By Tim Ellis |
One of the most enduring memories of my MA degree at Belfast will be the time that I travelled across Ireland to visit Lissadell House on the northwest coast of the country, the home of the Irish socialist republican feminist, Constance Markievicz, who was also the first female M.P. to be elected to the House of Commons. I had made the decision to visit Lissadell, after unsuccessfully having searched several Irish archives for some of Markievicz’s acerbic political cartoons. As it happened, Lissadell turned out to be a valuable resource with a rich collection of visual and material objects relating to Markievicz’s life and political career
There is a strong case for the PhD studentto make use of musea in addition tos archives and libraries. Often when we go on research leave to visit archives, we may be away a long period of time, often spending a weekend or two in our chosen destination. During these weekends, one can struggle to find things to do: you could always do some writing, or read some books or journal articles. Museums, however, can offer a more productive use of our time.. So, if you happen to be away on research leave, and there are museums relevant to your research, you should consider a visit as they offer a productive and stimulating way to fill time over weekends.
Firstly, in a way, a museum is just another archive, sinceboth are repositories of primary sources. Whilst they might not hold as many documentary or textual sources as the archive or library, a variety of material and visual sources can still be found, which if deployed effectively can enrich our research significantly. Over the summer, I travelled to Dublin to carry out research on photography in the Irish Civil War. One Saturday, I paid a visit to the National Museum of Ireland. There I encountered an old Irish Volunteer’s uniform from the 1916 Easter Rising. This was accompanied by a wonderful multi-media, interactive discussion of the uniform as an item of material culture. This stimulated my own thinking about the importance of uniforms in the visual culture of conflict, and I have since incorporated these insights into one of my PhD chapters.
Secondly, museums are key means by which the public can understand and think about the past. As historians we need to think about both academic and popular understandings of the past, and how both shape our research. A particular research topic might not be significantly examined by scholars, but it might have received much more attention in the heritage sector. Research which is stimulated by time spent in the heritage sector can, and frequently does, challenge previously-held academic views of a subject.
Thirdly, museums are a significant avenue by which we can carry out public engagement. Research impact is becoming increasingly important across academia in what is now becoming a difficult period. Several academics who have supervised my own research in Irish history have enjoyed good relationships with museums. My PhD supervisor, for instance, has acted in an advisory capacity to the ‘Witness History Exhibition’ on the 1916 Easter Rising, based in Dublin. In times of diminishing job opportunities after PhDs have finished, careers in the heritage and public history sector can allow to us maintain our commitment to our chosen subject area outside of the academy.
From my own experiences in Dublin over this summer, I can offer the following advice to get the most out of weekend museum trips:
- Ask colleagues and other contacts about useful museums to visit. Many will have useful experiences of their own and will be happy to share them. Twitter, through the use of the #Twitterstorians hashtag can very helpful in this respect also.
- Bring a camera, or make sure your smartphone has plenty of memory to take photos. Take a notebook and pen.
- Talk to everyone. It goes without saying that museum guides often do possess a deep knowledge of certain subject areas. Fellow museum-goers can be surprising. Even the most commercialised museum can be worth a visit, if only to get a sense of how the past is perceived and represented in public consciousness.
- Pay a visit to the shop afterwards. Sometimes museum bookshops can be very good sources of informative pamphlets on very specific, under-explored topics (that tend to be written by local amateur experts) that academic historians often miss.
Lastly, plan your trip, and be aware of practicalities such as opening times and transport arrangements. Coming back from a museum visit to Dublin, I found myself stuck on a tram with several drunken Justin Bieber fans on the way to a concert. I cannot say that this experience was a pleasant and tranquil as my time in the museum.
Tim Ellis is just finishing the first year as a PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant at Teesside University. His PhD explores the significance of visual culture in the dynamics of political power in the Irish Free State, 1922-39. You can follow him on Twitter and find him on Academia.edu.
(Images by the author)