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Question of the Week: What’s this Museum For?

By Hannah L Wills, on 19 October 2017

By Hannah Wills

 

 

A couple of weeks ago, whilst engaging in the Grant Museum, I started talking to some secondary school students on a group visit to the museum. During their visit, the students had been asked to think about a number of questions, one of which was “what is the purpose of this museum?” When asked by some of the students, I started by telling them a little about the history of the museum, why the collection had been assembled, and how visitors and members of UCL use the museum today. As we continued chatting, I started to think about the question in more detail. How did visitors experience the role of museums in the past? How do museums themselves understand their role in today’s world? What could museums be in the future? It was only during our discussion that I realised quite how big this question was, and it is one I have continued to think about since.

What are UCL museums for?

The Grant Museum, in a similar way to both the Petrie and Art Museums, was founded in 1828 as a teaching collection. Named after Robert Grant, the first professor of zoology and comparative anatomy at UCL, the collection was originally assembled in order to teach students. Today, the museum is the last surviving university zoological museum in London, and is still used as a teaching resource, alongside being a public museum. As well as finding classes of biology and zoology students in the museum, you’re also likely to encounter artists, historians and students from a variety of other disciplines, using the museum as a place to get inspiration and to encounter new ideas. Alongside their roles as spaces for teaching and learning, UCL museums are also places for conversation, comedy, film screenings and interactive workshops — a whole host of activities that might not have taken place when these museums were first created. As student engagers, we are part of this process, bringing our own research, from a variety of disciplines not all naturally associated with the content of each of the museums, into the museum space.

 

A Murder-Mystery Night at the Grant Museum (Image credit: Grant Museum / Matt Clayton)

A Murder-Mystery Night at the Grant Museum (Image credit: Grant Museum / Matt Clayton)

 

What was the role of museums in the past?

Taking a look at the seventeenth and eighteenth-century roots of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the British Museum in London, it is possible to see how markedly the role and function of the museum has changed over time. These museums were originally only open to elite visitors. The 1697 statues of the Ashmolean Museum required that ‘Every Person’ wishing to see the museum pay ‘Six Pence… for the Space of One Hour’.[i] In its early days, the British Museum was only open to the public on weekdays at restricted times, effectively excluding anyone except the leisured upper classes from attending.[ii]

Another feature of these early museums was the ubiquity of the sense of touch within the visitor experience, as revealed in contemporary visitor accounts. The role of these early museums was to serve as a place for learning about objects and the world through sensory experience, something that, although present in museum activities including handling workshops, tactile displays, and projects such as ‘Heritage in Hospitals’, is not typically associated with the modern visitor experience. Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach (1683-1784), a distinguished German collector, recorded his visit to Oxford in 1710, and his handling of a range of museum specimens. Of his interactions with a Turkish goat specimen, Uffenbach wrote, ‘it is very large, yellowish-white, with… crinkled hair… as soft as silk’.[iii] As Constance Classen has argued, the early museum experience resembled that of the private ‘house tour’, where the museum keeper, assuming the role of the ‘gracious host’, was expected to offer objects up to be touched, with the elite visitor showing polite and learned interest by handling the proffered objects.[iv]

Aristocratic visitors handle objects and books in a Dutch cabinet of curiosities, Levinus Vincent, Illustration from the book, Wondertooneel der Nature - a Cabinet of Curiosities or Wunderkammern in Holland. c. 1706-1715 (Image credit: Universities of Strasbourg)

Aristocratic visitors handle objects and books in a Dutch cabinet of curiosities, Levinus Vincent, Illustration from the book, Wondertooneel der Nature – a Cabinet of Curiosities or Wunderkammern in Holland. c. 1706-1715 (Image credit: Universities of Strasbourg)

 

How do museums think about their function today?

In understanding how museums think about their role in the present, it can be useful to examine the kind of language museums employ when describing visitor experiences. The British Museum regularly publishes exhibition evaluation reports on its website, detailing visitor attendance, identity, motivation and experience. These reports are fascinating, particularly in the way they classify different visitor types and motivations for visiting a museum. Visitor motivations are broken down into four categories: ‘Spiritual’, ‘Emotional’, ‘Intellectual’ and ‘Social’, with each connected to a different type of museum function.[v]

Those who are driven by spiritual motivations are described as seeing the museum as a Church — a place ‘to escape and recharge, food for the soul’. Those motivated by emotion are understood as searching for ‘Ambience, deep sensory and intellectual experience’, the role of the museum being described as akin to that of a spa. For the intellectually motivated, the museum’s role is conceptualised as that of an archive, a place to develop knowledge and conduct a ‘journey of discovery’. For social visitors, the museum is an attraction, an ‘enjoyable place to spend time’ where facilitates, services and welcoming staff improve the experience. Visitors are by no means homogenous, their unique needs and expectations varying between every visit they make, as the Museum’s surveys point out. Nevertheless, the language of these motivations reveals how museum professionals and evaluation experts envisage the role of the modern museum, a place which serves multiple functions in line with what a visitor might expect to gain from the time they spend there.

What will the museum of the future be like?

In an article published in Frieze magazine a couple of years ago, Sam Thorne, director of Nottingham Contemporary, invited a group of curators to share their visions on the future of museums. Responses ranged from the notion of the museum as a ‘necessary sanctuary for the freedom of ideas’, to more dystopian fears of increased corporate funding and the museum as a ‘business’.[vi] These ways of approaching the role of the museum are by no means exclusive; there are countless other ways that museums have been used, can be used, and may be used in the future. My thinking after the conversation I had in the Grant Museum focussed on my own research and experience with museums, but this is a discussion that can and should be had by everyone — those who work in museums, those who go to museums, and those who might never have visited a museum before.

 

What do you think a museum is for? Tweet us @ResearchEngager or come and find us in the UCL museums and carry on the discussion!

 

References:

[i] R. F. Ovenell, The Ashmolean Museum 1683-1894 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 87.

[ii] Fiona Candlin has written on the class politics of early museums, in “Museums, Modernity and the Class Politics of Touching Objects,” in Touch in Museums: Policy and Practice in Object Handling, ed. Helen Chatterjee, et al. (Oxford: Berg, 2008).

[iii] Zacharias Konrad von Uffenbach, Oxford in 1710: From the Travels of Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach, trans. W. H. Quarrell and W. J. C. Quarrell (Oxford: Blackwell, 1928), 28.

[iv] Constance Classen, “Touch in the Museum,” in The Book of Touch, ed. Constance Classen (Oxford Berg, 2005), 275.

[v] For this post I took a look at ‘More than mummies A summative report of Egypt: faith after the pharaohs at the British Museum May 2016’, Appendix A: Understanding motivations, 27.

[vi] Sam Thorne, “What is the Future of the Museum?” Frieze 175, (2015), accessed online.

Materials & Objects: What do researchers at UCL study?

By Hannah L Wills, on 2 May 2017

Materials & Objects, an afternoon of short talks by UCL’s student engagers, will be taking place on Thursday 18 May 2017, UCL Art Museum, 2-4pm.

Taking a look at the range of posts we’ve had on our blog just recently, I’m struck by how many different kinds of materials we work with as researchers at UCL. From brains to archives, from skeletons to manuscripts, there’s a whole range of ‘stuff’ that forms the core of our research as PhD students, not to mention the objects we engage and interact with while we work in the museums, chatting about our research with the public.

In two weeks, a group of student engagers are getting together for an afternoon of short talks in the Art Museum, presenting and explaining their research based around the theme of materials and objects. Each short talk will give an insight into some of the research that happens at UCL, in departments ranging from Security and Crime Science to the Institute of Archaeology.

Arendse Lund, whose blog posts have explored unusual book-bindings as well as medieval twitter, will be ‘Marvelling at Medieval Manuscripts’ and their makeup.

Face-to-face with medieval manuscripts (Image credit: Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc. Patr. 4, f. 69r)

Face-to-face with medieval manuscripts (Image credit: Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc. Patr. 4, f. 69r)

Speaking about my work on eighteenth-century notebooks and diaries, I’ll be explaining how eighteenth-century paper was made, and how it was used by note-takers.

Kyle Lee-Crossett, who reflected last month on the absence of people in images of archives, will be delving into ‘Invisible Boxes’, exploring the materials of archives and collections.

Feeling disoriented yet? (Image credit: Kyle Lee-Crossett)

Feeling disoriented yet? (Image credit: Kyle Lee-Crossett)

Cerys Bradley, who has written about her work on the museum audio guide project, will be speaking at the event about her work studying illegal objects on the Dark Web.

Citlali Helenes González will be exploring the material of the body, in her talk ‘How to Build a Brain in the Lab’. You can find out more about Citlali’s fascinating research, and building brains, here.

Gordon Museum Brain Collection at the Grant Museum at UCL (Image credit: Grant Museum)

Gordon Museum Brain Collection at the Grant Museum at UCL (Image credit: Grant Museum)

Josie Mills, who has written recently about her work on Neanderthal landscape use and migration, will be revealing in her talk just where the Neanderthals got their stuff.

Stacy Hackner, whose work focuses on the tibia, will be explaining how bone reacts to activity in her talk, ‘Standing on One Foot’.

 

Our ‘Materials & Objects’ event will be happening on Thursday 18 May in the UCL Art Museum, from 2-4pm. Do join us if you can—the event will conclude with tea and refreshments, and an opportunity to meet the researchers. You can find out more and view our poster for the event here.

The event is FREE to attend, but online booking is suggested via: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/event-ticketing/booking?ev=16160

 

The Student Engager Project featured on the LSE Impact Blog

By Kevin Guyan, on 12 August 2016

The Student Engager project featured on the LSE Impact Blog, an online hub for those researching and working at universities who wish to maximise the impact of academic work.  In the article, the project coordinator Kevin Guyan discusses the potential benefits of the public engagement project for training the next generation of researchers in ways to communicate research with non-academic audiences.

 

LSE Impact Blog

To read the full article visit the LSE Impact Blog.

 

 

Question of the Week:

Why can’t I touch museum objects?

By Stacy Hackner, on 19 August 2015

DSC_0745By Stacy Hackner

For humans, touch is an important way to gain information about an object. We can tell if something is soft or hard, heavy or light, smooth or rough or fluffy, pliable, sharp, irregular. During my masters class on human dentition, I learned to identify teeth by touch to get around visual biases. We spent a significant amount of time touching objects in our environment, so we tend to get angry when museums tell us not to touch the objects.

I understand the desire to touch a piece of history. There’s a feeling of authenticity you get from holding something made by ancient people, and a sense of disappointment if you’re told the artifact is actually a replica. A British Museum visitor commented that “It was just lovely to know that you could pick something up that was authentic. It was just lovely to put your hands on something.” Another said “You do think sometimes when you’re looking in the cases, sometimes I’d like to pick that up and really look closely.”[i]

Even with “no touching” signs, museum visitors continue to touch things. Sometimes it’s by accident and sometimes they get a sneaky look on their faces, knowing they’re ignoring the signs; most often, they don’t realize what they’re doing is damaging the object.

Passive conservation of an object involves creating a stable environment so that the object can continue its “life” undisturbed. Sudden changes in humidity, temperature, and light can degrade the object. Touching it introduces dirt and oils from your skin onto its surface – the same way you’d leave fingerprints at a crime scene. Additionally, the oils can then attract dirt to linger, and acidic oils can also degrade metallic surfaces.

Yes, museum professionals handle objects for research purposes. However, we attempt to handle them as little as possible with clean hands and wear gloves when appropriate. This difference between museum staff and the public is also one of quantity: it’s ok if one person does it occasionally, but if everyone touches it on every visit, the grime adds up. In 2009, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford introduced a “touchometer” that counts how many people have touched an object made of various materials. As you can see in the image below, after nearly 8 million touches, the left half of the object is severely degraded. The stone (centre) has developed a patina, the metal (bottom) has become shiny, and the cloth (left) has entirely worn away. (Also, people have scratched the frame.)

The Ashmolean's Touchometer. Thanks to Mark Norman.

The Ashmolean’s Touchometer. Thanks to Mark Norman, the Ashmolean’s Head of Conservation.

If you walk through the British Museum’s gallery of Egyptian statuary, you can clearly see the areas on artifacts that people like to touch – the corners and public-facing edges of sarcophaguses are darker than the wall-facing edges, and anything round and protruding tends to have a sheen that takes years of painstaking work to remove (hands, feet, and breasts of statues at human height are particularly vulnerable).

Schoolchildren touch a sarcophagus. Credit: Sebastian Meyer for The Telegraph.

The Grant Museum has specific objects that can be handled, and UCL Museums have object-based learning programs to introduce students and specific groups to handling museum objects. [ii] Many other museums have touch tables or touch sessions where you can feel the weight of hand axes or porcupine quills. Don’t despair if you’re asked not to touch something in a museum – we’re not angry, we just want to make sure they’re preserved for future museum visitors to enjoy.

 

Sources

[i] Touching History: An evaluation of Hands On desks at The British Museum. 2008. Morris Hargreaves Mcintyre.

[ii] UCL Museums Touch & Wellbeing; Object-Based Learning

Conservation Advice – Handling Museum Objects. 2015. Southeast Museums.

Stress: Building an Exhibition

By Kevin Guyan, on 20 July 2015


Kevin GuyanBy Kevin Guyan

 

With the announcement of the Student Engagers’ autumn exhibition, here is the first in a series of blog posts that share personal insights into the curatorial process.

 

Stress offers the student engagement team an opportunity to curate an exhibition that counters the traditional view of museums and galleries as fixed spaces that display objects that convey a message. Instead – I see this as a chance for us to experiment with bold and exciting ways to share knowledge and create a space on campus for three-way conversations between curators, objects and the public.

The inception of our exhibition first found life in the summer of 2014 during a conversation between the student engagement team and the UCL Art Museum. Over one year later and, as design ideas and draft event listings are shared via email, the exhibition at last feels like it is coming together.

As our more experienced colleagues in UCL Museums and Public and Cultural Engagement warned, ‘exhibition time’ runs significantly slower than ‘normal time’ and we now appreciate starting this project with 16 months to spare. I remember looking at action plans with distant dates and the feeling that our plans were a lifetime away. Those dates have now come and gone as we hurtle through 2015 and towards our opening night on Friday 9 October.

The meat and bones of the student engagement project is the presence of researchers in UCL’s three public museums. Therefore, one of the key hopes for Stress was to import this practice and create an exhibition where a researcher was always present, waiting and ready for conversation.

The researcher’s presence will also create a way to feed-back information from visitors into the planning of events, pre-empting many questions and queries fielded and offering a more tailored visitor experience. It further gives us opportunities to adapt the exhibition during its run. For example, conversations between engagers and visitors will inform the writing of blog articles that will then shape how future visitors perceive the objects on display.

Like our previous events and exhibitions, Movement, LandSCAPE and Foreign Bodies, the theme of Stress brings together the research interests of a diverse group of PhD students under one overarching theme. This means that the visitor experience will differ according to the researcher in the exhibition space and their interpretation of the objects on display.

North Lodge

UCL’s North Lodge will house a team of postgraduate researchers throughout the exhibition.

I am excited to see how this works in reality – the continual presence of a researcher in the North Lodge exhibition space may prove overbearing and turn-off visitors looking for a space of solitude in busy Bloomsbury. More optimistically, the space will become a talking shop at the entrance to UCL’s campus and create a different, yet equally enriching, experience for visitors.

For me, public engagement is about more than sharing research ideas with other people. The benefits should reach far further than dissemination alone and empower researchers to enter into dialogues with people from different backgrounds. The process of sharing ideas with people unfamiliar with our own field will foster new and unexpected connections and force us to change the way we share our work, ultimately resulting in a deeper understanding for everyone involved.

We are attempting to build an exhibition with public engagement as a foundational building block and create a space that gives researchers and visitors opportunities to follow pathways unaware where they might lead. This is very much the ethos of the student engagement project – let’s see how our ideas work in reality.

What is bread?

By Stacy Hackner, on 16 March 2015

Lara by Lara Gonzalez

 

 

 

 

 

When I started my research on the 9000-year-old bread from Çatalhöyük (Turkey) I began to wonder about bread related facts that we hear on daily basis. Many questions came to my mind: what do we understand by bread? How many types of bread are there? Is bread the base of every diet around the world? Is bread good for us? I realised most of these questions were mainly related to things that people believe to be true more than to real scientific evidence.

For instance, when I asked my friends or family what they think bread is, they all gave the same type of answer: bread is something made of wheat that we eat every day; bread is the base of our diet. However, that is not completely true. Bread is not equally understood by everybody or every society in the world. While for the majority of the European society, bread normally refers to a leavened and baked food made of wheat flour, water and salt, for a person belonging to a South American or Indian community that definition might seem rather limited and incomplete. Depending on the area of the world we are, bread would mean very different things for the people living there. There are two factors to consider when looking into this: the local plant resources available in the different areas of the world and the cultural implications of bread such as cooking traditions, identity or cosmology.

As part of my experience as a Research Engager at UCL, explaining what I understand by bread is not an easy task. When they ask me what my doctoral research is about and I answer that I study archaeological bread from Turkey, I can see the look on the visitor’s faces. However, that look is mainly the result of preconceived notions I have mentioned earlier. As a consequence, my immediate response would be: “What I mean by Bread is not what we buy in Tesco!”, however there is a good reason for this bias: the majority of visitors are likely to have been brought up in Europe or the so called Western Societies where bread is considered to be a baked and leavened flour preparation. From the plant resources point of view, there are basic differences on the ingredients that people chose to make bread. We actually find that they vary quite a lot among the different areas of the world. While in Europe our bread products are mainly made of wheats species, in places like Africa, Asia and Central and Southamerica other plant resources are primarily consumed in bread form. Many diverse types of bready preparations are made of local plant species being millets in Africa and West and South Asia, rice in South-East Asia and corn (maize) in the New World the main ones.

At this point of the engagement, if the botanical explanation has not helped to sustain my point yet, here is when I use the cultural explanation exposed by Dorian Fuller, Professor in Archaeobotany at UCL, and Michael Rowlands (2011) who have defined the Bread Culture. According to these researchers, by looking at the archaeobotanical and archaeological record, we can distinguish two marked areas in the world in relation to bread products. They propose a clear frontier which would separate bread cultures from those which cannot be characterised as such. We see a cultural area formed by the Mediterranean, North Africa and West Asia, where wheat and barley species started to be cultivated 11000 years ago, where grinding stones and milling tools have been recovered in high quantity and with evidence of milling traditions from the Epipaleolithic. On the other hand, we see a completely different area of the world where bready products have not been present until modern times. South East Asia, with China as the centre, presents a distinctive pattern that varies from the Western world. The communities on these areas did not base their diet on cereal but they did on rice and millets (7000-6000BC). Then is when the look on the faces of visitors at the UCL museums really starts to make sense to me: We live in the Bread Culture! We are part of it!

Now is when my task as a defender of the deconstruction of the term bread is to explain to visitors that many types of cereal foods should therefore fall in the category of bread. For example if we were in Ethiopia, bread would mainly made of teff and it would not contain yeast or any other raising agent. However, if we were in China, rice cakes and millet noodles would be considered the ‘bread’ of the society and the base of our diet. Also, these types of breads would be differently cooked. Here is when we get into the diversity of bread making. Retaking Fuller and Rowland’s (2011) arguments, while in Western Europe we see a cooking tradition with main focus on baking and grilling, which would have relation to a cosmology in which the smoke and fumes feed the Gods; in South East Asia we see a boiling and steaming tradition. This would be directly connected with a cosmology around the ancestors, in which the descendants’ aim is to keep these close to them, the same way boiling and steaming are cooking traditions which keep ingredients together (Levi-Strauss).

After this explanation, I start to see that some of the visitors start to see bread with other eyes and ‘engage’ in a conversation about how food is differently understood in different parts of the world and in different periods of History. Then is when I feel I have reached my target as a research engager at UCL:  I have created an exchange of ideas and thoughts that benefit my research, and hopefully I will have made people wonder and think the next time they choose to buy baguette or pita bread!

 

Sources

Fuller, D. Q. & Rowlands, M. 2011. Ingestion and Food Technologies: Maintaining Differences over the long-term in West, South and East Asia. In: Wilkinson, T. C., Sherratt, S. & Bennet, J. (eds.) Interweaving Worlds: systematic interactions in Eurasia, 7th to 1st millennia BC. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

 

National Gallery of Ireland Research Day

By Kevin Guyan, on 9 March 2015

Kevin GuyanBy Kevin Guyan

The Student Engagement project was the subject of a paper presented to an audience of museum and gallery professionals, researchers and members of the public at the National Gallery of Ireland Research Day on 6 March 2015.

The day’s theme was Conditions of Display: Research & Practice and preceded the reopening of the gallery in 2016, in which curators will make a number of decisions on rehanging and reimagining the collection.  It was therefore an ideal opportunity to share the ongoing link between researchers and public engagement taking place across UCL Museums and the possibilities the Student Engagement project presents for museums and galleries in both the UK and Ireland.

Artists and researchers from a number of UK and Irish universities and art colleges shared their experiences of devising, organising and interpreting exhibitions, as well as the public’s experience of these exhibitions once they go ‘live’.

Sean Rainbird, Director of the NGI, opened the day noting the need to consider the ‘physical experience of humans in space’ when thinking about museums and galleries.  Adding that this not only included the arrangement of space and objects but also the management of sound.

Gemma Tipton, known for her commentary on art, architecture and aspects of Irish culture for The Irish Times and regular contributions to TV and radio, raised interesting points about what the exterior of galleries say about the content within.  This instantly conjured up the very different entrances to the Grant Museum and Petrie Museum, and whether this shapes people’s interpretations of museum objects prior to their arrival in the museum.

Entrances to the Grant Museum (left) and Petrie Museum (right).

Entrances to the Grant Museum (left) and Petrie Museum (right).

Paul Green, PhD Candidate in the School of Art and Media at the University of Plymouth, shared the ongoing work of Cork’s South Presentation Heritage and the conversion of a convent into a public heritage site.  The need to ‘future proof’ the site so that it is ready for unforeseen uses and forms of engagements was insightful, as well as the involvement of design students in devising ways for the public to interact with the objects and space.

Mirjami Schuppert, PhD Candidate at Ulster University, examined the role of the curator in mediating artistic interventions.  She drew a distinction between ‘conventional curating’ and ‘contemporary curating’, which revolves around ‘creative authorship and discursive coproduction’, and expressed the need for those working with archives to give something back in return.

Saidhbhín Gibson, Masters in Fine Art-Sculpture Candidate at the National College of Art and Design, shared her artistic interventions in permanent collections at The Natural History Museum and The Lab, Dublin.  She also raised questions over the level of interpretation presented in museums, and the exciting possibilities that emerge when visitors are not given directions on how they should or should not understand an object on display.

Sabina MacMahon, Masters in Museum Studies Candidate at the University of Leicester, discussed her creation of the fictitious South Down Society of Modern Art and exhibition of its work.

Kevin Guyan concluded the day’s papers by sharing the case study of the Student Engagement project and how two-way discussions with visitors helped promote his work as well as reconsider views towards his own research.  He argued that curators should build strategies for engagement, like the Student Engagement project, into the planning of exhibitions and hanging of collections from the offset, as it brings a number of benefits for researchers and the public.

Conditions of Display

The Research Day discussed new ways to share collections.

A panel discussion followed that examined a number of these themes in further depth.  One person questioned the expandability of the Student Engagement project to larger, non-university spaces.  Though the focus of the project has thus far been UCL’s three campus museums, it seems likely that elements of this project could transfer to differently sized museums not linked to universities.  Another person asked whether this style of engagement was dependent on the layout of the museum space?  As Student Engagers report differing levels of success in different parts of UCL museums, environment undoubtedly plays a role in people’s willingness to converse.

People clustered afterwards to share their thoughts, both positive and negative, on the Student Engagement project.  A few audience members found the idea of a researcher approaching them when contemplating a painting or museum object an unwelcome idea, though admitted that others may enjoy this opportunity to share their opinion on the collection.  Others identified the two-way benefits of bringing researchers into the museum or gallery space and were excited by the project’s potential to serve as a training platform for students.  Expanding the skillset of PhD students, while also bringing into museums and galleries new methods of public engagement, interested many of those in attendance and it is hoped that elements of the work taking place at UCL appears in other museums and galleries.

Why Talk to Engagers?

By Stacy Hackner, on 9 February 2015

engaging

by Stacy Hackner

Most of my engagements, regardless of the museum, are quite short. Visitors ask a few questions, I talk theirs ears off about bones and Nubians for about ten minutes, we banter, and then they leave. It’s not their fault or, I hope, mine; I know people have places to go and didn’t schedule in the requisite half hour an over-enthusiastic archaeologist  needs to fully explain the intricacies of bone cells, astronauts exercising in space, perceptions of Egyptian hegemony, and working within the Human Tissue Act. Occasionally, though, I happen upon that rare individual or group who is/are both fascinated and unfettered by a strict schedule of museum tourism. These engagements can last anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours and, while intellectually exhausting, really accomplish the Student Engagers’ goals of learning just as much from the public as they do from us. Once people learn that they are not bothering us and that our work is simply to discuss research with them, the museum turns into a salon of ideas and facts.

Beyond my PhD work, I consider myself a perpetual student. I’m always learning, reading, interpreting, evaluating data from numerous sources. I’m actually a little afraid of graduating and not being able to call myself a student, as I plan to continue learning despite my future job title, whatever it may be. Engaging with such fascinating people gives me hope that I’ll be able to continue learning from the general public (almost total strangers) because we live in world with really interesting people who are full of knowledge and eager to share. I’d like to describe a few of my best engagement sessions over the past two years.

In the Grant, I met a gentleman dressed in 100% vintage 60s rocker garb, including a fantastically feathered hat. After I introduced myself, he identified my American accent and asked where I was from. I said Chicago. “Chicago!” He exclaimed. “I love it there – I went to film Wayne’s World.” He worked in the music business and was a “band member” in the movie. We talked about the music scene and Chicago museums and the doubtful art of identifying skeletal remains of musicians by extra bone on their fingers. I feel like I got a unique insight into the London music scene in the 70s and 80s, which I love to listen to but have never considered ethnographically. A year later, I saw him again and he recognised me.

In the Petrie, I met an American woman with two children. The kids, age 11 and 13, wanted to know all about mummies. I feed off others’ enthusiasm, especially kids’, since everything is new and amazing to them. The older boy had been studying ancient cultures in school and we had a great time talking about what counts as “history”. They were also interested in the hieroglyph charts, which I explained isn’t a one-to-one correlation with English letters, but ideographic symbols: for instance, if you spell the name Max, you need to put a little drawing of a boy next to it to symbolize that it’s the boy called Max. Otherwise it could represent the maximum amount or, with a king sign, the Pharaoh Max. When the kids went on a Petrie trail, I learned that both their parents are film producers in town for a shoot.

Only a few weeks ago in the Grant, I met a couple who can only be described as vociferous enthusiasts of the natural world. The lady, originally from Tasmania, used to foster wombats and bandicoots; from her I learned of a number of marsupials (or macropods), all new to me, as well as the natural history of Tasmania. Did you know there are two types of koalas? And one of the smallest marsupials, the potoroo, was also unknown to me; there were four species, three of which are endangered and one of which is extinct. Her companion is a fish epidemiologist – probably the only career that gets more raised eyebrows outside the scientific community than bioarchaeologist – and studies infectious disease of fish. What infects fish, I asked? Many things! Fish can get parasites and viruses just like humans; bereft of an example of waterborne bacteria, he pointed out cholera, the obvious example. This couple comes down to London from Scotland every few months to enjoy its dual pleasures of natural history museums and dim sum, which tie together quite nicely considering the unusual species found in both. I was totally enthralled, and felt like I’d just had a lesson in the best mixture of history and old-fashioned naturalism and bacteriology.

Heather, Sandy and Benjamin, Freycinet (704)

Thanks to TW for this picture of a baby wombat!

Really, museums are not just places for learning: they are the center of an exchange of ideas. Whether that involves looking at old things in new ways, new things in old ways, or opening someone’s eyes to a totally different perspective, I really appreciate my interactions with visitors. Please come down to the museums and talk to the Engagers – we’d love to be enlightened!

Beyond the PhD: Public Engagement and Employment

By Kevin Guyan, on 8 December 2014

Kevin GuyanBy Kevin Guyan

I write this blog post as a break from PhD research and the task of looking for part time employment. My mind is fast becoming foggy from the endless administration loop of locating a job posting, completing the Application Form and tailoring my CV and Cover Letter to match the job specifications. However, this communication with non-academic employers has allowed me to see which experiences feature regularly in my applications, regardless of the job application.

My role as a Student Engager has featured in the majority of submissions and it is apparent that the versatility of the project presents a number of skills that impress potential employers. At the interview stage, employers scroll down my CV and are attracted to the project.   The interviewer invites me to ‘say more’ on the project and elaborate further on what it means ‘to engage with the public’.

Employers are keen to hear more about the following engagement skills:

Customer service.   The majority of employed positions require an ability to deal with other people and my work in UCL museums provides excellent examples.   Although we are not ‘selling’ our research to the public, the ability to spot an interested visitor, strike up conversation and bring discussion to a constructive close are all useful skills that have impressed in interviews.

Dissemination of information. Though it is a stretch to describe our experiences of marketing and communication, the sharing of our research with the public and shaping of events to target audiences that may not normally engage with universities, is a great talking point.

Dealing with diverse audiences. There is no set audience for the people who are brought together for a public engagement event, our previous events have attracted everyone from departmental colleagues to local residents who popped-across the road to see what was happening. This diversity of interactions is well suited to employment in everything from a coffee shop to a library front desk.

Project management. Finally, the ability to develop an idea from inception through to eventual completion is another talking point. Examples cited include our 2013 event Landscape and 2014 event Movement.

By explaining the Student Engagement project to non-academic employers, the many merits of the project and their stretch beyond our university setting become apparent. The project not only allows for the presence of public engagers in UCL museums and the delivery of events, but also provides a training platform for a handful of PhD students who may not acquire these skills elsewhere.

Student Engagers running a session at our May 2014 event Movement.

Frustratingly, the Student Engagement Project has attracted more attention from employers than the skills required to undertake my PhD. Admittedly, the positions under discussion are non-academic and therefore do not call for a knowledge of postwar gender history in Britain. I hope that my PhD will become a greater talking point after its completion.

The typical model of an application form, in which you identify skills and support them with evidence, fits well with the variety of tasks undertaken as a Student Engager.   However, rather than writing a love letter to the Student Engagement project, my thoughts have instead turned to important questions over the training of PhD students and their readiness for an extremely competitive job market after leaving university.

A substantial number of students graduating with PhDs will not go on to pursue careers in academia.   University chiefs therefore need to ask how research students can utilise their time at university to develop their employability above and beyond the research and writing of a thesis, acknowledging the reality that many students will need to jump from an academic path to an equally competitive Plan B.

For those that pursue a PhD that directly follows a postgraduate degree, undergraduate degree and secondary school, as is my situation, there is the risk of emerging from the education system in your mid-to-late twenties lacking the diversity of skills and experiences gained by contemporaries from a decade in the job market. I am conscious of this risk and have proactively worked to expand my experiences. Yet, universities face the difficult task of juggling the provision of ‘extracurricular’ opportunities for students while not prescribing the activities of independent researchers.

As an example, the Student Engagement project has offered me experiences that complement the rigours of academic research and I therefore wonder how universities can adopt and expand aspects of the project to ready other PhD students for employment beyond academia.