The academic in the museum: the benefits of Collaborative Doctoral Awards

York Minster. Caption reads "York, See Britain by Train"
British Railways poster “York: Gateway to History” by E. H. Spencer, 1955

Sophie Vohra is a CDA student at the University of York in collaboration with the National Railway Museum. Her research examines the commemorative cultures and making of railway history. 

At the beginning of this year I started my Collaborative Doctoral Award (CDA), with one of my main goals being to use the skills and knowledge I acquire through this process to further my prospects in the heritage sector. Moving through my stages of higher education, I have increasingly become a strong advocate for disseminating the historical knowledge generated in institutions of higher education for public consumption, i.e. public history. Therefore carrying out a doctorate that would bridge the resources and knowledge of the University of York and the National Railway Museum for a topic I had almost accidentally fallen into loving – commemorative practice – seemed silly to pass up sending an application in for. Drawing on my experiences so far, I’m going to discuss what these CDAs bring to the parties involved (the university, the partnered institution and the student) and how this relationship is an important and enhancing process for knowledge development and exchange.

According to their Scheme Guidance document, the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the funder of the scheme, wants CDAs to allow students to “gain first hand professional experience outside the university environment“. As such the programme should give students “real opportunities to develop career enhancing skills in addition to an academic qualification“. I have had the opportunity to actively take part in tasks around the museum, such as pest-checking railway carriages with the conservation team, and attending meetings where decisions are made about what is carried out and why, including what objects come in and are loaned out of the National Railway Museum’s collections. This is important because I can dip my toes into various aspects of working in a museum without having to commit fully to an area I may not find is my niche.

Furthermore, one of the key aspects of the partnership is that the student has the resources, support and guidance of their university alongside the cultural heritage partner. I am able to use and learn from the expertise of those within the university to increase my skills as an academic. This includes various elements of developing my thesis such as research techniques, structuring and writing styles. This relationship is also important for forging a career in academia with opportunities including teaching undergraduate students, training sessions on getting my work published, and various occasions to deliver papers for academic audiences. Additionally, many of the academics at York are actively engaged with projects that utilise their research both within and outside the university, for example consulting for both factual and fictional television and film.

Crucially, these partnerships are also very important for the institutions the students are bridging. The AHRC highlights that they want partnerships that exist to be solidified and new ones to be formed through this experience. Though I can only comment from a student’s point of view, I believe that these links mean that knowledge exchange can take place between groups that may not have otherwise come together or may not have found an innovative way of pooling their resources. The CDA may also allow for the opportunity to nourish students to assist in developing new and exciting research and skills for the benefit of both partners. Finally these links could then branch out to other institutions. For example, both the Universityof York and the National Railway Museum have links with other universities and railway museums in Europe. This could allow for partnerships that bring four institutions together or potentially a crossover of links such as between the University and the European railway museum.

But it has to be remembered that not every CDA works as is intended. One aspect of this partnership that did not come to mind initially when I applied was how much of the timetable should be allotted to contributing to museum projects alongside the thesis. In opening conversations with fellow CDA students from all years across the country, one of the first topics that quickly crops up are horror stories of how other students were over-employed by their partnered intuitions, being swept up by cataloguing projects, and when the clock struck twelve on the funding at the end of the three years, they still had not completed writing up the thing they ultimately had set out to do – their thesis! This does not suggest a healthy partnership between the the student’s university and the institution, nor between the student and their supervisors. In fact, the AHRC states quite firmly that “applications which appear to be requesting interns will not be considered favourably“. However, I have found that this overload can be combatted by ensuring that the research that is being carried out for the thesis already has a benefit for the cultural heritage institution as well. This ultimately has to come in the planning stages of the application summited by the university and in this case the museum. My research will hopefully be used to inform part of an exhibition and I will also be actively engaged in the exhibition planning. Therefore, aside from the experiences I am encouraged to or I ask to do in the museum, my research already has an output that benefits myself, the university, and importantly the partnered institution.

Overall I believe CDAs are important for a number of reasons: they allow students to develop essential experience over an extended period of time for their professional and academic development; it means that academic research in universities can be translated for public consumption, where the researcher can be actively involved in how this is carried out; they allow strong partnerships to develop and solidify between universities and cultural institutions for essential research to be carried out in future; finally they encourage symbiotic relationships between these institutions to become the norm where research coming out of universities can be used for the enhancement of the public’s education outside of places of formal learning. I therefore hope that the number of CDAs can increase for the benefit of universities, their students, the cultural heritage partners and, most importantly for me, for the general public.

How do we find Common Ground?

Exterior of the Ron Cooke Hub.
Ron Cooke Hub. Venue for Common Ground

Andrew Lewis is a research associate at the University of York, with expertise in cuneiform reconstruction, 3D printing and scanning and digital heritage.

Multidisciplinary interaction has been a key factor in the advancement of many fields throughout academia and enterprise.  These cross disciplinary relationships are symbiotic – offering benefits to all involved. For the heritage community, the opportunity for community engagement, novel interaction, and unique methods of visualisation are just a small subsection of the advantages that collaboration can afford. New techniques, new standards of practice, new technologies and tools, and new avenues of research are all born from the crucible of interdisciplinary cooperation.

The AHRC Commons event (being held on the 21st June 2016, 10am-6pm, at the Ron Cooke Hub, of the University of York) aims to celebrate this synergistic approach to research, with all members of the AHRC Commons community invited to take part. The ARHC Commons is an inclusive community, bringing together universities, creative economy, the cultural, health, and third sectors, micro businesses, SMEs, corporations, community groups, and more. There are no membership fees to pay, and individuals or groups at any career stage, from any sector or discipline are welcome to register and attend here.

As one of the zone co-leads for this event, I can tell you that the event promises to be far more than an just an ordinary conference. There will be hackspaces, wet-work rooms, lectures, debates, and demonstrations on a huge range of multidisciplinary projects spread over nine zones. The diversity of these conference zones is a marker of the inclusive scope of the AHRC Commons. The celebrate zone focusses on entertainment and performances. Stand-up comedy, poetry, storytelling, music, drama and other performances about ‘common’ experience are all presented here. In the Co-create zone, participants are focussed on conducting research through practice, collaborative arts, and fostering accessibility through analogue and digital pathways. This includes live arts and crafts, demonstrations, taster sessions, and exploration of the arts and humanities in any artistic form. The Stimulate zone takes a more traditional approach, with high profile and provocative speakers exploring the challenges and opportunities faced in all subjects related to the arts and humanities. In the Innovate zone, you will find hackathons and 360 degree digital screenings, with workshops on embracing the digital aspects of social media, and showcases of the equipment found in a modern makerspace.

Each zone at the Common ground will have a unique feel, but the underlying intention for all zones will be those of collaboration, cooperation, the dissemination of good practice in research, and public engagement. I strongly recommend attending what promises to be a ground breaking event.

You can book to attend the AHRC Common Ground event directly via Eventbrite. There are a limited number of tickets available, so book early to avoid missing out on what seems likely to be one of the most diverse and interesting academic events that you will ever attend.