Harriet Parry reflects on a training event for PhD students on the subject of turning research into exhibitions.
Head-down and up to your eyeballs in a research project, it is easy to lose focus of a key scholarly requirement. As well as furthering knowledge in your chosen field, it is also important to share that knowledge beyond the academic bubble. Therefore, the Techne / Centre for Design History one day workshop in November 2019 – ‘Displaying your Research: Pitching Exhibitions to Cultural Organisations’ – was a timely and enlightening opportunity to think not only about what and who to exhibit with, but also to think in new ways about how to connect with diverse audiences.
Through presentations made by academics and curators, whose experience of exhibition included formal display as well as active co-creation and ongoing evolution of community access, these always collaborative projects highlighted the pragmatics and the politics of displaying research. What happens to research when it moves from the printed page to the votive power of the display cabinet? Who owns the work that is displayed? Who is it for and how do they know it is for them? Can collaboration through exhibition create connections that would not otherwise be made? And what can an exhibition generate that a thesis on a book case can never achieve?
As organiser Dr. Claire Wintle outlined, working collaboratively with an institution to create an exhibit can be slow and may cause creative conflict. If, in its essence, it is the right piece of research pitched to the right organisation, it can also provide a constellation of benefits. According to the curatorial and research professionals speaking on the day, identifying how your work relates to the organisation selected is the primary requirement before approaching them with an idea. You might have already built a relationship with the collaborating organisation – as PhD researcher and presenter Joseph Long has with the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea – or it might be a relationship that you will build from scratch. Senior Research Fellow and Design Archives leader, Sue Breakell, advised that what you want to do must fit with the cultural organisation’s objectives and fill a gap. Think too about what an exhibition could actually be: could it be a collection of events rather than a singular exhibit? All these questions and more must be considered before making any connections.
As an example of the way an organisation prioritises what they exhibit, Dr Nayia Yiakoumaki, curator of the Archive Gallery at the Whitechapel Gallery in East London, explained that their aim is to unearth histories that have not yet registered in the canon of art. One history that did just that was the work Dr Annebella Pollen brought to their attention when accessing their archive as part of her research. Dr Yiakoumaki explained that this collaboration opened up part of their own history that they had been unaware of. Dr Pollen explained that the ensuing exhibition Intellectual Barbarians: The Kibbo Kift Kindred, took several years to organise and was a steep learning curve in many ways. But the results meant that not only were new connections made within the archive but new and different audiences were attracted to the gallery. The exhibition also created new connections in her own work through audience engagement that she couldn’t have anticipated.
A thought-provoking morning of presentations ended with Dr Louise Purbrick sharing her extensive experience of collaborating with communities through museums and exhibitions. Her work advocates a ‘long-slow-collaborative dialogue’ that emphasises work in collaboration rather than as its output. By conducting this research through exhibition spaces, her aim is to legitimise and provide a platform for the work that these collaborations create. Provocatively she asked: could it be that academic impact is no longer the main impact that we are looking for?
Full of the ideas and possibilities of how we might exhibit our research, in the afternoon session, Dr Nicola Ashmore, who has worked extensively in arts and museum practices, held a workshop to help us pull together our ideas. With such diverse ways of thinking about the value of research and the ways it might be curated, it was unsurprising that our discussions explored tension and contentions on the purpose and ethics behind exhibitions. In particular, we questioned the role exhibition spaces play in society, what should and shouldn’t be included, and who has the right to curate culture and present it as knowledge.
Although it was daunting to balance pragmatics, ethics and concepts of culture in our minds, the day underlined that the way in which our research might be presented is not a one-size-fits-all endeavour. Importantly, we do not own the objects and subjects of our research, but are part of a moment in their social life that can continue; our research can find further meaning that we may never come to know if we do not share it.