Guest post #1 Hannah Neifert: Maier, Randolph and Reading

I mentioned in a previous post a visit to the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College. One of our talented student guides Hannah Neifert kindly agreed to write a guest post on the opportunities for student research at the Maier. Hannah also visited the University of Reading as part of their ‘The World in Britain’ programme and she also talks a little about her time in Blighty.

Hannah in the Maier

Hannah in the Maier

During the summer of 2012 I spent 8 weeks as an intern with the Maier Museum of Art located at Randolph College in Lynchburg, Virginia. As an art history major with an emphasis in museum studies, this was the perfect opportunity for me to gain experience working in the museum/gallery setting. Under the supervision of the museum staff, my duties varied from writing extended wall labels for paintings on campus, researching artists for the upcoming exhibition, providing tours of the galleries, filing and organizing documents, and working hands-on with the hanging, dismantling and transferring several paintings.

They have a Hopper!

They have a Hopper!

 One of my lasting projects was to create an iPod audio tour guide for the galleries that hold our permanent collection. I recorded my voice reading a script which guided visitors through each gallery highlighting specific pieces and their relevance to the museum and art history. My work in the museum as an intern was exciting as I was surrounded by the Maier’s impressive collection during my time there. Aside from the internship position, the Maier Museum offers opportunities year-long for students on campus to engage with the art work. The curatorial seminar is an offered course by which students co-curate an exhibition drawing on artworks from the permanent collection, and other courses in English and Philosophy hold classes in the museum. Of course, the highlight of the year is the annual exhibition that has been taking place since 1911 and the Helen Clark Berlind Symposium. These events promote discussion and appreciation of contemporary art with the students and Lynchburg community. At the end of the year, the senior art history majors condense their final paper to a presentation which takes place at the Maier in the gallery which displays the senior studio art majors’ work. It is a conglomeration of student work devoted to studio art and art history.

Painting of a female sculptor

Painting of a female sculptor

   As I ramble on about my small liberal arts college here in Virginia, I would be remiss if I did not mention my time spent abroad at your very own University of Reading for the 2012-2013 school year. Leaving my beloved college was difficult, but I quickly found myself enjoying the experience Reading had to offer me. I was lucky enough to work hands-on with collections from the MERL and Typography department with Martin Andrews in his Ephemera Studies module. I found that while there was no Maier Museum of Art at Reading, the University’s campus held its own vast and unique collection of art and artifacts on campus with museums such as the Ure that satisfied my museum studies needs.

   Being a student at Randolph College and the University of Reading and having access to the museum collections at both locations has made a positive impact in my academic experience. There is nothing quite like being surrounded by wonderful art and artifacts on campus, and it is something I will cherish for years to come. Ars longa, vita brevis. 

Postcard from America #3 The American Museum of Natural History New York

Entrance American Museum Natural History

Entrance American Museum Natural History

This postcard is a bit delayed but it relates to a museum which just blew me away during my time in America. Following on from Carlisle, PA I traveled by train to New York City. As this was my first visit I tried to see as many museums in as short an amount of time as possible. My first stop was the American Museum of Natural History which is on the Upper West Side, looking out over Central Park. The entrance (above) is almost overwhelming with its dinosaurs, murals and quotes from Roosevelt (after whom the hall is named).

Diorama 1 AMNH

Diorama 1 AMNH

The Museum was founded in 1869 and is famous for its use of habitat dioramas. The most notable example of this is the Akeley Hall of African Mammals which opened in 1936. I am always a bit wary of dioramas, as in the UK outdated shop dummy dioramas were the stuff of childhood comedy or terror. However, the hall is named for Carl Akeley (1864-1926), a man who took taxidermy and dioramas to the level of an art form. It is difficult to make out in these photographs, but standing in front of these scenes you feel as though you have been transported to the location in question. Many of the observations were made through expeditions, and the dioramas also convey the strength of emotion which these explorers must have felt upon watching animals in the wild. You can find out more about Carl Akeley via Milgrom’s infinitely readable and informative (2011) ‘Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy’.

Diorama 2 AMNH

Diorama 2 AMNH

It becomes tricky when this technique is applied to human beings. Perhaps more worryingly when it is applied to certain human beings and not to others. This image of a Tibetan couple in Lhasa with the Potala in the background is pure Shangri-La (see Dr Clare Harris’ ‘The Museum on the Roof of the World’ for more on the way that Tibet has been represented in museums). The museum does have a slightly retro feel but I wondered whether every audience member picked up on the significance of the timelag. The political consequences of presenting frozen images of ‘exotic’ cultures needs not a blog post but several books to discuss and I’ll try to add some references in the comments section.

Tibetan diorama AMNH

Tibetan diorama AMNH

The animal collections are also challenging. Some species were being killed for taxidermy at a time when they were under extreme pressure. Carl Akeley himself realised this and, after seeing gorillas in the wild, actually established a reserve in Virunga. The Museum is well aware of its commitment to the preservation of the planet, with the Roosevelt quote ‘The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased; and not impaired in value’ adorning the entrance hall.

Overall its slightly retro feel was a dream come true to a museum professional. The dioramas are both popular and an important record of how we have thought about and represented our world. Yet the timelag in representation does cause problems in places. No doubt the staff grapple with these complexities on a daily basis, and it will be interesting to see how reflexive museology and anthropology translates to the galleries over the coming decades.

Silchester Excavation Open Day July 2013

Students in woad

Students in woad

I was out at the  Silchester Excavation site today for one of their annual Open Days. For those of you that don’t know, the Silchester Excavation is examining one insula (or block) in the large Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum and the Iron Age settlement Calleva which lies beneath it. Since 1997 Prof Mike Fulford and Amanda Clarke have been leading a team of dedicated excavators at the site. Silchester is the University of Reading Archaeology Department’s training dig and students make up the majority of the ‘diggers’.


Visitors on the viewing platform

Students also get involved in the interpretation of the site, this year under the guidance of freelance museum educator Ross McGauran. The site welcomes school groups and has a training pit, Roman garden, tours and activities for visitors to the site. I was also really impressed by their head-sets which linked visitors not to a pre-recorded tour but to a microphone. This meant that site directors could jump around the trenches providing information while visitors listened from a viewing platform. On a windy day like today this was much needed.

This kind of activity also gives students an opportunity to communicate their passion for the subject with the public. In recent blog posts I seem to be repeatedly talking about how easily the popular image of apathetic students is overturned when you look at heritage volunteering. Academics and professionals can assist in this process by providing support and giving students a platform to express themselves. To link back to a previous post on this blog two of the students were Nerdfighters and the three of us chatted about how we had been inspired to use social media to communicate about arts and heritage. I am currently thinking about how I can integrate social media training into my teaching to help students in this process. The students that I met at Silchester were excellent communicators and the kids who visited were enthralled. I walked back up the path at the end of the day to find a 7 and 3 year old ‘being archaeologists’ by picking up every piece of gravel. If you want to be similarly inspired the next Open Day is on 3rd August…

Silchester Insula IX

Silchester Insula IX

PhD Studentship Opportunities


Farm in Yorkshire Dales

This year has seen an exciting new development. We have a new collections-based research programme! This allows PhD students to undertake research with University of Reading collections and get specialised training. Two of these studentships connect with MERL and special collections, but the opportunity to apply for these two exciting scholarship opportunities ends 31 July. Spread the word! Prof. Alison Donnell has kindly given us some more details in a guest post.

The Programme offers students a learning environment in which to undertake original scholarly research in our outstanding and wide-ranging collections. Alongside high quality research supervision, you will benefit from exceptional access to primary sources and the associated professional expertise of a university museum. This nationally distinctive postgraduate training is underpinned by a focus on museum and archives skills training and placement opportunities that enhance both intellectual and employment horizons

Both studentships cover fees for the duration of the PhD and offer an additional payment of £3000 for the first year and £1000 per annum for the next two years (part-time options also available).

 A PhD around the topic of ‘Changes in farm business structure in England, 1936-56’ entails working with records at The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), the foremost repository for English agricultural and rural history archival material. The project will study agricultural and farm business change over 1936-56, a period of rapid and fundamental developments in the industry affecting not just the resource base, but methods of production and consumer demand. The approach taken could be historical, economic, behavioural or sociological. However, as the database lends itself to the use of GIS techniques, geographers could also find it useful as could those interested in environmental change at the regional level.

‘Animating the Evacuee Archive: Memory and Materiality’ offers an opportunity for practice-led doctoral research around the largest evacuee archive in the UK. The archive contains a wealth of autobiographical documentation produced by a range of socially and culturally diverse Second World War child evacuees from the UK to a variety of national and international destinations, including – via the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB) – South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. The available documentation includes written testimonies, diaries, letters, photographs, film and audio recordings, and a variety of ephemera, such as, for example, ships’ menus. We invite applications from appropriately qualified candidates in any relevant discipline, including theatre, museum studies, history, performance, film and media studies. You should have an interest in socio-political histories and their documentation. The project framework proposes practice-led doctoral research that will engage with, intervene in and animate aspects of this archive within a range of publicly accessible spaces, thus shaping and re-routing it via a hybridized range of potentially interactive events. The critical frameworks and practical outcomes of the PhD research will be informed by, and interlock with, an important new cross-institutional project funded by the Arts Council, in which the supervisors are involved. There is also a placement opportunity in a museum setting.

This is a really amazing opportunity so please do tweet, post and blog about the studentships. For further details see:

Postcard from America #3

Re-enactors train station

Re-enactors train station

It looks like I’m going to be posting most of these cards from the UK due to my full on schedule. However, that will give me the opportunity to add some cool photos from the places in question. This one is coming from JFK airport wi-fi willing.

The next stop was Carlisle, Pennsylvania which we reached through some stunning countryside. It’s a lovely college town with lots of great eateries. The college focus on sustainability is really impressive. They have a farm which is powered by student labour and is self sustaining due to the patronage of local food lovers and the hard work of the team who run the programme. They also ‘green’ the curriculum (most colleges just green their operations) by identifying and encouraging the development of sustainability teaching and tracking the students who engage with these courses.

On the museum side of things I visited the Trout Gallery which was running a really powerful student curated exhibition about reporting and illustration during the American Civil War. I also got to

see the African objects in the store and had a browse through some catalogues for past exhibitions. The work the students produce is up of professional quality and it was an object lesson (pardon the pun) in trusting students with bigger projects. We got to have lunch with the student archive interns and they got us thinking about how we engage students with our special collections. The Goodyear Gallery was another example of a student focused space in which individuals had studio space to develop their own artwork.

Obviously smaller staff to student ratios help a lot when creating a rich student experience, but that’s no reason to be defeatist. I am heading back to the UK thinking about how we can adapt some of these ideas to work in our specific HE environment. In case you are wondering about the photo, that’s what met me when I boarded the train at Harrisburg …is this standard at American train stations?

Postcard from America #2


Firstly apologies for the lack of images and links. Blogging on the move with only an iPad takes some getting used to. I am actually posting this from Philadelphia train station!

Our second stop on our whistle-stop tour of the US was Lynchburg Virginia. Randolph College has had a long running exchange programme with the University of Reading. One of my former students Maggie is a Randolph alum who now works in an art gallery in the States. She had waxed lyrical about the Maier Museum (see image for website) so it was great to finally visit.

There was beautiful art in the gallery, including an exquisite Hopper. However, what struck me was how they use the museum as an experiential teaching space for their students. Students co-curate exhibitions, facilitate community education programmes and even create their own iPod tours. Our two student tour guides Stormy and Hannah had an infectious enthusiasm for the collection. Until recently the college was women only and the art, and their interpretation of it, also demonstrated a strong awareness of issues of gender. I was so impressed that I have asked them if they will write something the blog. I am sure that they will do more justice to the collection than I have in these few paragraphs.

Postcard from America #1


This week I am travelling around the States with come colleagues and I am going to add updates from the places I visit. I’m hoping to add some more detail and some illuminating photos once I get back to the UK. The first stop is Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia.

I had read about Williamsburg but I hadn’t fully appreciated the scale of the site or how multi-functional Williamsburg is. Colonial Williamsburg has a golf course, spa, several hotels and restaurants. Williamsburg also takes the museum shop to a whole new level with a shopping area called Merchants Square.

However, the heritage interpretation, research and collections management is also something to behold. The Living History is well thought out, with a mix of first person, third person, general costumed facilitator-guides and craftspeople. The new coffee house is a particularly good example, which engages visitors in a familiar yet unfamiliar environment where revolutionary ideas took shape during the period in question. Heritage crafts are kept alive through the traditional master-apprentice system, and in the museum and collections store we also found incredible collections of objects cared for by curators and conservators in custom designed premises.

Unfortunately I only had a day there when I really needed a week. It’s a challenging site which deals with multiple historic narratives and a range of different kinds of resources and I’m sure to post more when I get back.

The Nerd and the Museum #2 ‘The Brain Scoop and Zoology collections’

Scary front cover of Milgrom's 'Still Life: adventures in taxidermy'

Scary front cover of Milgrom’s ‘Still Life: adventures in taxidermy’

I promised ages ago to post about the nerdy museum phenomenon that is The Brain Scoop. This seems like a brilliant time to post as it has just reached the next stage in its development. The Brain Scoop began only a few months ago in December 2012 when Vlogbrother Hank Green shot a video blog post from the University of Montana’s Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum. There he met museum studies student and curatorial assistant Emily Graslie. Emily’s enthusiasm secured her an invitation to start her own YouTube channel as part of the Nerdfighter family (on which more in a later post). As the museum is mostly a research collection this was a rare opportunity to display objects to the public. The series also went behind the scenes, and in a series of stomach turning episodes Emily even dissected a wolf. The video in which the wolf is skinned currently has around 217,000 views!

Spider in the Cole Museum of Zoology (Photograph taken by Fil Gierlinski)

Spider in the Cole Museum of Zoology (Photograph taken by Fil Gierlinski)

As an aside, I chatted to my colleague Claire about Brain Scoop and we compared the books on taxidermy that we had bought following Emily’s recommendations. Claire has been volunteering at our own university zoology collection The Cole Museum of Zoology and is also a digital aficionado. Check out Claire the Conservatrix to find out more.

Anyway, back to Brain Scoop. The Field Museum, Chicago became aware of the channel and invited Emily to visit. They were so impressed that they made her the Chief Curiosity Correspondent. I was a little sad to see Emily leave the smaller research collection but I’m excited to see what she comes up with in Chicago. Emily is a positive role model for young women who might be considering STEM careers. Brainscoop also makes me wonder whether students or ‘experts in training’ make more accessible role models than the established academics that we usually see on TV documentaries.

Finally, the success of The Brain Scoop demonstrates that zoology and taxidermy have a nerdy appeal when pitched correctly. Other examples which embrace the kookiness of zoology collections are my twitter favourites Glass Jar of Moles (UCL’s Grant Museum) and the Horniman Museum’s Walrus. These social media experiments work because their authors aren’t restricted by brand or ‘organisational voice’. They use their own voices and embrace their inner nerd.

Blackwell Taxidermy

Blackwell Oxford’s Taxidermy Display