Heritage & Creativity

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Dinosaurs, chickens and the Russian revolution were among the topics that won University of Reading academics prizes for their research last week.

The prize winners with Prof Steve Mithen, Lord Waldegrave, and Sir David Bell

The five academics, one from each research theme, were honoured with a Research Output Prize for Early Career Researchers at University Court, the showcase annual event for the University community, on 20 March.

Professor Steve Mithen, Deputy Vice Chancellor, said: “Congratulations to all five winners. They were selected by peer-review from a strong field of outputs by our Early Career Researchers in each of our five research themes.

“Whether having produced single or multi-authored works, the success of these award winners represents not only their own outstanding achievement , but the support and hard work of many more people at the University and further afield.”

The winners from each theme were:

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University of Reading coat of arms

Researchers at the University of Reading secured more than £3.3 million in research grants and awards in January.

A total of 25 research projects were confirmed in the first month of 2017, with a total value of £3,329,759 – an average of more than £130,000 per project.

Steve Mithen, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for research, said: “Another strong month for research grants shows that funders share our belief that Reading researchers are among the best in the world.

“Congratulations to everyone who is beginning work on new research projects. I look forward to hearing more about their work, and seeing how their research changes people’s lives for the better.”

Among those winning funding in January were…

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by Dr Jacqui Turner, Department of History, University of Reading

This week was International Women’s Day and women were everywhere.

We were in the media, online, on TV, and crowded around both front benches in the House of Commons as, in the Budget, the Chancellor announced a further £5 million for projects to celebrate the centenary of the partial franchise in 1918, which first gave women a vote:

‘It is important that we not only celebrate next year’s Centenary but also that we educate young people about its significance. It was the decisive step in the political emancipation of women in this country and this money will go to projects to mark its significance and remind us all just how important it was.’ –Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond MP

Yes, it was, and yes, it is. My initial reaction, of course, is that this should be done in schools every year and beyond a few weeks on the GCSE History curriculum.

Maybe we do need that £5 million from Mr Hammond, which was  allocated alongside £20 million to tackle domestic violence and abuse and £5 million for ‘returnships’ to support people returning to work after long breaks.

The positioning of women around the front benches on significant days or when key legislation is being announced is a long-standing tradition –very few ever find themselves there by seniority, some maybe, but they are often window dressing.

And why do they need to be there at all?  Are we harking back to the days of our first female MP, Nancy Astor, who would ‘disrupt proceedings’ with claims that she knew best on issues relating to women because she was a woman?  She may have done, but it is the very old feminist debate – equal rights versus inherent suitability based on gender difference (whilst acknowledging that the gender debate is much wider today). Read the rest of this entry »

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By Dr Andrew Charlton-Perez, Department of Meteorology, University of Reading

Former BBC weather forecaster Bill Giles’ criticism of weather forecasts raises questions about how weather is communicated generally.

Mr Giles has hit out at forecasters for regularly warning the public about the potential consequences of imminent severe weather, arguing they are ‘behaving like nannies’ and could cause the public to become ‘immune’ to the advice.

Rain in Reading – watch out for that puddle!

He added the practice of naming storms had become too frequent, and that forecasters should only advise people about potential dangers for ‘exceptionally severe weather’, which occurs once every few years.

But how much weather information is the right amount for the public? How much do they understand? Could an appreciation of the uncertainty of forecasts actually improve our faith in them?

Research at the University of Reading has shown that not only is the average person able to process more complex weather forecast information, they are likely to make better decisions as a result of the additional information.

Scientists at Reading have therefore begun looking at whether the way weather predictions are presented to the general public can be improved.

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The Romanovs – including Tsar Nicholas II, seated centre

By Dr Andy Willimott, Lecturer in Modern Russian History, University of Reading

International Women’s Day 2017 sees a plethora of excellent and worthwhile events, highlighting many issues still facing women today.

Some are small, others gain greater attention. But will any have as big an impact as one women’s protest that took place exactly 100 years ago?

March 8 marks the anniversary of a key event of the February Revolution in Russia in 1917 – and women were at its heart.

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Two Reading archaeologists have edited a new book compiling dozens of influential research papers on European medieval archaeology.

Medieval Archaeology, edited by Professor Roberta Gilchrist (Research Dean for Heritage & Creativity) and Dr Gemma Watson from the Department of Archaeology, is a new publication in Routledge’s Critical Concepts in Archaeology series.

The four-volume, 1,930-page publication reprints 77 influential papers carefully selected to highlight the key issues and debates in the development and contemporary practice of later medieval archaeology in Europe (c. 1000–1550 AD).

The four volumes are designed thematically: ‘Defining Medieval Archaeology’, ‘the Medieval Landscape’, ‘Medieval Life’ and ‘Medieval Social Archaeology’.

The publication includes papers by Reading archaeologists Roberta Gilchrist, Grenville Astill, Mary Lewis, Gundula Mueldner and Aleks Pluskowski.

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By Dr Robert Darby, research data manager 

One of the pillars of all empirical research is that the findings of experiments should not just be one-offs. Anyone with the ability to do so should be able to pick up a research paper, follow the same methods, and come up with the same result.

Yet a recent survey by Nature found that more than 70% of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments. Not only that, but more than half have failed to reproduce even their own experiments. Analyses have reported reproducibility rates for published studies of just 10% and 40%.

News of the so-called ‘reproducibility crisis’ has even reached the BBC, so something must be going on.

So is there really a reproducibility crisis? And if so, what can you do about it?

Open Science may provide answers – and the University of Reading is hosting a free conference on the topic of Open Research this March.

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Researchers at the University of Reading secured more than £3.9 million in research awards in December.

A total of 21 research projects were given the go-ahead in the last month of 2016, with funders from a variety of sources including government, research councils, charities and business.

Steve Mithen, Deputy Vice-Chancellor and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for research, said: “Congratulations to everyone whose research grants were confirmed during December. I am particularly pleased that Reading has continued to collaborate with a wide range of funders, including the European Horizon 2020 programme.

“I have no doubt that these awards represent an excellent investment in knowledge and will reap great rewards for society in the near future.”

Among those winning funding in December were…

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Dr Rebecca Bullard from the Department of English Literature asks whether the digital revolution means we no longer have a need for old books? 

Bringing old books to life

In an attack on the censorship of books, the poet John Milton declared that ‘Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a violl the purest efficacie and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.’ Milton’s metaphor, taken from alchemy, claims that books store (like a vial, or ‘violl’) the distilled genius of their authors. These books, Milton claims, are kept alive by the elixir of their authors’ ideas. Other writers from the ‘early modern’ period (roughly, 1500-1750) were not so confident that an author’s spirit would be enough to keep a book alive. Jonathan Swift remarked, gloomily, that ‘Books, like Men their Authors, have no more than one Way of coming in to the World, but there are ten Thousand to go out of it, and return no more.’ Swift imagined books literally torn apart, their pages turned into firelighters, pie-tin liners, and toilet paper.

Research in early modern English literature has sought ways to preserve our printed heritage in ways that would have been beyond even Swift and Milton’s prodigious powers of imagination. A digital turn in humanities research has led to the creation of an array of resources designed to preserve early modern literary culture for current and future generations. Our University Library subscribes to several of these, including the extraordinary Early English Books Online (EEBO), which offers readers digital images of every page of almost every book published in the British Isles from the earliest days of printing in the late fifteenth century to the year 1700. Researchers at Reading are, themselves, responsible for such e-resources as Verse Miscellanies Online, an online edition of some of the most popular poetry anthologies of the English Renaissance, and a database of Italian Academy Libraries that allows users to enter the world of early humanist learning. Digitisation not only has the capacity to keep books alive and in the public domain but also, through functions such as word searchability and image recognition, to generate new avenues of research.

Does the digital revolution mean, then, that bytes store the ‘efficacie and extraction’ of living intellects better than books? Keeping special collections of rare books in libraries is a costly business – one that resources like EEBO might seem to make redundant. If we regard books simply as repositories of words or texts, the answer might be ‘yes’. But both Milton and Swift make it quite clear that books are more than just inert containers for the words that they contain. These authors draw attention to the life (and potential death) embodied, materially, in the physical document that is a book. Many of us in Reading’s English Department are carrying out research into early modern ‘material texts’ which demonstrates that books communicate with their readers in ways that cannot easily be captured in electronic form.

The codex – the folded series of pages that many of us think of, automatically, as the default form of the book – exists not just in two but in three dimensions. It has a depth and, therefore, a weight that eludes the virtual world of digital representation. Think about the last book that you read. You almost certainly made judgements about it based on its size and weight even before you opened the covers. And you were probably conscious of the peculiarly tangible form of narrative progress represented by turning pages. The knowledge that one is ‘104 of 286’ pages through a book – the kind of information imparted by a digital edition – cannot capture an aspect of reading material texts that is determined by the sense of touch more than abstract mental processing.

Perhaps even more significantly, digital texts give the misleading impression that the facsimile of a document that we see on our screens provides the definitive version of the text it contains. It conceals the fact that every early modern text is handmade and therefore unique. In this period, setting type, printing sheets, collation, and binding all took place in separate processes and separate places. No two texts produced in the pre-industrial era are exactly identical. Sometimes the differences can be quite radical. Authors were able to make alterations to the words of their texts (known as ‘stop-press corrections’) in the middle of the printing process. Paper and labour being expensive, no bookseller would withhold the uncorrected version from public view. Consequently, early modern texts often circulated in more than one version, even within ostensibly the same edition. When owners got their hands on books, the differences between texts could become even more striking. Early modern readers liked to scribble in books, adding notes and even blotting out words. An example of this practice can be found in images of the playwright Ben Jonson’s collected works, now held in Reading University Library’s Special Collections, which show the inky assault that one early reader made on Jonson’s plays.

Of course, the existence of digital editions does not in and of itself preclude researchers from consulting material editions of early modern texts. And digital resources like the one used to capture the images of Ben Jonson’s inked-out plays demonstrate that new technology can disseminate information about the unique characteristics of particular early modern documents. I don’t want to suggest that there’s anything wrong with the digitisation of early modern texts – far from it. I do, however, want to draw attention to the limitations of electronic facsimiles, and to the advantages of carrying out the kind of archival research that leaves the smell of centuries-old paper, ink, leather (and concomitant dirt) on one’s fingertips. It is expensive to maintain archives of rare books, to conserve and catalogue early modern print. But old books bring to life the words of Swift, Milton and other early modern authors, as well as the cultures that fostered and first read them, in ways that cannot be matched by any digital ‘violl’.

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