process that interests Dr Ross Parry and he has asked for comments on 'researching out loud' to be added to the blog, so I leave you with an invitation to do so, and to comment further as this complex, rich and dynamic project unfolds.