My Path Through Research

The Trials and Triumphs of Doing a PhD

Interdisciplinarity: Science and Art

Interdisciplinary Studies of Evidence is one of many courses offered through the UCL graduate school skills development programme. I have so far been to three of the sessions in the series, on being a general session on interdisciplinarity, and the other two on evidence in statistics and computer modelling.

Late last month I went to another session in the series: Using Science to Understand Art: Contexts and Communication. It’s taken me quite some time to get round to writing about it. This is not only because I have been busy, but because I needed time to think about what was said.

During the course, Ruth Siddall, the course tutor, spoke about her experience as a geologist working with people in museums (arts). Her research interests deal with the identification of pigments, minerals, mortars and rocks. She spoke about how her skills as a geologist have come in useful in her work, but at the same time, how she needed to adapt to communicate with people in a different field.

However, something she was saying wasn’t sounding quite right to me, at least in the way I am experiencing interdisciplinarity in my work. Something felt jarring, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it at the time. I am still not sure I do! However, I think it has very much to do with how she views herself and how I am encouraged to view myself in my work.

She constantly referred to herself as a scientist (geologist) working with people in the arts. She quite readily and clearly identified herself with the field she has a strong background in: geology. Something which has been niggling me about the way I am encouraged to view myself is that there is a strong desire to see me describe myself as a ‘heritage scientist’ (with the caveat that ‘heritage’ is not an adjective describing the noun ‘scientist’). However, my only background in ‘heritage science’ is that I am working within the field whilst frantically scrabbling around to try to grasp at numerous strands of knowledge I feel are important. Is that enough?

Also, what does being a ‘heritage scientist’ mean in practice? What should I consider to be my strong point? Should it be the science? Or should it be the heritage field? I strongly suspect that the suggestion is that I should consider both to be a strong point. But where does that leave me? It leaves me pretty much falling into nothingness…or does it?

There is still quite a lot I feel I need to digest from that session and from everything I have been absorbing and feeling throughout my PhD. The session pushed me into thinking about things more coherently and systematically. That surely can only be a good thing. People say that a PhD is a journey, and I feel that this is an important part of my journey that I need to come to grips with.

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Ethnographic Object Analysis

Another of the courses offered through the UCL graduate school is one on ‘Ethnographic Object Analysis‘. I had planned on attending last year’s course but during the month of May I was on a research visit in Pisa so I had to cancel my registration. I have been keeping an eye out for it all this year, and when registrations started being accepted for this year’s course I immediately signed up.

‘Why would I be interested?’ you might be asking. Well, although I am not working with ethnographic collections per se, I am interested in museum and archival collections. However, I don’t have a museum studies background but a scientific background. Nevertheless, working in an interdisciplinary environment it is always highly useful to understand something of the background of the people you are dealing with. A problem with interdisciplinary work is that often people come to the table with a different way of thinking, methodology and also a different vocabulary. This certainly does not facilitate discussion!

The course was divided into 5 sessions: Analysis, Description, Displaying, Conservation, and finally Analysing Ethnographic Photographs and Archives. I was of course particularly interested in yesterday’s sessions on photographs. I liked the fact that we were presented with a wide variety of materials which we discussed in terms of dating and interpretation, but even further in an ethnographic context, such as what might be being implied by the photographs, or what has been inscribed into them further than what you might see at first glance. It was highly enlightening to see photographic materials from this point of view, rather than from a simply material one.

A plus of the courses was that we were always around 8-10 students. This allowed for much more discussions to take place. Also, there were practical sessions throughout all the sessions. This made it a very hands-on experience, which definitely helped us learn even more from the programme. Also, the fact that the course was not only taught at UCL but sessions were also held at the British Museum and the Horniman museum was definitely a bonus!

Definitely one of the better courses I have attended through the graduate school. I must say that I am very glad to have these courses available. they allow me to learn more about areas I need to know more for my research, as well as about areas I am personally interested in. These courses definitely enhance my experience here!

A Light-Hearted Look at Ethnography

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