Research visits: a lesson in flexibility and resilience

Every PhD journey is unique. In the coming and borrowed lines, I would like to share my experience with research trips and how flexibility and resilience have been key to adapting and developing this core part of my research plan.

Broadly speaking, my investigation revolves around the stories of donors of fashion (or garments) collections located in different museums across Europe. The timing of the start of my PhD meant that these chosen collections (which make up my case studies) were one of the first things that underwent changes and adaptation. The initial collections in my proposal reflected the pandemic-related (potential) travel restrictions, which now are (hopefully) just a thing of the past.

Continuing with a little digression, the changing nature of a research project is something that we learn to live with – it makes us flexible, resilient, and creative. There is always a plan B, or even a plan X to continue. As I mentioned, the collections I aimed to investigate were first adapted to accommodate pandemic-related travel disruptions. Rather than branching out internationally, I proposed alternative collections which were more local. For me, this meant that they were either close to Edinburgh or located in Spain, my home country, which seemed more accessible to me during that pandemic.

Photo by Anna Shvets on

The lift of the travel restrictions which coincided with one of my first meetings with my supervisory team resulted in a change of chosen collections to investigate. In that meeting, I showcased different alternatives to consider, and between these options were the first collections I have thought of before even starting my PhD and the later amended collections which were more accessible. It was then, that one of my supervisors reminded me that I needed to choose the ones I felt passionate about and that resonated with my research. These case studies were going to accompany me on this journey, and I had to be honest with myself in the decision. In the end, I was able to opt for more international collections which seemed once again feasible in light of more hopeful and open international travel developments.

With the collections selected, I started to plan my ‘data collection’ which involves examining the collections and interviewing people related to them, from (ideally) the donors, to museum personnel or university professors that have some relation to these collections.

My first research trip happened in an earlier stage of my PhD than I had initially planned. Yet again, the PhD path is as unique as our investigations themselves and there is no right or wrong here. The timing of this visit was ultimately tied to the funding that enabled it. Originally, I applied for funding through an exchange program with the intention to undertake my research abroad between May and August once my first annual review was all done. But I was not one of the lucky projects to get selected. For this reason, I needed to find alternative ways to fund my trip, and this resulted in getting the last batches of Erasmus+ funding (Brexit consequences). This however meant that the trip needed to be done before May 2022, since the Erasmus funding was expiring after this date. 

(Röhsska Museet, Goteborg (Sweden) photo taken by Alba Sanz Álvarez)

Once again, I needed to re-plan and clear up my schedule to undertake my visit in spring. The silver lining was that the contacts I had made already for my initial funding application were still interested in my work and moved forward in being my host organisation despite of the logistic changes. This helped accelerate my planning: Within a month the project was good to go and I was on my way to Sweden to be welcomed at Goteborg University. I developed my research with different visits and interviews at Röhsska Museet where my first case study, the collection of Tonie Lewenhaupt, resides. This first research visit was quite a long stay – overall I spent two and a half months in Sweden. The length of the stay allowed me to be flexible, accommodate the dates for the meetings needed with less stress, and familiarise myself with the new surroundings, new places to work, and new routines. I was able to meet with already existing contacts as well as newly made ones (introduced by my supervisors), which enriched the experience and expanded my network.

In contrast, the duration of my second research trip, the one I just arrived from a few days ago, was not even two weeks long. The difference in duration of this second visit made the planning and approach to the visit completely different in comparison to the first one. I was able to make the most of this short stay by scheduling a couple of pre-meetings online with key contacts in which some dates and in-person meetings were foreseen. Before arriving there everything felt more settled and secure. However, this is a bumpy ride and some last-minute vicissitudes happened giving rise to some doubts about whether the goals of the visit would be reached. Nevertheless, being able to meet another collection’s donor on this last visit, made me reflect on how lucky I am to have this opportunity. I also felt hugely grateful that the donor could share so much of her life with me, and this made it all worth the doubts and stress I felt initially. At the end of the day, you are reminded of your purpose, which is hard to keep in mind when going through so many changes and bureaucracy along the way.

(Library MoMu, Antwerp (Belgium); photo taken by Alba Sanz Álvarez)

Every PhD is unique, as well as each research visit or fieldwork. From initial thought to the reality of conducting the research (trips), different factors intervened and made it possible. I would like to share a few tips that I learned along the way and that you should try to remember when embarking on these visits: 

  • Always be flexible
  • Allow room for improvisation
  • Don’t be too hard on yourself

Ah! Another thing, paperwork gets easier with practice! (Also, always keep the purpose of your research visit in mind).

The key message here is that the amount of time and effort invested in the research visits makes your project grow. Moreover, you grow as an independent researcher by developing different skills and by creating new collaborations, besides exposing yourself to and engaging with different environments.

Alba Sanz Álvarez is a 2nd year PhD researcher in Design at The University of Edinburgh. Her PhD working title is “Donors’ Traces: From Garment to Museum”. This project revolves around the presence and absence of stories from the donors of these fashion or garments collections once the objects are in their new institutional homes under the interdisciplinary guidance of her supervisory team with Juliette Macdonald, Frances Fowle, and Christopher Breward.

Alba holds two masters from Stockholm University in Fashion Studies and Fashion Communication and Marketing, as well as professional experience working in the Swedish high-end fashion brand Acne Studios.

She is currently a tutor in Art History at ECA (The University of Edinburgh) and is a Conference and Events manager for the Association of Dress Historians.

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