PhD reflections

Alan Kirwan

I clearly remember when I came to the decision that I wanted to pursue a PhD with the School of Museum Studies at Leicester. It was the summer of 2007 and I was standing on a packed train one morning on my daily commute to work in London. Squashed up against other commuters, I pulled a book called ‘Museums, Society and Inequality’ out of my bag and started reading. The authors within that book brought me on a journey of just how museums in different countries and continents are embracing a whole host of issues relevant to our societies. Human rights, the inclusion of marginalised and indigenous communities, the recognition of the contributions of disabled people to culture and society, the over-arching power of museums as places of social change all jumped from the pages. 

I was to discover that the editor, Richard Sandell, along with his colleagues at Leicester, are in the vanguard of such thinking about the purposes of museums and I knew I needed to learn from them. As it later transpired, Richard was to become my supervisor during my time at Leicester. My PhD analyses the extent to which Irish museums could be effective tools in the construction of a diverse and inclusive society in that country. I balanced work on my PhD with a full time job as Education Manager for the Museums and Culture Services of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea in London. The extensive theoretical underpinning that I received at Leicester flowed seamlessly into my working life. 

For instance, one of the museums I worked in during this time was the stunning Leighton House Museum with its beautiful combination of British and Middle Eastern art and architecture. The artefacts and objects, while precious in themselves, took on a whole new meaning and significance for me in those tense years following the London underground bombings of 2005. Through educational and public programming I successfully positioned the museum as a public space where suspicion and mistrust between communities is dissolved and dialogue on difficult topics becomes possible. 

I currently live and work in Brussels, Belgium, a city that is in temporary ‘lock-down’ as a result of the after effects of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. Suspicion and mistrust of the ‘other’ is once again on the prowl and is something I cannot ignore in my current role as Education Co-ordinator of the House of European History, a project of the European Parliament. I am part of the management team working to create a museum, due to open in 2016, that takes a trans-national and multi-perspective view of European histories. The grounding I received at Leicester is never far from my mind as I try to ensure that this new museum and its programming reflects the complexity and diversity of what it might mean to be European.

Alex Woodall

It was with some trepidation but also much excitement that I embarked upon my PhD journey in the School of Museum Studies four years ago (having done Art Gallery Studies in 2004-5 after being a secondary school teacher). Since studying for my MA and working at Museums Sheffield, Manchester Art Gallery and Renaissance East Midlands, I kept in close contact with the School, regularly being invited to teach and hosting placement students, all the time hoping that one day I might undertake PhD research. And so I was thrilled to receive an AHRC award in 2011 to enable this to happen.

My PhD draws upon my professional experience of gallery interpretation (especially working with artists to explore collections and developing use of Object Dialogue Boxes) uniquely linking these with my previous academic background in theology. Entitled ‘Sensory engagements with objects in art galleries: material interpretation and theological metaphor’, I feel very privileged that my research has been supervised by lead thinker in museum materialities, Dr Sandra Dudley. Of course the opportunity for critical engagement with academic debate and reflection on practice has been absolutely central to my research experience at Leicester. But just as important have been the ‘extra-curricular’ opportunities presented by simply being in such a dynamic environment: my PhD experience in the School has been one of immersion within a diverse and passionate community.

I have grasped as many opportunities as possible within the School, sharing and developing skills in the process. From overseeing the day-to-day PhD community as student rep, to sitting on the School’s research committee, to organising museum expeditions and artist-led workshops, to managing the conference team for Museum Metamorphosis, to working as a researcher with RCMG, to teaching and assessing MA students’ work, I have relished being amongst such a dynamic cohort of PhD colleagues and staff. And because of the supportive nature of the School, PhD students are also encouraged to make their own opportunities, which has enabled curation of the Mouseion exhibition, writing articles for various peer-reviewed publications (including the PhD community’s Museological Review), contributing chapters to edited volumes, and presenting at various conferences both in the UK and internationally. Four years ago, I would never have thought that a PhD could offer so much.

Perhaps the most powerful and transformative experience of my PhD journey has been researching on a partnership project between the School of Museum Studies and its equivalent in India, the National Museum Institute, New Delhi, which is led by Drs Sandra Dudley and Manvi Seth. Things Unbound has enabled me not only to undertake significant object-based research in India, but has also enabled new international friendships and a desire to delve even deeper into this sort of cross-cultural creative and collaborative research in the future.

I have just started work as Special Projects Manager at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, a temporary role that I know will be as challenging as it is rewarding. But I am confident that what I have learnt during my PhD journey in the School of Museum Studies – not least to grasp every opportunity and to make things happen – will constantly be the driving force in my continuing professional practice and research, and I look forward to the next chapter.

Serena Iervolino

2013 was a memorable year for me.  I completed my PhD, simultaneously experiencing a great sense of achievement but also terror. “What’s my next challenge?” I wondered.  Studying at the School of Museum Studies had provided me with countless opportunities to stretch my abilities, preparing myself for an academic position, such as teaching/marking, research assistance, conference organisation, and an academic management post.

Writing from Doha, Qatar, where I currently work as Lecturer in Museology and Curatorial Studies and Coordinator of the MA in Museum and Gallery Practice at UCL Qatar, I can confidently state that a Leicester PhD in Museum Studies was life-changing for me.

After submitting my PhD (March 2013), I returned to work for the School, conducting research for Prof. Richard Sandell’s forthcoming book and working on a project investigating graduates’ career development and employability. “Museum Studies Connect”, including its Newsletter and “the Graduate Profile” section you are reading right now, were envisaged in this context. In spring 2013 I was also “headhunted” as a Postdoctoral Researcher on the Science Museum’s Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded All Our Stories project (April 2013 – March 2014), which examined the museum’s collaborative practices with several communities or interest groups. I had the unique opportunity to study - at a major national museum - co-creative practices, focusing particularly on a collaboration with the organisation Gendered Intelligence and its trans youth group. The challenge would soon become how to balance this research commitment with the teaching role I secured at Warwick University, in September 2013.

As a Teaching Fellow in Cultural Policy Studies (academic year 2013-14),  I worked with cultural policy scholars such as Dr Clive Gray, expanding my knowledge of cultural policies studies, a field upon which my research draws extensively, and solidifying my teaching skills developed at Leicester.

In 2014 Dr Ceri Jones (RCMG, University of Leicester) and I were awarded funding through the AHRC for the project Research in Translation: Public Engagement through Exhibition Displays (2014-2015), exploring how academic research can be communicated to wider audiences using exhibition displays. By the time the project actually begun I was moving to Qatar, so my dilemma was how to keep working on it after my “migration”.

Earlier in the summer I had landed an exciting lectureship in a rather “exotic” country – possibly a once-in-a-life-time opportunity, or a “great adventure”, as some called it. My limited knowledge of the Arab and Islamic world and my interest in museums and issues of cultural identity and cross-cultural understanding made Qatar a fascinating place to be. In teaching museum theory and practice in a country whose museum sector is under development, I would have a unique opportunity to rethink museum theory and practice from a non- Western, Arab and Islamic perspective.

The academic year 2014-15 was an intense learning curve. Highlights of the year included receiving the award of one of University of Leicester’s College of Arts, Humanities and Law’s 2014-15 Doctoral Prize and Inaugural Lectures (May 2015), as well as the launch of the exhibition Research in Translation at Leicester University (June 2015), marking the completion of the project of the same name.

Soon after that, an opportunity to move my career forward was offered to me, after the resignation of the then Coordinator of the MA in Museum and Gallery Practice at UCL Qatar. Whilst labour-intensive, my new role as Degree Coordinator allows me to lead on the programme’s developments and curriculum changes, ensuring that the students learn the skills, knowledge and acquire the confidence to act as critical, responsible, and ethical museum practitioners, and effectively contribute to, and potentially transform the museum sector in Qatar and internationally. This year we have 22 students on the programme, the majority of whom are Qataris, other Arabs or long-term residents many of whom already work at Qatar Museums. As both Lecturer and Degree Coordinator, I feel that - from UCL’s Middle-Eastern outpost - I can implement and more vigorously disseminate the values that I learnt at the School of Museum Studies, particularly the belief in museums’ potential to contribute to social change, as well as those that are dear to UCL.

If you happened to be in Qatar or in the region, please get in touch and come to meet/visit us. I should warn you - I might ask you to share some of your experience and knowledge with my students!