Archives for category: MIRIAD

It’s not often I read a non-fiction book straight through, but I’ve just demolished my copy of Bill Brown’s 2003 A Sense of Things, The Object Matter of American Literature, which now sprouts a forest of page-markers. The book has given me lots to think about, lit some light-bulbs, sent me scurrying after other references, got me to download a couple of nineteenth century pdfs (ah the joys of technology…to be able to sit in one’s sick-bed, accessing 150-year-old volumes in US university libraries).

I was already exploring Mark Twain’s writings about bric-a-brac, but Brown has alerted me to others, including Henry James, who has provided me with lots of interest. Brown points out that although some of James’ characters share a hatred of bric-a-brac, they also demonstrate that even “hideous objects could be loved.” As Brown writes: “…we use physical objects to arouse and organize our affection.” Yes!

Now I’m several chapters into Things, which Brown edited in 2004. This of course is more of a dipping-into read, but still valuable.

As a postgraduate researcher it is of course up to me to organise my academic life. However there is one day a week, Wednesday, when good stuff happens at MIRIAD. That’s the day when I am pretty well guaranteed to bump into most, if not all, of my fellow research students. So I am determined to be there.

The trouble is, people keep scheduling interesting and tantalising events that clash, and I have yet to develop the skill of being in two places at once. This, combined with my new-boyish wish to take part in as much as possible, is frustrating. Perhaps the powers-that-be haven’t heard of shared calendars…

My days in Manchester are getting more crowded with research-related activities, the best of which involve my fellow-students. It is fascinating how just listening to others explain their projects, their approaches, their writing goals, their interests, their problems and their achievements creates a chain reaction of thoughts and ideas in my own grey matter. Although some enjoy the freedom and peace of studying alone, I find I need this stream of seemingly-random stimuli.

In Writing Group the other day we briefly talked of different preferences for environments in which to write. I get more ideas sitting for a couple of hours in a quiet pub with a notebook on my knee and pint or two of beer nearby than I would in a whole day trapped in my study. Of course, turning those notebook scribbles, bullet lists and mind maps into something more concrete requires me to be glued to my desk. But this way I avoid empty page syndrome, and it seems that for some people, like me, the brain has to be almost tricked into creativity.

Today, three of us who have in common a research interest in the nineteenth century met to launch a study group. It was a small but significant step, and for me could be a way to avoid clutching my work protectively to myself as if it were a swaddled baby. Good for me…

Having got up criminally early, I spent today at The Bond Company, Birmingham, at what was called  “Museum Camp 2012” and described as an “unconference.”

About 100 delegates turned up to discuss a range of topics and issues the details of which none of knew about in advance – we made it up as we went along. Or rather we organised ourselves into about 20 different sessions to talk about things that people felt strongly enough about to declare their interest and to volunteer to lead the small group discussions. I put myself forward to lead a session on volunteers  – how to attract and retain them, describing the challenges faced by Nottingham Industrial Museum and my experiences of being a member of the management group.

I acted as rather a devil’s advocate, and was rewarded with a veritable torrent of advice, suggestions and ideas from about 20 vocal and lively delegates who ranged from students through museum volunteers to seasoned professionals.  Great stuff! It was good to hear different opinions and experiences, and to feel supported and encouraged. I shall take a lot back to the management group.

I also attended other sessions which related more to my PhD research. I’m keen to use as great a range of media, digital and otherwise, as I can in both collecting, interpreting and communicating my findings, and so it was good to hear people talking about the roles of play and games (lo-tech as well as digital) in accessing collections and the things in them. It was interesting that we have become so steeped in the digital world that I would say a majority of people had a knee-jerk games=digital response, when in fact, as researcher Rebecca Shelley reminded us, museum play can be as simple as “happy families.” She’s looking at “engaging with heritage through play and performance” and transforming the museum into an “unplayground.”

I’m thinking that I’d like my research to be “playable,” in the sense that a game can have the same cards or dice or tokens but be completely different every time it is played. Perhaps that is unrealistic, but it is worth exploring.  I am far from being able to visualise the end-product of this approach, or even if there is one, but that’s the fun of exploration and being open to, if not only serendipity, but to that lord of games, chance..

The other day we research newbies heard the plaint of an almost-finished PhD candidate who had been instructed by his external examiner to reformat his entire thesis using Times New Roman font “because that’s what a thesis should be set in.”

Although I can see the point in discouraging difficult-to-read fonts from hefty documents, and I am as snooty about Comic Sans as the next person, the incident made me think about the relevance of a chunk of reconstituted cellulose splattered with carbon in this digital age.  Today, need a thesis even be necessarily communicated via such an old-fashioned medium such as ink on paper?

When I submitted my MA dissertation I had to courier three bound copies from Canada to England, which involved several days and not insignificant cost, while at the same time I emailed, in a few seconds, the same pdf file from which the copies had been printed to the department just in case the hard copy got lost. The cost of this latter process was, of course, negligible. But the same information could have been presented in other easily accessible and shareable ways, for example as a html file, easily searchable, with dynamic links to images and other resources that could have included video, and audio. I could have included 360 degree images of the objects about which I was writing.

But even this might not be ambitious enough. What about something that records the process of research from day one, and includes all the discussions, head scratchings, failures, successes, frustrations, triumphs, discoveries, mysteries, losses and findings that a research project involves? I get some of my best ideas/brainwaves,lightbulb moments whilst sitting in a noisy pub or during a hike. Those eureka moments are rarely recorded in published research. OK, an e-thesis might be difficult to “mark” in the traditional manner of course, but why should assessing something that has absorbed three years or so of someone’s life and which we hope will contribute to and enhance human knowledge, be easy?

In addition, something as potentially dynamic as a digital thesis might also be accessed, read and used by many more people than the handful (if you are lucky) who will glance at the bound copy mouldering in the university archive.

Hmmm, Plantagenet Cherokee sounds like a fun typeface!

In the midst of all the advice and encouragement we’ve received over the last few days I’ve experienced a personal paradox. Like everyone else, I’m being advised to hurry up and get down to defining and refining and sharpening my research proposal, to produce plans and hone methods, in order to satisfy my supervisors and, with their help, successfully complete a seemingly-dreaded RD1 form and leap my PhD’s first bureaucratic hurdle.

But at the same time I’m wanting to immerse myself in what I’ve imagined to be a warm sea of serendipity, in which floats a dense plankton of knowledge and the flotsam and jetsam of university life. To stick close, Remora-like, to the big fish of academia. (OK, enough marine metaphors). To pick the brains of those around me. To be inspired and energised. After all, as Professor T.R.E. Southwood told us on my first day as a zoology undergraduate, the word “university” is derived from “universe,” and suggests that this is a place where one can study without bounds.

I have a sort of form dyslexia. I am incapable of completing a form, however simple, without making a mistake and having to cross something out. My handwriting becomes instantly  arthritic and tottering as soon as my pen meets the first form field. I even manage to make errors in online forms.

But writing this is diverting me from my research proposal! I must get on…

I’m sitting in a otherwise empty room in Manchester Metropolitan University’s Righton Building, at about the middle of my first week at MIRIAD, an induction week filled with a general feeling of being a little lost, a week spent meeting about 100 new people and immediately forgetting their names, being handed sheaves of  forms, being frightened by an avalanche of acronyms and initialisms, shuffling to stuffy lecture rooms amongst crowds of equally confused students along corridors that range from brand-new to decrepit, and being reminded by a series of cheerful staff on the one hand what a daunting, if not terrifying challenge we are facing but also what a wonderful experience we are just beginning! Gulp!

I’ve happily explained my research topic to my new peers at least a dozen times, finding, interestingly, that my bumbling description of what I’m going to be doing is different every time! I’ve listened in turn to my 20 or so fellow newbies, who all are starting along fascinating paths to their various MAs or PhDs. Meeting them has been a great experience. We appear to be a friendly, relaxed bunch, refreshingly free of arty-farty bollocks and weirdness, and there seems to be plenty of chemistry amongst our personalities and synergy amongst our research areas. Phew! At least three other PhD researchers will be working on nineteenth century material. I hope some of the results of these parallels will not only appear here but will influence my final thesis. Exciting stuff!

I’ve met, briefly, my Director of Studies, with whom I am going to enjoy interacting (if that’s a suitable term for the supervisory relationship). One of my supervisors is on maternity leave, but, two days in, I’m confident that I’ll not only survive but will enjoy my own process of giving birth to my research project!

And today I learned that the journal World Archaeology is calling for papers for an issue focusing on miniaturisation, which gives me a fantastic and hopefully achievable goal for this time next year…

Oh, and it has rained almost continuously since I arrived in Manchester!

In Small Things Forgotten was the title of what is perhaps the most widely-known book on the historical archaeology of North America. Archaeologist James Deetz wrote it in 1977 as an enthusiastic, inspiring and energising introduction to his area of study, and it has been included in almost every historical archaeology reading list, and read and cited very many times ever since. In my reading of his work, Deetz used the word “small” to indicate that the objects and features he explored were unspectacular, ordinary, mundane, cheap, familiar, often discarded, perhaps easily overlooked and indeed forgotten. He was asking us as archaeologists to recognise and assign big meanings to things previously regarded as insignificant. Ironically, Deetz does not really look at small (as in diminutive) things, things that I call miniatures, objects that are small-scale versions of full-sized originals, real or imagined. It is these small things that I am researching. Mass-produced miniatures share all the characteristics of Deetz”s small things, but I suggest that they have been even more overlooked by archaeologists, especially in the Old World.

From September 2012 I shall be carrying out research for a PhD at Manchester Institute for Research and Innovation in Art and Design (MIRIAD).  My broad and unedited scope (it will without doubt change and narrow once I begin to interact with staff and fellow-students) – Objects of Delight: Mass-produced miniatures from the nineteenth century to the present. This blog will parallel that activity, reflecting both my research and life as a (mature) student.