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.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Museum Utopias Programme and Registration

Breaking news: The provisional programme for our upcoming (March 27-28) conference on Museum Utopias has been published to our website. Registration has been open for a while, though early-bird fees and our bursaries have now expired. Still, you have a chance to win free registration (and free books!) in our photo contest on Facebook, Twitter, or our blog.

CFP: Performing Art History II at the Courtauld

Please find below the Call for Papers for the conference 'Performing Art History II: Conveying Research, Communicating Collaboration', which will take place at The Courtauld on Friday 18 May 2012.

Please send proposals of 300 words by 12 March 2012 to jack.hartnell@courtauld.ac.uk

For further information, please click here.

CALL FOR PAPERS

Performing Art History II: Conveying Research, Communicating Collaboration
A conference organised by the Performing Art History Special Interest Group

Friday 18 May 2012
Kenneth Clark Lecture Theatre, The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London WC2

Building on a further year of workshops and seminars, the Performing Art History Group present a second conference that seeks to explore the clarity, diversity, and freedom that can come from presenting art historical research directly to an audience, as opposed to through traditional publishing routes in books or journals.

This year the conference will have an additional focus on collaboration. The topics of previous workshops, focusing on Television, Radio, and Internet Art History all address media that inevitably require creative alliances between different individuals with different skills. Likewise, the shift from more static forms of analysis encouraged by the limitations of print-based media and the subsequent rise of new technologies at the disposal of researchers, allows for interesting and diverse partnerships to emerge both within the discipline of art history and beyond it.

As such, the conference will give an opportunity for scholars at all stages of their careers to experiment with dynamic, alternative methods of conveying research and communicating collaborations, with the format of papers able to both reflect and directly comment upon the subject presented.

Abstracts are invited for short 15 minute papers from all areas of the discipline. In each case the art historical research presented should be further elucidated through novel and alternative presentation method, be it visual, aural, or action-based. Joint papers or collaborations between art historians, or between art historians and practitioners from other disciplines (visual arts, history, sciences, etc.) are especially encouraged.

Possible papers:

· ‘Miro and the Sea: A Picture Essay’
· ‘21st-Century Collage: a lecture on multi-media given in multi-media’
· ‘The Poetry of the Parthenon: an architectural analysis in verse by historian and poet’
· ‘Between Rubens and Poussin: a live debate’
· ‘The Mediterranean Character of Picasso: a lost lecture by the artist’
· ‘Technical Advances and Musical Collaborations: recent x-ray examinations of a 14th century altarpiece accompanied by a new musical arrangement

Presentation techniques could include (but are not limited to):

· a collaborative lecture between two speakers or performers
· a picture essay or photo essay
· an accompanying visual montage, movie, animation, or artwork
· accompanying sound, music, or performance
· original use of digital or presentation technologies (PowerPoint, etc.)
· an online paper
· an improvised lecture
· a lecture in character

Applicants should send an abstract of around 300 words clearly outlining the art historical focus of the paper, the paper’s presentational technique, and the nature of the collaboration (if relevant), alongside a short biography, to jack.hartnell@courtauld.ac.uk

Deadline: 12th March 2012

Thursday, January 26, 2012

2012 Internships for Research Projects at the Museum Conservation Institute

The Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute is offering short-term opportunities to work on research projects with staff members. The internships are intended mainly for the summer of 2012, but consideration will be given to projects at other times during the year. Preference will be given to applicants currently enrolled in conservation training programs or graduate students in related subjects. A stipend may be offered for a period of up to 10 weeks. Projects will be supervised by the following staff members, whom applicants are urged to contact in advance of application:

Mary Ballard, Senior Textiles Conservator, 301-238-1210,ballardm@si.edu

Harriet F. (Rae) Beaubien, Head of Conservation (archaeological materials), 301-238-1235, beaubienh@si.edu

Paula DePriest, Deputy Director (biodeterioration), 301-238-1206,depriestp@si.edu

Christine France, Physical Scientist (stable isotopes), 301-238-1261,francec@si.edu

Jennifer Giaccai, Conservation Scientist, 301-238-1211,giaccaij@si.edu

Carol Grissom, Senior Objects Conservator, 301-238-1236,grissomc@si.edu

Robert Koestler, Director (biodeterioration), 301-238-1205,koestlerr@si.edu

Nicole Little, Physical Scientist (ICP-MS, XRD, SEM-EDS), 301-238-1243, littlen@si.edu

Odile Madden, Research Scientist (modern materials, plastic, Raman spectroscopy), 301-238-1257, maddeno@si.edu

Mehdi Moini, Senior Research Scientist (mass spectrometry/ proteomics)301-238-1238, moinim@si.edu

Hanna Szczepanowska, Research Conservator (museum environments), 301-238-1232, szczepanowskah@si.edu

Jia-Sun Tsang, Senior Paintings Conservator (modern and contemporary art), 301-238-1231, tsangj@si.edu

Ed Vicenzi, Research Scientist (microchemistry/microscopy), 301-238-1215, vicenzie@si.edu

Melvin Wachowiak, Senior Conservator (advanced imaging, 3D scanning, and wooden artifacts), 301-238-1218, wachowiakm@si.edu

Donald Williams, Senior Furniture Conservator (wooden artifacts), 301-238-1239, williamsd@si.edu

Applications must be made on line at https://solaa.si.edu by March 30, 2012. Selected candidates will be interviewed by telephone, although MCI visits are welcome. Notifications will be sent by April 15, 2012.

Brown Bag 25th January 2012

Marilena Alivizatou, from UCL, on Intangible Heritage
In this enjoyable Brown Bag, Marilena gave a comprehensive
introduction to the history – and the cultural politics - of intangible
heritage, before looking at how a number of museums around the world collect,
display and interpret intangible heritage. She could easily have filled a two-hour
slot with her fascinating international examples, but the snapshots she
presented offered a thought-provoking glimpse into different approaches to
practice.
She began with a potted history of the recognition of the importance
of intangible heritage by the international cultural community, emphasising
UNESCO’s key role in raising the profile of intangible heritage, through its
programmes of listing. Marilena worked at UNESCO for a year and her insider’s
perspective was interesting. She argued that UNESCO’s work was informed by a ‘preservation
ethos’, which had its routes in colonialism, with a dominant nineteenth-century
idea that ‘native’ culture was disappearing and needed to be preserved with
urgency, before it was lost. She suggested that this starting point gave rise
to a conceptual approach to heritage, which valued the supposedly authentic and
unchanging and wanted to preserve it from contamination by outside influences: one
political impetus for the preservation of intangible heritage, for example,
came from South American governments in the 1970s who were concerned about the
appropriation - or exploitation - of traditional music by Western popular
musicians.
The first unsuccessful attempt by UNESCO to establish an instrument
to protect intangible heritage came in 1989, but there was real progress in
1993 when an intangible heritage section was established, and the terminology of ‘Intangible
Heritage’ was adopted, replacing the previous terminology of ‘folklore’, which had
perhaps given an impression of somewhat marginal cultural significance. A series of initiatives followed, leading to
the signing in 2003 of the UNESCO Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible
Heritage. The Convention aims to give communities a prominent role in
identifying practices that should be preserved, although Marilena suggested that
in practice it tended to operate in more of a ‘top down’ manner, with
governments promoting aspects of culture that they perceive as significant.
Parties to the Convention are committed to safeguarding these practices and to
compiling inventories of them, and more than 200 cultural expressions are
currently on the list.
Marilena commented that the Convention had been shaped by
UNESCO’s over-riding preservation ethos and speculated about the effect of
this. Do people become prisoners of their heritage, frozen in a cultural form
perceived as ideal in some way, but shut off from innovation? She gave an
example of a community in Peru who preserve a traditional way of life, with no
electronic communications, for instance, implicitly questioning who benefitted
from this: the people themselves, or the tourists who visit them? Marilena
suggested that the Marxist notion of creative destruction might offer an
alternative approach to understanding intangible heritage, enabling us to
consider the heritage of change and impermanence. She argued that cultural
preservation by governments and elites can be artificial, restricting the
freedom of choice of individuals and communities. She illustrated this with
reference to the wearing of the traditional Goh costume in Bhutan: some people
prefer to wear warmer, synthetic alternatives in cold weather, but wear the Goh
on top to maintain the tradition.
Marilena argued that synthesis is a key element of culture,
the bringing together of different elements in a dynamic process of change and
adaptation, but that the UNESCO approach to intangible heritage fails to
encompass this aspect. Can museums do better, engaging with change and
transformation in cultural heritage?
Marilena gave examples from a group of museums trying to
engage in new ways with communities, and acting as more than just a treasure
house. The museums in her study were all adopting what might be seen as a
post-colonial model for the museum, attempting to establish themselves as ‘contact
zones’, to use James Clifford’s description.
Marilena first explored practice at the National Museum of
the American Indian in Washington, which adopted the ‘appropriate museology’
approach advocated by Christina Kreps, for example by respecting the beliefs of
source communities in how objects are displayed and stored. The museum acts as
custodian, but sees ownership as continuing to rest with the tribes who are the
source communities. This ethos is also expressed in the representational
strategies in the exhibitions, which aim to be multi-vocal, resisting the
single authoritative voice of the traditional museum display. New technology
allows individual stories to come to the fore.
The approach at Te Papa in Wellington is similar, in that it
respects the Maori notion of Taonga, that is, seeing objects as ancestors and
living treasures. Marilena looked at one particular instance of this in the
museum’s practice, when the museum wanted to build a house for performance. The
model adopted for the house recast the museum’s approach authenticity by
accepting community ideas about how the house should be built over academic
ideas about the tradition of such buildings.
While NMAI and Te Papa are relatively well known and often
discussed in the UK, I hadn’t previously come across Marilena’s third example,
the museum of Vanuatu. When this island group gained independence in 1980, the
revival of custom was an important aspect of nation building. The museum has
emphasised this in its practice, concentrating on recording intangible
heritage, rather than collecting material culture. Marilena described a project
to train local fieldworkers in ethnographic techniques to enable them to record
traditions and the museum attempts to engage with these in a creative way,
which is open to development and reinterpretation.
By now, we were running out of time in the appointed lunch
hour slot – though her audience were keen to hear more - and Marilena gave only
brief examples from the last two museums in her study, the Horniman in London
and the Musée
du Quai Branly in Paris. She ended with a summary of the characteristics of a
people-centred museology, which might offer a model for museums wishing to
engage with intangible heritage, and which draws on the best aspects of the
work of the museums in her study. It would involve: working with communities,
empowering and respecting the voices of different groups, rethinking the meaning
of collections, using new media to represent intangible heritage and allowing
space for the performance of intangible heritage. Most crucially, it requires
an intellectual approach which emphasises cultural revival, impermanence and
renewal rather than archival documentation. This is clearly a challenge to much
museum practice if taken seriously – but a fascinating one.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Deadline for Museum Utopias Travel Bursaries Extended!

'Museum Utopias: Navigating the Imaginary, Ideal and Possible Museum' is the forthcoming interdisciplinary postgraduate symposium organised by the PhD community at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester.

The deadline for our four Travel Bursaries (worth £200 each) has been extended till 31 January 2012! If you are a full-time PhD student not in receipt of sufficient funding from your department, University or external body to attend the symposium, then you are eligible to apply. Bursaries may be used to pay for reasonable travel, accommodation and subsistence expenses. For full details, and an application form, click here.

Museum Utopias is open to PhD students, early career researchers and museum professionals. Look out for our full provisional programme coming soon!

CFP: Photography and museums

2nd International Conference of Photography and Theory
Photography and Museums: Displayed and Displaying

THALASSA MUNICIPAL MUSEUM, Ayia Napa, Cyprus
November 30 – December 2, 2012


Confirmed Keynote Speaker:
Professor Elizabeth Edwards


CALL FOR PAPERS

Research in historical, artistic and vernacular photography has been rapidly expanding in the past few years. Responding to this trend, the International Conference of Photography and Theory (ICPT) was created with an aim to provide an outlet for an interdisciplinary and critical theoretical exploration of photography and photographic practices. The 2nd International Conference of Photography and Theory (ICPT 2012) aims once again at bringing together researchers and practitioners from diverse fields of study who share a common interest in photography. This year’s topic is ‘Photography and Museums’.

Photography has been historically adopted by various types of museums – art, anthropological, historical, and archaeological – as evidence for the objects on view or as a supporting document to events, stories or other artifacts already on display. In other cases photography has been displayed as an autonomous ‘artifact’ or an art form demanding aesthetic consideration. However, it was not until recently that photography in museums was critically re-evaluated in order to examine photography’s impact on the formation of cultural, historic or social narratives and identities. In addition, museums but also contemporary artists have been showing a renewed interest in photography and its potential to challenge museum orthodoxy, as much as in the medium’s expanding possibilities through the use of new media technologies.

This conference aims to critically investigate the relationship between photography and museums; the impact of the medium on the nature and character of the museum and of the museum experience, but also the impact of the institution on the status and development of photography. We invite proposals for 30-minute presentations (20 minutes presentation and 10 minutes for discussion) from various disciplines, such as: photography, art history and theory, visual sociology, anthropology, museology, philosophy, ethnography, cultural studies, visual and media studies, communications, and fine and graphic arts. These should present an in-depth investigation of the relationship between museums and photography historically, philosophically or through specific case studies.

Submitted proposals for presentations should address, but are not limited to one of the following:


Examining Photography in Museums:
• The political economy of the photograph
• Ethnographic collections
• Representations, narratives, stereotypes and power
• Telling stories, negotiating identities
• Exhibiting news photography
• Exhibiting commercial photography (advertising, fashion photography, editorial etc.)
• Photographs as artifacts: the photographic album
• Researching photographic albums in museums / archives
• Documentary photography: evidence and truth
• Photographs of war, violence or / and agony


Photography and Museology:
• Shifting paradigms of display
• Contemporary photography in the museum
• Challenging tradition: digital photography versus painting
• Photography’s impact on the nature of museum collections
• Educational implications of the use of photography in museums
• Photography and museum audiences
• Photography and online museums
• Museum outreach through online photographic collections
• The art museum conversing with the photography museum
• New technologies and the photographic exhibition


Photographers/Artists and the Museum:
• Photographer’s interventions in museums
• Photographing the museum / Questioning the museum
• Photographing museum audiences
• Artists looking at / researching in museum’s photographic archives
• Exhibiting photographic archives
• The artist as curator: displaying found photographs
• Public-generated photography in art exhibitions
• The photography festival: Voices Off, Arles Fest, Paris Photo etc.
• The moving still photograph


To propose a paper please send a 400-word (excluding references) abstract no later than April 15, 2012 to inquiries@photographyandtheory.com. For the purposes of blind refereeing, full name of each author with current affiliation and full contact details (address, email, phone), title of presentation, and a short biographical note (200 words) should be supplied on a separate document. Both documents (abstract and contact details) should be in English.
Important dates:
Deadline for submission: April 15, 2012
Notification of authors: May 30, 2012
Deadline for early registration – authors: July 30, 2012
Deadline for late registration – authors: September 30, 2012
Deadline for full paper submission: September 30, 2012
Deadline for registration – participants: October 1, 2012
Conference: November 30 – December 2, 2012

Submitted proposals will go through blind peer-reviewing and authors will be notified of the acceptance of their proposals by May 30, 2012. Authors whose proposals are accepted must submit full papers of between 4000-6000 words by September 30, 2012 by e-mail to: inquiries@photographyandtheory.com. The guidelines for submitting a paper will be sent to each of the contributors at a later time. The conference proceedings, will include all papers presented and will be distributed during the conference. Selected papers will be considered for publication in an edited volume.
For more information in the next few months, please visit the ICPT website at:
www.photographyandtheory.com (currently under construction)
Questions may be sent to: inquiries@photographyandtheory.com

Members of the Organizing Committee (ICPT2012):
Dr Elena Stylianou, Chair, European University Cyprus
Dr Theopisti Stylianou-Lambert, Co-chair, Cyprus University of Technology
Prof. Stephanos Stephanides, University of Cyprus
Dr Yiannis Toumazis, Frederick University Cyprus, Nicosia Municipal Arts Centre and Pierides Foundation, Cyprus
Haris Pellapaisiotis, University of Nicosia, Cyprus
Nicos Philippou, University of Nicosia, Cyprus
Nicholas Constantinou, Association of Teachers of Photography in Secondary Education, Cyprus

Members of the Scientific Committee:
Prof. Liz Wells, University of Plymouth, UK
Prof. Darren Newbury, Birmingham Institute of Art and Design, UK
Dr Dona Schwartz, University of Minnesota, USA
Dr Alexandra Bounia, University of the Aegean, Greece
Dr Claire Robins, Institute of Education, University of London, UK
Dr Elena Stylianou, European University Cyprus, Cyprus
Dr Theopisti Stylianou-Lambert, Cyprus University of Technology, Cyprus
Dr Hercules Papaioannou, Thessaloniki Museum of Photography, Greece
Dr Ahmad Hosni, independent photographer, Egypt/Spain

Friday, January 20, 2012

CFP: cultural heritage and international development

CALL FOR PAPERS
For the inaugural conference of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies 'The Re/theorisation of Heritage Studies' in Gothenburg, Sweden, June 5-8 2012.
http://www.science.gu.se/english/research/prominent-research-environments/areas-of-strength/Heritage_Studies/news_events/achs/

We seek contributions to the following session:

Please submit a short abstract of around 250 words, or at least declare your intention to do so, by Monday 3oth January.

Cultural Heritage and International Development: new intersections and practical possibilities

In recent decades, culture, cultural heritage and cultural rights have become more integral elements of development thinking. In response to anthropological critiques of development practice since the 1980s, new trends have emerged in international development that may be of wider significance to the field of cultural heritage studies. These trends have resulted in the rise to ‘development orthodoxy’ of transcultural concepts as local knowledge, participation and wellbeing. In cultural heritage studies, a movement away from European conceptions of heritage is clearly discernible. What impact does this de-Europeanisation of heritage have on institutions that have hitherto been guided by Euro-centric knowledge? Once considered in bounded and monumental terms, as a concept cultural heritage now offers much more. It may be both a space of ‘negotiation’ and an acknowledgement that intangible heritage, indigenous rights and contested ownership might define processes of recognition and self-definition.

This session aims to explore the interactions and between cultural heritage studies and international development and consider shared perspectives as well as issues of divergence. Potential areas of discussion include the relationship between local knowledge and intangible heritage; attempts to overcome power inequalities, for example in relation to ‘participation’ and ‘authorised heritage discourse’; the interactions between global policy, policymakers and approaches to local practical implementation; universalist vs. relativist conceptions of cultural and/or human rights; and the ethics of ‘outsider’ intervention. Contributions are welcomed from all: from students and researchers to project workers and agency staff.

Session organisers:

Mark Oldham (M.Oldham@uea.ac.uk)

Dan Rycroft

University of East Anglia, UK

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Beryl Graham Brown Bag - 'Curating After New Media Art'

Brown Bag – Professor Beryl Graham, University of Sunderland
‘Curating After New Media Art: Museums and Audiences’


Professor Graham came to us today from the north-east of England to speak about New Media Art, how it is curated, how it is displayed and visitor interaction with it. She is clearly passionate about her topic and gave a lively and engaging presentation on the subject.

Graham, as co-founder of CRUMB or Curatorial Research for Upstart Media Bliss, which has to be one of the best acronyms I’ve ever come across. It is a resource dedicated to curators of new media art, to assist them in communication and research and bring the community together. Co-founders Graham and Cook have also published Rethinking Curating in 2010 and Graham is the editor on a new book to be released next year about New Media Art in Museums. In a topic still considered new, Graham seems to be at the front of the line. Her PhD thesis in 1997 dealt with audience relationships with interactive media artwork and her research has expanded from there Available here.

What’s more, Graham has been involved in art work style games over the last 20 years, of the interactive style and curated the Serious Games exhibit at Newcastle and London in 1996/97, a show not about new technology, but rather ‘a show about interaction’. There seems to be a clear and definitive flow to her work over recent decades and it is nice to see so much work being done on a subject matter (new media art) that many people still shy away from.

Graham’s Brown Bag was focused primarily on the interactivity of new media art. She identified three behaviours that have directly affected the contemporary art world: connectivity (or ‘things connected to other things’), computability (or ‘how things react to each other’) and lastly, interactivity. She acknowledged that there is a group of new media art that is both connective and computable, citing Laborers of Love as an example, the 2009 website that offer customized pornography made with images supplied by paid artists.

The lecture focus on interactivity was a good one, at least from my standpoint, since my own thesis deals with interactivity in the history museum environment (vs. art galleries). There are many similarities that can be drawn and the intention is much the same: to encourage movement and communication amongst visitors within a gallery space. This was a radical idea in the 1960/70s, pioneered by Rirkrit Tiravanija, who was a foremost artist at the time in convincing the public that fine art wasn’t just to be viewed, it should be enjoyed and engaged with directly. New media deals specifically with the concept of ‘participatory’, which is what Rirkrit hoped to achieve in his art pieces that involved the visitor directly.

From here, Graham moved on to the discussion of interactivity within new media art, citing a number of exhibition examples that used new media within the galleries. Here is presented a problem: can new media be used in a new media art installation without being part of the art? It is an integral problem facing curators of new media art today, as to how to draw in new media interactivity to their exhibitions effectively and understandably for the public.

Interactivity has also taken the turn towards interest in audience behaviour to the art, where some artists seek to shock or frustrated viewers. Does this become solely the purpose of the art piece for the sake of the artist, or part of the visitor study of audience behaviours? Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1992 included works created out of candy where the intention was for the visitor to take a piece; the pile ever replenished. Nowhere, however, was this stated. It is ingrained in the art gallery visitor not to touch the display, even if they want a piece of liquorice!

Robert Morris’ Bodyspacemotionthings in 1971 was also shown as example of interaction in galleries by hands on art display. It was Tate’s first fully interactive exhibition at the time and closed after just four days, due to over enthusiasm of the audience. It opened again a short time later, but as a hands-off exhibit, making, as Graham said, it ‘rather boring’. It has since been recreated at Tate in 2009 for a brief stint, as closely as the curators could manage. This is a good example of how life art curators are used to dealing with the public doing things in public spaces and being involved in the art, where sculptor curators are very ‘hands-off’.

Lastly, Graham spoke about audience participation specifically, citing the newer idea of documentation by the audience (versus the curator) and specifically crowd source documentation where the audience collaborates through photography and video taken while in the gallery and then posted online. The exhibit becomes documented, not by the museum staff, but by the visitors, scattered across the WWW.

But what is participation? Ele Carpenter in her research identified the Ladder of Participation, best used for citizenship participation in politics, but useful even for art. There are levels that range from the bottom: manipulation into participating to the top: citizen control of participation. A better museum model may be Paul Baran’s networked models of 1964 which describe the Internet from a centralized centre beaming out to audience to a distributed model where everyone and everything is interlinked (the modern Internet). Graham argued that art is either centralised (with the artist at the centre) or decentralized, half way between centralised and distributed, where art is participation in small linked centralized groups. Jeanne van Heeswijk in 2004’s ‘Work, Typologies & Capacities’ attempted to recreate such a model using wire and potatoes, which if nothing else certain made for an interesting display!

Participation (and documentation) bring up the idea of the audience as curators themselves. Such an idea would probably send most curators running for the hills, but there is a certain usefulness in getting the public to help. The site ‘Runme’ allows visitors and artists to create a keywords database for software art, which is not something that curators themselves are doing.

An opposite example from audience curation happened with the Guggenheim YouTube project where curators selected public videos (from anything available on YouTube) and displayed it in the gallery. Interestingly, most of the videos chosen were video art, as if the ingrained idea of artwork and display in gallery space was still adhered to by the curators. To an extent, the Internet becomes video art itself, not just the separate YouTube videos.

During the Q&A Ross Parry brought up the interesting point of whether, in the UK, SPECTRUM standards work for new media art. Ultimately, we concluded that they really don’t at all! However, forms of self-documentation (such as the Runme example above) are filling in the gaps where SPECTRUM just doesn’t work, but it is the public doing so. Perhaps it is time that curators acknowledge that new media art is just as important as any other art form and should be treated in the same way.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Writing Up: Bad Habits


Last night, I sent off my complete first draft of my thesis to my supervisors. I'd like to say that it's all downhill from here, but I know that's not true. Mostly because I have not done anything all day, and that is just one of the bad habits I have that I will have to battle from now until I am done (or possibly until the end of my life, but that doesn't seem feasible right now). I've been having lots of conversations with people about writing and study habits, so I thought I would summarise some of my faults here:

1. I am a fitful writer. By this I mean both that I work in fits and starts and that I have fits in relation to writing. Unlike some better-disciplined individuals in the PhD community, I cannot work on a schedule; I have to work when inspiration strikes, and/or I have no other distractions that allow me to procrastinate. This means that I spend days in a television-and-internet-fuelled stupor, eventually emerging on the other side of a night-long panic attack to pound away at my keyboard. Let me tell you right now: panic is not a good long-term motivator. And the frustration that arises out of being someone with a short attention span being made to concentrate on something big for a long time is also not fun. Flailing ensues, and that does not inspire confidence in onlookers.

2. My brain works faster than my writing. In between each sentence (sometimes each word) I could put a whole paragraph explaining the logic and flow that I otherwise tend to skip because it's obvious to me, but not to anyone else. I resent having to go back and elaborate on my succinct, beautiful phrases. If my thesis was a haiku, that would be ideal - sadly, it is not.

3. I am a people-pleaser. I can't actually come out and say what I really mean, because then someone might call me out on it and disagree with me, and I want us all to just get along!! I am a conflict-averse writer, and therefore I often don't get to the point. I hide behind quotations, and have actually been asked to take my "opinions out of brackets"; those of you who know me in real life will probably laugh at the improbability of this, but it is true. While I am painfully forthright in real life, I can't do it in my writing.

4. I am addicted to the internet. There, I said it. If there is Facebook to check, Tumblr to refresh, emails to write, shows to download - I will do it, even if I am in a really productive stretch. Note how I am blogging right now instead of revising my thesis!

5. I compare myself to other people. This is a destructive tendency. When I read the work of other authors on my subject, I despair because they seem to say everything I want to write. When I see other PhD students in the department, I agonize over how meaningful their research is, and how successful they are at going to conferences/getting published/finding relevant work experience/being friends with academics/dressing stylishly/having the right social background/etc etc etc etc ad nauseam. I am corroded by my own insecurity, and it is paralysing, because I lose faith in my own ability and project. When well-meaning individuals ask me what my plans are for after the PhD, I mutter something about McDonalds. This cannot be allowed to continue.

6. I can't say no. Again, those who know me in real life are clutching their pearls in horror and disbelief, but I take on way too much, so that in addition to the unproductive hours (of sleep, eating, procrastination, etc) I more-or-less plan for, I say yes to massive projects that require time and effort. Worst of all, I do this when I am most stressed, so that I end up not paying much attention and triple-booking myself. However, this is probably going to serve me well in "real life", as conventional success comes to the most involved.

I could go on, but it already sounds like I am fishing for compliments. Instead, I will turn it over to you in the comments: what are your PhD-related faults and how (if at all) do you work to overcome them?

CFP: Materiology of Emotions

OBJECTS OF AFFECTION: TOWARDS A MATERIOLOGY OF EMOTIONS

INTERDISCIPLINARY CONFERENCE

May 4-6, 2012 (PRINCETON, NJ)

PRINCETON INSTITUTE FOR INTERNATIONAL AND REGIONAL STUDIES PRINCETON
UNIVERSITY

In the first issue of the journal Veshch-Objet-Gegenstand, which appeared
90 years ago in Berlin, the avant-gardist El Lissitsky placed the object
at the center of the artistic and social concerns of the day: “We have
called our review Object because for us art means the creation of new
‘objects.’ … Every organized work—be it a house, a poem or a picture—is an
object with a purpose; it is not meant to lead people away from life but
to help them to organize it. ... Abandon declarations and refutations as
soon as possible, make objects!”

Ultimately, only three issues of Veshch-Objet-Gegenstand would be
published, but the journal’s project to cultivate object as a primary tool
of social organization clearly touched upon broader concerns of its time.
At the end of the 1920s, Sergei Tret’iakov, a leading theorist of Russian
production art, similarly insisted on abandoning the traditional
fascination with individual trials and tribulations and to concentrate
instead on the biography of the object that proceeds “through the system
of people.” Only such a biography, Tret’iakov maintained, can teach us
about “the social significance of an emotion by considering its effect on
the object being made.”

Taking the Russian avant-garde’s concern with the material life of
emotions as our starting point, the conference organizers seek to assemble
an international, interdisciplinary group of scholars working at the
intersection between studies of affect and studies of material culture. In
the last decade, these two crucial strands of social inquiry have shifted
the focus of analytic attention away from the individual or collective
subject towards emotional states and material substances. These interests
in the affective and the tangible as such have helped to foreground
processes, conditions, and phenomena that are relatively autonomous from
the individuals or social groups that originally produced them. Thus
interrogating traditional notions of subjective agency, various scholars
have drawn our attention to “a conative nature” of things (Jane Bennet),
to “affective intensities” (Brian Massumi), or to textural perception (Eve
Kosofsky Sedgwick) – to name just a few of these interventions – in order
to pose questions that fall outside of dominant frameworks for
understanding the epistemology of power.

Despite their growing importance, however, these diverse methods and
concepts for mapping the emotive biographies of things have not yet been
in a direct dialogue with one another. By focusing on the material
dimensions of affect and, conversely, the emotional components of object
formation, this conference aims to bridge this gap.

We invite submissions from scholars in a range of disciplines including
history, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, religion, politics, law,
psychology, history of medicine, science studies, art, film, media and
literary criticism, who are interested in exploring types of affective
responses, protocols of emotional attachment, and regimes of perception
that are encoded into and sustained by material substances. We welcome
theoretically rigorous proposals that draw attention to new configurations
of object relations as well as submissions that examine historically and
culturally specific forms of affective networks built around instances of
inorganic life across the world.

Please send your abstract (300 words) and a short CV to Serguei Oushakine,
the Chair of the Program Committee (oushakin@princeton.edu) by February 1,
2012.

Those selected to give presentations at the conference will be contacted
at the end of February 2012. Final papers will be due no later than April
15, and they will be posted on the conference's website. We may be able to
offer a limited number of travel subsidies for graduate students and
presenters outside the USA.

PROGRAM COMMITTEE:

Serguei Oushakine (Slavic Languages and Literatures; Anthropology,
Princeton U) Anna Katsnelson (Slavic Languages & Literatures, Princeton U)
David Leheny (East Asian Studies, Princeton U) Anson Rabinbach (Department
of History, Princeton U) Gayle Salamon (Department of English, Princeton
U)

Royal Engineers Museum, a trip to Kent



I’m not quite certain if any of you, our readers, have ever been down to Gillingham, Kent and visited the Royal Engineers Museum. It’s certainly not a place many people seem to know about, unless military type history is of interest. It certainly seems to be undervalued even by its surrounding community, many of which have family in the RE!

I was lucky enough to pay a visit on Saturday. I must say, it was not just a social call, and the Documentation Officer who was working the weekend shift, a lovely man by the name of Andrew, knew I was coming. A friend of a friend, and a retired Royal Engineer himself, works closely with the museum and was only too happy to get me a ‘special tour’!

Andrew was lovely when he showed me around the museum, explaining how the galleries had come to be, and new improvements (and the ones they hope to do) and anything of particular notice. It’s definitely not the tour the school groups get, and it’s clear that the museum does not offer daily tours or such, so I was very happy for the go round. I knew only a little about the museum prior to my visit. If you’ve heard of it, but not been to see it, no doubt you have no idea what’s there!

The place is massive, to start with. The museum originally started as just a reference library for the Corps in 1812. Over the years, however, the Corps began to collect large amounts of historical objects, as you would expect. This is the history of the Naval and Air Force museums too. The Royal Engineers Museum, however, didn’t obtain ‘Designated’ status until 1998, when it was acknowledge as having a large storehouse of significant items to the history of the Corps and the military. It now has over 500,000 objects, many well known!

They have on display (very carefully, I might add) Wellington’s Waterloo map. Many items attributed to Charles Gordon on his travels, a Brennan torpedo, and 25 Victoria Crosses (of the 52 that have ever been awarded to Royal Engineers).

The museum is what you might imagine of a military type exhibition. However, a great deal of work is in the process of being done to improve the galleries (most of which were done in the 1980s when the museum moved into its current building). The first three entrance galleries, which describe the history of engineering in Britain (all the way back to Roman times) have been redone, which many of the objects kept from the original displays. The collection of the museum includes many, many models, because the Royal Engineers used to create a model of a project for final sign off by the officials before work could begin. It must make a visit by children very enjoyable, since they can look at the original models on display while the educator talks about the history. The first galleries also show a clear view on how engineering 2000 years ago has evolved and how much has actually stayed the same!
From there, the 1980s style galleries pick up, show the history of the Royal Engineers from their founding through each country and conflict they were part of.

There is an area dedicated to the period in which the RE’s were in Indian and an effort has been made to link the importance to the development of Indian and Pakistan’s own Military Engineers. Andrew explained there India has its own museum, and most of the objects of importance are there. Only a few have been maintained by Britain, but the museum in Gillingham has had a great deal of positive feedback in how it’s displayed and how they tell the story. Always good to hear!

From the main building, the museum winds into a longer building which is not currently well used. They have high hopes to take advantage of the raised ceiling and put in two levels (it’s currently just the ground floor with an open area above). This will allow them to create a proper library (at present, the library is scattered across two sites, one of which is on the nearby Military Grounds and is not accessible by the public). It will also increase gallery and storage space.

When they do this, they will, as Andrew said, have to redo the galleries below!
From there, the visitor enters the large Model Bridge Gallery, which unfortunately is quite poorly displayed and an area that most of the staff dislike. It’s very large, but very dark and does not seem to tell an obvious story. Most of the artefacts are lost in the space, and most visitors zone in on the two large vehicles on display, rather than anything to do with bridge building!

It is a blessing to leave the dark space and move into the large centre of the main building. Here is more of the typical military museum that most are used to. It looks very similar to the central area of the Imperial War Museum in London, with large vehicles and many text panels. You also get the sense that you have moved into a more modern area, leaving the past of the Royal Engineers behind (the last exhibit before the Model Bridge is dedicated to the RE’s around WWII). This large area is two stories and the upper level, which is a series of raised platforms and walkways, allows the viewer to see the vehicles on display below. It also leads to the final gallery of the museum, also recently redone.

This was a surprise I wasn’t expecting when Andrew led me up there. It’s very light and open (there’s a large skylight above) and it’s clearly dedicated to current Royal Engineers and the work they are doing around the world, but particularly in the Middle East. The museum has taken an interesting approach in designing this new exhibit. They specifically got in touch with current serving members, or recently retired, and asked them if they had objects to donate. It took some effort to convince the Corps that current objects were important to a museum; they kept trying to donate old things from their grandfathers’ time! A good collection of modern objects, specific to the Engineers (such as a toolkit) are on display in class cabinets. The showpiece is definitely the interactive screen however, which must measure at least four feet by three and is controlled by a large touch screen TV. As much information as the current Corps would allow is on the screen.

The ‘Corps Today’ Gallery only opened in September of 2011, and so the information on the program dates as recently as June 2011. It describes current projects of the RE’s, but its highlight is the satellite views of Camp Bastion, the main British military base in Afghanistan. The Royal Engineers began to construct it in 2006, and it has grown exponentially since then. The visitor can scroll through the satellite views to see the camp evolve. The Camp currently accommodates 21,000 people, but it is still growing. I have no doubt that the child visitor must love this new exhibit, since Andrew and I had quite an enjoyable time playing with it ourselves!

There are many things planned for the Royal Engineers Museum in the years to come. As well as the building work and gallery updates they hope to do, their new Education Officer (a Canadian) is pushing towards more work within the surrounding community and with schools. The museum has much to offer the National Curriculum, with its emphasis on the wars, engineering work and the military. Previous ‘family events’ are going to lead into a more updated Theme Day, where an aspect of the Royal Engineers will be presented to the public, with a focus on attracting local families. The museum only sees about 15,000 visitors a year, and it is there hope to increase that number in the next few years, especially amongst the general public (many of their visitors have a connection to the Corps already).

It was certainly not busy the day I was there, but there were a few families in with young boys who seemed to be enjoying themselves. Hopefully, this is a sign of good things to come.

Friday, January 13, 2012

CFP: Critical Excess

CALL FOR PAPERS
For the inaugural conference of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies 'The Re/theorisation of Heritage Studies' in Gothenburg, Sweden, June 5-8 2012.
http://www.science.gu.se/infoglueCalendar/digitalAssets/1775484548_BifogadFil_Conference_Announcement_ACHS%202012_Third_CALL.pdf

We seek contributions to the following session. Please send a title and abstract of no more than 250 words to both convenors by 28 January.

Critical Excess? Or, what is gained and lost for Heritage Studies through the critical view?

The "critical view" has been a key mode of scholarly enquiry in Heritage Studies -as signaled by the foundation of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies. Used to identify certain kinds of political inequality, and to express certain kinds of hope for reconstructing emancipatory heritage, the "critical view" has itself come in for a certain amount of criticism in recent years. Its efficacy has been queried by those who suggest that it has not had the effects its proponents have argued for (Handler and Gable 1997, p.8). Counterpoints to the "critical view" have, thus, emerged.

Bruno Latour has long proposed a method of Actor-Network-Theory as one such counterpoint. He argues:

When faced with new situations and new objects, [the "critical view"] risks simply repeating that they are woven out of the same tiny repertoire of already recognized forces: power, domination, exploitation, legitimization, fetishization, reification. Law may be socially constructed but so is religion, economics, politics, sport, morality, art, and everything else built with the same material; only the name of the "field" changes. The problem of critical sociology is it can never fail to be right (2005, p. 249)

In other words, the "critical view" is in danger of never being surprised and always discovering what it expects to find. The broad point we take from Latour is that any theoretical view is about managing complexity excluding some things (objects, subjects, experiences, affects, materialities, temporalities, scales) so that others can be seen more clearly (Law and Mol 2002; Strathern 1994; 2002).

Taking this as our starting point, this session asks "what is at stake in how the critical view manages complexity?". We invite papers to respond to this question by drawing on theoretical and methodological "counterpoints" which might "see" that which exceeds the critical. These could include, yet should not be restricted to, Actor-Network-Theory (Latour 2005; Bennett 2005, 2007), complexity theory (Law and Mol 2002), phenomenology, vitalism (Lash 2006, 2007), assemblage (DeLanda 2006; Bennett and Healy 2009), or non-representational theory (Thrift 2010). Papers should provide conceptual and/or empirical reflection on how the
boundaries of the "critical view" are being ­ or indeed could be redrawn. What surprising, puzzling, or paradoxical insights emerge through the use of such counterpoints? What politics do such counterpoints enable? And how are these alternative views enacted through exhibition, display, collection, conservation, or communication heritage practices? By considering such questions, our aim is to identify what is "gained" and "lost" through the "critical view" as a particular mode of academic knowing within Heritage Studies.

Helen Graham, University of Leeds
h.graham@leeds.ac.uk
Jennie Morgan, University of Manchester
morgan.jfr@gmail.com

Thursday, January 12, 2012

CFP: ARTEFACTS 2012

ARTEFACTS is an international network of academic and museum-based scholars
of science, technology and medicine interested in promoting the use of
objects in research. The network was established in 1996 and since then has
held annual conferences examining the role of artefacts in the making of
science and technology and related areas.

The next conference will be held in Edinburgh, Scotland, 7–9 October 2012.
The Scottish government aims to hold a referendum in the next few years on
national independence and the theme of the conference echoes this issue. It
aims to discuss the entanglement of national styles and identity and
scientific, technical and medical artefacts in a global context. Topics
could cover questions such as

- Between inventors and the nation: who makes and owns artefacts?
- Do artefacts embody national styles or distinct communities of practice?
- Do artefacts reflect particular national attitudes on the relationship
between science and technology?
- Do artefacts act as signifiers of nationhood and how are they enlisted in
the construction of nationalist agendas?
- National, international or local: how do museums aim at audiences through
artefacts stories?

ARTEFACTS conferences are friendly and informal meetings with the character
of workshops. There is plenty of time for open discussion and networking.
Each contributor is allocated a 20 minutes slot for her or his talk plus
ample of time for questions and discussion. If you want to present a paper
please contact Klaus Staubermann at k.staubermann@nms.ac.uk not later than
30 April 2012. Please remember that the focus of presentations should be on
artefacts. The conference will be held at the award-winning refurbished
National Museum of Scotland. For information about travel, accommodation,
and holidays in Scotland visit www.visitscotland.com

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

More Haworth

Following on Ceri's post below, I though I would add some more photos of our trip with the Labbers. It was a great trip, and a wonderful opportunity to get out into a more remote part of the country it is otherwise hard to visit.

We were saddened to hear that the mini-manuscript by Charlotte Bronte was sold to France, but when I re-viewed the newest adaptation of Jane Eyre over the holidays I was heartened to see that the filmmakers had clearly drawn on the wealth of the Bronte Society's holdings to design their film. The work they do is really important and they have met with success only because of the contributions of like-minded individuals.
The sign for the museum. Which sister is it?
The path to the moors from the Parsonage. It is easy to imagine Charlotte wandering out.

Ceri also posed moodily on the moor-cum-farmer's-field.

This is my new friend, the fluffy church warden kitty I have named Bronte in my head. He/she would greet visitors and follow them around, and then hop on the donation box to hint that they should leave something for the restoration fund!
The original memorial plaque for the Brontes - the large marble one was moved when the church was extended after the Bronte's time.
Can't you just hear the branches calling out "Heathcliff"?

Just one of many terribly-punning shop names in the town, like Eyres and Graces, Villette Tearooms, etc.

Museums and Romance

If you didn't think museums were a good place to meet someone, consider the title of a recent marketing email for the American Association of Museums annual conference:

Last Chance to Get Engaged at AAM Annual Meeting!

That's right - if you don't go, you will be a lonely unloveable spinster forever!

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

A trip to Haworth and the Bronte Parsonage

Just before Christmas I got to realise one of my English literature dreams and visited the Yorkshire town of Haworth, famous for being the home of the Bronte sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne. It was part of a superbly organised trip with the New History Lab and I meant to write about it before the Christmas break but the little matter of handing my first thesis submission in got in the way!
We met the History Labbers outside De Montfort Hall on a cold December morning. As we left the comfortable undulating countryside of Leicestershire and emerged into the wilder, rockier landscapes of Yorkshire, I was entertaining ideas of looking round a lonely parsonage on top of a bleak, windswept moor. I was surprised therefore to find that, amongst many other myths punctured that day, the Parsonage was actually situated at the top of what had been a busy industrial town in the 19th century. The moors of Wuthering Heights, the splendid isolation of Thornfield seemed miles away from the shops, houses and fields of the surrounding area (from which the Brontes wished to escape?).

The Bronte Museum is located in the original Parsonage, which has been extended and developed since the time of the Brontes. On arrival we went inside a small basement room for a talk on the Bronte family with a very informative member of the museum staff - sadly I do not know her name otherwise I would be able to say a proper thank you! It was very interesting to learn about the real history of the Brontes, rather than the romantic myths and stories which grew up around them after their deaths. Apparently some the myths can be blamed on Elizabeth Gaskell who wrote a biography of Charlotte, particularly the erroneous idea that their father, Patrick Bronte, was something of an eccentric tyrant. It was a revelation to learn that Patrick was just as interesting as his more famous daughters, having come from a poor family in Ireland and started his own school at the age of 16. A published writer and poet, he encouraged his daughter's talents rather than suppressed them. It was also interesting to learn that Bronte was not the real name of the family but the more prosaic Brunty. There was plenty of interesting detail given about the more famous sisters, for instance that Emily Bronte did not seem to take to teaching very well, suggesting that some students she taught were less well behaved than her dogs, and the seeming rivalry between Charlotte and Branwell, and Emily and Anne, when inventing their fantasy world. Also poignant was the life of their brother Branwell, who was the 'golden boy' of the family and had many hopes resting on his shoulders, which he seemed unable to live up to.
After the talk was over, we were free to look round the house, which has been laid out approximately as it would have appeared at the time the Bronte's lived there. Unfortunately it was not possible to take any photos inside the house but it was surprisingly small for such a large family, even with an extra wing added by a later incumbent. The museum gave another interesting overview of the Bronte family, furnished with many objects that they would have owned in life. It was interesting to see their writing cases (reassuringly messy) and early examples of their writing, such as the tiny magazines they made as children.
The position of the house above the graveyard is not always a comforting sight, however the graveyard played an interesting role in the town's history. Despite being small, Haworth had an incredibly high death rate in the 19th century similar to Manchester and the larger cites. The average age of death was around 25 I remember. Partly this was because the springs where most of the people drank from and washed in filtered down the hill through the very graveyard in front of the parsonage... but even if the Brontes had access to cleaner water, the number of the family who died from Tuberculosis - only Patrick lived to old age and heartbreakingly saw all his children die before him - reveals the fragility of life in the 19th century.
The church (above) where Patrick Bronte was Curate, although he would not recognise it as it was rebuilt in 1879 (Patrick died in 1861).
I was amazed by the graveyard because unlike many other cemeteries and graveyards in England, it has not suffered from having gravestones taken down, made into paths or arranged around the walls. It is completely packed with memorials and I imagine most graveyards could have been like this at one stage.

For lunch J and I ventured into town and decided to eat lunch at the Black Bull Inn, a pub that was frequented by Branwell Bronte. It was well within staggering distance of the Parsonage and was relatively easy to imagine Branwell making the walk several times a week, to the annoyance and concern of his family.
Haworth's main street is strung out along a relatively steep hill (compared to most in Leicestershire anyway) and looked picturesque in the feeble sunlight. Unfortunately whilst we were eating lunch the heavens opened and rained down hail and rain in equal measure. Intrepid explorers as we are, we refused to let this put a dampener on our visit and set off resolutely to explore the town, fortified by jacket potatoes.
Haworth is mostly built of lovely yellow stone and the main street retains its cobbles, giving it a 19th century feel. I imagine that the presence of the Brontes has prevented it from going the way of most British high streets with their garish signs!
The meeting place of the Haworth brass band (above).
Another view of Haworth's high street, looking down with the Black Bull Inn on the right (above).

J was determined to see the moors so we trekked for a few miles past the Bronte Museum in the rain and the twilight... well um actually we found a field a couple of minutes past the museum which conveniently doubled as 'moorland.' Still J looks so romantic and brooding in this picture it is easy to imagine her own on the moors somewhere searching for her 'Heathcliff.'

Another view of the moors (ahem, field).
The sun was disappearing rapidly as we came back to the museum, which gave time to take some pictures of the Parsonage, which had been hard to take before because of the low position of the sun. This image clearly shows the end of the original facade, marked by the darker stones, and the later extension which was added on to the house.
Another view of the house, this time taken from the graveyard.
Before we left Haworth there was time to have a look around the church, where J made friends with a very fluffy cat. The Bronte family are buried underneath the church and there are various memorials to them, including an older brass plaque and a larger, marble memorial shown in the image below.
It was a great day out and made all the better for the interesting talk from the Bronte Museum, which revealed another side to the Bronte family, who otherwise seem so familiar to us from the legend which has grown up around them. Whether your favourite book is Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, or (my favourite) Wuthering Heights, or even if you dislike the Brontes, it is well worth a visit to the museum to find out about the 'real' circumstances of their lives. Even on a cold Wintery day there is plenty to see if you want to wander about the town, and if only we had more time J and I might have even have made it out onto the proper moors....

Thursday, January 05, 2012

A Trip to Bletchley Park, or, An Informal Lesson in the Definition of Gross Indecency

Today we have a guest post by one of our counterparts from History, Mark Small, about Bletchley Park, which we have featured on the blog before. In his review of his visit, Mark makes some excellent points about museums and visitor engagement and the interpretation of history. If you've been to Bletchley Park, or represent the museum itself, we want to hear from you in the comments. And now, over to Mark:

Hello readers, you may remember me from such University of Leicester post-grad societies as New History Lab, my name’s Mark and I’m an alumni of the Centre for Urban History. Over the Christmas holiday my partner and I went on a day trip to Bletchley Park; after reading some of my illuminating and incredibly entertaining tweets (@thehistoryb0y, just in case anyone might be interested in following...), Amy (@dr_amyjaneb) suggested I write a guest-post for The Attic about the trip, so this is what this is, hope you like it!

Bletchley Park is a 19th century mansion and grounds in Buckinghamshire (now floating in the middle of Milton Keynes, something I wouldn’t wish upon anyone). From the start of the 20th century, Bletchley Park was one of the sites the British government used for international communications. Bletchley Park is most famous for its role during World War Two, when a huge team of experts intercepted, decrypted and translated codes from German Enigma machines, unveiling positions of German troops and U-boats to the Allied Forces. One of the key individuals in codebreaking at Bletchley Park was Alan Turing, but more about him later.

Bletchley Park has been open as a museum since 1994, celebrating and commemorating the actions of the workers at the Park and the repercussions they had for modern history (it’s fair to say that the Second World War would’ve lasted years longer without the work of Alan Turing and his colleagues). In December 2011, Bletchley Park secured £4.6million funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and £550,000 from Google to extend and update the museum. Due to the elements of secrecy surrounding Bletchley Park, its status as a place of national importance wasn’t really recognised in the decades after World War Two, so a lot of the huts and outbuildings fell into disrepair. A lot of the work of the Bletchley Park Trust and Milton Keynes Council has been turning these into habitable museum spaces, so we can celebrate the people of Bletchley Park properly. Having grown up floating in the middle of Milton Keynes myself (bleugh), I remember going on a school trip to the museum, which on reflection can’t have been long after it opened so we can forgive it my terror-laden memories of scary looming mannequins in World War Two garb and impenetrable interpretation boards. With this in mind I attempted to manage the expectations of my partner who had been asking about a trip since we first met...

Alan Turing was one of the top cryptanalysts at Bletchley Park, and interpretation relating to him features in one of the first areas of museum. Turing was also gay; despite his huge contributions to computer science and the war, he was convicted of ‘Gross Indecency’ in 1952 and punished with chemical castration, a long series of female hormone injections (not that you’d learn any of this from a visit to Bletchley Park). Rather than endure this, Turing committed suicide in 1954 by eating an apple laced with cyanide. My partner is a gay mathematician, and I’m a gay historian, so we both have a vested interest in the representation of Turing at Bletchley Park, and feel that his story is a strong part of gay history in the 20th century. Turing’s story is being celebrated and remembered by other institutions this year because 2012 is the centenary of his birth; the Post Office have just approved the design of stamps to celebrate this, and the Turing Centenary Committee are collaborating a worldwide series of events in celebration.



Unfortunately we were largely disappointed by Bletchley Park’s contribution.

The Turing timeline was almost offensively vague when it came to how Alan Turing ended his short life, stating ‘1952: convicted for Gross Indecency, 1954: died from cyanide poisoning’ [see image at left]. An accident of this was that we were able to witness the heartening act of a child asking his dad what ‘Gross Indecency’ meant, and his dad explaining much better than the museum exactly what happened to Turing and why (hence the title). Well done him. The only honest and sensitive part of the exhibit was the framed Apology, written by Gordon Brown in 2009, which did detail Turing’s treatment by Britain, but was woefully vaguely interpreted by the museum.

Other parts of the museum were excellent – getting to see parts of the original Turing Bombe (so named because the idea was thought up during pudding!), and the immense effort that had gone into building a replica, seeing Colossus in the National Museum of Computing, and seeing some great new interpretation about spies and double agents, including learning about Ian Fleming’s connections to Bletchley Park, were great, really worth it.

Unfortunately though, there were further disappointments to come. We came to the conclusion that a fair amount of the HLF and Google money needs desperately to be spent on staff and volunteer training (also a new website, but that’s another rant!) We weren’t exactly welcomed; the curator of the Churchill Collection reacted to our walking round the exhibit as if we were rifling through his own pockets; the guide at the Colossus ignored us completely;

and this sign [see photo] was pinned to one of the interpretation boards (not in a non-public space or someone’s office, but actually on a display board, next to information about World War Two vehicles), sort of summed up how the staff work! When we were on our way out of the museum, where most other museums’ staff would say ‘thank you for visiting, I hope you enjoyed your day, tell your friends, tell the world, did you know we’re on twitter?’, we got an ‘a’righ’’... charming. The final piece of bad customer service from Bletchley Park is that a lot of our tweets throughout the day were written including the Bletchley Park twitter account (@bletchleypark), meaning they will have received notifications about how we (enjoyed and) weren’t so pleased with the experience. They are yet to respond...

In conclusion, Bletchley Park has improved dramatically since my school trip days, with the scary mannequins only featuring in a small corner, but I think a lot of work is needed to bring the museum up to a good standard (there is evidence that the museum is aware of this, there are interpretation boards showing how they expect to expand and improve in future). Whilst they did tell a story about Alan Turing, they chose which parts of the story to tell (which every museum is guilty of, but I think Bletchley Park has a responsibility here), ignoring parts which are seen as important if not integral to some peoples’ history. I look forward to seeing how Bletchley Park makes use of the £5million+ they’ve been granted, but it would’ve been really great to be able to fill in some consultation material, or at least receive recognition of our concerns and the praise given through Twitter.


[Update: (05/01/12) Mark got a tweet from @bletchleypark apologising for their disappointment at parts of the exhibition and asking for further contact, hooray!]


[Update 2: (09/01/12) Mark received the following response from Kelsey Griffin of Bletchley Park:

Dear Mark,


Many thanks for your considered and balanced response - it really is always good to have feedback and suggestions. Of course - please feel free to publish my email on the blog. I am pleased to confim that the offending sign has been removed. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.

The only aspect where we may have to slightly agree to differ is about the Turing exhibition. The panel with the text I sent previously is a standalone panel accounting for one-ninth of the exhibition panel space and not buried within a block of text. Although of course Bletchley Park ceased its codebreaking function in 1945 and so was no longer operational in 1954 when Turing died, we do actually include reference to the reaction of a BP colleague, Max Newman as follows;-

Max Newman testified for Turing at his
trial in 1952 and Alan’s death in 1954
was the most shattering experience for
the Newman family.

There was so much to Turing's short life that there is much we have missed out including more detail of his sporting prowess. Also, we should bear in mind that this particular exhibition is about the collection of papers but I will certainly bear your feedback in mind for future exhibition development.

Again, many thanks for taking the time to give us feedback and I look forward to seeing you on your next visit!

Kindest Regards, Kelsey
Well done Mark for prompting debate and effecting change on these important issues!]