The Stuff of Research: Being disruptive in the museum

Our post today comes from Rhona Ramsay, a museum professional with a background in community engagement and learning. Her PhD research builds on projects which brought Gypsy/Travellers into museums to engage with examples of their cultural heritage.  The aims of her research are to uncover the presence of Gypsy/Traveller objects and agency within Scottish museums, to examine the value of this presence, and to discuss possible models for ongoing Gypsy/Traveller agency and representation within museums. 


This year SGSAH has piloted The Stuff of Research, a programme for research postgraduates engaging with material culture.  I have been lucky enough to have attended the varied sessions, from master classes to object handling, and from presentations to archive tours, which have made up the main body of the programme. Although all the sessions have been useful, engaging and informative in different ways, for me – and I’m sure for at least a few others too – the standout session this February was Performing Matter: Objecting Stuff.  This was a session full of mischief presented by the highly energetic Dr Zoe Laughlin, of the Institute of Making, University College London (UCL).

Dr Zoe Laughlin

Dr Zoe Laughlin, co-founder/director of the Institute of Making and the Materials Library, UCL Image courtesy of the Institute of Making. 

During the session it was hard not to be swept along as Dr Laughlin played the part of the disruptive pupil: throwing things, applying a blowtorch to objects (in a museum!), and recounting how she invented stuff to impress boys.  It was a lot of fun.  But it has also been very thought provoking – and in particular this has got me thinking about being disruptive.  The Oxford English Dictionary offers two different definitions of disruption and some related synonyms for each:

  1. Causing or tending to cause disruption

Synonyms: troublemaking, troublesome, unruly, rowdy, disorderly, undisciplined, attention-seeking, riotous, wild, turbulent

  1. Innovative or groundbreaking

Synonyms: innovative, inventive, ingenious, original, innovational, new, novel, fresh, unconventional, unorthodox, off-centre, unusual, unfamiliar, unprecedented, avant-garde, experimental

While Dr Laughlan had initially come across as a perfect fit for the first definition (down to stories of attention-seeking behaviour with some magic see-through concrete), it’s clear that she works in an innovative way, making the everyday unfamiliar in order to offer fresh ways of looking.  She is disruptive in an inventive way.  During her presentation / performance she spoke about the way that objects are ordered within the Institute of Making at UCL.  Unlike in a museum there is not a set place for things.  The collection of materials and objects there are allowed to move around and are encouraged to converse with each other. Categories and boundaries have been broken down.  As someone from a museum background, currently researching museum collections, this was a very helpful disruption to ways of working and ordering that are often taken for granted within museums.  I am looking forward to observing how a bit of disruption to the collections I work with might offer up fresh ideas and new ways of seeing.

Materials Library

The Materials Library, the Institute of Making, UCL. Image courtesy the Institute of Making.

And more widely, I have got to thinking about disruption as part of what we are all aiming at as research postgraduates – we’re doing innovative, inventive, original work, often looking at things in a new, unusual or unfamiliar way.  I’m enjoying thinking about my research in this way and looking forward to getting on with a bit of disrupting!

This is the first of two posts reflecting on the SGSAH ‘Stuff of Research’ programme. Look out for part two tomorrow! If you have attended a conference, workshop or event and would like to share your experience, you can check out the SGSAH blog submission guidelines and contact details here

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