Serena Lervolino | Chapter 1 – Being Encouraged to Think ‘Outside the Box’: Academic Research and Public Engagement

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.

The Beginnings (or Attempting to Escape the ‘Ivory Tower’)

It all began with an e-mail I received sometime in November 2012. I was working on the conclusion of my doctoral thesis and the end of the PhD was in sight. I was looking forward to the day when I would finally leave the ‘ivory tower’ I had inhabited since July 2012, where I had been ‘crafting’ the very final version of my thesis. I was fervently hoping that an opportunity would present itself for me to escape the ‘world of ideas’ and provide some sort of concrete application to the findings of my PhD research. You may ask: ‘Isn’t a doctoral thesis (of about 80,000 words or more than 400 pages) already a concrete, even tangible output of a process of rigorous, theoretical investigation?’ Unquestionably it is but I was unsatisfied. In the end, my interest in how museums are shaped by and in turn shape cultural diversity policies and politics, and particularly in how they represent, engage with, and negotiate issues of differences marking contemporary societies had never been an end-in-itself. In fact, my interest in this area of scholarly enquiry has always been driven by a strong desire to inform museum practices and cultural policies. Besides, I have always had very little interest in pure or basic research. In other words, the quest for new knowledge that has no practical application has never appealed to me. This is one of the reasons why I chose the interdisciplinary field of museum studies for my doctoral research, which crossed a number of disciplines including museum studies, cultural policy studies, political theory, and postcolonial studies. Through studying concrete museums – operating in the ‘real world’ – interested in actively and ethically responding to contemporary cultural diversity, I hoped that my research could impact upon museum practices and cultural policies, and contribute to broader societal change. I am aware that the idea of museums as institutions with a social agency that have the potential and, therefore, the responsibility to contribute to broader societal change may be unusual to some. I would like to clarify from the very beginning that this is how I – as well as many others (Dodd and Sandell 2001; Iervolino 2013; Janes and Conaty 2005; Marstine 2011; Sandell 2003) – approach and theorise museums today.

Now, let’s go back to November 2012, back to that desk where I was working on my PhD. With the ‘end’ approaching the question of what the afterlife of my heritage research would have been exactly had started moving – slowly but steadily – from the back to the front of my mind. How could I translate some of the ideas of my doctoral research into something more concrete than a thesis? What shape could this translation take in practice? A partial answer to these questions came to me unexpectedly – as it is often the case – through the above-mentioned e-mail. Apparently, the University of Manchester was inviting PhD students and Early Career Researchers in the Humanities to submit an ‘Expression of Interest’ to participate in the AHRC-funded ‘Afterlife of Heritage Research’ programme. This initiative sought to provide successful applicants with training as well as concrete opportunities to translate their research in ‘real-life’ contexts. Through the Research2Public strand of the programme, the possibility to develop a real project in collaboration with a cultural or heritage institution was offered to a restricted number of participants. The ‘princess’ (aka PhD candidate busy with the writing up of her thesis) – who was feeling increasingly suffocated in her ‘ivory tower’ – could not believe her eyes. For a moment she wondered whether the project’s organisers had been overhearing her thoughts. To avoid any paranoid thoughts she convinced herself that it was only a fortunate coincidence. To cut a long story short, I was one the lucky 16 applicants to the Research2Public strand whose ‘Expression of Interest’ was selected. The basic idea of the public engagement project I proposed was to design and deliver a series of events/activities that, taking as a starting point the (ethnographic) collections of a museum, would explore ‘themes of contemporary relevance from different perspectives, and attempt to bring together individuals from diverse backgrounds that might hold dissimilar views.’

Up in Manchester with Like-minded Folks (or The Great Escape)

Having being selected for the project the ‘princess’ felt she had sufficient justification to escape the ‘ivory tower’ and travel to Manchester to attend two informative and engaging workshops: ‘Understanding the public impact of your research’ (January 2013) and ‘Turning your research into a public output’ (February 2013). The success of the two workshops was due, I believe, to a combination of knowledgeable and skilled facilitators, a good mixture of theory and practice, carefully planned activities as well as the great diversity of research interests of the project’s participants working on exciting research projects in different disciplinary fields across the Humanities. What we all had in common, however, was a shared interest – although to different extents – in better understanding and further exploring the public relevance and impact of our research. Surely the Research Councils UK (RCUK) would have been very pleased to see (some of) the members of the next generation of UK academics embracing the impact discourse and ethics with such an enthusiasm and commitment, even when having little or no awareness of the RCUK’s Pathways to Impact. It is hard to say whether the AHR’s participants are only a few members of a small group of ‘enlightened’ researchers committed to achieve excellence in research with impacts or there are many others who increasingly think along the same lines. The high number of applications that the AHR project received gives some hopes that the latter option might be accurate.

Workshop 2 was particularly stimulating as it took place in the Manchester Museum and was attended not only by the project participants – that is, those ‘enlightened’, ‘converted’ researchers interested in public engagement – but also by a number of heritage professionals wishing to initiate fruitful collaborations with young researchers. After all, if academic research is to be carried out in more participatory and collaborative ways, it is essential that organisations outside academia understand and value the positive impact of collaborations with academics. The heritage professionals who attended the workshop seemed to be very well aware of such a positive impact.

Once the workshops had been delivered, all participants were asked to submit a reviewed engagement project proposal. Indeed, the competitive element of the project was not over as yet; the Research2Public strand could fund only a number of project proposals to be selected through a competitive process. Participants soon turned from amicable participants into competitive rivals! As well as providing information about the specific institution we intended to co-produce our ‘engagement project’ with, in the final project proposal we were asked to offer a detailed account of the nature of the activities we planned to carry out, the project’s outputs, and a rough budget. At this point I had to confront the first challenge. Which institution was the best host of my engagement project? As is well known, finding a suitable partner for any sort of collaborative endeavour is a very delicate step. I was fortunate enough to identify the appropriate collaborator to bring my idea to life! To know more about this, well, I am afraid you will need to wait until my next blog post.

I will be back soon, hopefully.

Reference list

Dodd, J. and Sandell, R. (2001) Including Museums. Perspectives on Museums, Galleries and Social Inclusion. Leicester: RCMG.

Iervolino, S. (2013), ‘Museums, Migrant Communities and Intercultural Dialogue in Italy’ in V. Golding, and W. Modest, W. (eds.) Museums and Communites:
Curators, Collections and Collaboration. London: Bloomsbury Academic, pp. 113-129.

Janes, R. R. and Conaty, G. T. (2005) Looking reality in the eye: museums and social responsibility. Calgary: University of Calgary Press.

Marstine, J. (2011) (eds.) The Routledge companion to museum ethics: redefining ethics for the twenty-first century museum. London: Routledge.

Sandell, R. (2002) (eds.) Museum, Society, Inequality. London: Routledge.

Dr. Serena Lervolino, Centre for Cultural Policy Studies, University of Warwick
E-mail: s.iervolino@warwick.ac,uk; Twitter: @SerenaIervolino

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