United in History: A personal experience of collaborative research in museums and academia
July 25, 2013 1 Comment
Towards the end of 2012 I received an invitation to join a panel at the upcoming International Congress of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine looking at collaboration between universities and museums.
The symposium was called ‘Research in Science Museums: The State of the Art’ and I was part of the first panel, ‘Museum-university collaborations: an ideal marriage?’. The symposium had been put together by Rebekah Higgitt (Royal Museums Greenwich, United Kingdom), Tim Boon (Science Museum Group, United Kingdom), Martin Collins (Smithsonian Institution, United States) and Helmuth Trischler (Deutsches Museum, Germany). The panel I was part of was principally coordinated and chaired by Rebekah Higgitt.
My contribution to the panel was to give a student’s perspective. During my MA I had completed an internship at the National Maritime Museum looking at submarine telegraph cables and I have blogged about it here. Being part of the panel gave me a chance to think about what I had done and where I was trying to go with my work between academic study and museums. As the number of Collaborative Doctoral Awards or Partnerships as they’re now called are growing maybe we need to think more about the role and benefits for the student in this. Consequently I thought I’d blog my paper and welcome your thoughts and contributions.
Finally I should thank Rebekah Higgit and Tim Boon for asking me to part of the panel and the amazing conference that is ICHSTM, and also to the British Society for the History of Science for the funding to attend.
In danger of sounding like a cliché I came to the decision that my future lay in history whilst travelling. I had finished an undergraduate degree in history at the University of Liverpool but was clueless as to what career I wanted to pursue; after briefly dabbling in music industry I decided to follow an ambition to go travelling.
Somewhere between Cuba’s Museum of the Revolution and Boliva’s Coca Museum, I realised that museums excited me as a way of connecting the public to history; informative and inspirational, conventional and controversial, museums can help us understand our world today. It was only when I was back in the UK that I realised I wasn’t the only person to have this revelation and that building a career in museums was, and still is, very competitive. Eventually I realised that to develop a career working with collections I needed to do an MA.
After much deliberation I decided on an MA in Historical Research at the Institute of Historical Research (IHR). I knew I wanted my dissertation to use museum objects, so when I spotted the National Maritime Museum’s paid internships I jumped at the chance.
My dissertation looked at the material culture surrounding submarine telegraph cables, and I soon discovered that though I wasn’t short of objects; the NMM collection is varied and I found relevant objects in the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, the Science Museum and the Museum of Freemasonry. Finding objects wasn’t hard, but what I did find challenging was how to focus my work with these objects into a research question. Fortunately I found great support from the NMM and the IHR, and both supervisors were able to offer background and museological/historiographical reading and I eventually settled on looking at the transitional identity of the Atlantic Telegraph cable through these collections.
I really enjoyed working with the different museums and their collections, and was amazed at how each museum went out of their way to help me in my research. Furthermore, I felt I was able to build a relationship with these museums. As part of the paid internship at the NMM I had tangible outcomes which included updating their collections database, a blog post and a rather nervous paper at a lunchtime seminar. For Porthcurno, I used a week of my summer to volunteer in their educational summer programme whilst doing research. This was all valuable in widening my ‘hands on’ experience and meant I saw a different side to the museums, as well as helping me locate the different objects within the different museum cultures. I hope the trip and other outputs benefited them as much as it did my research and museum experience.
After completing my MA I realised how much I enjoyed research, and started to consider a PhD. The Collaborative Doctoral Awards looked like the perfect way for me to maintain the collaboration I initially explored through my MA dissertation, and I have since started a CDA with the IHR and the British Postal Museum and Archive looking at the Victorian Post Office. My PhD is currently very archive focused, but I am hopeful that my research will involve some of the BPMA’s museum collection. I believe each CDA is organised differently and as part of mine there is an expectation that I will work on a project for the BPMA for a certain number of days a year and I see my relationship with the BPMA growing as my PhD develops.
Though I have the luxury of being a funded PhD student, I have felt that gaining practical everyday museum experience was important if I wanted to consider a museum role after my PhD. Consequently I also work part-time as curatorial assistant of Tower collections for the Royal Armouries. Research is integral to museums but a PhD is unlikely to involve practicalities such as auditing a collection, arranging an object loan or providing a handling session for 10 year olds.
I believe there is a lot of value for both historians and museum professionals in museums and universities working more closely together. Not only for developing audiences and skills, disseminating knowledge, also enabling us to view collections and history differently, and importantly, funding is available. However, my only caution is where this leaves the student. I see myself as ‘hedging my bets’, I love history and I believe it is important and want to communicate this but am I being trained for academia or museums? Both, I hope. I believe CDAs were developed to give students more practical skills, but this could be dependent on how the institutions want to deliver the collaborative aspects of the PhD and how aware the student is as to what they want to get out of the experience. Perhaps the CDAs should take longer and involve a job role for two days a week, or perhaps the student should complete the Associateship of the Museum Association (AMA) alongside their studies.
I’d be interested in others thoughts on this but to end on a positive note I want to emphasise that it’s through collaboration that I’ve had some of the most rewarding experiences in the academic and museum world, and I think it is something we should all seek to encourage.