Collections-Based Research: University of Reading


Collections-Based Research Programme Director, University of Reading (first cohort 2013-2014)

An increasing number of researchers from the humanities and beyond understandably want to work directly with material culture: this new programme is focused on skills training to enable these colleagues to collaborate effectively with museum and archive professionals.  As Programme Director, I have been working with University of Reading’s Head of Museums and Special Collections, Kate Arnold-Forster, Professor Alison Donnell of the School of Literature and Languages and Dr Rhianned Smith of the Museum Studies programme to develop the Centre for Collections-Based Research, including the co-design of a unique research skills programme. The programme is built around and in the extraordinary collections, skilled collections staff, and dedicated faculty members who both care for and employ departmental collections in their own research and teaching.  The first cohort of students we are teaching begins this year, and includes several who have received fee-waiver studentships from the University.


‘Laboratories’ for the 21st Century, university museums have a key role to play in bringing arts and humanities researchers together with primary source materials in heritage collections.  Straddling museum and faculty practice and disciplines, and having as much experience of working with senior researchers as they do with supporting undergraduate teaching, university collections professionals are inherently interdisciplinary and have been at the forefront of the ‘material turn’ in humanities.  This PhD research skills development programme galvanizes the University of Reading’s collections and the staff that care for them alongside faculty members working in a wide range of subject disciplines.  It is training doctoral researchers across disciplines, whether they will be carrying out research in museums, libraries, archives or universities.

Though some of the learning requirements do overlap, this is not museum studies or library/archive science.  The programme aims to provide postgraduate students with the research skills required to:

successfully navigate collections-based research environments;
develop and answer high-quality research questions informed by multiple methodological approaches including those based in collections;
identify and critique both intellectual and institutional practices and boundaries;  
collaborate effectively with museum and archive professionals as research colleagues

I first visited the University of Reading special collections in the late 1990s when I was completing my MA in the History of the Book on a Commonwealth Scholarship at the University of London.  Reading’s Archive of British Publishing and Printing is an astonishingly rich reserve containing everything from author manuscripts and editorial commentary to printing house ledger books, enabling enlightened researchers to chart the complex connections and counterpoints between modernist aesthetics and market economies (among other things!) through the long 20th Century.

This extraordinarily fertile research asset sits alongside others of equal calibre: the Samuel Beckett Archive and the working collections of the Department of Typography and Graphic Communications are both world-renowned.  Reading is also endowed with two major teaching and research collections which were amassed by two of the University’s earliest professorial appointees — The Ure Museum of Greek Ceramics was founded by Professor Percy Ure on his arrival at Reading in 1911, and Professor of Zoology Francis Cole, appointed in 1907, instated the Cole Museum of Zoology.  Add to this a carefully maintained University Herbarium and the Museum of English Rural Life, and it is clear to see why Reading’s are among the most significant University collections in the UK.

This new Collections-Based Research PhD Programme engages Reading’s collections not only in teaching, and not only as a research asset, but also as a ground in which to teach research skills and methods that are transferable to other endeavours in research arenas that encompass most other collections world-wide.  It is project-based research and teaching.  My own interdisciplinary experience in both research and research management and inter-institutional collaborations is well-deployed here, and I am particularly excited by the range of student subject disciplines in the humanities and the creative arts.  This first cohort includes archaeologists, theatre practitioners, book historians, a typographer working across roman and non-roman letterforms, and a political historian working on wartime radio broadcast propaganda.

[UPDATE: here is the 2015-2016 academic year course schedule]




The context in which the Reading Collections-Based Research Programme has been developed encompasses a wider national programme financing Collaborative Doctoral Awards (CDAs) through the Arts and Humanities Research Council.  Since 2005, the AHRC has awarded full scholarship CDAs to Higher Education Institutions to partner and co-supervise student projects with non-University research centres. Many of these have been with major museums and archives which are recognised by the AHRC as Independent Research Organisations (IROs).  In 2013, the AHRC awarded block-grant funding to several IRO museums, archives and consortia so that the collections-based institutions could themselves define some of the research questions which would be addressed with the studentships.  The huge interdisciplinary potential of these partnerships is accompanied by the doubling of the range of skills that need to be taught, and the division of supervision across two very different kinds of institution.

These skills are just as important for more seasoned researchers as they are for doctoral candidates — the creation of a sustainable research arena between the academy and the archive involves some serious knowledge transfer.  In their 2008 report Discovering Physical Objects; Meeting Researchers’ Needs, the Research Information Network canvassed both UK museum professionals and the researchers with whom they collaborate to uncover some of the issues both face in their collaborations.  Given the fact that both sides of that collaboration have seen funding heavily cut in the intervening five years in this country, both Reading’s Collections-Based Research PhD Programme and the growth of the CDA Programme are very welcome developments.

Meanwhile, given my own interests in graphic design and natural history, I’m thinking of developing an interdisciplinary project to link together Reading’s typographic holdings and the zoology collections — beginning with the ‘type specimens’!




Further Links:  Collections-Based Research at University of Reading; University Museums and Special Collections, University of Reading; Collaborative Doctoral Awards Programme AHRC; Independent Research Organisations AHRC; University Museums Group; RIN: Discovering Physical Objects, Meeting Researchers’ Needs

[Image References: Handling paper archives at the University of Reading Archives and Special Collections Reading Room; Researchers examining collections at the Museum of English Rural Life; Wood type collections at University of Reading Department of Typography and Graphic Communications; Two types of 8mm film documented during a recent survey of time-based media conducted by Greta Bertram at MERL for the ACE-funded ‘Countryside21‘ project.]