Curating an exhibition as part of a PhD project – a steep learning curve

This guest blog comes from Andrea Freund, an SGSAH-funded PhD student in her third year at the Institute for Northern Studies, UHI, in Orkney. Her project looks at questions of runic writing and identity and is a collaboration with Orkney Museum. You can read more about her research in her blog: orkneyrunes.wordpress.com.

My PhD is funded through an Applied Research Collaborative Studentship (ARCS) by SGSAH, which means it has a non-academic, applied part within the project. In my case, this was a temporary exhibition on runes for Orkney Museum, showcasing some of my results and runic objects that are not normally on display together.

Now the exhibition is over, and the visitor numbers (almost double the numbers the museum had in the previous month), the visitor feedback and the media reception were very positive. Only now, I also have time to reflect how this practical project has shaped and contributed to my PhD journey. Its effect was certainly larger than I had expected when the funding application proposing a temporary exhibition went in. It is an experience I would not want to miss, and besides the obvious, as something that looks very good on a CV, I have developed a lot as a person and researcher and it has given me a real confidence boost.

Exhibition room

The finished exhibition room, just before opening

On the whole, I went through a steep learning curve in coming up with a concept for the exhibition, preparing and advertising it, and then accompanying it with some events. Thinking through how to present my work to the general public forced me to reflect on how to phrase my results in an accessible way and distil what my main findings really were. It also made me realise in how many ways my research may be misunderstood by a non-specialist audience, and what I could do to avoid misinterpretations.

In many instances, I had to think outside the academic box for the exhibition. In designing the displays, I had to balance getting information from my research across with making them visually appealing, entertaining, readable and sometimes also a bit of fun. Most of the exhibition was targeted at adult visitors, but as there are many families coming to the museum, I felt it was also important to have a children’s activity. In addition, runes are an intrinsic part of Orcadian heritage and many Orcadians have extensive background knowledge about local history and archaeology, but tourists are also frequenting the museum, so for the exhibition, it was important to get the level of information accompanying the displays right in order to appeal to both locals and tourists alike. In many ways, preparing the exhibition was an education in compromise-making and balancing different requirements.

A big issue in preparations was scheduling and organising my time to meet all deadlines. Juggling my thesis with exhibition commitments was not always easy, and it could have been chaos without a lot of detailed to-do-list-keeping and my trusted pocket diary. In a full-time PhD, you have deadlines, too, but often they are a bit more flexible, whereas for instance printing of exhibition materials needs to be done to a strict deadline or else you simply have no posters in your exhibition. However, as my exhibition formed part of my ARCS project, working on it did not stop the clock for my PhD, so I had to try and keep working on chapters, too. As a result, for a few weeks, I was both extremely stressed and falling behind with my thesis writing. In hindsight, it would have been better to schedule some more time of working exclusively on the exhibition and not try (and fail) to do two things parallelly.

We are always seeking new guest bloggers! If you have an idea for a blog post or would like to informally discuss writing for the SGSAH blog please get in touch with Lizzie via email at egm9@st-andrews.ac.uk or connect with the blog on Twitter

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