Research in Translation: Public Engagement through Exhibition Displays
Can museum practice foster public engagement and greater collaboration between early career and post-doctoral researchers? That was the question at the heart of Research in Translation, a training programme aimed at supporting early career and post-doctoral researchers to develop an exhibition from their research which would help them to reach a wider public than traditional academic audiences.
Part of a wider process of change, Research in Translation responded to the growing need for researchers to demonstrate the value of their research to audiences outside the academy. Typically, research takes place within narrow, even artificial subject boundaries. Researchers use technical language and communicate their findings to other ‘experts’ in ways that are often inaccessible to the general public. However, universities are being asked more and more to demonstrate their social impact. Researchers are encouraged to work collaboratively across subjects, engage the public with their research and show how they reach their conclusions, helping to de-mystify the research process. We – the project co-ordinators and leaders Dr. Ceri Jones and Dr. Serena Iervolino – believed that museum practices, particularly around the development of exhibition displays, could provide new and creative opportunities for researchers from across the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences to work collaboratively and show the relevance of their research to society. How could their research be ‘translated’ and presented effectively to non-experts through exhibition displays? How could we give the public a glimpse into the exciting research taking place in universities today, showing its potential to open up our understanding of the past, present and future, and change or challenge perceptions about society?
Funded by the UK’s Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) as part of their Collaborative Skills Development, ECR-led award, Research in Translation was an exciting and ambitious programme that enabled 12 Early Career Researchers representing seven UK universities, to develop the skills and confidence to ‘translate’ their research into an exhibition display that would communicate their research effectively to a wider and non-specialist public. Through collaboration with museum researchers (academics, early career researchers and doctoral students), museum practitioners and design professionals, the participants were encouraged to explore, take risks and think creatively about how they could visually present their work to the public. The culmination of the programme is a public exhibition of displays designed and developed by the 12 participants, on show at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, UK for eight months from June 2015 to February 2016.
The programme was a partnership between four institutions; the University of Leicester, UCL Qatar (University College London), Birmingham Museums Trust and the University of Birmingham. To learn the necessary skills that would enable them to develop their exhibition displays, participants took part in two intensive two-day workshops. The first workshop, held at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, introduced participants to formal methods of museum display, including writing text, interpretation of objects, documents and photographs, and different visual display methods. Participants had a tour of the museum stores—encountering the many curious and surprising objects that museums often keep behind the scenes—and the brand new history galleries at the city centre site. An inspiring afternoon at the Chowen Prototyping Hall, University of Birmingham, introduced the participants to multi-user and multi-touch technologies designed to enable innovative teaching and learning approaches, and encourage them to think about the different ‘layers’ of information that they might need to provide in their displays in order to convey the complexity of their research topics.
The second workshop was held at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester. Led by Dr. Suzanne MacLeod, Head of the School, the two days were organised around a creative design process that enabled participants to work closely with creative designers Stephen Greenberg of Metaphor and Peter Higgins of Land Design Studio, and really benefit from their vast experience that includes exhibitions for all the major national museums in the UK. Drawing on these, and their own experiences, participants started to develop the initial design brief for their display, thinking about the key messages they wanted to highlight, how to write effective text (free of jargon) and how they might convey complex ideas through a simple creative and visual medium. To support this process, participants were paired up with a carefully selected mentor from a group that included early-career researchers in the field of museum studies, a retired museum professional, two doctoral students with experience of working in museums and an independent researcher. The opportunity to be creative and explore ways of ‘translating’ their research into a visual display led to some interesting discussions between the participants and their mentors, which continued after the workshop and into the development phase. This period prior to the installation of the exhibition saw the design briefs flying backwards and forwards between the project co-ordinators, participants and mentors as texts were proofed, ideas discussed and plans developed. It was an intense time, challenging too because of the distance between the participants and the exhibition space within the School of Museum Studies (measuring up text panels was particularly awkward and meant Ceri had to frequently run around the School with a tape measure). The face-to-face workshops were fantastic for network building and getting to know each other, which worked well for subsequent relationships carried on through email and telephone. Communication with participants was kept timely and honest, and it was a testament to the participants’ interest in and commitment to the project, that none of the 12 dropped out of the programme.
We had a slight wobble when the deadline for the final display briefs came and went and not everyone was ready; this meant a slightly panicked telephone call to the AHRC to request a project extension, otherwise we would not have had an exhibition. Fortunately this was granted and we were able to place our order to the Art Department, based in Nottingham UK, who we used to produce the final text panels and vinyl lettering for the exhibition. Another problem that had not been anticipated was the loan of museum objects; one participant wanted to loan an ECT machine for her display, however the time it would take to get a decision from a museum made this prohibitive. Instead, we resorted to eBay and managed to bid for an ECT machine that now proudly sits in the large cabinet which dominates the entrance hall to the School.
The exhibition installation was an incredibly exciting experience for the participants, mentors and project co-ordinators who were able to take part (the costs had not been factored into the training programme so it was through their goodwill alone that participants made the trip back to the School). It was also a steep learning curve because, for most of us, it was the first exhibition that we had ever assembled. However, we were very fortunate to have the help of Bob Ahluwalia, the School’s ‘handyman’, and Cassandra Killington, an exhibition designer from New Walk Museum and Art Gallery in Leicester. It was labour intensive, hard work and frustrating at times (in particular covering a large displays case in sheets of vinyl is not recommended) but the results were well worth the difficulties. Participants were excited to see their design briefs realised in the School, and were amazed at the professional results we obtained on a very tight budget! It is a visually interesting and compelling exhibition that has been praised highly by academics within the School of Museum Studies and by external visitors; one visitor from De Montfort University who came to the exhibition launch wrote in an email to me that, “I’ve honestly never seen a more engaging set of exhibits in one place before.” Such comments make all the hard work and stress worthwhile.
How did the participants benefit from the project? It certainly increased their confidence to disseminate their research in novel and creative ways, and to think differently about how they can present their research beyond conventional academic articles and papers. Some of the participants have subsequently been asked to develop an exhibition as part of their public engagement activities, and this project has supplied them with experience and skills to meet this challenge. For instance, Dr. Tyr Fothergill, AHRC Post-doctoral Research Fellow in the School of Archaeology and Ancient History, University of Leicester, has commented that it had been an invaluable experience because she did not always have the opportunity to think creatively, yet the project had allowed her to explore her research in new ways. She wrote in an email: “I learned a great deal and am honoured to have had this opportunity. The support which was built into the structure of the process was absolutely critical, and I am grateful for it.” Critical to the process was the inclusion of mentors; this included our own project mentor, Dr. Suzanne MacLeod, whose help was invaluable for managing the project, helping with the design briefs and realising the final exhibition. Participants were very positive in their comments about the experience; Dr. Janine Hatter, Honorary Research Associate in the Department of English, University of Hull, said that the programme, “has been a fantastic experience!” and Emma Login, doctoral student at the University of Birmingham, commented that “[The] comments on my display were really helpful and I thoroughly enjoyed working on it.” Dr. Irina Marin, Early Career Leverhulme Research Fellow at the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the University of Leicester, wrote a blogpost about her experiences of the project, which she describes as “a great learning experience” and “invaluable” (http://fearacrossborders.blogspot.co.uk).
If you would like to find out more, please visit our project blog Research in Translation, which documents the process of, and learning from, the project. Recently we launched our film of the project, which has been produced by Mutual Shoots and funded by UCL Qatar (University College London). Its aim is to provide some insights into the project, its rationale, its leaders’ goals and ambitions, and highlight the experience of the 12 participants. We hope it will be of interest and inspire anyone interested in public engagement, knowledge dissemination and, more broadly, in transforming the ‘Ivory Tower’.
Dr. Ceri Jones
School of Museum Studies
University of Leicester
Dr. Serena Iervolino
University College London, UK
Image: Participants at Workshop 1, Museum Collection Centre, Birmingham. Photograph by Amy Jane Barnes.