PhD Trip to Oxford University Museums

We currently have a dedicated group of PhD students from a range of disciplines who have been brought together by Collections-Based Research. Over the last year we have been running specialist training with our collections at Reading and, when possible, beyond. This brings us to the most anticipated PhD training event of this spring term: a trip around the Oxford Museums with Dr Giovanna Vitelli and Dr Laura Peers.

Discussing the interpretation of marbles at the Ashmolean

Discussing the interpretation of marbles at the Ashmolean

Dr Vitelli is the Head of the University Engagament Programme at the Ashmolean Museum. She is also an expert on Early Modern collecting and led students as they interrogated items in the Museum’s founding Tradescant collection. We discussed how an assumption made by an overly confident cataloguer can become enshrined. Dr Vitelli stressed the need to go back to basic principles when researching historic collections and emphasised the benefits of collaborating with a range of experts.

Giovanna Vitelli talking to students in the Ashmolean atrium

Giovanna Vitelli talking to students in the Ashmolean atrium

At the Pitt Rivers Museum Dr Laura Peers also noted the difficulties of reconstructing provenance for items which were collected at auction or even left on the doorstep overnight in baskets. Dr Peers is well known for her work on source or originating community collaboration in North America and was kind enough to discuss her recent project ‘Kaahsinnooniksi Ao’toksisawooyawa’ ‘Our ancestors have come to visit’: Reconnections with historic Blackfoot shirts. Dr Peers told us about the impact that wearing replica shirts had on teenage boys from this community and got Matt Austin to try one on to see how it changed the way he stood. The story of the journey of these shirts really impressed upon us the troubled histories of certain collections. It also got students thinking about the emotional impact of their own collections and the ethical responsibilities of curators and researchers.

Laura Peers, and Matt Austin trying on a replica Blackfoot men's shirt

Laura Peers, and Matt Austin trying on a replica Blackfoot shirt

This kind of training is not just about going ‘behind the scenes’. Listening to accounts of collection-based research can help a doctoral student to realise that there are some shared problems specific to this kind of investigation. Those with more experience can also model strategies which can be adapted for other research projects. Finally, high quality research of this kind presents you with an example to which you can aspire.

Repost: Welcoming our PhD students

Now our new blog is up and running we thought we’d repost this quick piece from October 2013. This documents the first taste our current cohort of PhD students got of the collections. We will be posting some more about our trip to Oxford and introduce you to the students and their research over the next couple of weeks.

“We’ve always encouraged collections-based research with our collections at Reading but this year we are doing something really new and exciting. The University has offered PhD studentships to students who are collaborating on a variety of multi-disciplinary projects with the collections. These range from hunting down Boeotian pot painters in the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology to finding novel ways of animating our Evacuee Archives.

image (10) Navigating collections as a researcher is never straight forward. More and more PhD students are realising this as we see a growth in what are known as “collaborative doctorates” in the UK. This is where a student undertakes research in an organisation outside their university. My own doctorate was funded in this way and I know how hard it is to balance the need to find good source material, generate strong research questions and produce some kind of public facing output. With this in mind we are piloting a training programme which equips PhD students with basic training, gets them thinking in new ways and provides a peer support network.

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This week we welcomed some of our new students and supervisors and gave them a tour around the collections. Some of them are already bloggers and we are hoping to get more blogging about their research. In the meantime I’ll just say an online welcome to our new students and wish them luck with their research.”


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AHRC: Glastonbury Revealed

The University of Reading is being featured on the AHRC website today in a film which examines a recent research project with Glastonbury Abbey, Somerset, UK. Find out more about how Professor Roberta Gilchrist (Department of Archaeology, University of Reading) and a team of experts disentangled a complex web of archival documents and stored objects related to historic excavations at the site (1904 – 1979).

The AHRC have provided the following information on the project:

“The site of Glastonbury Abbey is one of the important ancient heritage sites in the UK.

A focus for many people who value the spiritual and historical resonances of the place, it is best known for its legendary reputation as the burial place of King Arthur and as the earliest Christian foundation in Britain, allegedly founded by Joseph of Arimathea, the great-uncle of Christ, in AD 63.

A team of AHRC-funded researchers, led by Professor Roberta Gilchrist of Reading University, has re-evaluated the history of Glastonbury Abbey and its environs and disentangled the rich but not always accurate myth from historical reality.

Among the findings are: fresh evidence to confirm that the abbey site was indeed occupied in the 5th or 6th century, before the foundation of the Saxon monastery; identification of an early timber building with large post pits associated with fragments of imported Roman amphorae, dated c AD 450-550 and often associated with very high status secular (ie royal) settlement; analysis of glass and metal fragments suggesting that the glass-working furnaces at Glastonbury represent the earliest evidence for significant glass production in Saxon England; and a great deal more.

The project has worked closely with local groups and the general public and outreach activities have been crucial to its work and its findings.

This film examines the new evidence unearthed by the project and how researchers have worked with the Abbey Museum, conservators and the public to explore the history of this rich and extraordinary site.”

Welcome to the Collections Based Research blog

Here at the University of Reading, we are incredibly proud of our outstanding museums, archives and collections and how we use primary sources and material cultures to enrich our research at all levels. From undergraduate dissertations through to major externally funded research projects, these rich resources inform but also transform our ways of understanding and enabling research with a particular emphasis on transdisciplinarity and collaborative skills.

This blog will highlight ongoing research being conducted by the PhD students on our internationally distinctive doctoral training programme. This skills-based approach involves PhD students researching collections across diverse disciplines. Current PhD projects include research into the Mills and Boon archive, Greek vases, non-Latin typefaces and evacuee letters. The programme offers an opportunity to work together, as well as with museum, archive and library professionals. We will also use the blog to feature work by our postdocs.  Their research is equally varied, focusing on collections ranging from small independent publishers to the Boots lending library, to the celebrated manuscripts of Samuel Beckett.

As part of  ‘the material turn’, many of our research projects drawing on collections are enlivened by their commitment to transdisciplinarity and public engagement. The AHRC funded Multi-Sensory Objects project, a partnership between the department of Art and Systems Engineering, is currently working with students with learning disabilities from Reading College as co-researchers to test and evaluate sensory learning in the galleries.

Our aim is for this blog to show the variety of ways in which collections-based research can be effective in connecting different knowledge communities, enabling researchers to work with arts, heritage and other professional communities to extend and enrich the value of their work.

We would be delighted to hear from other researchers whose work connects to ours and who are interested in visiting us – both our material and digital world. We look forward to your comments and suggestions.

Alison Donnell, Professor of Modern Literatures in English, Programme Director, Doctoral Training in Collections-Based Research and Head of School of Literature and Languages

Kate Arnold-Forster, Head of University Museums and Special Collections; Director of the Museum of English Rural Life

Co-directors of the Centre for Collections-Based Research