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.

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