Wendy Ligon Smith and Sophie Preston: ‘An Evening of Fashion, Music Art and Marcel Proust’ at Manchester Art Gallery. Blog post #1

Wendy Ligon Smith and Sophie Preston: ‘An Evening of Fashion, Music Art and Marcel Proust’ at Manchester Art Gallery. Blog post #1

Wendy and I have decided to propose a public engagement event inspired by the one hundredth anniversary of the first volume of French author Marcel Proust’s long novel, In Search of Lost Time, Swann’s Way.

 

As both of our PhD projects involve substantial research on the novel, we are interested in making connections between our work and the way other readers interact with the novel. Our initial idea was to create a website or blog that would curate scanned images of submitted pages of people’s copies of Swann’s Way. We hoped to attract scholars, academics, students and general readers of Proust to submit their pages.

 

We were interested in the traces and marks readers left when navigating the novel. Turned down pages, highlighted or underlined words or phrases, doodles, annotations etc., all evidence the lovable ardour of reading Proust and similarly mirror Proust’s own laborious writing process, made visible in the hundreds of preliminary notebooks, full of crossings out and doodled images.

 

After attending the first workshop defining the wider impact of PhD research and learning how to communicate this research to non-experts through cultural organisations, we were asked to choose a cultural partner. We were keen to join up with the John Rylands University Library at Deansgate. This seemed like the most pertinent choice due to the literary nature of our proposed project and as the library holds a relevant archive – that of Marie Nordlinger, a friend of Proust’s who helped him to translate works by English critic, John Ruskin.  In the archives, we hoped to find and share Nordlinger’s own responses to Proust.

 

After being turned down by John Rylands University Library due to the profusion of applications they had received, we were given a laurel branch when Emma Anderson, from the Manchester Museum & Galleries Partnership, asked to have a meeting with us, along with Project Leader Kostas Arvanitis . Emma and Kostas both liked the premise of celebrating the anniversary of Swann’s Way but were less keen on the blog idea in terms of a public engagement event. We had a frank discussion coming up with lots of ideas, from exhibitions to using social media. Eventually we came to a mutual decision to put on a one off event. Emma suggested the ‘Thursday Lates’ series at the Manchester Art Gallery would be an ideal arena to put on an evening celebrating the Proustian centenary. Wendy and I came away from this meeting feeling anxious but buoyant about these changes to the proposed project and got to work.

 

Wendy and I have since been to the Manchester Art Gallery and spent some time looking at the paintings on display. We have been excited to realise that a good deal of the works remind us of passages or themes from Proust’s novel. From here, things have really taken off.  We have enjoyed our final workshop and received invaluable advice from Emily McIntosh and Esme Ward and drafted an email to the MAG giving them a detailed plan of our proposal. We have had another meeting with Emma and have been introduced to Manchester Art Gallery Programme Assistant, Connie Witham. Together we have discussed a preliminary idea for a unique tour looking at some of the artworks on display through a Proustian lens. Due to shared enthusiasm between Wendy, Emma Connie and myself for the potential success of the event, we have been confident submitting our final proposal. We can’t wait for  ‘An Evening of Fashion, Music Art and Marcel Proust’…

Sophie Preston, 1st year PhD researcher in Art History

Wendy Ligon Smith,  3rd year PhD researcher in Art History

New Blog Post – Rob McCombe

Afterlife of Heritage Blog – Rob McCombe

The opportunity to participate in Afterlife of Heritage project came as I’d recently completed my doctorate and was keen to continue developing my research but felt a little uncertain in what direct to turn. I felt that, given my background in museum and collections histories, I had a lot to offer to one of the institutions involved in the project. The main problem that I faced was my specialisation in medieval collections; few institutions in the North West hold significant collections of this period, meaning that I’d have to engage with and research in areas previously unfamiliar to myself. In itself this was hardly a problem – but where to start?

Inspiration came from an unexpected direction. Attending the inaugural Manchester based Museums Showoff  (http://museumsshowoff.wordpress.com/) I listened to Manchester Museum’s Egyptology Curator Dr Campbell Price deliver a brief but fascinating presentation on the historical unwrapping of mummies in the nineteenth century, emphasising the social and cultural cachet such events had once possessed and reflecting of the often hidden context of these remains that few visitors had access to.

This exploration of forgotten or little known aspects and meanings attached to widely recognised exhibits linked closely to the work that I’ve conducted in to the lives of Anglo-Saxon objects; tracing them through their excavations, early display in private antiquarian collections and their entry into public spheres of existence.  Drawing upon theories of identity and the increasingly large body of work on object biographies I explore the shift is in interpretation and meanings associated with objects, arguing that such things can be actively rejected, simply forgotten or popularised to the point where an artefact becomes iconic.

The next step then, was to contact Dr Price and discuss the possibility of working with the archives and developing an outcome for the Museum. Campbell proved enthusiastic about exploring the collections, albeit slightly resigned to the fact that, yet again, it was the mummies rather than another aspect of the collection that was receiving renewed interest.  I explained my approach and research interests; particularly focusing upon the work I’d done exploring the exhumations of St Cuthbert in the nineteenth century. We were both enthusiastic about uncovering more of the collection’s rich history, about making available to viewers more means of looking at these artefacts than was possible in the current re-display.

Unsurprisingly, I was far from the only researcher interested in working with this particular collection, so before I could begin it seemed best to have at least an idea of what others wanted to pursue. Arranging a meeting with Bryan Sitch, Campbell Price, Anna Garnett, Alex McDonough and Katherine Crouch we were able to sort out who wanted to work with what. The result will be a variety of approaches to a single collection, providing a fascinating glimpse of the breadth and depth of work being conducted by researchers across Manchester and Salford.

Once the various projects and areas of interest were agreed upon, I was able to begin the research. After brief forays into the archives and stores of the Museum I began my research with a detailed exploration of the Annual reports, Committee reports, contemporary newspaper articles and relevant secondary literature.  What has already become obvious is the wealth of contextual material available to explore the meanings surrounding the treatment of Egyptian remains in the nineteenth century. What I’ll be discussing in later posts in how I come to focus this research and pursue more of the primary material at the Museum itself, from correspondences and minutes to images and text. The ultimate purpose of this work is of course to produce both viable academic research and something that the Museum visitor can access. Quite what form this will take is still being discussed but I’m looking forward to sharing the research.

Brundibar – New Blog Post by Lynne Rogers

Brundibar

I am a singer and singing teacher working in the area of the female adolescent voice. I applied to the Afterlife of Heritage Project in order to give me a platform by which I could further my understanding of the vocalisation of different types of technique with which I was unfamiliar. That is, how do kids sing when they sing musical theatre, pop and even opera; all areas I am unfamiliar with. So I was all set up to go to some Saturday schools and see how it was being done in with these children. The institutions had been contacted, dates set, targets agreed. And then I went to the workshop…

I came away thinking that I was missing an opportunity to do something a little bit different. By going to observe teachers at different institutions I was going to benefit my own understanding. But what of the understanding of others? I realised that I needed to rethink what I was going to do.

I searched long and hard to find something which I could do which combined not only my academic skills, but my practical skills as well. As a musician, for me, studying is as important as creating. If the one doesn’t lead to the other then I feel that I have missed something. I suppose that is the true meaning of reflective practice. My PhD is looking into the vocal health of adolescent girl singers. There has been an enormous amount of research on boys and it can safely be said that much of this research has had a significant impact on how boys are taught to sing. The same cannot be said for girls and how and what girls are singing is little understood. Latterly my research has involved me with girls who sing in a Cathedral environment. I wanted my particiaption in the Afterlife of Research Project to reflect my knowledge and have an impact on these children who are singing intensively on a daily basis;  and (perhaps it is a vain hope) possibly educate those who are working with them.

But finding the correct project was difficult- how to get children who already sing intensively to take on another project, how to get a school on board, how to choose the right repertoire?

And then Eureka! An opportunity presented itself in the form of a children’s opera called Brundibar. The story is a simple one- 2 children need some milk to make their sick mother better and they have trouble getting it, but in the end they overcome. It has nice tunes. There are singing cats and birds. On the face of it, a jolly story. But the story behind the opera isn’t nearly so nice. Written in Czechoslovakia in 1938, the opera was performed by the children of Terezin concentration camp. It was rehearsed and conducted by Hans Krasa, its composer, who was imprisoned in Terezin and eventually transported and executed at Auschwitz. The opera’s history is a shocking tale of inhumanity, lies and suffering which contrasts severely with the story it portrays.

I approached the local Cathedral choir school. The head has Czech parentage and every year they take their most promising pupils on a trip to Auschwitz. It was agreed that I can rehearse the children weekly between now and November and then Brundibar will  be performed as part of their traditional Remembrance Day concert. The Cathedral has aloso put Brundibar in its concert programme for November, thus providing 2 occasions when this project will be performed to the public. So my research will not only have a practical application, but an appreciative audience!

Setting apart the tragic history of the piece, why am I choosing to do this? What has it got to do with my research? Well, what this gives me is a great opportunity to turn theory into practice. My recent research has been looking at girls who sing in a Cathedral environment. These girls are steeped in a male environment and are strongly influenced by male musical culture. It might be claimed that the boys’ singing voice is the most prized amongst Cathedral musicians and girls may feel that they are required to imitate a boy’s sound. I am a female musician who is not influenced by Cathedral culture and will come to working with the children from a more neutral point of view. The language I use to express my ideas, the expectations I have and the eventual outcome will all be very different for these children. It will be interesting to see how they respond to working with someone who is very different to their usual experience.

I am soon to start weekly rehearsals with a choir made up exclusively of adolescent Cathedral singers, both boys and girls. The hormonal change which occurs at puberty causes vocal mutation. This brings with it breathiness, hoarseness, difficulty controlling the breath and increased register breaks. This happens to a greater or lesser extent in all boys and girls. Within the choir will be voices that have yet to mutate, voices that are mutating and voices that have mutated. It is unusual to hear these voices together. The demands of the music are somewhat less taxing than these choristers would normally be used to, as Brundibar was written for untrained voices. However, constant singing at a very high pitch can be vocally tiring and can cause problems for any singer. These problems are exacerbated when the voice begins to mutate. However, the lower pitch will allow for all the adolescent singers to participate, no matter which stage their voices are in the mutational process.

As the project is yet to begin, it is difficult to say exactly what will happen. It may very well be that the mutational voices don’t blend, the children hate the experience and we produce a performance that is unpleasant and untidy. However, I hope that the children WILL enjoy the experience and produce a performance that is pleasant and polished. And above all I hope that I will be able to show them that they can produce a pleasant, breathy sound which can be produced healthily during vocal mutation. I am hoping that this might make those who work with them on a daily basis question what it is they are doing. Perhaps they may challenge their own preconceptions and look to improving their own knowledge and widening their own experience in order to improve the long term vocal health of the children they work with.

It may be a vain hope, but at least now, thanks to Brundibar I have the opportunity to showcase a different path. And who knows, one day all Cathedrals might have reconsidered their age old expectations….

 

 

 

 

Della Robbia Pottery in the 21st C – blog post by Juliet Carroll

Della Robbia Pottery in the 21C –  blog post by Juliet Carroll 

 pottery1

Measurable……..Impact……..Longevity………

Words of policyspeak that indicate that essential academic skills in 21st century Britain include the ability to make research accessible and relevant in a way that can be computed and quantified – a daunting thought.

I was keen to attend the training sessions to learn these skills. Although I missed the first workshop due to a prearranged research trip I enjoyed the second one immensely. Three key points that I took from the session were

  • Simple, easy understood proposals with a straight forward execution are good
  • Good communication is paramount – keep in regular contact with cultural partners, supervisors and directors of study.
  • To be bold and confident in my thinking.

At that point I had not discussed the proposal with my cultural partner – I felt some trepidation about suggesting that the newly refurbished gallery should be turned into an amateur ceramics studio, complete with glazes and wet clay. However, the gallery was enthusiastic and supportive and offered to fund an extension of the project if it proved successful.

The proposal: to celebrate the work of the Della Robbia Pottery of Birkenhead by inviting participants into the newly reopened Williamson Gallery to work with a local ceramicist  to create and glaze a ceramic piece in the distinctive style of the nineteenth century studio pottery.

By recreating the studio of this Arts and Crafts pottery, the would-be potters and decorators will experience the ethos of the pottery, and indeed of the Arts and Crafts movement, that puts a clear emphasis on creativity and individuality, in which a precise manufacturing process with division of labour plays no part. Advice from the workshop was to limit my participants to an older age group – U3A, local history groups – rather than riotous school children. However, the director of the gallery is keen to extend the project if my bid is successful and the undertaking proved viable and would include school children in the future. Thus the project has an extended afterlife – this could become a regular event at the museum. I am also pleased that the reputation of the Della Robbia Pottery will grow in a practical and accessible way rather than being restricted by the academic confines of my PhD.

 pottery2

 

Kyra Pollitt on lessons learned from preparing her Research to Public events.

Kyra Pollitt on lessons learned from preparing her Research to Public events.

Of course I think my PhD is interesting. To paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davis, I would say that wouldn’t I? But I don’t foresee a queue forming outside Waterstone’s in eager anticipation of the submission of my thesis. So when I came across artsmethods@manchester’s Research to Public strand, offering guidance on making my research public-facing, I was immediately excited. After all, what’s the point of research if it’s not meaningful to reality?

Research to Public offered two structured and intensive full day workshops at the University of Manchester, supplemented by documentation and an online presence designed to prize open the rusty doors of the ivory tower and let the daylight of practicality flood in.

Eager applicants to the scheme were initially subject to a selection process before being invited to the first workshop. Then, after considerable input, we were sent forth into the big wide world and told to come back with an institutional partner- a gallery, museum or other public institution interested in our proposal and willing to play host. The second workshop honed our ability to co-operate with our partners and the resulting carefully budgeted and considered proposals were then submitted to a panel charged with distributing prize funding.

I am very fortunate to have had my proposal selected, and I write this on the eve of the first of the two events that I proposed. As you can imagine, the whole process has been challenging in lots of ways; some anticipated, some unexpected, but all very, very useful. So here are some of the lessons I’ve learned thus far. I apologise if you already know them, but some of us are slower on the uptake.

Lesson 1:  Don’t be precious

There’s wisdom in that there Kenny Rogers song about knowing ‘when to fold ‘em’ and ‘when to hold ‘em’. There may be some ideas that are worth being deeply precious about, but these are rare. Actively seek the opinions and contributions of others. Be honest with yourself about your level of commitment to the idea as it stands, and give due and respectful consideration to the tweaks others propose. Every contributor (from the gallery curator to the chatty passenger sharing your train journey) brings different expertise; learn to harness it.

Lesson 2: Network

Contributing to as many networks as you can effectively manage is good for your creative soul. It’s also kind of karmic. I had cold-called a number of institutions who were all enthusiastic but already committed to a schedule, before a network connection yielded an introduction to an institution that wasn’t even on my list. It turns out the institution was looking for something that would reach beyond its usual remit and demographic, and I could propose just the thing. Who knew?

Lesson 3: Refining is a lived process

Like most other things in life – and unlike the fairy tales I’m still addicted to – perfect proposals don’t just appear fully-formed, ready-sprinkled with magic dust. Business proposals, academic theses, paintings, life – all require adjustments and rewrites.

Lesson 4: Plan and anticipate

Like the archetypal mum checking before her child leaves for school in the morning- Homework? Packed lunch? Gym kit? Keys? Hanky? Umbrella? It was quite fun spending time just thinking about all the possibilities and unlikelihoods surrounding the events I’d proposed. It was even more fun when the gallery curator was able to identify a few more.

Lesson 5: Make it real

Isn’t there some great quote from a famous person about the number of brilliant ideas that lie gathering dust in obscurity? Despite what I hope (with some effort) is a bubbly public persona, I’m actually ‘a bit behind the door’ so the process of taking an idea and making it real has been quite exhilarating. It’s both humbling and inspiring when other people believe enough in your idea to lend themselves to it. Ok, so I may have had to gather myself a little before plastering my event all over Facebook and Twitter but the whole R2P process has given me renewed confidence in my ability to communicate to others through writing, talking, thinking and sharing, and ultimately performing. I think it’s no coincidence that my painting and sculpting, as well as my academic writing also seem to have received a bit of a boost.

I’ve spent today having final meetings with the artists involved, gathering the hardware I’ll need for the space, making a Blue Peter style audience contributions box, monitoring the Twitter publicity spread (currently standing at 45 RTs, 7 mentions and 3 favourites), and checking the Bank Holiday weekend weather forecast (chance of rain, 13˚C).

What are we planning?  Will it work? Will anyone care? These tales will be told in the next blog. For now, let’s see what new lessons tomorrow brings…

 

Blog Post by Sarah Younan

Sometimes working on a PhD can be dry, slow, overwhelming. And then sometimes there are days that take yo by the horns and drag you forward. Today was such a day.

I met with Gareth Loudon (http://cardiff-school-of-art-and-design.org/staff/garethloudon/) for a tutorial in the morning. Gareth’s area of expertise is, amongst others, ethnography. I picked his brain on how to go about my intended research. I hope to extend the public impact of museum objects by 3d scanning ceramic artefacts from the collections of the National Museum of Wales, and then using these scans, to:

a)     create colaborative projects with artists working in digital media

b)     make copies of the original objects through 3d print and/or traditional craft techniques in order to emerge them in everyday live.

These copies will be handed out to volunteers, to take home, to use, to contemplate, to re-emerge museum objects in the wear and tear of everyday life. Life for objects, as for people, is fraught with risk. These copies might be apreciated and cared for, they might be neglected and forgotten, they might be used out of context, they could end up chipped or broken – either way new stories will be created. Stories about interaction with these objects, about what might be the fate of the original, where it not preserved in the museum, but thrown into everyday life.

This is what my contribution to the Afterlife of Heritage project, a story, a potential afterlife tale about objects from and beyond the museum.

My next stop was the museum, there I met with Andrew Renton, head of applied arts at the National Museum of Wales. We went to a storage room and I chose two objects to scan. I have worked with 3D  scanners before ( I am using a NextEngine tabletop scanner at the moment) and was aware that scanning two ceramic objects would take up quite some time. The objects I chose were a Meissen porcelain cup, with a basket-weave moulded border, and an ice cup and cover, the cover has a little squirrel sitting on it.

It took most of the morning and afternoon to scan these objects. I prepared them by spraying them with Talcum powder, as the glossy surface of glazed ceramics can confuse the lazer of the 3d scanner. I then did some test scans to find out the optimal distance, ambient light and scanner settings. For the cup, the ice cup and its cover I did a 360 degree scan each, and further single scans for areas that were difficult to see.

As I was working with objects from the collections Andrew stayed with me, to supervise and also to learn more about 3d scanning. We talked about museums, collections, about artist interventions and about digital strategies in museums.

Andrew likes to push the boundaries of his work. As a currator he has on several occasions collaborated with artists. This has led to the production of work and exhibitions, which challenged the notion of the museum and proposde new ways of experiencing museum artefacts. Two artists who have interacted with the ceramics collections in ways, that question and challenge the museum’s traditional practise of preserving artefacts, by removing them from interaction and lived experience are Edmund de Waal and David Cushway. De Waal investigated and re-displayed objects from the ceramics collection alongside his own pieces in 2005. He removed the museum objects from their glass cases and displayed them on a large plinth, unprotected and within reach of the audience. His own work took the place of the museum objects in the glass cases.

Cushway’s project in 2012 went even further. Together with Andrew the artist removed a porcellain tea set from its glass case and the two of them sat down to drink tea from these pieces. This performance was filmed and is now available on Cushway’s website: http://www.davidcushway.co.uk/2012/Teatime_at_the_Museum.html

I see these artist’s projects as a genealogy of my own involvement.

In the digital realm any transgression is possible. Objects no longer need to be preserved; the touch of a button is enough to restore digital models to their previous state. The former observer of museum objects can become and actor.

Safe. Edit. Delete. Undo. Merge. Distort. Send. Print.

3D printers can make the digital file physically manifest, once, twice, many times, and copies of museum objects, not quite the original, but more than souvenirs, can find their way back into everyday life.

It was with some trepidation… – Blog Post by Julia Bennett

Julia Bennett: Afterlife of Heritage, Research to Public Blog No 1

It was with some trepidation that I approached the first Research to Public workshop at the end of January. I had applied for the funding under both this and the Research to Profession strand on the basis of ‘if you don’t apply, you won’t get it’. As a sociologist I thought I was perhaps entering into alien territory by applying for AHRC funding. However with a PhD littered with references to the work of anthropologists, architects and archaeologists, as well as sociologists, I felt it was worth a try. Actually attending a workshop with artists and poets and people who seem to be spending their PhD years researching things rather than talking to people, as I had, was still pretty daunting though. Name tags were laid out on the tables so I didn’t have the option of scanning the room for familiar faces (there weren’t any). I needn’t have worried – everyone was friendly and the variety of research topics intriguing. I sat with Daisy studying Mystery Plays; and Lauren an anthropologist from Texas via Belfast studying dance (I didn’t know that was anthropology too); and Charlotte looking at old photos which sounds fascinating too.

The workshop itself was engaging and interactive. I loved the envelopes full of words and have resolved to use that idea when teaching. The importance of reflective practice was a timely reminder – I always start out with the best intentions to write a research diary every week, but it often slips from view with other tasks taking priority. Loved the idea of the onion too and have already used that in my ‘day job’ as a research associate to focus on impact on the schools we are working with.

Leaving the first workshop full of enthusiasm I emailed my proposed cultural partner shortly afterwards. The first person I contacted couldn’t help, but she would pass on my request. I waited for a reply. Let a week go by. Emailed again, trying not to sound too worried (did no reply mean they weren’t interested?). No, just that the boss is on holiday for a week. Waited another week. Eventually the response was that we love your ideas but are busy restructuring our organisation and wouldn’t be able to work with you in the timeframes needed. By this point my enthusiasm for the whole thing was waning a little. I had also contacted another organisation with no response from them either. By now it was late February with the second workshop looming. Shall I go, or is my proposal dead in the water through lack of a cultural partner? Oh well, it will be nice to see people again and catch up and there’s a free lunch …

 

So the second workshop. I sat on a table with lots of ‘unattached’ cultural partners, it did feel a bit like speed-dating (I’m guessing, I’ve never been speed-dating).  We introduced ourselves so I was able to get an idea of who might be interested in my proposal, which I had conveniently brought with me. I was looking for an organisation in the right kind of place or community, as my research is all about place and belonging. Saskia from Z-Arts in Hulme seemed nice, and didn’t have a partner. Hulme – I knew it was in Manchester, but that’s all. So I asked Saskia to look at my proposal during the coffee break. And yes, she thought there were some good ideas in there, as well as some, such as the competition element I’d suggested, that wouldn’t work too well. So after lunch we sat down together and clarified our ideas, thinking about what the impact would be and coming up with some rough costings.

I went home again reinvigorated with enthusiasm for the project and wrote up our revised proposal, sent if off and waited. And then, just in time for Easter, got the fantastic news that we had the funding!

Burning Bright, Part 1: Blog Post by Naomi Billingsley

Burning Bright. Part 1: KindlingImage

My project is linked to the exhibition “Burning Bright” at the John Rylands Library which examines William Blake and the world of the book.  The exhibition includes books illustrated by Blake and explores his impact on subsequent generations of artists and writers. Blake’s influence continues to “burn bright” and activities alongside the exhibition encourage visitors to take creative inspiration from his work.

Blake’s work as a visual artist is the focus of my PhD — specifically, I am examining the role of Christ in Blake’s images — so I had a ready-made opportunity to relate my research to public audiences. The Afterlife training has helped me to refine my ideas for contributing to the exhibition programme by examining some of the issues around public engagement and creating a space for discussion with other researchers and cultural organisations.

There are three strands to my project: creating a workshop for school groups inspired by the exhibition, devising a tour for the public programme, and contributing to an online version of the exhibition. After months of meetings, planning and looking at books in the reading room, things are coming together, so I’m going to share how things are shaping up.

Schools workshop: Blake and the Bible

Taking as its inspiration Blake’s Illustrations to the Book of Job, a copy of which is in the exhibition (and was only recently discovered in the Rylands collection), my workshop will explore different ways of retelling stories from the Bible, with students creating their own version of a Bible story. I’m going to give the students a choice of producing either a design in the format of Blake’s Job illustrations (which have an image in the centre with commentary and designs in the margin) or a newspaper article.

Preparing for this workshop has involved lots of discussion with the education team and I’ve sat in on some other workshops in the education programme to help get a feel for what works well. There are also two MA students, Liz and Amy, running workshops alongside the exhibition, and each of us has chosen a different theme. I sat in on one of Amy’s workshops last week, which was on personification, with pupils writing personification poems, and it was fantastic to see how well the pupils engaged with the theme.

I’m going to be running my session for five groups between years 7 – 10 in the middle of May and I’m looking forward to seeing what results come of it!

Advertising for the exhibition education programme.

Public tour: Blake and the Gothic

This tour will explore Blake’s fascination with the Gothic, inspired by the John Rylands Library itself which is a grand neo-Gothic building. This will be an opportunity to show visitors items from the collection not included in the exhibition — by Blake himself and by others interested in the Gothic to weave a narrative between Blake and the library building.

Preparation has involved lots of delving through books from the collection and I’ve been spoilt for choice because the collection is so rich in this area, so I have had to be very self-disciplined in deciding what to use. Stella Halkyard who looks after visual collections at the library and curated “Burning Bright” has been a great source of advice and arranged for me to see the massive volumes of Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery which contain some fantastically spooky engravings of subjects from Shakespeare by Blake’s friends and foes.

I’ll be running this tour twice in June.

Burning Bright online

Once all the books in the exhibition have been returned to the stores at the end of Jun, “Burning Bright” will continue to burn in the shape of an online exhibition. This will provide a legacy for the exhibition itself and for the activities which have taken place alongside it. Work produced in the schools workshops is being photographed as are the fruits of printing workshops offered as part of the public programme. I will also be writing up a version of my Gothic tour.

The funding from the Afterlife of Heritage Research Project will help to pay for the photography of items in the collection for the online exhibition. This proposal came in part from discussions during the Afterlife training and afterwards with the team at the library. The images will be a sustainable resource for the online exhibition itself and for other projects at the library, and will be useful for my own and others’ research.

I was part of a meeting about the online exhibition last week and the provisional designs look great, so I’m excited about seeing how it will come together. I’ve come up with an idea for the structure which I need to discuss with the web team, and I need to finalise my order for the photography department, then start writing it all up.

An example of work produced in a printing workshop, inspired by one of Blake’s Illustrations to the Book of Job.

Naomi Billingsley, PhD candidate in Religions and Theology, University of Manchester.

Inspiring Moments – Blog Post by Rebecca Louise Senior

Inspiring Moments

Suzanne’s instructions were to write a short statement that avoided jargon and captured the essence of our research, but also illustrated to a general audience what was important, relevant and interesting about our research.

No problem, I thought. Academic jargon has always left me cold. Using a word like ‘structuralism’ or ‘functionalism’ or ‘neo-liberalism’ in a sentence is a sure-fire way to exclude me from a conversation, because by the time I’ve worked out what the word means, and then fitted that into the context of the sentence, the whole debate has moved on.

My first attempt did not impress Suzanne: I will address key anthropological enquiries, particularly the role of power in person-environment relationships and processes of knowledge production, and broader strategic concerns such as the heritage of land management and rural inequalities.

“What does any of that even mean?” chastised Suzanne.

I tried again, this time making my statement more specific: I am researching the social history of a community managed forest in rural northern Scotland to explore the role of power in environmental knowledge production.

“But why would I care about that?” asked Suzanne. “Why should anybody care?”

“I’m doing ethnographic research into…” My words tailed off as Suzanne raised her eyebrow at the word ‘ethnographic’. I was beginning to feel as frustrated with this task as she must’ve been feeling with me.

“Why do you care about your research?” she probed. “Why do you think it’s interesting? What motivates you to keep going with it?”

“Oh, it’s brilliant!” I gushed. “There are all these fascinating stories that people tell me about the forest, stories about their experiences, about adventures and mishaps, local history stories and political stories…and nobody has ever recorded these stories so it’s all brand new and I’m finding that other people want to hear the stories too, so I just want to be able to share all these stories with everyone somehow!”

Suzanne was nodding her head and smiling at me. “NOW I’m interested,” she said. “That’s what you need to get across to people, that enthusiasm and joy. Not everybody cares about all the philosophical concepts in your PhD, and you don’t need to tell them to everybody. It doesn’t make what you’re doing any less important.”

For me, this informal exchange with Suzanne was the standout moment on the Afterlife of Heritage training, the moment when everything else clicked into place. I had come to the training believing that I was a good communicator, but hoping to gain a little confidence in my public speaking abilities and to learn some creative techniques for presenting my research. This moment made me realise that I was so caught up in my research and what it meant for me, that I had lost sight of the value of my research for other people, and thereby lost my ability to communicate about it effectively. Apart from my PhD supervisors and examiners, most people are unlikely to care whether or not I’ve got to grips with Foucault’s work on power or Ingold’s ideas about dwelling. I don’t need to explain the philosophical underpinnings of my research to everybody I meet, but I do need to be able to express my passion for my research.

After this, the rest was easy. I knew that I wanted to share stories of the forest with people so it made sense to approach Dunnet Forestry Trust with a proposal for a social history trail through the forest. We can’t wait to be able to let you know how our project goes…