Category Archives: Popular Culture

Curating a Research Exhibition

dscf8465Landscape Surgery’s current theme of ‘communicating research’ took a look at research exhibitions, and revealed ways in which exhibitions can be far more than valuable forms of communication. The session was stimulated by three panelists: current surgeon and 3rd year PhD student n the department Katherine Stansfeld, ex-surgeon and PhD student and now British Library curator Phil Hatfield, and Carey Newson, who recently completed a collaborative PhD with Queen Mary, University of London and the Geffrye Museum of the Home.

Katherine introduced her research on mapping superdiversity and outlined several reasons why an exhibition might form part of PhD research: as a means of communication, particularly in reaching audiences beyond the academy; as research or analytical process, alongside other methods; and as a way of starting or continuing a dialogue with people who may be interested in or have participated in the research.

Three aspects of Katherine’s experience stood out. The first relates to planning and spatial materiality. An exhibition budget enabled a diverse team to be involved, including an artistic director and production staff. This increased planning and coordination time that Katherine has been spending on the exhibition. It also revealed how significantly the materiality of an exhibition space and design affects the way people can interact with an exhibition. The second and linked aspect is the process of deciding what to show and how to show it. This is clearly not a neutral process, and can be driven as much by material priorities as research or aesthetic ones. Collaboration was the third aspect, and Katherine shared her experience of working with young artists on alternative mapping. In conclusion, she commented on how the more time-consuming communication that results from these three aspects offers both challenges and opportunities.

In contrast to Katherine’s exhibition being very much within her research, Carey’s followed the completion of her thesis. Her research project, in collaboration with Queen Mary and the Geffrye Museum speaks to the material culture of domestic space, geographies of young people and the study of the home, and explored the meaning and significance of the teenager’s bedroom and its material culture. Visual anthropologist Kyna Gourley took photographs of the bedrooms, and Carey returned with a selection of these later to stimulate interviews with both teenagers and their parents. Some of the findings included the way the rooms reflected and expressed teenagers’ personalities and lives, and so changed over time; that the bedrooms were retreats more than social spaces; and that the 24 rooms studied were very different, yet with recurring themes. Teenagers were pre-occupied by dilemmas around what to keep and what to get rid of, recalling Nicky Gregson’s work on the relationship between ridding and dwelling.

Moving on to the creation of the exhibition itself, Carey, like Katherine, mentioned the materiality of the space, especially the glass cases which, initially thought to be problematic, led to the development of a series of installations. There were also particular challenges and creative design solutions in relating the objects to their bedroom contexts. The creation of a full-scale installation of a bed and contextual material was assisted by the original room’s occupier, and made a fascinating difference to the way the teenage audience engaged with the exhibition at the opening. Playful forms of engagement, such as sitting on and in the bed and taking photographs of each other, stood out. It seems curious the way these rooms are exhibitions in themselves, and this was in some ways an exhibition of exhibitions.

Phil’s presentation gave us an opportunity to take a broader perspective on exhibitions in the context of major cultural institutions, based on his involvement in six exhibitions at the British Library. One of the first points Phil raised was the effect of space and time and other resource pressure in such places. Large institutions have relatively complex planning and approval processes which impose longer lead-in times. They also have more proposals for exhibitions than space to accommodate them. Add to this the range of costs, that can be in the £100,000s, together with the numbers and seniority of staff involved, and you have a set of factors with very significant impacts on exhibitions. These collectively mean that the opportunities to integrate an exhibition into the timescale of a PhD are very limited, effectively nonexistent.

However, successful exhibitions still happen regularly at the British Library, and Phil identified a number of other more positive factors. By keeping in touch with curators over the long-term, there is more chance of being able to take advantage of unexpected opportunities that do come up. A case in point is Phil’s own forthcoming exhibition to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the federation of Canada through the Library’s photographic archives, based on his PhD completed six years ago. In dealing with large cultural institutions, flexibility can be very helpful too. By contributing in small ways to exhibitions and book projects, blogs and public programming, you build a relationship based on relevant collaboration that can enhance other, greater opportunities.

A very interactive discussion followed, aided by the contrasts between the three speakers around the common theme. The contrasts highlighted the range of relationships that an exhibition can have with research as research method, output, opportunity for participatory involvement, and engagement with more diverse audiences. Even in the British Library, an exhibition can feed into the institution as a whole, beyond the specific research that it is focused on.

An interesting theme developed around the risks and other dynamics involved in showing a work in progress, as in Katherine’s case. This raised the importance of managing expectations. It also illustrates how the material processes of exhibition production can be significantly different. Take photographs for example. The specification of photographs being produced in the role of final record is different from that where they are being displayed as research tools. Applied to Katherine’s video work, this also highlighted the way editing affects the research process in important ways.

This is magnified in larger projects, where the numbers and specialisms of people involved make exhibitions effectively massive collaborations, where the identification of the work with the names of only one or two curators seems at the very least inadequate. Further discussion looked at the use of the term curation and the development of curatorial skills in more detail.

An intriguing thread led us through issues of presenting items to speak for themselves contrasted with the use of explanatory text. There was some link to the timing of the exhibition in relation to the stage of the research project. Katherine felt that, as a work in progress, she had greater freedom to allow the work to be displayed with limited explanation. Carey noted the importance and value of experience in advising and editing display text. Phil took this further to remind us of the intensely collaborative nature of producing display text.

These examples contextualised a point raised about the roles of artistic practices as research processes, where the output is less of a primary objective than gaining perspective through externalising ideas and thereby generating different modes of understanding. This linked intriguingly with contributions about what constitutes an exhibition, covering pop-ups and the example of using a Premier Inn room below the radar, and inviting people in four at a time. A retrospective thought on this is the way artistic practices and exhibition works in progress may be seen as failures in many traditional exhibition contexts. I wonder how an institution’s conditioning of exhibitions would engage with such unresolved dynamics and ephemeral events.

– Katherine Stansfeld: current third year PhD student in the Department of Geography at RHUL, and surgeon, who is in the final stages of preparing for her research exhibition ‘Superdiversity: picturing Finsbury Park’, which will open in Furtherfield Gallery in Finsbury Park itself in mid February.

– Carey Newson: a completed PhD student from the Department of Geography at QMUL, whose project was a collaboration with the Geffrye Museum of the Home, London E2. Her PhD was about about teenagers’ bedrooms, and an exhibition based on that research is currently running at the Geffrye (until April 23rd 2017). You can see more about the exhibition here.

– Phil Hatfield: Honorary Research Associate of the Department of Geography at RHUL, Digital Mapping Curator at the British Library, and once upon a time a surgeon and a CDA PhD student with the British Library, whose topic was Canadian photography. Phil has also led and participated in a number of Library exhibitions. The most recent of these – Lines in the Ice – resulted in a book that is currently available.

Huw Rowlands

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The Dystopia of Sodor: Thomas the Tank Engine and Neoliberalism

Thomas - the perfect neoliberal subject

Thomas – the perfect neoliberal subject

Thomas the Tank Engine, the popular children’s book and TV series, has been with us for 70 years, and still captures the imagination of children around the world. As a father of two rapidly growing-up children, trains seem to have some sort of mystic fascination with the preschool demographic. So it is no surprise that Thomas the Tank Engine is one of the world’s most recognised toy brands.

Thomas lives on the Island of Sodor, a mythical, small countryside island in the Irish Sea, just off the coast from Barrow-in-Furness. The trains are colourful, largely happy and busy, while the people go about normal lives in school, on the farm or on the railways. The trouble is, though, this surface-level utopian English-countryside-mid-twentieth-century idyll belies a far more sinister neoliberal allegory that pervades the daily minutiae of Thomas and his friends. The more of Thomas I watch, the more its ideologies of subservience, self-interest, prejudice and the constant imprinting of capitalist relations on everyday life ooze through the veneer of cutesy anthropomorphic trains. I would like to explore, here, just three ways in which Thomas the Tank Engine is far from a utopian idyll, but, rather, is a nightmarish vision of a society dominated by neoliberal capitalist ideologies. Continue reading

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