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, April 16, 2018

PubhD Leicester: Public Speaking and Research Outreach

When I started my PhD, the thought of public speaking was terrifying. I had never done presentations in the English language, and even less so on my academic research. Fast forward almost four years later – and a PhD thesis behind me – there is nothing I like more than public presentations on my research. The key to achieving confidence in public speaking is...public speaking!

I gave my first presentation in the spring of my first year of PhD in Oxford at the Ashmolean Museum, and I specifically chose a topic that I was familiar with, and that was not my PhD topic. I presented about the restructuration plans of the Musée du Louvre’s stored collection, while my PhD research was on Egyptian mummies in museums. I had just interned at the Louvre as part of my MA in Museum Studies at the School of Museum Studies ,and I had read a lot about this plan; it was something new to a British and international audience, but importantly, it wasn’t on my research, which was very new and a little confusing to me. It was a really great opportunity to get my strength and courage together and just stand on a stage and speak to strangers. After this, I realised not only that public speaking isn’t that scary, it’s actually quite fun. I then talked during Research Week and jumped at the opportunity to give a one hour talk for an Egyptology society in Birmingham. Fast forward, I have done a lot of talks and learned a lot from engaging with specialists, but I remain committed to public outreach. I truly enjoy the idea that I can make a somewhat daunting topic interesting to the public. (Egyptian mummies can be seen as fun, but I deconstruct cultural engagements with questions of race, medical dissections, and so on that are not your typical mummy talk.)

So, when I found out about PubhD, I was immediately interested. PubhD is an initiative that exists now in quite a few university cities in the UK, and the idea is to have PhD and postdoc researchers come to a pub and present their research in ten minutes in a simple, no-jargon way. The public is invited to attend and listen to up to three speakers: ten-minute talk + twenty-minute questions each. The strength of this initiative is that, even though lectures in societies for example are open to the public, they are not usually free, but also often wrapped with an aura of academia. It is sometimes difficult for some individuals to feel that they belong there (although, of course, they do!) But setting talks in a pub in a city centre is a brilliant way to encourage individuals to come and listen and take part in a great conversation.
Photo of Angela Stienne presenting at PubhD.
Photo courtesy of Angela Stienne.

I had never attended PubhD before I decided to present on 13 March 2018, purely out of a busy schedule, and living between Paris, London, and Leicester. I was told to prepare 10 minutes with no jargon and only a white board to help. Because I cannot possibly draw (and even less so when it comes to mummies), I brought with me a few notes and 5 black and white A4 pictures to pin on the board. For me the key was to make my research relevant to the public, so I introduced the idea that they are probably familiar with Egyptian mummies in museums, because Leicester has four on display, but they might not know the histories of how and why these objects arrived in museums. Then I offered five episodic examples of mummies that were studied for different reasons (racial studies, medical dissections, emotional engagement), and then to connect these to our contemporary reality, I pointed out that these objects still exist today in some big museums, such as the Musée du Louvre. The key for me is to make sure that the public can relate and that what I am talking about never feels too alien.

I really enjoy the conversation part in talks. I think quite a few people find this part daunting, because of tales of people in audiences asking horribly difficult questions: maybe it is pure luck, but I have never had this experience. I always get asked interesting, thoughtful questions – the worst for me is no question at all, as I don’t know if they just want to run away for a drink, or if I lost them with jargon. I found the audience at PubhD really nice and really engaged, with some great questions. It was interesting to see which questions come to mind to a public audience, and it really made me think about my research.

I recommend PubhD to all researchers at any stage. It is a friendly environment if you are starting out in public speaking, a good place to think about your research, and just a good thing to do as a researcher. I strongly believe that the strength of our research and our being as researchers is the public outreach: any and every topic has incredible breadth of interest and it would really be a shame not to use platforms like this one to communicate exciting research.

My favourite book for public speaking is: Carmine Gallo, Talk Like Ted (2014).

This entry was written by Angela Stienne, who graduated from the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies with her MA and PhD. Her research into Egyptian mummies and museums can be accessed through the University of Leicester Library. She also runs the website, Mummy Stories. Twitter: @mummystoriescom and @angela_stienne

Monday, April 02, 2018

PhD Hack: Tips for Conference Presentations

Within the domain of academia, there lies a rarely spoken of, yet critical skill for researchers, whether student or professor: Conference Presentations. When I was approaching my first conference, I was particularly nervous about the idea of giving a presentation - not just what to say, but what to show on the PowerPoint slides. I put together some guidelines, which I felt helped me give a clear and comprehensible presentation. I hope these guidelines will be useful to anyone else who is approaching their first presentation.

1. Have a message - People are going to listen to a lot of presentations during a conference. They aren't going to remember all the facts and figures you throw out - so pick one idea you want them to leave with about your topic, and make sure you state it clearly. Still include the facts and figures - but they're there to support your message.

2. Create an outline - and keep showing it! My slides were basically an introduction, outline, page, outline, page, outline, page, outline, conclusion - with a marker to show how I have moved through the outline each time. Not only does this remind you where you are going, it makes it simpler for the viewer to follow the thread of your argument.

3.  Don't include too many slides - I'd say fifteen slides as a maximum, and that's with half of them being the outline. You don't want to be losing track or racing through, and you'll probably only have 15-20 minutes to share your ideas. So make sure you aren't going to have to keep poking the slide changing button.

4. Don't say too much - Mainly, I mean this advice for the slides themselves - they're there to enhance your speech, not to give it. You can include key quotes, key figures, or key words, but don't write out whole chunks of text. The audience will get bored and you'll be repeating yourself pointlessly. But also, don't include too many ideas - you might know the topic inside out, but for most of the audience, this will be new to them (depending on how  specialized your audience is). Keep your audience in mind when doing this.
5. Make the slides pretty - The slides are there to enhance your presentation, so make them interesting. Include pictures, diagrams and key figures, and try to do so in an appealing way. If you're feeling self-conscious, make sure the audience look at the slides, and then they'll be looking at you less.
6. Break your speech down by slides - Make sure you number which paragraph goes with which slide. Otherwise, you'll get hopelessly confused - this is another reason to limit your number of slides. Each slide should be conveying a point, and your speech should also convey it. For me, this means my speech is in paragraphs with the slide number and title at the start of each so I can keep track.
7.  Create your presentation slides and presentation speech simultaneously - I find this helpful, you might not - but it could be worth a try. To make sure the speech and slides fit, you can work on them both at the same time, from a previously created an outline. By working on them at the same time, (I don't mean the final fiddly bits of making the slides look good - instead I'm talking about the actual content of both) your message and delivery is consistent.
8. Practice by yourself - Even if you are planning to read out your speech, having a vague idea of what you want to say is helpful. Also you may find that you have less time than you prepared for - so knowing which areas of the speech you can drop can be very practical. (For me, this literally consists of enclosing a few paragraphs in brackets. Then, if I'm running short on time, I skip over them!)
9. Practice with an audience! - Be this audience a housemate, a course mate, a goldfish, or a random stranger you've kidnapped (please don't kidnap a stranger), having someone to listen is always good. They can tell you if anything is too fast, or if something is unclear (unless you've gone for the goldfish option). Also, it helps you get used to practicing - and if you're feeling embarrassed, remember that other people on your course will probably have to give presentations themselves - so you can volunteer to return the favour.
10. Relax - I know that this is hard, but if you know your material, then you are more knowledgeable on your topic than other people in the room. Giving a presentation can seem frightening, but it's a really useful experience - try to make the most of it.

Best of luck with any future presentations!

This entry was written by Jenni Hunt, a PhD student at the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies, researching the display of narratives of disability within museum collections. Twitter: @our_objects

Monday, March 19, 2018

Rethinking Disability in the Museum Sector

On the 9th of March, I had the opportunity to attend History of Place's Rethinking Disability Symposium, which was held at the Museum of Liverpool. This was a chance for individuals from across the museum sector to get together to talk about what needs to change in the treatment of disabled individuals and disability, and how these changes can be brought about.

The History of Place project is an ambitious series of events and exhibitions which aims to tell the story of 800 years in the lives of disabled people, using eight sites and three exhibitions: The Blind School: Pioneering People and Places at the Museum of Liverpool; Without Walls: Disability and Innovation in Building Design at the V & A; and Brave Poor Things: Reclaiming Bristol's Disability History at the MShed in Bristol. This symposium was a chance for those who have been involved to share the work that they have been doing with the wider sector, as well as to see the Blind School exhibit - an exhibition which had been carefully designed to be as accessible as possible - with the use of audio description, BSL, subtitles, and tactile displays. My own research focuses on the representation of disability within museum collections, so I was interested in discovering what successes and problems had arisen from this project.

Disability is often an afterthought for museums and galleries - even modern redesigns are frequently inaccessible to wheelchair users. Moreover, often the medical model of disability is used - one which focuses on the impairment of the disabled individual, in contrast with the social model which emphasizes the barriers disabled individuals face and the ways that these barriers can be removed - which often leaves disabled people feeling unwelcome within the museum and gallery space. It was therefore heartening to hear Jocelyn Dodd speaking of the work that the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries has been carrying out over the last fifteen years to explore how the social model can be used by museums in order to ensure disability is shown in a way that ensures the inclusion of disabled individuals.

However, this symposium went beyond conceiving disabled individuals as a topic of exhibition - it also considered how disabled individuals can access the museums, with Anna Fineman of VocalEyes explaining that in a 2016 survey, 70% of museum websites had no information about access information for blind and partially sighted visitors - meaning that 70% of websites were acting as a barrier to attendance for disabled individuals. Including this information should be simple, so it was disheartening to know that so few were currently doing so, but VocalEyes is doing this research in order to create change, and I believe they will be successful.

It was wonderful to see the sheer enthusiasm with which those present approached the topic, which had the potential to be difficult. However, the real challenge will be taking the lessons from this and applying it to our own practice. Barry Ginley, the Head of Disability and Inclusion at the V&A, spoke about how exhibitions about disability should be viewed as ambitious rather than risky. I can only hope that people are willing in the future to carry on with the enthusiasm and ambition that I saw during this symposium, leading to real change in the sector.

There are 13.3 million disabled individuals in the UK, and the museum sector needs to ensure that it considers this. This symposium was an excellent step towards achieving that goal.
This entry was written by Jenni Hunt, a PhD student at the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies, researching the display of narratives of disability within museum collections. Twitter: @our_objects

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Politics of a Bicycle

What can a bicycle tell us about the nature of Imperial trade relations during the 19th and early 20th century? The temporary exhibition at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, The Past is Now, is currently displaying a Hercules Bicycle (1946) as an example of the historical revolution in transportation due to the increased access to asphalt and rubber in Britain. The black bicycle stands as a nexus between everyday life in Britain during the early 20th century and the extreme environmental and human cost of harvesting resources from British colonies.

Hercules Bicycle from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery's exhibition, The Past is Now
Photo by Cesare Cuzzola.

Museum objects hold a multiplicity of meanings within them: not only do they symbolise concepts, but their material characteristics hold connections to several realities. Objects can offer a compact and tangible representation of wider concepts that entail multiple lives, worlds, and relationships. The Past is Now understands this powerful link, and applies it to many of its artefacts. Specifically, the Hercules Bicycle is linked to the growth of the manufacturing industry during the Imperial rule and its dependency on asphalt and rubber, as well as the negative impact this had on British colonies. The trade, sourcing, and movement of rubber during the colonial period is an extremely complex phenomenon that can uncover the interconnectedness of human beings and communities in ways that go beyond rubber itself[1]. Similarly, standing in front of the bicycle, one will perhaps not think of colonial trade and exploitation as concepts detached from the ordinary: an old-fashioned bicycle seems to suddenly materialise a certain reality by linking it to everyday life in Britain. Not only does it shed light on the cost of colonialism, but ultimately reminds us that these intersections still exist in the present, and that issues of ethical sourcing and trading are still painfully relevant today.

Arjun Appadurai notoriously claimed that objects have “social lives”[2], they exist within systems of social relations, and they in turn affect those systems. Museums today are perhaps recognising that the social life of objects (and their intrinsic materiality) can have a powerful impact on visitors. The Past is Now beautifully exemplifies these ideas: objects, simply by existing, can turn the colonial experience into a tangible reality, with a critique on the contemporary representation of history. The bicycle is not just a symbol: it reminds that everything is made of “stuff”, and that materials and artefacts exist in a politicised reality.

Objects (including bicycles!) are part of the human experience, and – just as human beings – they acquire histories, meanings, and political significance. They are tangible links to complex phenomena, and it is up to museums to reveal these links and acknowledge that the material characteristics of an artefact are meaningful. Museums don’t simply tell stories about objects, they can tell stories through objects. And those objects are just as symbolic, as they are material.

[1] Harp, S. (2016) A World History of Rubber: Empire, Industry, and the Everyday. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.
[2] Appadurai, A. (1986) The Social Life of Things. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

You can visit The Past is Now at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, until 24th June 2018. Twitter: @BM_AG | #ThePastIsNow

More on The Past is Now:

This entry was written by Cesare Cuzzola, a PhD student at the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies, currently researching the role of artefacts in socially engaged museum practice. Twitter: @Cesare_Cuzzola

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Museums and Voices from the Margins

I really love research seminars held for PhD students by the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, and I take advantage of them whenever I can. The diverse experiences of fellow students, researchers, and practitioners of various disciplines and backgrounds come together for mutual learning. Both informal and formative, these seminars feel more like a learning lab, where one great idea sparks another as connections are made and bridges built.

Today’s session, Say My Name: Voices from the Margins, featured Elaine Cheng and Yewande Okuleye, who shared their curatorial experience of exhibiting the narrative of Sergeant Major Belo Akure, a Nigerian soldier that fought for Britain during World War I. The case study examines a hot topic within the museum sector as the profession struggles to represent underrepresented narratives and populations within their exhibitions and programs.
Cheng and Okuleye sought to share an incredible, personal story that was embedded in larger historical events. For Cheng, Sergeant Major Belo Akure became a powerful lens to explore World War I. His story personalized a history that was previously unfamiliar. For Okuleye, a Nigerian British woman, her personal experience and culture became the lens and perspective to tell Sergeant Major Belo’s story. The dichotomy between unfamiliar and familiar made the process and project highly collaborative, but more importantly, this collaboration was extended into the community. The curation process became co-curation as a marginalized narrative was given voice by a marginalized community.
The story of Sergeant Major Belo Akure reveals much of the struggle museums face in telling previously untold and underrepresented narratives. In this instance, where is the history found? Has the history been recorded? Have associated artifacts been preserved for posterity? More importantly, who gives voice to a narrative from a marginalized community? The outsider, without cultural context, or the insider, with personal understanding? The museum professional or the community? Does it have to be an either/or scenario, or can the process embrace collaboration?
The process and the product can be a struggle to navigate as traditional museum roles and perspectives are challenged by previously silenced voices. Based upon her experience, Okuleye - who was both insider and outsider/ museum professional and marginalized community member - became a strong advocate for communities telling their own stories. For museums, this requires collaboration that grants equality to the community partner in both process and product. Curation becomes co-curation. Authority becomes collaboration. The process is not without tension as traditional methods adapt to accommodate new voices, sometimes at the challenge of existing stakeholders. Failure is also possible if collaboration does not share ownership of the project. However, this example illustrates the beautiful potential in exhibiting narratives from the margins given voice by the marginalized community. In my opinion, bring on the institutional growing pains. Both the process and the product are worth the effort.

Want more information about the exhibition that inspired this blog post? Check out Okuleye's blog post on African Soldiers in World War I

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Five Years On

On this day five years ago, I walked across the stage at DeMontfort Hall to receive my PhD in Museum Studies. By many metrics, I no longer count as an early-career researcher, or qualify for a post-doctoral degree, so I thought I would take this opportunity to sum up my experiences of the early career track with you who are just starting (or even considering starting) the PhD journey. I have shared a few snippets on this blog earlier, but will summarise and reflect on my experience in this post. Your mileage, as ever, may vary. Hopefully, however, you will find it useful to read about one person's experience.

After my viva in 2012, I moved back home to Canada, and received a short-term contract at a museum I formerly worked at during my undergrad and after my MA. I was grateful to my former colleagues for continuing to support me, but was looking for other opportunities.

Fortunately, I was offered some teaching opportunities immediately after my contract ended. My position was that of a "sessional"; this refers to an academic instructor on a short-term contract to deliver a certain number of courses. In the US, sessionals are called adjuncts. I was reasonably well renumerated, but I never knew until about a month before the start of term whether I would be issued a contract, and what classes I would be teaching. This meant an enormous number of hours preparing lecture material, often the night before the lecture itself, and a learning curve in terms of classroom management techniques for large lectures and small seminars. For some courses, I had colleagues who were teaching other sections of the same course - they generously shared some of their materials with me. However, mostly, I was on my own to choose textbooks, compile slides, compose exams, and prepare marking rubrics. As a sessional instructor is only brought in when there is no permanent staff available, their position is very precarious. I chose to spread the risk by teaching at multiple institutions. I was fortunate to mostly get assigned classes at times that didn't conflict, but it was very stressful. At one time, I was teaching in different cities on different days of the week, merely to stay employed and to spend some time with my husband; during another semester, I was teaching four classes at three institutions. I did not have benefits like medical insurance or pension, nor was I entitled to any vacation or days off. I was passed over for several full-time, permanent positions that did come up in the departments for which I was teaching, and was told that this would continue to happen - once a sessional instructor, always a sessional instructor. The departments were more interested in hiring the mysterious sexy stranger from an external institution, than promoting the staff they had. However, I did enjoy having flexible hours and also establishing networks with colleagues in different post-secondary institutions.

While I was teaching, I was also trying to keep my hand in academically. I spoke at a couple of conferences, and found a little bit of time to write some journal articles. I was fortunate in that my sessional contracts included some professional development money which I could put towards maintaining various memberships in professional associations, or even travel to conferences. I also did some short contracts developing curricula for new courses, hoping that this would improve my chances of getting a tenure-track position.

Ever in search of that elusive permanent job, I applied for any positions that seemed vaguely in line with my experience and skills. This wasn't necessarily always advisable - no doubt my resume was frequently rejected because I was over- or under-qualified, or simply relying too much on my transferable skills. But, as the years wore on, and my prospects for advancing in academia wore thinner, I applied for jobs simply to feel hope, and not get stuck in a rut of desperation and dejection.

In the spring of 2016, I applied for a curatorial job at a museum of the size and scale one step below a national museum. I had grown so used to rejection that I was stunned when I was invited for an interview. I did not think that the interview went well, so I was even more stunned when I was offered the job. Later, I was informally informed that while I was not the candidate they were hoping for, I was the best of the batch they reviewed. This position is a permanent full-time job, with benefits and a civil service pension, in the same city as my husband (we were maintaining a long-distance relationship on and off for years). Despite having to focus on developing and caring for a large collection of objects, and exhibits thereof, I am nevertheless also encouraged to continue publishing and teaching as a means of public engagement, and so I have maintained my casual teaching relationship with the university in town, and continued to write academically. While budget constraints have meant that I have not been able to travel to conferences recently, this is not a permanent state of affairs.

You may think this is a happy ending: she got The Job. But I have to say that, while I have been very lucky over the last 5 years to be almost continually employed, and am lucky to now have a good permanent position, nothing is ever perfect. For example, this is not the academic job I had my heart set on, even though academia acted like a bad boyfriend. As in every job, there are good days and bad days, highlights and favourites, slumps and busy work. Life means compromise.

I suppose the moral I want you to take away from this blog post is that life never turns out quite as you expected. Getting a PhD in Museum Studies will not doom you to a lifetime of unemployment, but it may not end with you having a smooth set of promotions to your dream job, either. As in any aspect of life, try to collect as much experience as you can, and to stay as flexible as you can. There are many definitions of success, and you just have to find the ones that work for you.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Researchers to Offer Insights into Capturing Visitor-Centered Experiences in January 17th Panel

Capturing Visitor-Centered Experiences: Panelist Session

University of Leicester, School of Museum Studies Collections Room

17th January 2018, 1:00pm – 2:00pm

Speakers: Professor Suzanne MacLeod (Design), Dr. Nuala Morse (Health & Wellbeing), Jocelyn Dodd (Learning impact - GLOs), and Jennifer Bergevin (Impact of visiting museums - a longitudinal study)

Visitor-centered experiences are a crucial part of contemporary museum research. In this RCMG seminar, the panelists will briefly discuss research approaches to visitor-centered experiences, the benefits and challenges involved in using these approaches, and their impact on the museum sector. 

After the initial panel discussion, the audience will be invited to actively engage with the theme of capturing visitor-centered experiences, its importance in museum studies research, and the implications of this approach in future academic enquiry.