This weekend, amidst the crowning of the Marymas Queen, the Highland dancing and the tunes of the Thurso pipe band, we officially launched our ‘Hidden Forest’ trail. The Caithness winds were gusting at up to 50mph, forcing the Marymas Fair into the local village hall, which lent a different kind of atmosphere to events.
Nevertheless, alongside the chair of the Dunnet Forestry Trust, we set up our stall in the corner of the hall and, in-between the fancy dress competitions and the bake-off awards, we were able to show off our glossy new leaflet and talk to numerous people about the stories of social history hidden in Dunnet Forest – and even collect a few new ones. For me, this was the culmination of months of collaboration with the Dunnet Forestry Trust on a social history trail through the forest which began when I attended the Afterlife of Heritage training workshops.
The final part of my R2P project is now live on the web: an online version of the exhibition ‘Burning Bright: William Blake and the Art of the Book’, which took place at the John Rylands Library, Manchester, earlier this year (see my first and second posts for details of the other aspects of my project).
Translating a physical exhibition into an online format was an interesting exercise, which highlighted for me important differences about how we (or I at least) engage with material physically and digitally:
My project aimed to expand my PhD research and attempt to engage a community to think about how the place itself helps to make it what it is. My original idea was for a photography/story competition where people would photograph a place and tell the story of their connection to it.
As photographic competitions tend to attract a particular kind of photography enthusiast, rather than the general community, my research partner – Saskia from Z-Arts in Hulme – felt it best to avoid the competitive element. So after securing the funding we set up an event to give tips on taking good photos with the idea that people would then go out and photograph their locality and put the photos and their related stories into an exhibition. This event was, unfortunately, not well attended. The fact that we’d chosen cup final day may have had something to do with this! Learning point: check the calendar for local and national events before picking a date.
Summer is drawing to a close and the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is upon us: an appropriate time, then, to reflect on and draw in / draw to a close/ draw together the fruits of my Research to Public events.
In the early summer I staged two ‘happenings’ at the Royal West of England Academy. Each coinciding with the major summer exhibition Drawing, each taking place in The Drawing Lab – a gallery space given over to interactivity. The happenings brought together, in embodied performance, three elements of my research: ‘sign language poetry’; art practice; and scholarly writing.
As my previous blog discussed, the majority of my work at Manchester Museum has focused on investigating the history of the Egyptian collection. Specifically, I’ve been looking at the nineteenth century history of the mummies and the mummy known as Asru (donated in 1825 by the Garnett brothers) in particular.
Constructing an object biography, would I hoped, allow me to explore ideas, connections and histories that weren’t readily available to viewers in the gallery. This object biographical approach, while valuable and for me, one of the most practical and useful approaches in this situation, is not without its potential problems. A singular focus upon one object can lead to a narrow view of wider and more complex collections for instance, which in turn has led me to research into the broader historical context of this object. Furthermore, the creation of a successful biography depends upon accessible resources in archives. In this instance I’ve been relatively fortunate, but it has reflected upon the limitations of what’s achievable in a relatively small scale project in terms of both time and scope.
With all four of my festival engagement events now completed, time to reflect on what my involvement with the project has taught me and what has been achieved.
I had held an exhibition and art activity at four festivals in Northumberland between March and July this year. These festivals make up the case studies of my research into the impact of such events on the social sustainability of their host communities: as such they have common variables of type and form but also display huge variations in their character, location and the visiting public with which I was engaging. Although this may seem obvious, it is something easily overlooked when preparing activities designed to be repeated on a number of occasions. I found myself challenged by practicalities such as varying weather conditions (try carrying out a paper-based art activity in a windy field!), and locations which didn’t appear on any maps alongside the variety of responses from different publics with different expectations of art workshops and academic research. What I really perceived, however, was never presume what people’s responses will be! I was constantly reminding myself of this: the teenage huddle which I was reluctant to approach turned out to be really interested and involved!
A few thoughts on my contribution to the Afterlife of Heritage Research Project, which has been developed in collaboration with the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre – an extension of the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust which was established following the racially motivated killing of a student at Burnage High School in Manchester. (If you aren’t aware of the Centre and the incredible work it does please take the time to visit their website.)
This project is composed of three main elements – a series of seminars offered to Manchester schools affiliated with the Race Relations Centre which tied into the current A-Level curriculum, screenings of a series of documentary films, and the establishment of an online archive feeding into the work of the Race Relations Centre and influenced by my own field of research which focuses on African American history.
I’d had my brilliant idea for engaging the public with my research, my cultural partner, the Dunnet Forestry Trust, had offered me wholehearted support for the project, and, importantly, I had managed to secure the Afterlife of Heritage funding to put my plan into action. I thought the difficult parts were over and I was raring to get going – this should be the easy bit, right? Not so.
I have lost my way countless times over the past few months and my original idea has had to be tweaked over and again. This blog post presents the story of how some of the complications I experienced were overcome – partly through creative thinking, but mainly through having developed an honest and effective working relationship with the people who represent my cultural partner.
On 4th September I’ll be speaking at the ‘Enhancing Impact, Inspiring Excellence’ Conference at the University of Birmingham. The Conference, organised by the National Archives and the University of Birmingham in association with Research Libraries UK, aims to examine collaborative approaches between archives and universities.
Delegates will include academics, students and archivists who will be discussing existing partnerships and identifying new partnerships for the future. The Conference will showcase collaborative projects between archives and academia, highlight good practice, and emphasise the benefits to both archives and universities that result from partnership working.
Museums create fictional universes, much like the original cabinet of curiosities they aim they construct model universes by collecting, ordering and displaying overviews of the external world. These have been used over time to support and reinforce current understandings of the world. Despite their emphasis on real and original items museums ultimately produce fiction, their very own brand of surrealism. In my project with digital scans of museum objects I have covetted and encouraged this museum surrealism and found myself straying into the ‘museum dream space’…
Objects can become staging grounds for symbolic action. When objects enter the museum, they are removed from primary experience and embeded in narrative; their practical value is replaced by “exhibition value” (Benjamin, 1973). There is no guarantee that the story told by the museum is identical with the viewer’s reading (Hein, 2000). Museum objects can elucidate historical or scientific knowledge, they can be of aesthetic and educational value. However they can also elicit personal memories (Kavanagh, 2000), blending inner and outer experience into one. In my work with digital models of museum artefacts I have sought to explore how digital models of museum objects can trigger our imagination, emotions, senses and memories.