What are you researching?

30 Dec


This is the dreaded question that I can’t seem to answer very clearly. How can I explain my project in a way that friends might understand and be interested in, when I can’t quite get my own head around the chaotic ‘thing’ that is my PhD?

I’m not improving much with practice, but nevertheless let me have another go:

Perhaps I should begin with myself. I don’t remember a time before the plan to work in museums. I indulged my obsession with all things Medieval at Manchester University, and then took an MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies to find that dream job that I knew would be waiting for me. That was when the plan went a little awry.

I was very lucky to get a job as a Mansion Conservation Assistant at Tatton Park in Knutsford, Cheshire. I remember visiting Tatton just after I moved to Manchester and I said to my boyfriend ‘I will work here one day’ and I felt strangely calm in the interview. I think it was meant to be! The draw back was that it was only part time. It turns out jobs in the heritage industry are rather tricky to come by (understatement of the century!). However, I loved the job (and still do!) for the amazing variety of the collections I got to care for. I was instantly drawn to the Maurice Egerton Collection, which consists of over 1000 objects of natural history, ethnography, archaeology and geology collected by the Last Baron Egerton on his travels around the world. I’d researched the implications of displaying and interpreting taxidermy and objects of ethnography during my MA and was soon in my element learning about Maurice’s collecting trips, caring for the collection and sharing it with the public.

Egeron Collection

Then came my epiphany moment- I’d always thought I might like to do a PhD in the future by finding a topic from my place of work. Although I had thought I would work in a secure full time job for a few years before going back to research, I realised that I was already in the right position having found this unique collection that I loved working with. I could imagine myself being very happy leafing through records and documentation to recreate a romatic past through paper and pen (or laptop!). As I hadn’t been able to get a full time job, perhaps I would have more luck getting PhD funding.

My mind was made up for me when I had a job interview for an amazing job and an interview for a PhD studentship the very next day. I didn’t get the job, but got the funding, so fate had decided for me, and I’m very much a believer in the right thing happening at the right time.

I started at Manchester Metropolitan University in September 2012, and tried to pin down my concept in a research proposal. Everybody tells you that your ideas will change as you go along in the three years, and that you start out planning to write one thing but can end up producing something completely different as your focus changes or you find obstacles or better paths to explore. Already I’ve found that my idea is much too big to be a PhD and I’ve agonised over whittling it down to the elements that most interest me.

I would have loved to have written a complete biography of the collection from acquisition to present day. Now I am planning to cover the story of the collection and its relationship with Maurice during their lifetime together. Collection or object biographies is a concept that I came across during my MA, and they attempt to trace the lifecycle of objects by considering changes in their status and careers over time. My collection biography will uncover evidence about collecting practices, the relationships between collector and collection and the connotations of display in a private home. Private collections have received less scrutiny than museum collections, often owing to lack of awareness or documentation, or due to the fact that they often end up in museum possession and research into their prior existence is not required or encouraged. This biography will be unusual in the fact that it will consider the representations of identity of the collection and collector in parallel. This will all be made possible through the interpretation of Maurice’s diaries, which provide a fascinating primary source of his collecting in practice, and his object labels, which reveal his interpretation of the objects he exhibited.

Well, it’s taken me 700 words to answer that question, and I could easily write another few thousand about the nature of the collection and how excited I am that I get to study it.

I’m hoping that I can really get my teeth into it in this New Year after a bit of a stumbling start of being stuck in the library reading and reading for a literature review that I didn’t want to write! (And still haven’t finished to tell the truth- eeek!) I’m aiming for a new start where I can manage my time a bit better, cut down on procrastination and get more involved in the research community. I still have a lot of reading to go, but I’m hoping to balance it out with some exciting primary research, or start an article as a side project. I’m hoping to discuss a new way to go with my supervisors to really get myself feeling like I’m back on track after a rather lazy Christmas time.

This blog is one of my attempts to keep my thoughts in order and share my progress and thoughts in general about life as a PhD student. I’m a bit of a techno-phobe, so I’m hoping that this will help me improve in that direction. Please get in touch with me if you have any comments, questions or suggestions, all will be most welcome!

Signing off for now after a bit of an epic first post. I promise to keep them brief in future!
Happy New Year


6 Responses to “What are you researching?”

  1. Clive Reeves December 30, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

    Sounds like a great place to work. Good luck for 2013!

  2. Helen Elizabeth Page December 30, 2012 at 8:09 pm #

    “I would have loved to have written a complete biography of the collection from acquisition to present day.” – maybe you could, just because it’s not appropriate for your PhD doesn’t mean that you couldn’t continue to write it afterwards. It sounds like you have the passion and the motivation to write a whole book on the subject!

    • sarahandherphd December 31, 2012 at 11:31 am #

      Thanks Helen, I will have to see if I am still so enthusiastic after 3 years! But I would like to take it further and adapt it into a book or catalogue

  3. Mike December 30, 2012 at 8:55 pm #

    very good post. well done Sarah, we are all backing you.

  4. Lizzy H-Cox December 30, 2012 at 10:35 pm #

    Hey Sarah, Lizzy here from Medieval Studies (RIP)! Congrats on the funding! Your project sounds really interesting, there is a girl at York Uni doing a similar PhD on the collection of William Burrell (of the Burrell Collection in Glasgow), concentrating on his stained glass collecting. http://www.york.ac.uk/history-of-art/research/students/ She is one year in, might be worth contacting her?

    • sarahandherphd December 31, 2012 at 11:34 am #

      Hi Lizzie, thanks for reading! I will look into that other PhD, and will look out for any other collection projects. Hope everything is well with your family and your stained glass

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