Lucie Whitmore is just heading into the final year of her SGSAH funded PhD at the University of Glasgow, interpreting women’s experiences of the 1914-1918 war through the clothes they wore. She is a costume intern at the Museum of Edinburgh, and previously worked as a research assistant on a historical embroidery project at Edinburgh College of Art. Her PhD support comes in part from her crazy Cairn Terrier, Birdie.
There are certain buzzwords (and buzz phrases) that arts & humanities PhD students come to be very familiar with. They appear on our annual assessment forms, in funding applications, conference outlines and project goals. Two of the most commonly used are ‘research impact’ and ‘public engagement’. There is a very good reason for the prevalence of these words; our research has to have implications outside of our universities. But this does not necessarily make it any easier to integrate these concepts into our daily practice. In this blog post, I will describe how I have come to define these terms within my PhD research, and how I presented my ‘research impact’ at the SGSAH Summer Showcase last month.
My PhD subject is women’s fashion in the First World War, with a focus on storytelling and museum practice. I am lucky that my subject is quite appealing to quite a lot of people outside of academia, and so in some cases ‘public engagement’ is relatively simple. However this is not always the case. Last week a plumber came round to my flat to replace our kitchen tap. When he asked what I studied he appeared visibly stressed at the answer. In his words: ‘It’d be fine if it was neuroscience or something – I’d think of a question for you. But I’ve got nothing.’
I know that lots of people think of fashion as frivolous, female, and even shallow. So I set my own personal ‘public engagement’ goal at the start of this project: I wanted to convince people, particularly the kind that would walk straight past a dress display in a museum, that there are stories and histories hidden in dress with significant cultural, social and historical impact. In the words of Dominique Veillon:
‘Fashion is an expression of every aspect of life; it is a way of existing and behaving, and is, in fact, an observation point from which to view the political, economic and cultural environment of an historical period.’
I passionately believe that these stories can be interesting and relevant to lots of people, not just fashion-conscious women. So as well as doing good and thorough research, I believe that finding the correct methods for displaying and interpreting objects are fundamental to achieving this goal. This is something that I have been exploring over the last year, particularly as a part of the internship* I have been doing with the costume collection at the Museum of Edinburgh.
When I saw the call to apply for the SGSAH Summer Showcase, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to try out my public engagement / research impact material on a different audience. I could get some feedback on what I’d been doing, and share a project that seemed to have gone down well in the museum. In brief, the project was called ‘War Frocks, Unlocked’, and the idea was to find different ways to interpret WW1 fashion to make it as engaging as possible for museum visitors. The event was put together in collaboration with one of the curators at the Museum of Edinburgh, and we ran it as a series of four visitor events last November.
My stand at the showcase featured a scaled down version of the museum event, with the added benefit of a couple of posters outlining my research in general and some feedback from the original event. I took three WW1 era garments from the museum collection, and showed three different interpretation methods for each object, These took the form of an entirely visual moodboard (no accompanying text), an ‘audio story’ and a traditional museum label. Without a doubt the method that most interested people were the audio stories, and they certainly seemed to get people talking about the objects both at the museum event and the showcase, which was the reaction I had hoped for. The audio stories were like fictional oral histories; I wrote entirely probable background stories for each garment, based completely on my academic research, and had friends record these short narratives in character. These were played though Mp3 players and headsets and could be listened to while observing the garment, without the pressure to read a label.
I am lucky that this project quite obviously has a ‘public facing’ outcome and visual appeal, so I feel that it was relatively easy to demonstrate my research impact at the SGSAH showcase. That is, I managed to get lots of people to look and listen and chat about my subject. There is so much pressure on PhD students to constantly prove the worthiness of our work (for good reason when generous organisations such as the AHRC are funding us to do this on a day-to-day basis). I would definitely encourage other PhD students to participate in events such as the SGSAH showcase, or maybe poster sessions at conferences or public lectures. It can be challenging translating your research visually, or for audiences outside of academia, but it can also help you to find out the scope of your research impact in the ‘real world’. My research is not going to change lives, but bringing past worlds to life is important too, and I love convincing other people that fashion is an excellent way to achieve this.
*Also funded by SGSAH, thanks dudes.
You can follow Lucie on Twitter @luciewhitmore, and keep up to date with all the latest SGSAH news and opportunities @SGSAH_. If you’d like to contribute a guest post, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. Email firstname.lastname@example.org with any ideas or inquiries.