The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Post-PhD Life: When I Grow Up...

Once you leave the cozy womb of PhD-dom (and no matter the levels of research- and writing-up stress, it is cozy insofar as it is your status quo!), you have to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life. This usually involves picking up the pieces of your long-neglected personal life, and also job applications. Somehow, decisions on both fronts seem significantly more important and life-altering than they did while you were making "temporary" arrangements as you were writing the thesis.

Full disclosure: I am in my early thirties, and staring down the barrel of my diminishing fertility at the same time as my partner and I decide where and how to live our much-delayed "future", although we are both chronically under-employed. Ours is a generational quandary: the promises of full-time predictable employment haven't materialised as the baby boomers can't afford to retire, and we can't afford to start our lives. Especially for people like me, whose income depends on the whims of government funding, any planning seems foolhardy in the face of overwhelming uncertainty. Sure, I could try to get work stacking shelves at a grocery store, but that wouldn't really solve the problem: I would still be under-employed for my qualifications. Plus, there's always just enough contract work in my field to keep the spark of hope alive!

And yet choices do come up. About a month ago, I was encouraged to apply for a job developing a new museum. Lots of things were right: the geographical area, the potential colleagues, the optimism... And yet, I wondered whether even applying was the right decision. I have cobbled together part time lecturing gigs and have started to enjoy myself; there are glimmers of hope for future prospects in this area. I found myself at the classic Museum Studies PhD crossroads: "industry" or academia? My main concern was that although my degree won't go anywhere, academia tends to be rather unforgiving of gaps, even if they are for good reasons like "real-world experience". In museum studies, professionals can move fluidly from museums to universities, but I was worried that to zig-zag like this so early in my career might not put me ahead in either area; people might wonder where my loyalties really lay.

In the end, my quandary was resolved by the simple fact that I was not available to start when necessary - they hired someone else. So I will continue doing the sessional dance (splitting my time between institutions, no benefits, no job security, but lots of flexibility) for the time being, and hope that  something more permanent comes up before my ovaries expire. (Let's not kid ourselves - underemployment, even in the developed world, is a Marxist and a feminist issue!)

16th century Italian drawing of a niche:
http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/90009438
So don't let late-stage industrial capitalism get you down! After all, heritage is a constantly growing field - every minute, there is more of the past to study. It may require some tough choices, and lots of compromises, but everyone has their niche, and occasionally, we are lucky enough to find it. Hopefully, it's empty when we get there!

P.S.: when I was tagging this post and typing "work", auto-correct tried to change it to "woe." Hmm...

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Greetings from Berlin IX

Painful experiments

„A Negro who came into the store at the mission station, had the stick hidden under his robe./An employee took the object from him and ran away, since he otherwise would not have handled it over.“  
Index card (detail)*

The index card with this text is presented together with the mentioned fetish stick in a small showcase in the African department of the Ethnological Museum Berlin. The installation is part of the exhibition experiment „Probebühne 1“ (rehearsal stage) which intends to try out novel presentation methods. The motive for doing so is the future establishment of the Humboldt-Forum (I reported about this project here). Both, the Ethnological and the Asian Art Museum will move to this new building.
All the presented experiments are worth visiting but, like the installation described, there are some I particularly liked. All of them have something in common: they are simple but sophisticated.
Artist Theo Eshetu hung a disco ball under the ceiling which reflections change the collection of Polynesian boats into a dream landscape. Curator Nicola Lepp created a “Museum of Vessels”. Starting point for her project was the observation that so many pots and jars are among the collected objects. I particularly liked that in one showcase she simply laid down the vessels, showing their mouths and thereby their emptiness – every vessel was once created to contain something but in the museum there is just nothing…
My favourite experiment was “Participants and Objectives. 8 Takes on Filming Music” created by Daniel Kötter, Julian Klein, Juliane Beck and others. They created eight different spaces (a school, a living room, a garden…) where the visitors can watch film clips taken from the archive of the Ethnological Museum. In the living room (“Pre Roll”) I watched a clipping which showed musicians and dancers in Sambia before the dance show. I learned from a text that they talked also about the cameraman, the mzungu. In the room “Flashback” the curators showed a collage of clips showing musicians performing – and looking just for one moment directly into the camera. In “Recording”, the school, clips where the camera or microphones were visible were presented. All together they raised so many questions about collecting and observing, about social and cultural anthropology and the function and responsibility of museums that my head was swimming.
I cannot say for sure if the experiments were responsible for the discomfort accompanying me strolling through the museum, looking at the conventional exhibits, but never before I have missed so strongly the living culture of the countries the collections stem from. I could hardly bear the masses of ethnological objects presented stoically side by side. All the conflicts and questions raised by the experiments are well known to me, but being confronted with them right in the middle of the exhibitions hurt like needles in the skin.
*More information about this object and the installation:
http://www.humboldt-forum.de/fileadmin/media/dokumente/HLD_Begleitheft_Surinam.pdf
More information about the whole project:

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Exhibit Review: 'Richard III at Guildhall, Leicester'

This exhibition opened in the Guildhall on February 8th and will run until 2014 (presumably when there is a new museum that will take it's place). Likely many people who have been paying attention heard about the visitor numbers in the first weeks it was open, with up to 7-8000 visitors attending each day and line ups around the corner of the Cathedral! Clearly, Britain seems interested in Leicester's newest claim to fame.

If you have visited the Guildhall you know how small it is. The exhibition has been set up in the 'new' area before the cafe, where they normally keep extra seating. As such, it is a small room, barely large enough for an exhibit space, and limits severely the number of visitors who can be inside at any one time. I would guess a limit of about 30 people is all the area can handle, but I didn't take a chance to count. They usually let people in in small groups of 3-4 every minute or so, as others leave.

Obviously there is a great deal of information, both historical and archaeological, to be told about Richard III and the Leicester dig. The small also severely limits what they can tell and so there is perhaps not as much detailed description as officianados would like, however for the general public it seemed quite sufficient. The layout is well done in the small space and visitors move down the right and then around the room and the back to return to the entrance. As such, there is a steady flow. However, this also makes it difficult to look at everything in the same visit, and I've found that a return visit is definitely necessary if you want to read all the information and watch the videos/audio.

Down the right side of the room are large panels that tell more of a history. The first panel gives the arguments for and against the well-know 'view' of who Richard III was as a king. There are two audio recordings that are of experts giving their views. Each audio is a couple of minutes long and there is really not enough time to list to both. However, a brief summary of the arguments is on the text panels and this is probably enough for most people. The rest of the panels down the right side of the room tell about Leicester during Richard's time, the sites in the city that are important to his stay before the Battle of Bosworth and his burial. There are some few objects within the text and quite a few pictures, so at no point does it feel like a daunting amount of information.

However, the bulk of the exhibit is down the centre of the room and tells the story of the dig of last August from the point of view of the four main people involved:

Prof Norman Housley (historian)
Mathew Morris (archaeologist)
Jo Appleby (bioarchaeologist)
Turi King (scientist)

The first panel is from Mathew, and I will say that I quite enjoyed the video of him that is part of the display. It was much more interesting to watch than the Channel 4 documentaries that were on this winter! It's rather long, at least to watch the entire thing, but you can see and hear it as you approach and then move on, so you can't catch most of it before the visitors behind you force you to move on. The text on these central panels is descriptive but in short segments and big font, though there is a lot of it. There are some clear display cases between the panels that let you see objects, such as floor tiles, recovered during the dig, but as anyone who has been paying attention knows, there was not much found last year of note.

The visitor moves down the room, with the panels on the right and left to the end of the room.  At the end on the right is a panel about Grey Friars, which tells an interesting history of the site that I did not know about! Well worth a read of the text here and there is enough room to pause and take your time. On the left at the end of the central line of the exhibition, is the 'big interactive' that was reported in any of the news reviews of the exhibition opening. It is a two sided interactive tabletop, which allows about 4 people to view it at once, and will take commands from a person on each side. Both times I have visited the exhibit there have been people waiting behind to use it. It can take quite a while to go through, but visitors usually only look at a few things before moving on.

The interactive is of the skeleton with all of the wounds and marks that were identified showcased. You can press on each site and a text panel pops up with a zoomed image and explains what it is and what might have caused it. It seems to be something most people enjoyed and I would have happily stayed there to go through all the choices, but I wanted people behind me to have a chance.  Above the table is a cast of the skeletal head and you can clearly see the rather large hole in the back.

This leads around to the far side of the room (back towards the entrance) where you get more text panels about the skeleton and what few 'big questions' were asked at the time, such as why the feet are missing, was it an arrowhead in the ribs (no, it's a Roman nail that made it's way into the gravesite) and questions about the scoliosis evidence of the spine. Again, no more detail really than the Channel 4 documentary, but still interesting to see the pictures and text together!

Then there is a few panels about the DNA evidence and the conclusions that were reached. At the very end, near the entrance/exit is a short panel about 'The Future' which, alas, doesn't really say much at all. It was the only part of the exhibit I felt was a real let down. Just a few sentences about continued testing and eventual reinternment.

A good visit would take about 20-25 minutes I should think, or two shorter visits. Obviously on days the place is less busy it would be easier to spend more time. I would suggest that if you are planning to pop in for a visit, to do so during the week. Weekends still achieve a rather long line and the wait can be upwards of 30 minutes standing outside. As well, avoid holidays and half-term breaks!

Friday, April 05, 2013

CALL FOR PAPERS: 'A Survey of Emerging Research'

Museums & Social Issues is currently accepting submissions for Volume 8
that focus on provocative and recent university-based thesis or
dissertation research. The growing body of research on ways museums
think about and engage with social issues is indicative of the field's
consciousness and participation in cutting edge topics that are relevant
to contemporary public discourse.

Examples of potential topics might include, but are not limited to:
* Global Climate Change/Environmental Sustainability
* Pursuit of Happiness
* Spirituality or religious tolerance
* National and Global Economic/Budgetary Crisis
* War, Conflict and Trauma
* Public Health or Mental Health
* Energy Issues

Submission Deadline: June 15, 2013 (or earlier, if possible)

Download the full CFP:
http://maneypublishing.com/images/pdf_site/MSICFP.pdf

Visit the journal webpage: http://www.maneypublishing.com/journals/msi

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

CFP: Tokens and talismans in digital spaces: meaning in the absence of materiality

Materiality is shifting to the digital. We make photographs with our
digital devices, share them in social media spaces, and store them on hard
drives. Kodak no longer develops film, and even movie theaters are
converting to digital-only projection. Creating photo albums, once laid
open on the table to introduce a new acquaintance to the narrative of your
life, is an increasingly antiquated pastime. Yet the photo album is, as
Susan Stewart would consider it, similar to the souvenir. Stewart writes
that the “souvenir speaks to a context of origin through a language of
longing, for it is not an object arising out of need or use value; it is an
object arising out of the necessarily insatiable demands of nostalgia”
(135).

Photo albums, souvenirs, and talismans connect us to the past, and their
materiality is a link to another person, often a loved one. Can virtual
objects provide this sense of connection? How do these transitions from
material to digital transform the things we carry with us? If our
experiences are ephemeral, what and where are the objects that are
significant? Are tokens and talismans the last stronghold of materiality?
Does this shifting consciousness enable connection and attachment to
digital objects?

I am gathering submissions for an upcoming curated collection on tokens and
talismans in digital spaces for The New Everyday, a MediaCommons
publication: http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/tne/about.

The New Everyday is a platform for what is called “middle-state”
publishing, and it’s in-the-middle, or in-between, in more ways than one:

* Contributions are longer than a blog post, but shorter than a journal
article; they’re typically between 900 and 1500 words.

* Contributions represent ideas that are in-formulation, taking shape but
not yet fully formed; TNE offers an opportunity for you to think through a
project in public, and to solicit feedback from the MediaCommons community
as part of the process of developing your ideas.

* The public invested in these collaborative investigations ideally extends
beyond the academy to include other professionals with their own means of
engaging with the quotidian and “making the familiar strange”; thus, TNE
welcomes collections that mix scholars of media with scholars from other
fields of study, artists, technologists, legal and finance professionals,
etc.

If interested, please send a 200-250 word abstract and brief biographical
statement to Linda Levitt at levitt.linda@gmail.com by April 30, 2013.