Timelines – onto ‘the conveyor belt of history’?

Sara Fanelli's timeline at Tate Modern. Source: www.sarafanelli.com

Sara Fanelli’s timeline at Tate Modern. Source: http://www.sarafanelli.com

In his article for Curator: The Museum Journal, (2013) US academic Steven Lubar argues that although timelines seem like a ‘natural’ approach to museum display, they present an over deterministic narrative structure. He warns that the timeline should be ‘used with care’ (p.169). For Lubar a new approach is needed that retains the usefulness and accessibility of the timeline but which opens it up to more visitor interaction and personalisation. In the article he makes six suggestions for how the timeline format might be expanded upon (p.185):

  1. use it to highlight key ‘decision points’ and pivotal moments;
  2. complicate it historically by intersecting with other topic timelines;
  3. make it ‘lumpy’ by focusing on defined periods;
  4. use it to connect events across the world, rather than in one place;
  5. focus it on geography, rather than on time;
  6. invite visitors to remix it to fit their own stories and personal interests.

Prompted by Lubar’s article, I’ve started to use the content curation platform Scoop.it to compile a collection of museum based timelines. This is to help develop my own thinking about how a timeline architecture and Lubar’s ‘six suggestions’ might be applied to my research into the public art ‘collection’ in Newcastle-Gateshead. Interestingly, as Tate is one of the timeline rejectionists of the 1990s/2000s that Lubar discusses in his article, a lot of these examples actually come from Tate. Here the timeline is fully present again, as artist designed gallery souvenirs, as in-and off-galley interpretation and as exhibition design – the new ‘Walk Through British Art’ display at Tate Britain.

Following my own initial data collection work in Newcastle-Gateshead I’ve been visually grouping individual artworks into a rough chronology using the free visualisation software Easy Timeline. I’ve also been researching other web-based ‘timeline’ applications. Some of these have the capacity to link time and place through image geo-tagging. In visiting other public art ‘collections’ (online or physically), it seems that it is through this frame of place and location that public artworks are more usually interpreted rather than through the lens of ‘art history’. It is the map, rather than the timeline, that is the ubiquitous form of presentation for a public art ‘collection’.

References and links:


Lubar, S. (2013). Timelines in ExhibitionsCurator: The Museum Journal56(2), 169–188. doi:10.1111/cura.12018 [Online. Accessed: 25 October 2013].

Note: the title for this post is taken from Nicholas Serota’s (1996 statement) quoted by Lubar in his (2013) article.

Photographing public artworks: signs of ‘affiliation and affection’?

Photographing 'Couple on Street', Lynn Chadwick, (1984), Canary Wharf Public Art Collection, London.

Photographing ‘Couple on Street’, Lynn Chadwick, (1984), Canary Wharf Public Art Collection, London.

This week I’ve come across two blog posts about the pros and cons of taking photographs of objects in museums. This has nudged me to put down a few notes here about my own reflections around people’s attraction to photographing public artworks beyond the confines of the museum.

From my own street observations over the years and recent scannings of the internet and social media for images of public artworks from the Newcastle-Gateshead ‘collection’ (the subject of my current PhD study) it would seem that taking a photograph of, or posing for a photograph with, public artworks is almost instinctive. With a camera, or smartphone, in your hand when you encounter a new or striking piece of public art it seems the obvious thing to do (if, that is, you are photographically inclined).

Could this stopping to take a photograph be seen as a primary signal of audience engagement with a public artwork, an object which may more typically be seen only peripherally while passing-by on the way to somewhere/something else? Could the short moment taken to do this be the longest time anyone deliberately spends ‘with’ the work? In public space it seems that photography could be a more acceptable public behaviour than other more physical forms of interaction with these objects. Although sited without barriers (and watchful gallery staff) we may not feel free to touch, or even to walk round, step back, go close to these objects, as we might be tempted or indeed expected to do when encountering artworks in a museum or gallery. In the urban public realm I’ve rarely witnessed these kinds of ‘looking at art’ behaviours outside of a formal public art tour.

‘Powerless Structures Fig. 101’, Elmgren and Dragset, The 4th Plinth, London, 2012-13

Photographing ‘Powerless Structures Fig. 101’, Elmgren and Dragset, (2012-13), The 4th Plinth, London.

So why do people take photographs of public artworks? What does it indicate about a person’s relationship to these objects? What do people do with or get from these images they have taken?

In the latest of his blog series ‘Tilting at Windmills’, Ed Rodley suggests that rather than taking photographs to document the objects they have seen, museum visitor’ photography, and the subsequent sharing of that imagery e.g. via social media, is a representation of their ‘affiliation’ with the chosen object and with the institution of the museum. For Rodley these photographic acts are ‘underutilized and under-appreciated’ by museum professionals, who are often more concerned to control visitor photography than to encourage it.

Visitor photography and its relationship to the museum experience is also the subject of Jamie Glavic’s recent post ‘Reflection vs. Collection’ on the Museum Minute blog. This is written in part response to a recent research study (by Linda Henkel) that suggests that taking photographs in the museum actually prevents rather than assists visitors in remembering the objects they have seen. As Glavic writes, Henkel has labelled this phenomenon the ‘photo-taking-impairment effect’. Interestingly though, Henkel’s study did find that when people began to explore objects with the camera further, to photograph specific details, they did retain a clearer memory of the object. Glavic notes that Henkel’s study only investigated the effects of the act of taking a photograph, not what people subsequently did with or thought about the images they had made.

Do Rodley and Glavic’s posts and Henkel’s findings reflect what happens beyond the gallery? Outside the museum, in the ’public realm’ we are generally freer to photograph the artworks we encounter than we are in the museum/art gallery, although there are sometimes similar concerns, and occasional controversies, around copyright infringement and security issues. (In my own work I have been stopped several times from taking photographs of public artworks on the Tyne and Wear Metro by its security staff, for example.) Can we take these ‘posings for photographs with public artworks’, ‘selfies’, Flickr portfolios and crowdsourced online public/‘street art’ directories as signals of ‘affiliation and affection’ with the artworks represented? Or are these images perhaps more like trophies of time and place (a more simple visual statement of ‘I was here’)?


Ed Rodley is Associate Director of Integrated Media at Peabody Essex Museum, Boston (USA). He blogs at Thinking about museums. Jamie Glavic is Strategic Projects Coordinator at Ohio Historical Society (USA).

Rodley, E. (2013) ‘Tilting at Windmills, Part Three’, Thinking about museums, 8 December. Available at: http://exhibitdev.wordpress.com/2013/12/08/tilting-at-windmills-part-three/ (Accessed: 08.01.14).

Glavic, J. (2013) ‘Reflection vs. Collection’, Museum Minute, 11 December. Available at: http://museumminute.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/reflection-vs-collection-a-new-report-looks-at-the-effect-of-picture-taking-on-remembering-the-museum-experience/ (Accessed: 08.01.14).

Henkel, L. (2013) ‘Point-and-Shoot Memories: The Influence of Taking Photos on Memory for a Museum Tour’, Psychological Science, XX (X), pp. 1-7, Sage [Online]. Available at: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2013/12/04/0956797613504438 (Accessed: 08.01.14).

‘Productive-procrastination’ or ‘What’s the point of writing a PhD blog?’

As my start to the New Year, and as a reviver post for this blog, I thought I’d take a look at what some other PhD people have been doing with their blogging. I’m hoping this will help me to rethink how I can integrate my own blog with my wider PhD workload. As I’m now scarily nearly half way through my own (funded) PhD time, 2014 is going to be the year for me to really get down to the business of organised data collection and some serious putting words on paper (or screen) work. If I’m going to continue building this blog it really needs to be part and parcel of my PhD strategy rather than something that continuously (as over the last few months) ends up sitting sadly at the bottom of my ‘to-do’ list.

So what are other PhD-ers using their blogs for?

I’ve spent a couple of hours this week browsing around the world of academic blogging to see how other PhD students are using blogs. I’m focusing here on independent blogs rather than those more formal collective ones sometimes put together by research faculties. Strangely the five that I’ve actually been drawn to read here have all been written by women. (Is PhD blogging a particularly female activity perhaps?) Anyway, here are the five that I looked at:

‘Blogging the PhD’

Although I was trying to find specifically arts and humanities related blogs, this one is actually written by a science PhD-er (Vicky Young), a researcher in reproductive biology at Edinburgh University. This is a million miles from my own research area, but actually I found this blog really quite engaging. Although including some more formal and technical sections (as separate pages), Vicky mainly uses her blog to add updates on her general PhD progress. Often she writes about this a very frank way – she’s not afraid to talk about her ‘fears’ and ‘moods’ and things going wrong with her lab work. Like many other academic bloggers she also uses the blog to promote her publication successes and to share her latest conference presentations.  She also uses it to talk about her creative public engagement work around science, including her comedy debut with the Bright Club (how brave is that!).

‘The Everyday Trials and Tribulations of a PhD Student…The ramblings of a madwoman who managed somehow to stumble onto a rather good PhD course…’

This one is by a researcher called Jayney who celebrated the completion of her PhD last year. I haven’t read enough of her blog to find out exactly what this research was about yet, but it was ESRC funded. Jayney used her blog to talk about her own PhD experience and the issues and problems of balancing this with family and social life (including having two children) since staring her PhD in 2008. She’s a really prolific blogger – 381 posts in 2012! Her posts are rather in a stream of consciousness model but full of generous experience sharing and constructive advice for other PhD students. She writes in detail about all the stages and aspects of her research, including the practicalities and experience of fieldwork abroad, her personal writing, reading and note taking methods, and the emotional journey of the PhD. This blog is one I may go back to, particularly for the advice Jayney offers on ways to work through writing problems and general motivation.

‘The bumpy joyride of being a PhD student’

This one’s written by Eljee Javier, a student on a Graduate Teaching / Research Assistant Scholarship at The University of Manchester. Her research explores the relationships between ‘language, race and identity’ in English language teaching. For me one of the most interesting features of Eljee’s blog is her series on her self-imposed ‘30 day challenges’. These include: ‘reading a different chapter or article every day for 30 days, where she gives a brief summary of what she’s read each day plus a reflection on what she’s thought / felt / achieved over each week; and ‘spend 15 minutes a day transcribing’ where in order to force herself to do this job she tracks her daily word and minute count, and days missed out, over the period of a month. Eljee seems really into the ‘challenge’ model, being an enthusiastic advocate for the Pomodoro technique and #ACRIMO, both of which I have also experimented with as motivational/productivity challenges.

‘Leisurely Seeking Doctorate

This blog is by an American mature student called Elizabeth who is currently doing a PhD in design research (?) at Northumbria University, here in Newcastle. Like me she is also a mature student – 60 when she started her PhD in 2012 – coming to academia from a former career as an information technology professional. She describes the focus of her current PhD research as: ‘the design of technology to support spiritual and numinous experiences, experiences of awe and wonder.’ (!) but the blog itself is more about her experiences of doing a PhD in the UK and of living/studying in Newcastle. Like Jayney she is a prolific blogger, writing multiple posts each month from starting her investigations into PhD study in 2011. There is a wide range of material here, from observations on academic language, to updates on supervisory meetings, comments about the North East weather, and practical advice for other Americans coming to live/study in the UK.

‘Digital nerdosaurus – adventures in and about museums, technology and awesome user experiences’

I came to this one last but actually this blog is the one that has most interest for me in terms of my own research interests. It’s written by Clairey Ross who is a Research assistant and PhD student at UCL’s Centre for Digital Humanities, investigating ‘visitor experience in digital cultural contexts.’ Her work has a special focus on public engagement with museum collections, including as her PhD case studies, UCL’s ‘QRater’ platform and the Imperial War Museum’s ‘Social Interpretation Project’. Clairey describes her blog as: ‘ponderings about my digital nerdosaurus adventures in and about museums, social media, digital humanities, tea and cake.’ It includes a regular and interesting stream of reports from museum visits, and conferences and workshops that Clairey’s attended / presented at. There is a great sense here of a being part of a creative community around this area of practice. For me, these posts (which go back to 2010) provide a really useful overview of recent museum digital engagement projects and research, that I may well return to as a reference.

Okay, so based on the blogs I’ve looked at, what have I learned from this brief review?

1) PhD bloggers are generally very ‘self-reflective’ and open about their PhD experiences, with a particular focus on the vagaries of the ‘PhD journey’.

2) Everyone writes in a very different style, sometimes changing this between post formats – some blogs/posts are obviously pretty carefully crafted while others are looser, much more casually written, some posts are self-consciously academic and others are more confessional, practical or deliberately humorous.

3) Some bloggers are full of enthusiasm for their PhD research topic, while others dwell more on the problems of work/study/life balance.

4) Some PhD-ers use their blogs as motivational tools or to log progress and successes, while others use them more as a repository for documenting research or engagement activity.

5) Some PhD-ers write to their blogs continuously and regularly, others much more sporadically.

Not earth shattering conclusions at all, you might say, but having done this bit of research/writing (and a new blog post achieved!) I now feel at least a bit more a member of some kind of wider blogging world.

Note: The title for this post comes from one of the ‘Blogging the PhD’ posts, entitled ‘Procrastination!’, where Vicky Young describes blogging as a form of ‘productive-procrastination or pseudo-progress’: a warning for all PhD bloggers and something I need to be mindful about myself over the coming year.

Questions: Does writing a blog about your PhD experience help or hinder the thesis writing process? Does it help academic development in other ways perhaps? What do you think? Is there anyone out there who has done some real work researching the ‘PhD blog’ as a genre of academic blogging and who may offer some answers?

Hidden Collections (2) and PhD update

As I’m sure any subscribers will have noticed, an update to this PhD blog is well overdue. So if I haven’t been blogging, what have I been up to since my last post – ‘Spring Cleaning with DEVONthink’ – back in April?

Well, two things have kept me busy. Firstly the ‘Hidden Collections’ project, which entered an intensive proposal development phase in April-May. Our project proposal, the ‘Basic Design Summer School 2013’ has now been formally submitted to Tate and is awaiting further feedback from the Tate Research team. An update on the project, an outline of our Image Group proposal and my reflections on learning achieved so far provided the topic for my presentation to the recent ICCHS Postgraduate Research Conference (29 May):

Abstract: How can digital media be used to stimulate public engagement with archival material held by galleries, museums and other cultural institutions? This is the question posed by Hidden Collections, an AHRC funded collaborative research project running from October last year to July 2013. As a member of the Image Group, one of five interdisciplinary research teams involved in Hidden Collections, I worked with our project partner Tate to develop a social media strategy for a new temporary exhibition called ‘Basic Design’, which is on display at Tate Britain until 25 September.  Developed by Tate Research the exhibition explores an influential period in British art school education during the late 1950s – early 60s. It draws on collections and archive material held by Tate and the National Art Education Archive. This presentation introduces our brief for the Basic Design project and outlines our project plan and activity to date. I conclude the presentation by reflecting on my own learning from the project, drawing out areas of investigation relevant to my PhD research into the Newcastle-Gateshead ‘public art collection’.

More recently, and to some extent influenced by my involvement in the ‘Basic Design’ Hidden Collections project, I’ve been working on a pilot project developed in association with Gateshead Council’s ‘Angel15’ programme. This is a series of events set up by the council’s public art team to celebrate the 15th ‘birthday’ of The Angel of the North (Antony Gormley, 1998) delivered as part of the region-wide Festival of the North East (June 2013).

While including a special on-site ‘birthday’ event at The Angel (which took place on 16 July), the programme also highlights lesser-known public works within Gateshead. Compared to the bigger and better funded 10th birthday celebrations this is a fairly low-key series of activities, including walks, curator and artist talks, live music and hands-on art workshops designed for a family and general interest audience. As such ‘Angel15’ goes beyond what Gateshead Council normally provides in terms of public art engagement and interpretation activity.

In terms of my PhD research the programme provides a useful opportunity for me to observe public art interpretation and audience engagement in action in Gateshead and offers a platform for me to experiment with social media – in this case Twitter – as a potential interpretative tool for a public art ‘collection’. To this end I have set up a new Twitter account @PublicArtNG (new Followers welcome!) which I am using to post daily tweets about public artworks in Newcastle Gateshead, linking these in with the interpretive themes and activities promoted by the council’s public art team. This project, linked through the hashtag ‘#Angel15’, is on-going through June-July. I’ll be posting a further update on this here early next month.

Spring cleaning with DEVONthink

This past couple of weeks I’ve been busy reworking my research questions and rationale for my study, and redrafting my thesis plan in preparation for the forthcoming Annual Progress Review. (How can it be that time of year again already?)

Consequently I’m now in spring-cleaning mode, with the urge to really get organised with my research files. And to be honest to actually find out what’s really inside them. I seem to have all sorts of useful, but now forgotten research material, half written texts, references, downloaded pdfs, etc, squirreled away on my desktop.

Since this time last year Mendeley has become an essential organisational tool for my growing research library but I’ve found the system I’ve set for for note taking on my reading – first using Mendeley’s annoyingly cramped notes panel then transferring longer summaries and commentaries to Word – is now overly cumbersome. Although I do like the idea that my notes are linked so clearly with my sources.

I’ve had copy of DEVONthink (DT to me) in my desktop for some months now, recommended to me by another student in the faculty research training sessions, but haven’t really dared to use it. I’ve tentatively dropped in a few pdfs and bookmarks but that’s been all. I’ve found its layout rather daunting up until now, afraid that if I put something in there I’ll never find it again. And the manual is just too detailed for a beginner like me. I didn’t know where to start!

But, thanks to a really helpful series of blog posts by history researcher Rachel Leow, that I read in bed the other night (sad Phd-er that I’ve become) I’ve decided to have another go with DT – taking the opportunity to clear out my current desktop folders, and really see what’s in there. Both to review what have I been doing over the last year and hopefully to set up a more workable and productive structure that I can work with from this point on.

Following Rachel’s advice to keep materials in small focused groups I’ve started by setting up a series of nested folders (Groups in DT). They currently look like this:


I’ll probably tinker with this system, as it gets more populated, but for now it seems to be making sense. I’ll post on this again at some point to reflect on how this is working.

Meanwhile I’d be interested to hear from fellow PhD-ers and researchers about your working practices with DT or other organisational systems for managing research materials, brilliant random thoughts, draft writing, fieldnotes, etc.

And thanks again to Rachel Leow for giving me confidence to get going with DT.

Hidden Collections (1)

This post announces the start of a new collaborative research project that I will be working on during the Spring/Summer with Tate Britain. This project is part of the ‘Hidden Collections – From Archive to Asset’ programme, funded through the AHRC’s Digital Transformations theme.

Launched in October last year, the Hidden Collections programme has developed through a series of six interdisciplinary workshops investigating issues within archival digitisation and exploring the potential of digital platforms as routes for public engagement with these ‘hidden collections’.

Looking at digital opportunity in the specific context of archaeological artefacts, theatre performance and visual images, the workshops I’ve attended have been a great opportunity to meet with and hear from arts and humanities scholars from a wide range of disciplines and specialisms. Together we’ve considered the philosophy of the archive, and looked at and discussed a whole range of digital approaches and tools, from 3D scanning, to interactive touchscreens, online databases, crowdsourcing projects and social media.

These discussions were brought together earlier this month in an intensive two-day residential in Nottingham. Here the various project teams began work on planning the live projects that we will be delivering with our external partners. For the Image group, a small interdisciplinary team including myself and four other PhD researchers from Leicester, Birmingham and Cambridge universities, our project partner is Tate Research. Over the next few months we will be working with Helen Griffiths, from the Research Team, to develop and trial a new social media strategy for the Tate Britain exhibition ‘Basic Design’. Developed through Tate Research’s ‘Art School Educated’ project, the exhibition opens at Tate Britain at the end of March and runs through until September.

Interestingly, in relation to my own research on public art in NewcastleGateshead, the ‘Basic Design’ exhibition has a specific link to Newcastle University, through the influence of Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton’s teaching in the Fine Art department here. On a more personal level, the subject of the Art School Educated project, examining the evolution of British art school education, also resonates with my own background as an art student during the 1970s-80s.

The Image group will be visiting Tate Britain in April to visit the exhibition and to finalise our project plan with the Tate team. I will be posting updates on this blog as the project develops.

Public art discourse: audiences

The Angel of the North after heavy snowfall

A series of black and white images of ‘The Angel of the North’ in the winter snow captured by photographer Owen Humphreys, and widely published in the UK press and media over the last few days, seem to have inspired a surge of ‘Angel of the North’ related Tweets.

I thought it would interesting and timely to Storify some of these here, to evidence some of the different ways in which people are using Twitter to disseminate their personal engagement with ‘The Angel of the North’ (Antony Gormley, 1998).

For now this is just meant to provide a kind of online storage space for a sample of this material and an initial indication of possible themes for fuller and more formal exploration later. It’s also a bit of a personal experiment for me in using Twitter, Storify and social media more generally as a resource for data collection and analysis within my PhD research.

Many of these recent Tweets are linked to images. These seem to fall into three basic categories: (1.) A large proportion consisted of links to and retweets of the Owen Humphrey’s photos published in The Guardian, The Independent, the BBC website and elsewhere. (2.) Original photos recording visitors’ own recent snowy experiences of ‘up-close’ visits to the sculpture. (3.) What could be called ‘drive-past’ or landmark shots – a glimpse or view of ‘The Angel of the North’, clearly captured from a moving car. Several of these images are accompanied by messages or hashtags linking these ‘sightings’ to notions of ‘arrival’.

Text-based tweets reflect a range of other personal responses and allusions. These might be grouped as: (1.) Those that reference ‘The Angel of the North’ as a physical location or progress marker. (2.) Those that offer emotional responses, opinions, ‘facts’ or imaginative speculations about the sculpture. (3.) Tweets that link ‘The Angel of the North’ with wider public art discussions. (4.) Tweets that appear to use the title ‘Angel of the North’ as a phrase to describe someone or something else other than Antony Gormley’s sculpture.


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