Museums and visitor photography

I was very pleased to see this book arrive on my desk this week. It’s got my first ever book chapter in it! Plus it looks really smart. You can buy copies from the publisher, here.

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I used visitor tracking data from the British Museum to look at how visitor photography and dwell time are related, and how this relationship differed before and after a mega gallery redisplay. I’m sure there is much more research to do in this area.

A version of the draft text is available here, without the figures or images in the book. Drop a line if you want to know more, I would love for you to read it.

 

Miles, E., (2016) “Visitor Photography in the British Museum’s Sutton Hoo and Europe Gallery”, in Stylianou-Lambert, T. (ed.), Museums and Visitor Photography: Redefining the Visitor Experience, MuseumsEtc.

New year

September seems like the start of the year to me, I’m a total sucker for the new-term feeling the French call la rentrée, and this year it’s stronger than most.

I’ve been thinking back and forth lately. Looking back, I was interviewed for a series of videos about the Transforming Thresholds project – you can find them all here. Looking forward, the little essay I co-wrote about the future of museums is online, with a group of interesting essays about how museum staff think things will change.

Tomorrow is my birthday, and I’ll be starting a new decade in a new home, with new ideas and challenges ahead. I’ll talk about that more another day. The years go so fast these days.

Curator of the Future conference

The conference, organised by colleagues at the British Museum, saw hundreds of delegates discussing the role of the curator. Lots of these debates tapped into discourse about collections knowledge and public engagement, and at times it seemed as though these were presented as mutually exclusive sets of skills. Different models of the good curator were put forward: personifications of the ideal museum.

The future curator, as far as I can see, needs to be a team player. Museums need subject specialism knowledge, storytelling abilities, and collections care skills, but every curatorial role will need a different balance of these skills, depending on the colleagues that they work with. Much museum work is now project-based and funded. Different museums and projects will set up different teams, requiring distinctive balances of these three areas of expertise. A project with an interpretation officer allocated will not necessarily require a curator to have in-depth knowledge of how to engage an audience, for example. It is the ability to collaborate, share and adapt that will be crucial to the curator of the future.

I often think of two things that two accomplished curators told me about their work.

Cathy Ross told me that curating is the skill of judging what can be left out.

Dora Thornton said it is about the set of questions that you ask of an object.

These approaches reflect the balance of the teams that the curators work in within their organisations – one is arguably led by the question of storytelling, the other approach is perhaps more collections-focussed. Sometimes at the conference yesterday it seemed like knowledge was referred to as a possession, rather than as an activity. I think that both Cathy and Dora’s ideas about the work of the curator are valuable because they articulate a process of enquiry, rather than an expression of expertise. Knowledge needs to be maintained to be meaningful. Museums must keep researching their collections, evaluating their displays, fundraising, managing their staff and maintaining discussions – but curators will not be the only museum workers to do these things.

A good curator is a huge asset to a museum, but I think for too long the curator has been treated as the embodiment of the museum. In my PhD case study I was based in a curatorial department, but the museum was remade through work carried out by curators, designers, learning, technicians, photographers, managers, collections management database specialists, conservators, collections care officers, volunteers, academic consultants and even nonhuman forces.

There is a huge amount of diversity in the sector. Rachel Souhami argued that we should stop talking about the ‘museum sector’ as it misleadingly suggests something homogenous and cohesive. Perhaps it is more meaningful to talk about the curators of the future.

Digital Collaborations: Students Working with Museums

Recently I’ve written a number of shorter pieces for newsletters and guides, including this advice for students who want to collaborate with museums on digital projects. It comes out of the Research on Display seminars, so the publication has advice for students looking to collaborate with museums in lots of different ways. I think Kristin Hussey’s introduction to collections information for exhibitions will be especially useful – I wish I’d read it when I started out.

You can access the pdf of the whole publication here:

Research on Display: A Guide to Collaborative Exhibitions for Academics, Edited by Laura Humphreys

After my thesis

I was in two minds about posting this, as it’s basically about being fed up. But I wish I’d read something like this last year.

In the midst of my PhD I couldn’t imagine what my life would be like when it was done. But I had this sensation of hope. That my days would be full of the sunshine I had shut myself away from so many times. I thought finishing my PhD would take away some pressure, and make my relationships easier. I thought that I would feel a strong sense of achievement, and it would sustain me – knock that imposter syndrome on the head once and for all.

When I passed my viva the whole episode of the PhD felt diminished. As I rang my parents to tell them the good news, I already felt that if someone like me could get a PhD then it wasn’t all that big of a deal.

Between submitting my thesis and having my viva I left the Museum of London. I was lucky enough to start two exciting new part-time jobs right away, but starting again felt hard. I found the novelty difficult. I missed spending work days amongst my old friends. Many of my friends were facing a great deal of uncertainty and loss. One in particular suffered an utterly devastating loss.

With the new year I kept looking forward. I started swimming regularly. I was applying for jobs, travelling to interviews, thinking of opportunities that might suit me. After a rapid series of rejections I started to feel crushed. Negative thoughts started churning through my mind. A friend died, and the world lost all its shine. I took up learning French and learning to drive. I spent time with friends and family. I lost a couple of stone, started running and did a short charity triathlon. I started working full time at the BM. I read goop. I baked bread, made granola, ate well. I gave keynotes and talks. Whatever I did, the negative thoughts kept coming. I was anxious and couldn’t sleep properly. I was crying in the shower in the mornings, fearful of facing the day and at a loss as to why I felt unable to cope. I found supermarkets completely overwhelming. I kept mishearing things people were saying, and thinking they were swearing at me, or telling me I was stupid.

I took a holiday.

I felt better.

It’s almost a year since I submitted my thesis. I didn’t expect it to be a hard year, but I’m hopeful again. Maybe this time next year I’ll be able to speak French. Perhaps I’ll be able to drive, or to run faster and further. Perhaps I’ll find another challenge that I’ll love and hate as much as my PhD. But my world’s a bit bigger than the book I wrote, and I need to find my way in it again.

Viva

I read Kirsty Rolfe‘s list of things to avoid in your viva. I thought I’d pass on some more positive news from experience.

Three things you can do during your viva and it be totally fine:

  1. At the outset of your viva, when asked how you came to study the topic you can say “well it all comes down to Jon Bon Jovi”, prompting your supervisor to silently put his head in his hands.
  2. You can pause the Viva to point out a school group wearing Santa Hats walking past.
  3. Your phone can ring loudly several times because your dad wants to know how you got on and you didn’t manage to put your phone on silent.

I think it would have been reassuring to know this in advance, please add more in the comments!

Museums, breakage and loss

“Objects tend to enter the museum when their world has been destroyed, and so they are relics and witnesses of a loss” (p5).

As critics of the museum — and some of its most sophisticated supporters — consistently point out, the existence of the whole that is a museum requires a great many things to be broken” (p5)

“The museum creates wholes that speak of fragmentation; it houses hostages or refugees that can never really be sent home because their native land has ceased to exist in a way that can welcome them back as they were” (p5)

from Siegel’s introduction to The Emergence of the Modern Museum.

I collected these quotes three years ago, and they’ve been in my mind ever since. They were waiting for me when I came to update my blog, at long last.

I have submitted two softbound copies of my thesis to the student services office, and collected a receipt. I have an email that says the copies have been sent to my examiners, and I have been told the date of my viva. I also have a letter that confirms my temporary job at the Museum of London is coming to an end.

Bittersweet weeks.

 

Mapping the city

I’ve been interested in ideas about digital mapping and tagging. In the past I’ve thought about this in terms of apps, and gave a paper last year at the RGS about the Museum of London’s app ‘StreetMuseum‘ and how it connects objects and places and technology in different ways.

I’ve been thinking again about apps and maps, and this time about non-specialist maps. I thought about them this week when faced with a road googlemaps assured me I could walk down, and common sense confirmed I could not. I thought about them when I read this interesting article about mapping. I thought about the maps of Eric Fischer, which Rainey Tisdale reminded me of in a talk. And I thought about them again when I checked my Facebook privacy settings.

Although games like Foursquare and Gowalla presented mapping as a primary part of app use, it seems that mapping and tagging is more often carried out as secondary functions to other social media. Relying on your default settings you can send out a geotagged tweet, you can be ‘tagged’ somewhere on facebook and have your instagram photos mapped without making a particular decision to do so. I’m interested in how this distracted mapping occurs and where and when it doesn’t occur.

The driving-default of Californian Google maps is not an especially intuitive way to transcribe the experience of moving around London. Google maps data is road-based an often road-bound, providing something different to the level of detail of an Ordnance Survey map. Although Google may move into museums its road and satellite-based system only suits certain gallery styles and models of visitor flow. Fischer’s maps, made up of flikr location data and Open Street Map mirror these road structures because they rely on data from the road-based flikr map. Fischer’s maps reiterate an impersonal impression: I take few of my photographs on roads. Many more are taken in parks, on beaches, on footpaths, in pubs, in clubs and of course in houses and gardens.

The maps that these apps use, create and embellish, present hollow cities, not especially representative of the places in which we live. The technical constrains of road maps are often matched with an intentional process; we don’t all wish to map our locations, workspaces or our homes, so we are complicit in creating gappy cartographies.

Anxieties about mapping are often expressed in terms of criminality: commentators warned that Instagram and Facebook‘s maps might give information to burglers or stalkers. I’m less interested in the veracity of these claims and more interested in the discomfort they express. There are other objections too — when my dad first suggested I use Frifi I sent him a slightly peeved reply highlighting part of the promo text:

“Amazing software for finding the exact location of your friends – great for the beach, hiking, concerts, nights out, keeping tabs on the kids…”

The ways in which we use maps has changed, and it seems like maps are presented as harvesting data as often as they are providing it. “Any square mile of the planet can be described in an infinite number of ways”, argues Oliver Burkeman in the Guardian article and tagging gives form to a range of responses. I’m curious about how people manage these mapping processes, especially when they are a secondary function to doing something else. I’ve seen people disabling the functions or engaging with them playfully by renaming certain locations, and I’m especially interested in these kinds of mapping which are accidental, unconscious, resented or outright refused.

 

 

 

As ever I wrote this blog post to give form to my ideas, and I have shared it in the hope it is read in the discursive, speculative spirit intended. It touches on thoughts and writing I have come across serendipitously, rather than being built on careful research. I would be very grateful if anyone would like to share their ideas, thoughts, criticisms or links to articles, experiments and other research here.

Thank you for reading.

Ten things I learned this week about writing my PhD

Here are ten things I’ve learnt about myself and how I write. I’ve probably learnt them over a few years, but this week I’ve put them into words.

  • I cannot work whilst listening to music.
  • I cannot concentrate very well if I have not had breakfast.
  • Writing will always take longer than I expect.
  • Sometimes you should just admit that you need a stapler.
  • Formatting my documents with wide margins and writing in size 10 Times, with 1.5 line spacing seems to help me focus on writing better, rather than more. I guess I’m pretty superficial.
  • When I am confused by the structure of my writing it’s helpful to start a new document and copy any bits of writing I particularly like, rather than try to force it.
  • Sometimes I’m shy of writing emails. Drafting them at half past five one day, then reading through and send them the next morning seems to take the edge off of it.
  • The pomodoro technique of 25 minutes concentration at a time helps me to focus.
  • Don’t do the same thing every 5 minute break. Twitter is nice but sometimes it’s better to move around. Similarly do not get yourself a cup of tea or glass of water every time. It just won’t work.
  • Happily there doesn’t seem to be a productivity lapse if I write whilst wearing my pyjamas.

Feel free to add more in the comments, I’m really nosy and love this sort of thing