Reflecting Back, Moving Forward: A brief tale of attaining PhD funding

Lisa Hinkins is a graduate of our BA History of Art and Design and MA Curating Collections and Heritage programmes. She was recently awarded prestigious AHRC Techne funding for a new PhD to be entitled, Where are all the Lesbians? In search of Lesbian Lives in Museums. In this blog post, Lisa reflects on her time at the University of Brighton so far.

It is a privilege to announce my new PhD project. I was asked to write on how it was built on my time at the University of Brighton (UoB) as an undergraduate and graduate student. So, I am in a reflective, sentimental mood. Where do I start?

I just re-read my first HOAD blog, published in March 2016 describing my very first enriching experiences after signing up with UoB’s Active Student Volunteering Service. It catapulted me back to September 2015, a very nervous 43-year-old who after 23 years had left a life of work to return to university. Yes, it wasn’t my first rodeo – I had dropped out of a Graphic Design degree in the early 1990s at Portsmouth after six months. As I walked through the UoB doors though, I knew this was my second chance to steer my own career path. I had to fight my inner fears and draw on all my past experiences to help me make the most of this opportunity.

I actually got through my first year with pretty good grades and I made some friends. I also got my very first paying role in the Museum Sector as a Gallery Explainer with Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust (RPMT). I attended life-drawing sessions and volunteered at Fabrica, a local contemporary art gallery, while also volunteering with Photoworks, a leading platform for photographers. These wonderful opportunities were made available due to the professional and nurturing staff off the University of Brighton. They helped open my eyes to new prospects, widening my networks and developing my potential.

During the last two years my of undergraduate degree, the module programmes allowed me freedom to pursue areas of art and design relating to the LGBTQ+ community and Roma Gypsy history. Weaved with internal work development placements with World Art at RPMT, I gained a wealth of skills and knowledge, giving me more confidence to develop my own research paths.

In 2018 I was part of the inaugural cohort for the MA Curating Collections and Heritage led by Dr Claire Wintle. This innovative Masters combines academic study with vocational professional development. We received insightful seminars from a variety of professionals within the Museum sector, alongside hands on sessions with staff from RPMT.

The decision to study for my MA part-time enabled me have time to continue volunteering with Fabrica and Photoworks, as well as paid work with RPMT. I was able to attend the Gayness in Queer Times Conference held at UoB in the summer of 2019, participating as a speaker on lesbian representation in museums. It also meant I could volunteer as a community co-curator for Queer the Pier exhibition currently on display at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.

Gayness in Queer Times Conference Summer 2019

This was an incredible experience where I could use my skills to create displays about historic lesbians with connections to Brighton. Using the prism of a pier volunteers from the local LGBTQ+ community created a unique exhibition telling stories of queerness in the city. While carrying out research it came apparent that there was a paucity of original material objects representing lesbian lives. One such woman was Brighton born Harriet Elphinstone-Dick, who achieved one of the greatest swimming feats in 1875. She swam in rough water from Shoreham Harbour to the West Pier in 2 hours and 43 minutes. To illustrate her story of defying Victorian societal expectations as a lesbian woman, I created a design for an automaton machine inspired by the Palace Pier’s dolphin racing game.

Harriet Elphinstone-Dick automaton in Queer the Pier exhibition at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery

I also collaborated with internationally acclaimed Roma artist Delaine Le Bas, academic Dr Lucie Fremlova and LGBQT+ Roma artists in re-claiming the problematic ‘Gipsy’ Fortune Telling Machine held in RMPT’s collection. In an act of Queer decolonisation, we created a display in Queer the Pier that dispensed beautifully designed fortune telling cards by Delaine, alongside a text panel featuring a photograph by the Roma artists working with Lucie. I also edited a takeaway Zine to accompany the display which included personal stories and further photography by the artists.

My work with this team and my innovative automaton led to one of the most exciting prospects in my professional career. I was approached by UoB to develop a PhD proposal…., then the Covid pandemic hit us all.

Strangely or not, I thrived through the ups and downs of that period. I completed my MA dissertation, further developed my own artistic practice, delivered 23 weeks of Zoom Family Pub Quizzes, and partook in two on-line Free University Brighton (FUB) courses. In between this I worked on many drafts of my PhD proposal with support from UoB lecturers.

From 2021 I have guest lectured for the BA(Hons) History of Art and Visual Culture on Brighton LGBTQ+ Cultural History for first year students. The three-hour sessions have incorporated field trips to The Ledward Centre, The Old Police Cells Museum and the Queer the Pier exhibition.

My lecturing work, volunteering and work experience led to another gain another paid role with RPMT as a Museum Educator, which I carry out in conjunction with my roles as a Visitor Services Officer and Gallery Explainer. I also had an invaluable experience as an Archive Assistant working with Rachel Ng, a fellow alumni, on the Chelsea School of Physical Education Archive for the UoB School of Sports and Health Science.

working for the Goal Power! Women’s Football 1894-2022 exhibition held at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery Summer 2022. I am dressed in the dark blue as Victorian footballer Nettie Honeyball in my role as a Museum Educator.

The combination of academic study, paid roles and volunteering built a strong CV for enhancing my application for AHRC Techne funding. It has taken a few years, but with an amazing university team backing me and support from RPMT, I was awarded Collaborative Doctoral AHRC Techne funding in April. From October I shall be moving forward with this exciting project with the University of Brighton and Royal Pavilion & Museum Trust. The project: Where are all the Lesbians? In search of Lesbian Lives in Museums will investigate how RPMT represents lesbian historic lives and identities. It will unpack relations between heteronormative patriarchal histories and museums allowing scholars, professionals, and communities to challenge established social constructs.

I am very excited for this project and cannot wait to start working with my university supervisors.

There are so many people that I am indebted to – RPMT’s Executive Board along with the UoB Doctoral College. My heartfelt thanks go to the UoB School of Humanities and Social Science lecturers who have not only guided me through the PhD application process but supported me from the moment I stepped through these university doors as an undergraduate.

MA Curating Alumna Rosie Hughes shares her tips for writing up research

Rosie Hughes recently graduated from the Curating Collections and Heritage master’s programme and is now Historic Objects Co-ordinator at West Dean College. On the MA, for their final research project, students can choose to write a traditional dissertation or a report designed for industry. In this blog post, Rosie reflects on how she met the challenges of writing her final research report on how museums can respond to the climate crisis.

As a graduate in environmental science and Environmental Researcher at a sustainable solutions company, I decided to write a report on How can UK Museums be Activist in Addressing the Climate Crisis? I was drawn to using clear language and a visually engaging format, rather than academic writing. As an environmental researcher I am used to using lots of jargon and abbreviations in my work and as I chose to write about climate change, I knew my report would need a glossary!

Studying part-time meant I had the luxury of longer to work on my report, but I was also concerned that I would become bored of my topic. I settled on writing a report between February and May of 2022 and began compiling my literature review and reading widely around the topic. I set up a Padlet board as I am a visual learner and found it useful to make links between different fields and concepts. A word of warning: it can be very easy to get distracted by finding nice images and colour-coding your posts instead of writing your report!

Rosie’s padlet, developed during her research

To maintain my motivation, I decided to answer questions which occurred to me as I was researching museum activism, climate change and ethics as well as globalization, world heritage, storytelling and climate change legislation. The paid work in sustainable solutions that I did alongside my MA complemented my study too, as I was asked to work on a report for a local council’s pathway to net zero. I found that even university modules which did not seem obviously linked to my topic, such as Exploring Objects, were invaluable and covered extractivism. I also worked on an exhibition on the Balcombe Fracking Protests that I created on a placement at the Old Police Cells Museum. I found that if you think holistically enough, almost anything has links to climate change.

My course leader advised that interviews are often a better way to gain information than surveys and I decided to interview Hedley Swain, CEO of Brighton and Hove Museums. This was very interesting and gave a real feel for the complex challenges facing civic museums. I also spoke to the gardener at the Royal Pavilion and gained insights into the operational side of becoming a more sustainable museum group. As a Museum Association Member, I was invited to an online meeting with their Climate Change Trustee, Sara Kassam and took the opportunity to ask her a couple of questions based on my research. Afterwards, I followed up by e-mail, checking she was happy with the wording and gave consent so that this could be included. This was not planned very far in advance, but by keeping my approach flexible I manged to include a range of different perspectives. I would add that using different approaches and types of interview does add to the complexity of writing them up!

From working commercially on reports, I had seen matrices used to summarise large amounts of information and give weight to different aspects. I suspected that I could use one to help with my wordcount and chose to display 3 case study museums which had adopted various standard and activist/next level ways to address the climate crisis. I chose 3 case studies in London and Brighton with varying approaches to the climate crisis and visited them between summer 2022 and spring 2023.

I advise visiting as many museums as you can, even if they seem unrelated to your topic – I wanted to find an example of a museum using the same interpretation to decolonise and decarbonise a display at the same time and eventually found this by visiting the American Museum in Bath – there is no way I could have known this beforehand or from visiting online. A second ‘happy accident’ was going to see an exhibition at the Design Museum and stumbling across a clock counting down the time remaining to keep temperature rises below 1.5 degrees Celsius. This made up for the fact that it was sometimes hard to find explicit references to climate change in my case study museums and I read an excellent book called ‘Don’t even think about it’ by George Marshall (Bloomsbury, 2014) which explains how climate change is almost a taboo subject and why human psychology makes it hard to think or talk about.

Climate Clock at the Design Museum

On that note, I found that researching such a potentially devastating topic required self-care and regular time off from thinking about it. Personally, I also find a humorous approach can diffuse tension and anxiety, so I bought a stand-up comedian’s book about climate change. I was dismayed that when I went to a choir performance on a night ‘off’, a piece of music about climate change was performed… but I chose to see this as a positive way of the issue seeping into the cultural landscape.

Ideas and connections between topics often came to me when I was not sat at a desk. Make time to exercise and do low-key tasks where your mind can wander. At first, I was slightly daunted by how few other students had done reports and there were not many examples to draw on initially. Thankfully another student in the year before me wrote an excellent report about museums which gave me a really good basis to make decisions about my own report. Coming from a non-academic background and with a gap of 20 years between my BSc and MA, I found it invaluable to read a book called ‘How to fix your academic writing’ which translated so many aspects of papers and academia in a clear and amusing way.

I would say that the bulk of my writing happened between May and July 2023, with my first draft being submitted before the end of July, to accomodate childcare commitments over the summer. As far as possible, I wrote up notes after each meeting with my supervisor and agreed the actions we would take before our next meeting. I would have liked more time to format my report, but I also tried to keep in mind that my writing was being assessed and not my design skills! I would suggest building in almost as much time for formatting a report as for writing it and to keep the images out until the very end to avoid messing up the structure. I submitted the photographs as a Powerpoint presentation separate to the writing in the final draft I sent to my supervisor. I was fortunate to be given lots of helpful advice by tutors and fellow and previous students who all contributed to the end result.

MA Curating Alumna Jenny Mearns shares her new role in museum marketing

Jenny Mearns is Marketing & Membership Officer at The Salisbury Museum and also a graduate of the Curating Collections and Heritage master’s programme. In this blog post, she reflects on her career so far, and how the MA Curating informed her practice and helped her develop her confidence

I enrolled on the MA Curating, Collections and Heritage course in September 2020, after spending time volunteering with the National Trust as an archive assistant, which ignited my interest in working with collections within the museum and heritage sector. My previous roles were varied (visual merchandising, freelance writing, and running my own small fashion label) yet consistently enabled me to utilise my creative and curious nature!

Fashioning our World Exhibition, The Sailsbury Museum


As part of the MA course, in April 2022 I commenced on a three-month work placement at The Salisbury Museum, as project assistant on the Fashioning Our World project. This primarily involved investigating the fashion collection at the museum, seeking evidence of historical sustainable fashion practices (mends, repairs, repurposing, alteration). I found this role enormously rewarding, leading me to continue at the museum upon completion of my placement as volunteer project assistant on Fashioning Our World.

A fragment of a wedding dress showing evidence of historical sustainable fashion practices, discovered on Jenny’s work placement

In November 2023, a full-time role became available at The Salisbury Museum, so of course I jumped at the chance of applying, resulting in me being offered the role of Marketing and Membership Officer.

In this role, I am responsible for developing all marketing assets, from press releases, social media campaigns, liaising with local and national media, to designing, creating, and sending out monthly newsletters. I also look after existing museum members, recruit new members, and process monthly membership renewals.

Fortuitously, Fashioning Our World was the first exhibition I was responsible for marketing, which I found hugely rewarding, securing features in national press including the BBC, The Telegraph and The Times.

Further, alongside my role at the museum, I am committed to exploring my research interests, which amongst other avenues include dichotomies between display and storage within fashion collections in museums, and emotional attachment and clothing.

As such, I currently have some of my research undergoing peer review for publication, and, at the end of the month I will be presenting my paper – Diversifying Stories Through the Curation of the Fashioning Our World Project & Exhibition at The Salisbury Museum at the Beyond the Blockbuster: Exhibiting Fashion Now conference at Museum of London Docklands and London College of Fashion.

My time at the University of Brighton enabled me to engage with critical thinking giving me the opportunity to develop my research interests, with amazing support from my tutors. The course was undoubtedly instrumental in enabling me to move forwards, progressing in my chosen career path within the museum sector. My studies also helped to give me confidence in myself and my abilities, enabling me to grow not only professionally, but also to develop as an individual.


MA Curating Alumna Jen Grasso reflects on her career working with archives

Jen Grasso is the Digital Content and Systems Co-Ordinator at the University of Brighton Design Archives and is also a graduate of the Curating Collections and Heritage master’s programme. In this blog post, she reflects on her career so far, and how the MA Curating informed her practice as a researcher and archives practitioner.

With a practice-based background in photography and over 10 years working in administration and recordkeeping, I enrolled in the MA Curating, Collections and Heritage programme in 2019 to see how I could apply my passion for the arts, culture and heritage with my accrued professional experience. I was interested in the theory and practice that founded modern-day collections and how heritage and culture was developed and supported in the UK. During my course I quickly became passionate about working with archives, an area I was lucky to explore during my student placement assessing the archive of photography non-profit organisation Photoworks.

My placement was unfortunately cut short because of the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown, but I continued to build on my passion for archives. I volunteered at the University of Sussex Special Collections on the National Heritage Lottery Funded-project Unlocking Our Sound Heritage (UOSH) that digitized sound recordings for the British Library’s Sound and Moving Image catalogue (SAMI).  My main task was to listen to oral histories to flag sensitivity issues and create a summary for the catalogue. I listened to members of the Windrush generation talk about their first impressions of the UK; people’s experiences living through the Blitz; the recipients of the first social housing development in Southhampton, as well as different union members talk about the effects of industrial action. It was here I gained an appreciation for oral histories and how they can be used to document different communities.

Inspired by the UOSH project and the dissertation research I undertook during my master’s degree, which focused on polyvocal narratives and how they are expressed through photography, I began a community archive project documenting the role of the photobooth technician. This was also inspired by the postgraduate course in Archival Studies at the University of Dundee which I enrolled in following my master’s at Brighton. A technician myself since 2015, the Photobooth Technicians Project is an ongoing project that documents the history of the profession since its inception in 1925, in particular, the grassroots community that has arisen throughout the 21st century. It consists of semi-structured oral and written interviews combined with test strips from each technician, which is the main way to assess the status of one’s photobooth. I’m lucky to be able to share this project at the upcoming Photographic History Research Centre’s Annual Conference, The Photographer’s Assistants, at DeMontfort University in June.

In 2022, I was hired as the Digital Content and Systems Co-Ordinator at the University of Brighton Design Archives. My work and research in the Design Archives focuses on the intersection between analogue and digital technologies and how technology can be used to democratize heritage. Part of this research involves an ongoing project working with Dr Karina Rodriguez Echavarria and colleagues in the School of Architecture, Technology and Engineering looking at how Machine Learning and AI can make collections more accessible.

Detail of the results of Santander-funded student placement applying machine learning to the discovery of the Design Archive’s collections. Original image © Design Council Archive, University of Brighton Design Archives.

I am also responsible for the digital generation, dissemination, and preservation of records at the Design Archives, and am part of a team that cares for, and makes accessible, records relating to graphic and industrial design from the mid-20th century, a wonderful resource I’m incredibly fortunate to work with. This role allows me to do what I’m passionate about, working directly with collections helping make them accessible, and also brings me back to the University of Brighton, a community that inspired me throughout my master’s degree and one I am now proud to be part of.