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.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Opinion Piece: University in Denmark

I recently witnessed the strangest thing and I thought it might be a good way to start a blog post about going to university in Denmark.

I’m not really going to university in Denmark. I’m on a PhD exchange and, ostensibly, here to write. I don’t attend class. I have no obligations. I have only a few meetings to go to and can show up, or not, for the department lunches. I am freer here then I was in my department in Leicester. And it’s a nice change, let me tell you. But it means I’m not really going to university in Denmark. I’m just sort of on the outside looking in.

The PhD’s here get Christmas gifts. From the Dean. I’m not entirely sure the Dean at Leicester even knows anything about the PhDs students in my department. I’ve never met the Dean. I couldn’t tell you who it is. But here, the Dean sends Christmas gifts to the PhD students. Wine and chocolate. To all of them.

And it’s made me seriously think about how different being a PhD student in this department in Denmark is from my own. We have it good in the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. Quite a few other departments are envious of us (in fact, most of them probably are, but we tend not to ask them). But being here has made me realize that there are departments in the world that have it even better then we do. Or at least, have it differently.

Here, an international exchange at another university is a requirement. A minimum of three months must be spent elsewhere working on and furthering your thesis. As many as half the students here are sponsored by educational or cultural institutions and are doing their PhDs in partnership. They do their thesis, but also work for their sponsor at the same time. Many others are funded. Self-funding is sort of an unknown. The PhDs here teach, or tutor or run projects. They are inherently involved in the department as staff (which is probably why they get Christmas presents from the Dean). They have plenty of opportunities to gain the skills needed for academia.

For us, in the School of Museum Studies, that’s a lot harder. We don’t have nearly the opportunities for academic jobs and when we do, they are usually outside the department. Here, it is part of the PhD. It means they are busy. It means they are probably all overworked. They don’t have DLs quite like we do. You can live in another part of Denmark and only come here for specific meetings, still work and also be a full-time student. 3-4 years is typical for a thesis completion.

They also write differently. Here, PhDs in their first year choose what format they will do their thesis in. Either as a monograph (for book publication) or a series of articles that form a thesis. If the second, they are expected to publish those articles before they finish and submit their thesis. That means they are published authors before they ever get to their viva.

Obviously, they do things differently. They have more of an academic focus then a professional focus here, and yet many of the students work in museums as part of their research. It’s a lovely combination. The meeting of multiple disciplines is new to me too, as culture, media and education are all encompassed by this one department. PhD students can do research in any or all areas. The PhDs I have heard are fascinating and very topical. There are tackling the current issues in the Danish (and often German) cultural and educational sectors. You can really feel the creativity here. The students talk about their research to each other a lot. They meet each month, in fact, for two hours to do exactly that. Students help each other and go over similar aspects of research.

We planned to do that in Leicester, but it never really happened. And I think I will push to institute it when I get back. It’s fantastic. I’ve already benefitted from the easy and open discussions here. Even during lunch, all the staff meet to talk over their projects and what they are working on. We don’t do nearly enough of that.

I’ve learned a lot here, and it’s been less than two months! It is certainly has been a great opportunity so far, and hopefully in the years to come other students at Leicester can have a similar chance (though possibly to other departments around the world too). Seeing how a different group works can be really inspiring.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Annual Conference 2014: Building a Creative Nation - Last Chance!

Attic readers, this might interest those in the UK:

Next week over 300 creative industry and skills leaders from across the UK will meet to discuss how to build a creative nation. There is still time to register to join employers and education institutions concerned with training and employing the next generation of talent.
Our fantastic line-up includes keynote speakers Doug Richard, author of the Richard Review and former Dragon’s Den panellist; Wayne Hemingway, eminent designer; Ed Vaizey MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries; and Stella Mbubaegbu, Principal of Highbury College.
Investing in talent
They join speakers from across the creative and cultural industries who are working to consolidate our sector’s economic growth through creating jobs for young people and investing in their training. Delegates will also hear from pioneering colleges who are working with employers to provide innovative fit-for-industry approaches to training and work-based learning.

Dinner and Employer of the Year Awards
All delegates are also invited to attend the annual pre-conference dinner and Employer of the Year Awards, on 5th March. Join us at The Backstage Centre for an evening of live music, entertainment and celebration.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Recent 'Moving On Up' Event at Manchester - responses

'Moving on up: The secrets of a successful museum career was held on 6 February at the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester. 

During the day, speakers and workshop leaders tackled a wide range of issues that museum professionals face during the early years of their career. Delegates were encourage to take risks, think long-term and develop realistic career plans.'

Several blog responses to the event can be found here. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

A Review of the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen

This review is specifically of the Prehistory exhibition, which is fairly new. It's specific webpage is here:

Stopping in Copenhagen on my way to my new home in Odense meant I could visit a museum or two. The weather was certainly awful enough that that was about the only thing I could do. I chose the Nationalmuseet, mostly because it was close and it was free, and also large enough to spend at least half a day in.

It is not the British Museum, but for a national museum of a small country, I was suitably impressed. The entire ground floor exhibit on the history of Denmark is recently redone. It is very ‘artistic’ as exhibits go; care has been taken to aesthetically display the artefacts (and there are a lot of artefacts). There are labels and text panels everywhere, though the way they have been done I found quite useful to furthering my understanding of the history. In each room, all the text panels are along one wall. Labels are at the front of each glass case and each object (or collection of objects) is numbered. In almost all rooms there is more than enough light to see clearly and many of the glass cases can be walked around to allow you to view the artefacts from multiple directions.

I liked the choices. It appears very modern, this new gallery, and yet I spent nearly 1.5 hours there reading pretty much everything. You move from room to room, so there is not one massive room to get around and lose interest in half-way. You don’t really know how many rooms are left. I find the ‘stark’ display was less distracting than some modern museums I’ve been to, which seem to over-display. There was not a lot of colour, except on the text panels themselves.

The human remains were displayed in darkened areas, for the most part, and accompanied by text to explain them, but all of them are at a low enough eye level for children. I didn’t mind this, however, and neither did it appear so for the Danish parents visiting with their children that I followed around. I do like bog bodies, and there are two fantastic ones here on display ( And also the most amount of preserved clothing I have ever seen. Multiple outfits, in fact, both men and women represented and it is amazing to see how preserved the things recovered from graves and bogs actually can be!

I rarely spend so long in an exhibition, but this one grabbed me. The ease of viewing the objects, the care taken to make sure the text panels delivered the information needed, but without being overwhelming is clear. They are set at an adult eye level. They know the children won’t read them. There is no children’s activities anywhere in the gallery. There is no digital technology visible, but you can hear sounds in a few of the rooms to create mood. It is, in fact, everything I have been told a museum should not be these days, because kids will be bored. But the first time in far too long I didn’t care. Because I liked it. I enjoyed my two hours there, especially on the ground floor exhibit. I didn’t care if a single child found it interesting or not. Because when it comes down to it, it’s the pre-history of Denmark and no matter how interesting you make the exhibit, the average five year old isn’t going to be interested in the history. There are other areas of the museum made more for children, but this one I feel is a bold choice by staff to cater to adults. And it’s nice to see. I think it will do well, as it shows off Danish history in a very good light; interesting, artistic, informative, and with care.

The other areas of the museum are older, and therefore more traditionally displayed. The only other area I spent any time in was the top floor Greek and Roman sections, which are, at least, very bright, but the overwhelming number of red pots makes it thoroughly uninteresting, even for a Classicist like me. Photos can be seen here: which sort of sums it up. It's not a bad way to display them, and it shows a continuing artistic flair, but the collection suffers from simply being too large. There are too many pots to look at that hunting out the most important examples is nearly impossible, unless you read every label for every pot.

The real treat was the café on the ground floor, which served ‘Viking’ food. It was weird and delicious, and was a welcome choice over the more formal café upstairs. They use here (and in the main restaurant) only ingredients that would have been around in Viking times, so I has a lovely sausage with spelt flatbread and sweet chutney made from rosehip.

I recommend a visit here if you are in Copenhagen. I will certainly be back to tour the rest of the museum I didn’t have time to go through (specifically the more modern historical galleries, which looked beautiful at a glance but I just didn’t have time: The whole place is an interesting collection of modern and traditional design, and yet it works (the British Museum is too, after all).

And hey, ever wanted an African birthday? The Nationalmuseet does that. Check it out! Pity they only do it for children.

Well worth it. And hey, it’s free!

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

How I Write

After reading this blog post you will not be the first person to call me crazy, I assure you, so go ahead and think it all you’d like.

Everyone has their own writing style, whether you are a novelist, an academic, a children’s book writer, a journalist, etc. We are all unique and we all write in unique ways. But when you do a PhD, writing becomes a rather massive focus of your life. People talk about it constantly. Despite attempts otherwise, you compare your writing to other people's (style, syntax, word count). People will ask you about how you write/how much you write/when you write. You will get bored of talking about writing your thesis before you ever sit down to – actually – write it.

I am in third year. This means that I am in my writing year (though not, strangely my ‘writing-up year’). I have three chapters of my thesis drafted so far. That’s about 25,000 words. In my first year here I wrote 35,000 words, most of which I later scraped. I know several people who wrote only 10,000 words. I know a couple who wrote more than I did. I know many of my fellow third years who have not written three chapters of their theses yet.

It’s okay. Really. Any PhD student reading this should know that that’s okay. We all have different writing styles and methods, and that means how and when we write is different. Some people will write their entire thesis in the last six months of their PhD. Some people will do it over two years. I have 12 months to write and edit, so that’s rather dictating things for me. I means that I have to plan carefully what I am going to write and when. I don’t have a lot of time to get sidetracked or get bored.

However, I have a pretty unique writing style, even by most people’s standards. I developed it in my undergrad (a while ago, let’s say). I know one or two other people who have a similar way of writing, but none of them are in my department (or doing PhDs - in fact, they're published authors now).

When I write something academic, be it an article, an essay, a dissertation or a thesis, I also write fictionally at the same time. That means that often for every academic word I write (be it 1000, 5000, 50,000) I write a word of a fictional story (study, novel, blog, etc.). I told you it was crazy. Because it means I am doubling my word count. That may not seem like much for a 4000 word paper, but when you are talking a 80,000 word thesis, it’s madness. But it works for me.

I write better academically when I am also writing fictionally. I also write more. I am more dedicated and more focused and I honestly enjoy the academic writing more when I know I can spend part of my day writing a fictional piece that I love. Sometimes, one of these will inspire me to work on the other, and it can go either way. When I am really having a tough time writing an academic piece, I usually start a story to see if that will spark my creative juices. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes when I have writer’s block it’s both academically and fictionally and I can’t write for days or weeks (or, one year, for three months).

But sooner or later one writing form sparks another and I’m back into it.

This means that, since October last year, I have written three chapters of my thesis. That’s 25,000 words, as I said. In the same time period I have written 25,000 (okay 26,000) words of short stories, longer stories and one story that is quickly turning itself into a novel. I have also written the last 25,000 words of an actual book, but let’s not talk about that one shall we? I didn’t mean to do it before 2015.

This is my writing style. This is what gets me writing and my juices flowing. It got me through five years of undergrad essays, two dissertations (in fact, it nearly destroyed one of those dissertations, but let’s not talk about that one either) and it’s gotten me a third of the way through my thesis so far. I imagine it will get me through at least the next chapter, at which time I will have reached the fun part of the thesis (reporting on my actual work!) so I think writing academically will become more enjoyable then.

When I started my PhD, my supervisor gave me a ‘talk’ on thesis writing. Not to worry me, but to remind me that I was indeed here to write a thesis and that that thesis was 80,000 words long. I politely told him that the writing part wouldn’t be my problem. 80,000 words was nothing in a year. I’ve written 73,000 words in six weeks (an actual novel). I’ve written 53,000 words in four weeks (another novel). A thesis will be no problem, I told him.

And it won’t be, because it’s not. And that’s how I write.

By the time I finish this thesis I will have written about 121,000 words for it (including first year papers and discarded chapters). I will have, in the same time period (since October 2011) have written over 170,000 words of non-academic work. And in three years, two months and ten days, nearly 300,000 words in all is pretty good.

The Lord of the Rings is 481,000 and took Tolkien 12 years.

I remind myself of this every day. Because there are days I wake up and this is hard. Despite what I know. Despite the fact I know that writing is not hard. There are still days that it really is.

So when people ask me how I write, I tell them. When they complain about how much I write and how they wish it was easy for them, I remind them that it is still hard. In the grand scheme of things, a PhD is not easy for anyone (except perhaps Sheldon Cooper), even if the writing is for some of us. We all have our individual writing styles and at the end of the day, you will finish your thesis (everyone in our department does remember!). It doesn’t really matter if you wrote it in six months or in two years. What matters is that you did it. You wrote a thesis. You will be a Doctor.

And maybe, one day, when you have recovered from that experience, you’ll write a few thousand fictional words yourself. Or that 80,000 word novel you’ve been thinking about. And maybe you won’t. But remember this, once you’ve written an 80,000 word doctoral thesis, you can do anything.       

Do you have a strange writing style or process? What gets you inspired when you have writer’s block? Share in the comments; let’s get a discussion going!

Anyone want to take a crack at calculating how many words they’ve written academically since they started university? Go on, you may surprise yourself. All those essays can add up. It might make you feel better about writing-up!

Monday, February 03, 2014

Brown Bag Session 29 January 2014: “Charlotte Brontë and the Author Portrait” by Ryan Nutting

Dr. Julian North (from the School of English at the University of Leicester led a fascinating Brown Bag session on 29 January 2014 titled “Charlotte Brontë and the Author Portrait”.  In this session Dr. North focused on how Charlotte Brontë carefully managed and manipulated the image she presented to the public during her lifetimeDr. North looked at the wider culture of author’s images during the early nineteenth century, the known portraits of Charlotte Brontë, the display of the Richmond portrait in Charlotte Brontë’s home, and examined the possibility of the existence of a photographic portrait of Charlotte Brontë.