It is February 2014, my ‘engagement project’ with Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery entitled ‘Women and Colonial Photography: Subjects of Knowledge or Objects of Desire?’ is a far-off memory now. I have finally some time to look back and reflect upon my participation in the Afterlife of Heritage Research (AHR) programme and, more specifically, on my ‘engagement project’. 2013 was one of those no-stop years for me! Since submitting my PhD in March, life has been really hectic; I would say even more hectic than it used to be. I imagine that those readers who are currently in the process of writing-up their doctoral thesis may find it hard to believe that their life will get even busier after completion. ‘Busier than this?’ they might ask themselves with a terrified face. This has been my experience at least. Writing this piece many months after the AHR ‘adventure’ began and also reached its conclusion last July, it is hoped that I am now suitably detached from the practicality (and the challenges) of the process of translating my ‘engagement project’ from a vague idea into a concrete museum output to be able to evaluate the ‘entire thing’ with sufficient distance and perspective. Before describing the project, however, I would like to begin by going back to ‘square one’ and tell you more about how this ‘adventurous adventure’ started.
Afterlife of Heritage Research Showcase Event
Tuesday 29th October
Kanaris Theatre, Manchester Museum
The ‘Afterlife of Heritage Research’ Skills Training Project (2012-13; funded by the AHRC) aimed to support research students and early career researchers (ECRs) in developing skills, capacity and profiles for professional careers in the heritage sector. The project’s tailored training provision (including training guides, collaborative projects with cultural institutions, work placements and industrial mentoring) have assisted students and ECRs in identifying, understanding and ‘translating’ the benefits of their heritage research in ‘real-life’ public, professional and business contexts.
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.