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Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


Engaging in an Art Museum: Engagement Reflection

SarahSavage Hanney17 February 2014

For most visitors to an art museum, there is an unwritten code of conduct that involves silence and whispers when appropriate. As a Researcher in Museums in UCL’s Art Museum, my job is to engage with visitors to discuss the museum and my research. So in a society where museum etiquette is ingrained, how does one get visitors to speak up and engage in a space that is traditionally quiet? When I ask most visitors how they are enjoying the museum and exhibitions, I receive a polite whisper of “It’s good/nice.” In a museum with restricted space availability and therefore few works out on display, it is difficult to engage with a visitor about a collection that is largely stored away.

A significant portion of any museum experience is being able to see, or even touch an object and use one’s senses to interpret the object. So many times I have witnessed visitors to the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology touch their own scalp after viewing a mummy’s brunette wig and blonde scalp located in the Main Room.  Through visual or audio stimulation, a visitor can make a connection with an object or work whether it’s an emotional response, opinion, or even indifference.  It can be such a powerful experience examining a work and feeling a rush of emotion.

Thanks to the great research appointments at the Art Museum, I previously had access to works related to my research on epidemics. Surprisingly, the works that felt most relevant were not the anatomical sketches, but abstract prints from the Slade School of Fine Art. When I do convince visitors to express their opinions of the Art Museum, I always offer to show them a sampling of photocopied works I have deemed relevant to my research.

The study of epidemics involves both examining the experiences of those affected and the spread of the pathogen. By having visitors examine works that evoke emotions of despair and confusion while I explain the Spanish Influenza and Encephalitis Lethargica epidemics, I can more effectively convey individual’s experiences during those epidemics. During the Spanish Influenza pandemic (1918-19), families worldwide felt a variety of emotions as members of their families died quickly and painfully from an influenza outbreak that health professionals could neither control nor determine an origin of contamination.  Although Encephalitis Lethargica [EL] affected tens of thousands of people versus millions with Spanish Influenza, EL left the international medical community in a state of utter confusion without a known cause.

Alphonse Legros Copyright Alphonse Legros UCL Art Museum Object Number 8112 La Mort du Vagabond 1875

Alphonse Legros
Copyright Alphonse Legros
UCL Art Museum
Object Number 8112
La Mort du Vagabond

Julia Farrer Copyright Julia Farrer UCL Art Museum Object Number 8977 Navigation I 1971

Julia Farrer
Copyright Julia Farrer
UCL Art Museum
Object Number 8977
Navigation I















Two of the most popular and powerful works in my art selection are Julia Farrer’s 1971 Navigation I and Alphonse Legros’ 1875 La Mort du Vagabond.  Both the works, in the medium of etching and aquatint, are magnificent in person and provoke emotion from the viewer. I interpret Navigation I in a similar way to when I study epidemics. The intersecting lines, red dots and smaller groupings of dots on the work could represent disease spreading through a population with multiple contamination points. La Mort du Vagabond invokes feelings of isolation and helplessness, similar feelings that victims of many epidemics have experienced. By using both of these works in my museum engagements, I can better draw links between my own research and the UCL Art Museum collection.

As I continue with my research and working as a UCL Researcher in Museums, I hope to utilize more objects from the UCL Museum’s Collection in the future.  With over 10,000 works in the Art Museum alone, there is so much potential to use public engagement opportunities to connect the public with the collections.

Public engagement – an essential experience for the PhD student

Ruth MBlackburn13 January 2014

Elephant Heart in the Grant Museum

Elephant Heart in the Grant Museum

With 2013 now a thing of the past, I find myself reflecting on my progress over the last 12 months, which have taken me from fledgling PhD student to recently “upgraded”.

For the uninitiated, the Upgrade process is the gateway from MPhil to PhD student and marks one of the few official milestones between starting and submitting a PhD thesis. The format of this assessment varies between departments but may comprise; a report of up to 10,000 words, a departmental seminar and question time (an hour or so), and a viva with examiners.

At first sight, this is a daunting process with excellent potential for awkward questions, awkward silences and total demoralisation. However, I am not alone in finding the upgrade a useful and highly positive experience; a quick (and totally unscientific) survey of my peers tells a similar story. These post-upgrade students are utterly upbeat about their experience, they describe it as the perfect opportunity to “take stock” of the whole PhD, see where it is going and to focus and refine your work with advice from your peers and examiners. However, they do concede that you can be asked about ANYTHING (that can be vaguely related to your work) and that defending your work is essential.

These sentiments are strongly reminiscent of my experiences of being a Post-Graduate Student Engager; since spring 2013 I have spent time in each of UCL’s three extraordinary museums and conversed with an incredible range of people about all aspects of my research as well as the collections that they have come to visit. We (The Student Engagers) often receive feedback about the benefits of engagement to the public or at institutional level, but only occasionally is the benefit to ourselves discussed.

To my mind, learning to engage offers four major benefits to the PhD student:

Number 1: Clarity of thinking – there is nothing quite like discussing or teaching someone to help distill your ideas and identify gaps in your knowledge. Furthermore, discussion with people who are not familiar with your area of work necessitates dropping much loved jargon for plain English. But unsurprisingly, this can lead to benefit Number 2.

Number 2: Being challenged. Far from being a bad thing, well-directed questions and real-time feedback can be entertaining (essential for successful engagement!) and educational for both parties.

Number 3: The Randomness Factor. Not to be underestimated, chance encounters can have surprising implications for research. This includes everything from meeting someone who works on a related topic to discussing what “life” or “mental health” or “a museum” actually is. In my experience it is often these off-topic conversations that build the trust and rapport needed to probe further into your area of research, and what this means to different people.

Number 4: Greater perspective. Talking to anyone for long enough invariably breaks down barriers, allows us to see the world through another person’s eyes and can renew interest in our own work.

I have experienced each of these benefits when using the Elephant Heart in the Grant Museum of Zoology to discuss my research (on the prevention of cardiovascular disease in people with severe mental illness). This grand specimen appeals hugely to children and adults alike and has sparked conversation with curious (and impressively knowledgeable) nine year olds, A and E doctors and artists from the Slade. The scope of conversation is huge; “what does a heart do?”, “is it real?” (it is), “can elephants get heart disease”? (they can), and ultimately discussion of my research, including why heart disease and mental illness so frequently affect the same individuals.

Researchers are particularly susceptible to becoming so entrenched in their own work that the broader meaning and application can become lost. Public Engagement provides an ideal platform for enriching research and public interest in it, and I would encourage everyone to give it a go.

Engaging with Black Bloomsbury

KevinGuyan18 October 2013

Kevin Guyan

By Kevin Guyan



'Life Painting', Slade School of Fine Art.

‘Life Painting’, Slade School of Fine Art. George Konig, Keystone Press Agency.

The idea of Bloomsbury is as much a product of the mind as it is a geographical location.  Like Soho, its borders have been established through a mixture of real and fictional ideas, dependent more upon common opinion than municipal rulings.  The borders of Bloomsbury have been a common theme discussed by visitors to UCL Art Museum’s ongoing exhibition, Black Bloomsbury.

In my role as a Student Engager, it has been my task to draw links between the exhibition material and my own research interests.  My work explores how domestic spaces impacted upon the production and reproduction of masculinities in the postwar period (c. 1945-1966), a topic not unrelated to some of the themes emerging from the exhibition.  Afternoons spent engaging in the museum have helped shape my own research; offering a refreshing and reflexive dimension to my work.  Discussing people’s opinions on historical ideas has challenged visitors and I to reconsider our views.  The process usually begins with a casual, “is this your first time at the exhibition?”  After this pleasant introduction and explanation of my role within the museum; around half of the visitors will continue to explore the exhibition on their own, the other half will return with their thoughts, their opinions or questions on the work.
Although my own research focuses upon a different time period (1945-1966 rather than 1918-1948) and a different subject matter (White men rather than Black and Asian men and women), I have located some common themes running across both examples:

Space and identity

The relationship between space and experience, particularly within the context of identity, is one key example.  Black Bloomsbury is co-curated by Dr Caroline Bressey and Dr Gemma Romain, from the Equiano Centre based in UCL’s Geography Department, and because of this geographical context, an effective sense of people and place emerges throughout the exhibition.  For example, upon arrival, visitors are met with a large map detailing around 40 locations and a list of characters linked to the exhibition – showing where the characters lived, worked, met and socialised.

The role of place and space links to a secondary project I have been exploring in the past two years, focusing on how bodies were understood within dance hall spaces in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.  In my work, the dance hall is framed as more than simply a backdrop for events and instead participates in my historical research as a productive force shaping the actions described.  For example, my research has explored the architecture and spatial arrangement of dance halls, admission policies, rules and rituals – all components that impacted a particular sense of identity when ‘going dancing’.  It appears to be the case that Bloomsbury had a similar affect upon the characters featured in the exhibition.


Equally interesting has been a consideration of the exhibition’s methodological approach.  Alongside paintings, photographs are also displayed as a means to show how historians have been able to ‘see into the past’.  Unlike text sources that may make no mention of race, photographs present a visual window through which it is often possible to ‘see race’.  A key example of this approach in the exhibition is a class photograph of art students based at the Slade in 1938.  Although the name and background of every student is not known, the photograph allows modern-day observers to see the racial diversity of those attending the school at that time.

This is something I intend to echo in my own historical writing, in which actions and behaviours of men in domestic spaces are often hidden or beyond the vision of typical research methods.  Of course, it is very unlikely for source material to indicate that a household task was conducted in a ‘manly fashion’ or read personal accounts by men of domestic space, in which their sense of gender is discussed.  This therefore leads to questions over how best to trace these actions and behaviours?  This can be remedied by examining family photograph albums, documentary footage or any other visual source offering uncontrived access to spaces of the past, allowing historians to ‘see’ what men were doing in the home and how they were interacting with their environment.

Importantly, like Black Bloomsbury, my work also intends to not simply describe the actions and behaviours located or analyse them only within the confines of what is being discussed.  Instead, there is a need to conduct historical leaps – in which ‘everyday examples’ are used to consider what these performances say about wider ideas of race, gender and nation.

Politics and historical baggage

One key focus of the exhibition is on artists and their sitters, based on work developed with the Drawing Over the Colour Line project.  The relationship between artists and sitters has evoked several questions among visitors over the identities of these sitters and how they fit into wider social contexts of early 20th Century London.  What is often most interesting in the photographs of artists and their sitters is not located in the foreground but what is actually taking place in the background of the images.  A particular talking point has been a photograph of a Black male model, sitting perched in a loin cloth in the middle of the room, surrounded by several White, female students.  It is difficult not to see this image of a near-nude Black male and young, White women without setting-off historical alarm bells.  Yet, due to the spatial context of where these people are situated (in an artist’s studio rather than on the street) certain social customs appear to be excused, creating a situation far removed from the moral panic that may be found elsewhere in 1940s London over the association of Black men, quite often American servicemen, and White women.

Engaging upon ideas that are not resident in the distant past, has the potential for divided opinions and clashes over differing histories.  In my own public engagement events on experiences of ‘going dancing’ in London in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, there was often a tension between ‘official histories’ and personal reminiscences.  How can a workable history be extracted from memories – whose memories should matter most?  Should historians try to be as objective as possible or acknowledge that the past can be mined to satisfy contemporary political needs and desires?  These themes also emerge throughout Black Bloomsbury.  Some visitors have questioned the purpose of the exhibition and the political motivation for attempting to expand people’s image of Bloomsbury.  As I see it, it is not an attempt to evict Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes from their associations with Bloomsbury and replace them with a new assortment of characters but instead to complicate this image and suggest that, as was the case with areas like Soho, there was an equally cosmopolitan presence in early 20th Century Bloomsbury.  Through the production of historical geographies or geographical histories, the exhibition and people’s responses to the material continues to show the importance of space in shaping the actions of historical actors and how historical figures are perceived by those living in the present.



Kevin Guyan will be leading a walking tour of Black Bloomsbury between 12 and 1.30pm on Saturday 26 October, exploring topics including geographical settlement, student organisations such as the Indian Students Union, Black visitors to the British Museum’s Reading Room and the fight against the ‘colour bar’ in the area.

He will also give a talk titled Going Dancing: Black Bloomsbury and Dance in the 1940s about the Black presence in 1940s Bloomsbury, focusing on histories of cultural interaction in social spaces such as dancehalls. The event takes place at UCL Art Museum on 15 November between 2 and 3.30pm.

For further information on either event please contact Martine Roulea, UCL Art Museum, m.rouleau@ucl.ac.uk or 020 7679 2540.