Museum Studies at Leicester

Alec Woodall: PhD reflections

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.

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