My Path Through Research

The Trials and Triumphs of Doing a PhD

Another Day…Another Danish Experience

After yesterday’s scientific experience, today it was the turn of some archaeology and natural history.

A suggestion for this morning had been to visit a ‘Whale Museum’ in Gram, a town 10km away from where I am staying. Being close that option was plumped for.

What was in my head as the ‘Whale Museum’ turned out to be the Sønder Jylland Museum of Natural History and Paleontology. The museum consisted of displays of a lot of fossils found in the clays in the region, from tiny bryozoans to massive whales (hence the ‘whale museum’ title). Unfortunately natural history always brings back bad memories of my animal and plant classification lectures during my undergraduate degree, which rather dampened my interest in the subject rather than cultured it. At least the displays there were also in English! There were also pictures of a whale which died last month in Vejle Fjord after getting stuck there and the way its skeleton was cleaned…quite gruesome but quite informative.

The highlight of the museum however is a visit to Gram Lergrav, a clay pit in which you can dig and find your own fossils and shells. The high temperatures definitely meant that today was not the day for hard work under the baking sun, but being there it was a must to try our luck. We followed the instructions of the receptionist to go through a door, pick up some tools and head down to the pit.

I was a bit surprised that there was no instructions on best practice, how an archaeological dig normally works, or anything of the sort. We were just sent through to the pit on our own and happily dug on our own. I think they are missing something in not even providing you with some information on how things should proceed and what your finds are. But I guess that would require many more resources in what is essentially a small town museum with only one person on duty.

Having found a good deal of shells and snails, we were however happy with our finds and gladly escaped the sun’s hot rays.

Update: After writing this I was told that we were given some written instructions on how to get started, but as the sheet was in Danish I wasn’t shown it. So something is being done, though I still think a lot more can be done…if resources were available.

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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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A Conference Experience

Last week the 9th Indoor Air Quality Meeting was held in Chalon-Sur-Saone, France. IAQ Meetings are  ‘all about the impact of the air quality on objects in museums, libraries, or archives’. As I have been doing some work on environmental conditions inside archives and libraries (which has also been published), I had submitted an abstract to present my work at the conference some months ago which luckily was accepted.

Presentation at the conference varied quite a bit though they all focussed on issues of indoor air quality in heritage environments. There were quite a number of case studies presented from various institutions, as well as the presentation of a number of sensor systems, including a wireless sensor network from a research assistant from the same centre as me. However, aside from the work which is relevant for my research (which of course I found very useful), I was particularly happy to hear presentations on the monitoring of airborne mould in heritage institutions. Having done an internship in microbiology, I always find it interesting to get back to that area of science!

The conference offered me a great opportunity to see the work other people working in the field are doing and to meet people I have been reading the work of and being in contact with over the past year. It also meant hearing all about the latest research in the area. It was exciting to get the opportunity to present and discuss my work, and in particular to see how my work fits into the bigger picture of heritage science. It has left me more excited and eager to keep on working on my project, in particular as I have more clearly seen the benefit of my work in conjunction with other work going on.

Now on to the next part of my research, the next paper, the next conference – the cycle goes on!

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“Price? No Object!

…Climate change: the challenge to cultural heritage”

This was the name of an activity I attended last week at The Royal Institution. The event was organised as part of  EGOR: Environmental Guidelines Opportunities and Risks research cluster, which was sponsored by the AHRC/EPSRC Science and Heritage Research Programme (the same programme sponsoring my PhD). The event was organised to “encourage the audience to think more deeply about the complex issues relating to heritage, the effects of climate change and the threats it poses to survival”. And if that was the aim, I think they succeeded.

It was a different kind of event to what I would normally expect, bringing different elements that you would not normally expect to see used in such a manner. I think it could have gone seriously wrong. Luckily it didn’t…And if the aim was to encourage the audience to think […], I think they succeeded.

So what was different? And how could it have gone wrong?

The main focus of the event was probably a performance…yes, a performance…by Kandu Arts For Sustainable
Development
:

Kandu works with individuals and groups across the statutory and third sectors, with businesses and industry to assist in understanding social, environmental and economic impacts and responsibility in effecting positive, sustainable change. Using their unique methodology encompassing creative arts and personal development, Kandu contributes to policy development at local and national levels.

So how did they do this? The way they went round to achieving this was by first presenting a 5-10minute play. This they then repeated with one difference: the audience was asked to intervene where they thought they should by calling freeze and explaining what they would change. But did the audience participate?

The play was divided into two:

First half: Half-way through the ‘first-half’ the programme manager for the Science and Heritage Programme for the AHRC intervened to make a comment. The actors followed her changes (sort of! The ‘mother’ in the play was not happy with her suggestion of having a shower rather than a bath not to waste water :)) and the performance continued. End of the first half…no other intervention. But just as the first half ended, one man intervened, going quite a bit back…and the floodgates of comments opened…what was on the verge of becoming a very awkward time turned into a hilarious and fun event which was also thought-provoking. The people were participating, and the actors were keeping us entertained as they dealt with the comments put to them and new discussion threads they needed to continue (whilst keeping in character!).

Second half: The second half continued much in the same vein as the end of the first half…the banter continued with freezing of freezes, and people getting over-freezed and what-not freezed. However, what definitely emerged from this was the real complexity of the issues at hand: Is safeguarding artefacts in a museum essential should we be in a situation of low power availability? What makes an artefact important for safekeeping and others not? It was also definitely entertaining seeing both my supervisors (who are also the principal and co-investigators for this research cluster) and the head of the centre I am based in, dragged down to the ‘stage’ (the location was similar to an amphitheatre) to take part in the performance and interact with the actors to bring their point across.

After a while however it was time out for all comments, as we moved on to the next part of the programme. This involved a person playing a stringed instrument he has built himself (cannot remember the name…if anyone is reading this who was there and remembers, leave a comment!), followed by a presentation by Dr Jonathan Ashley-Smith, former Head of Conservation at the V&A who spoke about the challenges of environmental guidelines.

All in all, a successful event, especially considering that I wasn’t even going to go! I had received e-mails and been told about it, but for some reason I didn’t note it down in my calendar, so it just slipped my mind. Luckily on the day a colleague at TNA e-mailed me to tell me she had an extra ticket if I wanted to join them, so off I went. So thanks Sarah…and thank you all for your enlightening discussions which I had the opportunity to experience!

Reading

You can read more about Climate Change and the Heritage Environment in the following reports:

Report commissioned by English Heritage.

Report by UNESCO

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Research Day Away

Last Wednesday was Research Day Away for our department. What does that mean? It means that a ‘day out’ for the people in the department was organised…woohoo!

What was the plan? The plan was to meet at Tate Britain, where we got a tour of the Science Laboratories. We got the opportunity to hear the scientists there describing and discussing their work. I liked the way it was done, probably as, since we were all in the heritage field, they could go a bit beyond what would probably normally be explained to a general audience.

From there we then made our way to the Print Rooms. Jacob had been telling me about the Print Rooms since I first met him. But still – WOW – I was impressed. I was even more impressed by Julia, the registrar there…She knew everything about the prints/drawings she was showing us, and could discuss them in such a good manner. I was really impressed. Jacob also confirmed that picking any picture at random from the collection, she can discuss it to her hearts content.

From there it was then off to catch the Tate-to-Tate boat to get to Tate Modern. Last Wednesday was a perfect day, very sunny, with a very pleasant breeze on the river. Ahhh! Good weather 🙂 So pleased with that *GRIN*.

First up at Tate Modern was lunch…Woohooo! I don’t go out to eat very often (out of my price range I guess)…and what I realised at that point is that…well…making the food myself would have cost so much less :P. At least it was good :). After a relaxing dinner the plan was to go around the exhibitions and enjoy them. Luckily, I teamed up with Jacob (who’s is a staff member, hence free entrance ;)), so rather than the normal slow pace you tend to take when seeing exhibits in a museum (wanting to get the most out of what you pay), we could take a bit of a faster pace, stopping in front of what interests us, and just getting the feel for the materials in each room.

Soon it was however time for me to be off, as a friend of my had arrived in London that day and I was going to be off to meet her. Good day though…can’t wait for the next one (so I can take the day off without feeling guilty about it :P).

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