Welcoming Collections-Based PhD students

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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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

Interpreting King Arthur at Glastonbury Abbey #2

Ralegh Radford discusses plans to excavate Arthur’s Grave

Here’s a little more about the ‘Foosteps of Arthur’ event at Glastonbury Abbey last Friday. Just to recap, in 1191 the monks of Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have found the bones of Arthur and Guinevere in the monks’ cemetry and displayed them in a large black marble tomb.

Dr. Cheryl Allum, the Project Officer for the AHRC funded Glastonbury Abbey Excavation Archive Project talked about the archaeological evidence for the 1191 exhumation. Some people may be disappointed to hear that a lot of the archaeological evidence doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, but on the plus side lots of interesting Dark Age/ Post-Roman evidence has been identified during the recent project, for example the identification of Dark Age amphora sherds.

Many of the other speakers highlighted that Arthur is a slippery yet compelling symbolic resource. Prof. Elizabeth Archibald discussed choices made by authors of modern Arthurian fiction, and unintentionally added significantly to everybody’s reading lists. Prof. Ad Putter gave us the opportunity to listen to some Middle English and examined the role of local landscape in these texts. Johnny McFadyen talked about Norman appropriation of Arthur, something which may have had a big role to play at Glastonbury in 1191.

The main event for many attendees was the Q&A with Geoffrey Ashe, the man who put Glastonbury on the map with his book King Arthur’s Avalon. I interviewed Geoffrey and Patricia Ashe as part of my PhD and it’s fascinating to hear them talk in person about Glastonbury and Arthur. Prof. Ronald Hutton’s paper ‘The Historical Arthur’ paid homage to Geoffrey Ashe, who is currently celebrating his 90th year, and discussed Ashe’s place in the 20th century hunt for a historical Arthur.

Kudos to the team at the Abbey, especially the Education Officer Julie Hayes for setting up this ‘Arthurian’ dream team of speakers (I exclude myself from that category although the paper went very well in case you were wondering). It’s been a pleasure working with the Abbey and this day was another example of their commitment to combining solid academic research with public engagement. I have decided to honour them with this fitting, but slightly less than flattering, photograph taken in the George and Pilgrim at the end of the day.

An unintentionally Arthurian themed celebration in the George and Pilgrim pub

University Museums Group Conference: What are University Museums For? Oxford 2013

Last Thursday and Friday I attended the UMG 2013 conference, held at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Overall the message of the conference was that university museums are doing relatively well, but that strong leadership and ingenuity was the order of the day. Speaking of leadership Dr Nick Merriman (Manchester Museum) stepped down as chair and Kate Arnold-Forster (UMASCS Reading) and Sally MacDonald (UCL Museums) took over as joint chairs of UMG. On a side note, before the conference started I went on a tour of the Oxford University Natural History Museum’s roof and have included a few images in this post.

whale skeleton

whale skeleton OUNHM


The conference kicked off with a speech from former Secretary of State for DCMS Baron Chris Smith of Finsbury, a general celebration of university museums. The next day the conference started with a presentation from David Sweeney from HEFCE talking about state funding and the impact of tuition fees. He stressed the need for university museums to actively demonstrate their importance to their home institutions and argue the case for financial support.

Tour Group

Roof of the OUNHM

The nest session was one close to my heart as it dealt with students. Rebecca Reynolds talked about a joint project between Reading and UCL called OBL4HE which created digital resources for students. Gemma Angel talked about a fantastic project at UCL using PhD student to engage visitors with research and collections Researchers in Museums. Dr Giovanna Vitelli got us all jealous and inspired talking about the Ashmolean’s, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Funded, Museum University Engagement Programme.


on the roof

OUNHM roof

After that it was onto a research panel chaired by Prof. Nicholas Thomas during which I was taken back to my student days listening to one of my former lecturers Prof. Chris Gosden talk about the way that the university museums at Oxford shaped its research history. Panellists also discussed how historic collections which may seem sidelined from cutting edge research can be made relevant today.

In the afternoon we had a keynote from Hedley Swain (Director Museums and Renaissance ACE) in which he discussed how university museums can contribute to the wider museums sector. Then a ‘provocation’ from Dr. Maurice Davies (Museums Association) and Nick Poole (Director of Collections Trust). Nick pronounced himself too British to provoke, but presented a range of challenging visions of alternative futures for Higher Education, and as a consequence university museums. Maurice talked about Museums 2020 and the challenge and potential of focussing on ‘impact’.

looking up

OUNHM roof

What really struck me about the conference was how the history of university museums in the UK as liminal and often endangered organisations has made everybody raise their game. Nobody was sitting back and relaxing, everybody that I talked to was looking forwards towards the next project. Here ends a whistle-stop tour of the conference, hopefully it gives a flavour of what was discussed and provides links to further resources.


Religion and Heritage 1

The subject of religion and spirituality in the heritage sector summons up a number of challenging ethical and philosophical issues. There has been much written about sacred objects belonging to ‘non-Western’ people in museums, but it has often been framed in terms of competing ‘world views’ in post-colonial contexts. This usually involves painting ‘The West’ and therefore the heritage sector as inherently scientific and secular. In reality the relationship is much more interesting. This is one aspect of my current research so I decided to blog a little on it.

I thought that I would start blogging on this topic with a couple of recommendations for introductory reading and resources. For my PhD research I used Crispin Paine’s ‘Godly Things: Museums, Objects, Religion’ and would thoroughly recommend it . However, as Crispin Paine notes in his latest book the field has moved on a lot since that book was published. I just picked up this new title ‘Religious Objects’ from the bookshop on Sunday and can’t wait to get reading . For introductory reading I would also recommend Myra Shackley’s ‘Managing Sacred Sites’

So for anybody who wants to find out more about this subject, that’s a good start. I’m booked onto the British Museum event ‘Encountering the Sacred’ in a few weeks time  This excellent blog ‘Religion in Museums’, run by the folks responsible for the BM event, is well worth subscribing to.

In conclusion, this post is numbered as #1 as this is a topic that I will come back to again. My next blog on this subject will discuss the British Museum event.


Body Art in Museums

I attended a thought provoking lecture by Dr Matt Lodder on Victorian trends in tattooing yesterday. Matt stressed that the idea that tattooing is ‘a new fad’ is itself very old. The British royal family, including King George V, had Japanese tattoos. During the 1890s it was quite the fashionable thing amongst the upper classes. It was also much commented upon by the tabloid press of the time. Here is a link to an online article by Matt which does a bit of myth busting http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/oct/01/myths-about-tattoos

The talk got me thinking about body arts in museums as a topic for museum studies students. One of the lecture slides showed an image of an ‘object’ from a museum which was a tattoo on the original skin. There are several examples of ethnographic objects which occupy this murky territory, being both human remains and art objects, and they raise interesting ethical and philosophical questions. From a collecting viewpoint body arts also unsettle object focussed techniques, as much of it is transitory and you can’t (for practical and ethical reasons) collect a body with its skin and hair. Matt and his fellow researchers use photography, diaries, paintings and newspaper articles to understand the history of tattooing and exhibitions of body art increasingly do the same.

When I was still a student I did some audience evaluation with the, then new, Body Arts display in the Pitt Rivers Museum Oxford. I was struck by how a discussion of the decoration of the human body unsettled certain ‘safe’ categories and engaged people in active debate. It’s an amazing topic for museums because the body is universal, but ways of shaping and viewing bodies are so varied. The Pitt Rivers dealt with the collecting issues by engaging in a bit of contemporary collecting with a tattoo parlour in Oxford and have included videos on the website: http://web.prm.ox.ac.uk/bodyarts/

As a discussion point in class it can be uncomfortable. Many people don’t think they have any body art because they don’t have a large tattoo but hairstyle, perfume, make-up, ear piercings all count. Questioning how your own body is constructed can feel quite unsettling, but that’s what makes it such a great topic for debate.

Live Friday at the Ashmolean – Music in the Museum

Theremin Ashmolean

I attended the Ashmolean’s late night opening event Live Friday http://www.ashmolean.org/livefriday/ and thought I would jot down some impressions. I’m not an expert on music but it got me thinking about what sound can do to a museum space.

When I first entered the atrium I was struck by the sound of Lydia Kavina playing the theremin. You can just see her through the window in the picture. This musical instrument works on the basis of manipulating electrical currents. It’s best known as the staple instrument of sci-fi sound effects department, and was used to create the theme tune to Dr Who. Kavina was originally playing a haunting melody that echoed throughout the space. As she switched to more staccato sound effects I instantly shook myself out of my state of contemplation and began negotiating packed staircases in an agitated state.

In with the Chinese paintings the DJ set ‘Six Bar Gate’ allowed visitors to interact with instruments and contribute to a relaxing soundscape which immediately made me think of water. Looking back through my guide the piece was called ‘Lake Dysmal’ which just goes to show how a skilled composer can summon up certain associations.

In ‘The Ethometric Museum’ by Ray Lee (British Composer of the Year 2012 for Sonic Art), the staircase gallery for European Art was transformed into an uncanny space. http://www.ocmevents.org/ocm/events/Ethometricmuseum This was more of an installation, with the objects the focus of your attention and the dark red gallery working with them to create an almost steampunk vibe.

Down in the Ancient Cyprus Gallery ‘Noise Relay’ by Dr Lisa Busby engaged audience members as DJs on a collaborative soundtrack. Here the effect of music as it sped up and slowed down was noticeable. Whereas we had been quiet in the other spaces, we chatted away in this gallery and seemed to speed up and slow down with the music.

All this reminded me of brilliant lecture by the late Hélène La Rue (formerly Curator of the Bate Collections of Musical Instruments, University of Oxford) in which she played a strange range of sounds in order to get us students thinking about the anthropology of music. In terms of exhibition design, sound is an important way of eliciting an emotional response and can also change the way we move through spaces. However, in museums we always seem to focus on the visual not the aural. I came across this post from a couple of years ago which discusses music in museums http://museumtwo.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/open-thread-how-do-you-feel-about-music.html It’s clear from the comments that adding music to a gallery is not an endeavour to be entered into lightly. However, these kinds of interactions between musicians, composers and researchers help us to question why we keep galleries quiet, and explore some possible alternatives.

Welcome to our new blog!

As it says above this is a brand spanking new blog. My name is Rhianedd or ‘Rhi’ Smith and I’m the Museum Studies Programme Director and novice blogger. This blog is for museum studies students and researchers at Reading and beyond. I have big plans that one day it will also be written in part by students. I am definitely planning on press-ganging my colleagues into posting and I will flag up interesting posts on blogs written by folks at Reading or people in the wider world.

We’ve been teaching Museum Studies at Reading since 2005, although there is a longer history which I will try to track in an upcoming post. The optional modules we devised back in 2005 were so popular that we are offering two joint degrees, BA Classical and Museum Studies and BA Archaeology and Museum Studies, from 2013/2014.

I want this blog to be a central place for information and discussion which students and researchers (here and elsewhere) can eventually tap into and contribute to.The initial posts are going to be written by yours truly. I’m going to give some background to the museums and collections here and our approach to teaching and research with collections. However, I’m also going to blog about exhibitions, projects, conferences and anything that takes my interest – hence the word ‘musings’ in the tagline.

So to conclude here’s a really old photo of students having a lively discussion about a pig carcass scraper in our stores. I like it because it shows how even the most mundane (and kind of disgusting) object can spark a conversation. Hopefully that’s what this blog will be –  a way to spark a conversation.

Students in the store