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, 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.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

2018 PhD Conference: Theme Revealed!

Hi all,

As you may be aware, we're reviving the PhD conference at our School to be held on 13 - 14 September 2018 (to be confirmed). After a couple of meetings we've come up with the theme and questions. Our 2018 Conference title is 'Museums (em)Power' and we've proposed five key questions:

1. How do cultural institutions act as spaces in which power is negotiated?
2. How are cultural institutions challenged by evolving political and societal ideologies? How are they discovering opportunities within these challenges or perpetuate them?
3. How do cultural institutions engage diverse audiences, including marginalized and vulnerable communities?
4. How has the Digital Revolution transformed the ways in which cultural institutions negotiate power with society?
5. How can museum collections, exhibitions, or art impact people (such as intellectually, socially, or emotionally)?

Our next steps are to develop an abstract for each question and plan for funding applications and sponsorships. Under the theme of 'power' the committee aims to involve all the PhD colleagues so if you have comments or suggestions on the theme or any other aspects of the Conference, please feel free to share your thoughts. We'll also keep you updated on our progress so stay tuned!

2018 PhD Conference Comittee

Sunday, November 26, 2017

School of Museum Studies to host Susan Ferentinos for the Research Seminar: "The United States Grapples with the Queer Past"

The University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies will host a special research seminar, "The United States Grapples with the Queer Past" by Susan Ferentinos, on November 29th, 2017 at 1:00pm. The seminar will take place in the Learning Studio of the Museum Studies Building at 19 University Road, Leicester LE1 7RF.

In the United States, mainstream discussion of the history of same-sex love and desire is still relatively uncommon, although that fact is rapidly changing. Spurred on by growing social acceptance of LGBTQ individuals and the federal government’s nationwide LGBTQ Heritage Initiative, more and more museums and historic sites are introducing queer topics into their programming and exhibitions. This presentation will offer an overview of recent efforts in this area, as well as considering some ongoing challenges for bringing the queer past to a wide audience.

The presenter, Susan Ferentinos, is a public history researcher, writer, and consultant based in the United States and specializing in inclusive interpretation and historic preservation. Her current projects include a survey of potential U.S. National Historic Landmarks related to LGBTQ history and consulting with the Stonewall National Monument on the historical significance of the 1969 Stonewall Uprising in New York City. Dr. Ferentinos is the author of Interpreting LGBT History at Museums and Historic Sites (Rowman & Littlefield), which won the 2016 book award from the National Council on Public History.

Monday, November 24, 2014

School of Museum Studies Research Seminar Wednesday 22nd October 2014, Professor Simon Gunn The Strange Death of Industrial England

On Wednesday 22nd October 2014 Professor Simon Gunn, Professor of Urban History at the Centre for Urban History, a research centre within the University of Leicester’s School of History, and author of books including:  History and cultural theory (2006) and The public culture of the Victorian middle class:  ritual and authority and the English industrial city, 1840-1914 (2000), visited the University of Leicester School of Museum Studies Research Seminar Series to speak on the topic of ‘The Strange Death of Industrial England’.