Monthly Archives: January 2014

Timelines – onto ‘the conveyor belt of history’?

Sara Fanelli's timeline at Tate Modern. Source:

Sara Fanelli’s timeline at Tate Modern. Source:

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 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.


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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: (Accessed: 08.01.14).

Glavic, J. (2013) ‘Reflection vs. Collection’, Museum Minute, 11 December. Available at: (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: (Accessed: 08.01.14).

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‘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?


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