Alan Kirwan: PhD reflections
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.