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.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

The Future of Museum Apps

"If mobile technology is something you're researching or working on, our Museum App Builder 2.0 has just launched! It's a do-it-yourself app publisher that allows museums and historic sites to build a mobile app very quickly and affordably - without any technical knowledge.

Here is a quick 60sec video:

We also publish a blog on mobile technology in museums, with posts from thought-leaders around the museum world and from our own staff. You can read the blog or participate in the conversation at

We are continuing to build out the platform to make it the best mobile solution for museums, so if you have any questions or want to learn more, drop us a note."

~From TourSphere

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Better to be feared than loved?

The results of the Uni's student union "I <3 My Academic" competition were announced last week, and the School's very own Dr Ross Parry won for the College of Arts, Humanities and Law! Ross deserves the accolades, as he is a passionate, engaging, and thoughtful academic who always makes sure to provide opportunities for students in the department to take part (often paid, which is a bonus!) in cutting-edge museum research.

But I wouldn't be me if I wasn't a Negative Nancy, and I have a beef with the title of the competition. When the email seeking nominations came through, I rolled my eyes - anything called "I love my academic" belongs on a bumper sticker or a mug (and believe me, I would buy both, if they existed, for the lulz), not in a university. Sure, the point is to reward good teaching and mentorship, but why does it have to be called "I love my academic"? It reduces the complexities of academic teaching and mentoring to a popularity contest.

I have a problem with the use of the word love in this context. At best, feelings between teacher and student should be referred to as lovingkindness or agape, but certainly not love. I don't love my supervisor; she is fantastic, and we are mostly on the same wavelength about things, but I have no feelings of personal huggy-kissy affection for her. Indeed, I think it would be inappropriate if we had a close personal emotional connection; from past experience, I know all too well the pitfalls of a politics of "friendship". Your supervisor is not your friend, though they can be friendly. You cannot love them, though you can like them. And encouraging a slippage of terminology is, I think, symptomatic in the boundary shift we are experiencing generationally. Sure, a PhD supervisor is more like a close mentor or a medieval Master of a Trade under whom you are an Apprentice; but they are not your parent, friend, or confidant. Again, my supervisor is fabulous, and deserves to be acknowledged for her mentorship, but not in a contest called "I Love My Academic", because I don't love her: I respect her, and that is much more important.

You may think me pedantic, but I am coming from a place of experience here. When I was doing my BA, I had a professor who referred to all his students as Mr/Ms. Lastinitial. We would never have considered calling him by his first name or a nickname to his face; he was always Professor Lastname. Compared to some of our other instructors, this seemed hopelessly old-fashioned, but we looked on it as a sort of loveable eccentricity rather than an uncool anachronism. Fast-forward a few years, and I became an instructor myself - some of my students were significantly older than I was. Because of my own discomfort at being in a position of authority over my "elders", I allowed them to call be me by my first name, but I realise now that that was a mistake; it created a slippage and a lack of titular respect that could be followed by actual personal disrespect. At least amongst my colleagues, we had an agreement that we would, in our classrooms and in our dealings with students, refer to other instructors by their titles and last names, to indicate our collegial respect for one another. Of course, in a more peer-like relationship than undergrad-prof, such as some PhD supervisor-student relationships, it's perfectly acceptable to use first names. And many lecturers in our department have almost-Marxist convictions that signs of status should be as invisible as possible. But what I am saying is that names and titles and words matter, and in a university-wide context, which includes a variety of student and academic "tiers", it is better to err on the side of caution.

Hence my reference in the title of this post to Macchiavelli; it is not because I endorse cruelty in the PhD process, but because I think a little distance is healthy. Love is not all you need - you need some respect and admiration, too.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Great News for New Walk Museum in Leicester!

A Leicester museum has seen a record number of visitors through its doors over the past year.

Read more here at BBC.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Visual Culture Research: Access All Areas?

The Salon and IDeoGRAMS in association with the School of Historical Studies at the University of Leicester present a symposium on:

Visual Culture Research: Access All Areas?

10am-5pm, Friday 15th June 2012
Attenborough Building, Basement Seminar Block, Lecture Theatre LT1 & Seminar Room LG03, University of Leicester

Confirmed Speakers:
·        Tim Padfield, Copyright Officer for The National Archives
·        Garry Campbell, Head of Archive Services at the BBC
With the advent and proliferation of digital culture, humanities research has changed forever. In an age when the internet allows access to more and more visual material, much of which has been previously unavailable, academics have an increasingly rich seam of sources to tap into but, inevitably, questions must be asked about the ethics of using sources and research which fall outside the bounds of archives and institutions. At a time when such archives and institutions are also at risk of marginalisation and cuts in funding, should academics use material accessed outside these repositories without questioning its provenance? How may academics and curators negotiate this tension between utopian academic and cultural impulses and the ethical, financial and political constraints around visual culture research, copyright and access?

This one-day symposium will explore the use of visual material in academic research and some of the ethical issues that this raises in the digital age. To open up the dialogue beyond academia, speakers from a number of national repositories and archives have been invited to contribute their thoughts on how to improve shared knowledge and enable wider access to visual media through a variety of channels.

This event is free to attend, but requires registration (now open) with Dr Anna Claydon at


British Society on the Small Screen? The Historian, Television and History

10am-5pm, Saturday 16th June 2012
1 Salisbury Road, University of Leicester

An innovative one-day workshop exploring the value of television material as a social and cultural record for historical research.

Further information is available at and a full programme has been attached to this email.

This workshop is funded by the Economic History Society and is free to attend, however places are limited. Please email Gillian Murray,, for more information and to reserve a place.

Brown Bag 16th May 2012 "Exchanging Values: Steampunks and Museums"

Brown Bag 16th May 2012

Exchanging Values: Steampunks and Museums
Dr. Jeanette Atkinson
Associate Tutor, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester

Well, its that time of year againsummer is coming, the bluebells are out, Research Week is almost upon us and this is the last Brown Bag write up of the year. Luckily, it went out with class; and with one of our own.
Dr. Jeanette Atkinson has worn many hats in this department, having been involved in some capacity since 2004. In 2008 she completed her PhD here. EntitledLearning to Respect: the Perspectives of Heritage Professionals in Aotearoa New Zealand’, it focussed upon cultural values and practices for educational professionals working with and within indigenous communities. Of late her interest, and her mode of research employed in her thesis, has been turned towards costumed communities, including re-enactors, cosplayers and, in particular, steampunks.
In wider culture, steampunk is often seen as simply an aesthetic; certainly, it takes much inspiration from the artistic tone of the Victorian period. But it has an interesting history which suggests there is something more to it; some say it originated as far back as the 1960s, in fact. However, the culture as a defined phenomenon really began to take off in the 1980s. The term steampunk was coined by the author K. W. Jeter in a 1987 letter to Locus Magazine, regarding his book, Morlock Night, which was highly influenced by the work of H. G. Wells. He used it to describe the works of himself and others which exhibited sensibilities combining steam era technology and ideals with fantasy or science-fiction settings. It is a movement grown from literature; but it, in turn, influences current artistic production, and its influence has reached as far as Hollywoodthe most recent filmic iteration of Sherlock Holmes has something of its tone. But its sense of community and specificity remains; on forums such as Brass Goggles, Silver Goggles and Beyond Victoriana, the dedication of its followersand the broadness of their demographicbecomes immediately apparent.
Museums have certainly made significant recent attempts to engage with cultures defined by geographies or long histories; but how should they interact with those communities whose membership is one of personal choice? All culture falls under the remit of museums in general (though individual institutions obviously interact with different groups in different ways) so openness and willingness to engage with those with whom mutually beneficial relationships can be constituted should be maintained - no matter the nature or origin of that cultural grouping. How do such relationships develop and play out in the case of steampunk, a movement in which Jeanette has developed, and continues to develop, an increasing fascination.
Should curators take an interest in steampunk, then? If so, how and why should they go about it? Jeanette has found that responses to such questions are mixed; Philip Warren, Principal Curator at Leicestershire County Council Heritage and Art Service (LCCH&AS), which holds the Symington Collection of Corsetry, Foundation and Swimwear, seemed unsure when interviewed. In terms of actively seeking to collect and display steampunk objects, he thinks it prudent that curators wait and see if the culture became important and influential enough to warrant attempts at acquisition or display. On the other hand, Professor Jim Bennett of the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford sees steampunk as a movement with currency and popularityand therefore hugely important to engage with. In many ways, these distinct attitudes themselves highlight different cultures of curation; one predicated upon the past and future, the other with a foot firmly in the present.
This difference in attitude is also, I suspect, a result of experience. Having been approached by the New York artist Art Donovan, the Museum of the History of Science played host to the worlds first exhibition of steampunk art between October 2009 and February 2010. This hugely successful exhibition, though it was displayed in a narrow corridor space, channelled over 70 000 visitors into this small museum, the original site of the Ashmolean. Since then other museums, particularly those of a scientific, industrial, or technological bent, have also taken part in such events. At Snibston Discovery Museumss New Age of Discovery, staff dressed as steampunks took visitors on a performative tour of the collection, and later the same artists involved in this piece of museological theatre also took their work to Bradford Industrial Museum. Steampunks, it seems, are becoming increasingly visible and popular partners for museums of a particular discipline.
Generally projects have resulted in temporary exhibitions and special events, but Jeanette points out that museums and steampunks are also building relationships through their shared interests in material culture. For all that the curator of the Symington Collection is reserved about the collection and exhibition of steampunk material, he has little issue with opening his holdings to members of that community for the purposes of research. The relationship, it appears, is a truly reciprocal one, and it is interesting to speculate, as Jeanette does, whether and how far museum collections are influencing theauthenticityof steampunk creations. Two questions spring immediately to mind. One is to do with curatorial practice and desire, the other with the ontology of authenticity itself. Firstly, does the increasedauthenticity(perhaps we should sayaccuracy) of a steampunk creation enhances or inhibits the desire of a museum to collect it, now or in the future? Secondly, I wonder how the authenticity is constituted and determined for an artefact which is at once an echoic reference and a thing entirely its own?
Having examined two methods of engagement – the production of collaborative events and the sharing of information - the wider practices and negotiations surrounding their initiation need to be investigated. In the case of the Museum of the History of Science, it was the artist who approached the museum and connected them with the steampunk community. Though it involved some collaboration, particularly in terms of object loans and advertising, the arrangement and interpretation of the objects remained in institutional hands. At Kew Bridge Steam Museum, however, it was the museum that made the first move. Similar events were, nonetheless, held at both institutions, including fashion shows and musical soirées; much of the joy of steampunk, it seems, arises in social interaction.
The events discussed here have largely been of a temporary natureless emphasis placed on the kind of acquisitive engagement which creates and displays collections and objects for posterity. The V&A collected clothing and artefacts from subcultures both historic and contemporary for their StreetStyle displays; but such practices are rare. When a culture is living, is as mutable and changeable as steampunk is, the issues surrounding this particular musealising practice are massive, and should not be overlooked.
The first issue, of course, is a practical one. When considering relationships of a more permanent, acquisitive nature, museums have to determine various things. Is the relationship a mutually beneficial one? Are the objects and activities of this group of relevance to their collection? Do they have the ability, or even the right, to create collections based upon the current cultural visibility of a phenomenon and a prediction of its future relevance? In answering these questions, whether negatively or positively, museums must make bets and take risks. I cannot judge which risk they should take at any given moment and in every case. Prudence is well and good, and perhaps for the moment the situation in the case of steampunks should remain spontaneous and event based; but this should not preclude more permanent material collections being developed in the future. I would certainly suggest that it is short-sighted of an institution to actively shy away from the possibilities which such cultural engagements offer.
That question of spontaneity leads us onto a second issue; cultural propriety, representation and musealisation. Ethnographic museums have been embroiled throughout their history in debates about cultural representation, Othering and the ethnographic present; and similar issues arise when considering the collection, interpretation and display of contemporary subcultures. At what point does an institution begin to musealise a group of people, and what are the implications for that group and the institution when and if they do? Will that act stultify and freeze that group and its further development? Certainly, any representation made will be a mediated snapshot. In that case, the current level of dialogic engagement between museums and steampunks is promising – it suggests that, if and when more permanent collecting practices begin to emerge, it will be on the communitys termsa very different, bottom up kind of anthropological collection building than museum history has often seen.
The modern museum needs partners, needs interested parties with whom to develop; steampunks of all kinds are often willing to be such partners. Every culture, including that of an individual museum, constantly undergoes change, and all are constantly being reinterpreted by each other. They are mutually constitutivethey may not depend on specific groups of each other for their survival, but they certainly enrich the existences of those cultures with whom they interact. So it is, perhaps, opportunities which museums and those who engage with them should see, and take up when they are able, without prejudice or expectation.
And there, my friends, I leave you; for this is my last Brown Bag of the year, and probably my last Brown Bag ever. Ill be finishing my PhD, hopefully, by the time the next wave of lunchtime seminars rolls around, and so Ill not be writing to you in this capacity again. But don't worry – as you may have noticed, I'm leaving you in several good pairs of hands. Its been a good three years, and Ill miss it; Ive certainly learned a lot, not just about museum studies and related disciplines, but also about myself and others, how people respond in debate and think about their own work in relation to those of their peers and predecessors. Writing here has forced me to question presuppositions and expectations of my own, and has forced me to think about my own writing, and how to express and interpret the ideas and work of a multifarious variety of people. It's been quite a ride, chaps, and not always a smooth one; nonetheless, it's been fun, and I hope youve enjoyed it as much as I have.