Tag Archive for: Consultancy

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.]

Senior Research Associate: Reconstructing Sloane

Research and Project Management, Reconstructing Sloane (2011 – present)


The vast Enlightenment-era collections amassed by Sir Hans Sloane are the foundation-stone of the British Museum, British Library and Natural History Museum. A major interdisciplinary digital humanities research project to virtually reunite and analyse Sloane’s collections and his own catalogue inventories is now being planned, led by curators and research staff of these institutions. I am collaborating with these colleagues to design, develop and resource the Reconstructing Sloane project. My own related research, investigating collections management as a knowledge producing practice in the early modern period, is supported by both Visiting Fellowships at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, Berlin, and a Research Scholar Affiliation at the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge.


Sloane’s early modern collections of natural history, ethnographia, antiquities, artworks, numismatics, books and manuscripts are now divided across the three world-class institutions which were created by his gift to the nation: the British Museum in Bloomsbury, the British Library in King’s Cross, and the Natural History Musem in South Kensington.  Over the 260 years since his death in 1753, the materials have followed the paths of the disciplines which they themselves in part had spawned: thus the integrity of the collections and their meaning as a coherent site of early modern intellectual practice has been slowly obscured.

Of course, the collections also changed a great deal, in their form and use, over Sloane’s own lifetime, as he was collecting internationally for some 70 years in a period of immense global and intellectual change. The 18th century is arguably the first period of globalisation, and the relationship between trade and intellectual life in this epoch is a subject of considerable interest in a wide range of humanities fields.  The world in which Sloane paid close attention to the messy business of organic life – irreducible to mathematics –  is also the world of Boyle and Hooke, of Locke and Newton, of Leeouwenhoek and Leibnitz.

This exciting project was first proposed in 2010, when a 350th anniversary of Sloane’s birth in 1660 was celebrated by the British Library with a conference. From Books to Bezoars was a wide-ranging two-day event that showed the astonishing breadth of Sloane’s work and influence, even today.  It was organised by Alison Walker, who has been the driving force behind the Sloane Printed Book Project, which aims to locate and identify all books owned and used by Sloane and subsequently bequeathed to what would become the British Library.  It was common practice then, as today, for libraries to sell off duplicate copies of books: a number of Sloane’s books, well used and full of highly significant marginal notes, were auctioned through the 18th and 19th century – no doubt considered at the time to be the grubbier of any two copies the Library owned!

Later that year, in August 2010, a meeting of curatorial and research staff from the British Library, British Museum, Natural History Museum, the Royal Society Centre for History of Science, the Wellcome Library and beyond took place at the NHM under the auspices of its  Centre for Arts and Humanities Research. I was at that time seconded into CAHR as part of its small dynamic research development team, and for that meeting I collated an overview survey of the state of Sloane collections and research across the three institutions.

Before my secondment ended in Spring 2011, we organised several exploratory meetings internally and between the institutions, and the project quickly developed momentum.  Representing the NHM, I worked with Dr Kim Sloan, curator of the Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum, and Liz Lewis, Higher Education Partnerships Manager at The British Library, to co-author a 60-page business plan for ‘Reconstructing Sloane.’ Produced in July of 2011, this project development roadmap is now the backbone of the undertaking.  My current research and project management work with the three national institutions picks up from there, and we are now working on project design and resourcing. A particularly exciting prospect is that of working with digital humanities colleagues to quite literally reconstruct, albeit virtually, Sloane’s intellectual world, and to explore what a deep history of ‘information science’ might look like.

Throughout 2012, with support from an Arts and Humanities Research Council ‘Science in Culture’ Networking Grant to the British Museum, the three institutions led some of the most exciting cross-disciplinary seminars and meetings ever to be held about early modern intellectual life and legacy.  These events brought together dozens of disciplinary fields and areas of curatorial expertise, showing just what can be done when museums and universities work together (recordings of many of the proceedings are available online from Backdoor Broadcasting).



At the Network meeting which took place at the British Museum, I led a breakout session about cataloguing as research, and research into cataloguing itself.  What is of interest to me with Sloane is the unique triangulation between history of science, history of collections, and history of the book – three fields I have always found highly productive.  Sloane’s world is one which could be called ‘pre-disciplinary,’ and requires a highly interdisciplinary team if we are to understand, in the 21st century, what exactly that might mean.

It was nearly 20 years ago that I first heard about Sloane from the man who first brought the history of collections to the attention of other humanities disciplines, Dr Arthur MacGregor.  Arthur edited the volume Sir Hans Sloane: Collector, Scientist, Antiquary (1994), which has become the bible of those of us working on the meanings and use histories of Sloane’s collections.  In a more recent publication, Arthur’s Curiosity and Enlightenment: Collectors and Collections from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries (Yale 2007), we read:

“A parallel evolutionary process can be traced between the development of the cabinet and that of the catalogue.  More than mere inventories, catalogues had a dynamic of their own that contributed not only to the formal registration or recording of collections but also to their analysis and explication at several levels.  Furthermore, the catalogue developed a distinct literary and philosophical programme through which it evolved into a genre that, even if (at least normally) dependent on the collection, was more than merely reflective of it.”

I have been investigating the implications of these ‘evolutionary processes’ between the cabinet and the catalogue during research fellowship periods at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and as an Affiliated Research Scholar at the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science of the University of Cambridge. This is essentially a study of collections management as science, and though my research remit is not limited to Sloane’s work alone, his meticulous attention to the documentation and organisation of his collection is a major focus.



Three Collaborative Doctoral Awards focusing on Sloane’s collections are now underway:

Collecting and Correspondence: Sloane’s Papers and Scientific Networks (Supervised by Dr Arnold Hunt, British Library and Dr Anne Goldgar, King’s College London)

Putting Nature in a Box: Sloane’s Vegetable Substances (Supervised by Dr Charlie Jarvis, Natural History Museum, and Professor Miles Ogborn, Queen Mary University of London)

Visualizing Natural Knowledge: Sloane’s Albums of Natural History Drawings  (Supervised by Dr Kim Sloan, British Museum, and Dr Elizabeth Eger, King’s College London)


Further Links:  Sloane’s Treasures British Museum; Sloane’s Treasures Natural History Museum; British Library Foundation Collections; Sloane Printed Books Project; From Books to Bezoars; British Museum Collections Online; Backdoor Broadcasting Sloane Workshops Podcasts

[Image References: Onyx Cameo of a Goat (16th-17thc, Sloane Collections), British Museum; view of the Enlightenment Gallery, British Museum; page spread from Sloane’s own catalogue of Miscellanies, British Museum; cabinet drawer (c1670), Centraal Museum, Utrecht.]

Consultant: Science Museum

Consultant to the Science Museum, London (2003 to 2004)


The revival of national museums as research centres, and an increasing recognition of museum culture as inherently a research culture, has been an important feature of the last 15 years in UK intellectual life.  Following my work as Development Manager at the Royal Society, I was approached by the Science Museum for strategic advice on the structuring of their Research and Residencies Unit; on implementing internal mechanisms for research facilitation; on building partnership networks; and on matching projects to fundraising targets.

The corporate importance of ‘museum research’ started to gain real headway in the early 1990s.  The instatement of a dedicated Research Department at the Victoria & Albert Museum, with post-graduate programmes in history of design run jointly with the Royal College of Art, became a model to follow. For other kinds of museums, such as science museums, this was a difficult route to follow, as it pre-supposed a shared understanding of the value of their work to humanities disciplines.

This situation improved in the UK with the creation of the Arts and Humanities Research Board in 1998, which recognised history of science as an important field, and it began to get really interesting when the AHRB made moves to become a full-fledged research council from 2002. As the case for this was made, a number of museums were approached and asked to consider how they could contribute strategically to humanities research and what they would require infrastructurally to effect such a contribution. When the AHRC — for Council — was created, one of the first acts of the Council was to create a status for non-university research centres, known as Independent Research Organisation status, or ‘IRO.’

The Science Museum has a long-standing and productive relationship with Imperial College, and it both serves and benefits from an international group of colleagues in history and museology of science. Funding this activity, and creating a profile for it, was an important goal.  In 2004, before the AHRB became the AHRC, I was approached by Dr Tim Boon (now Head of Research and Public History at the Science Museum) as a consultant to help shape the Science Museum’s research programme to be fit for purpose.

I have known Tim since my research residencies at the Science Museum from 1996 – 1999, during which time I produced — with his help and that of other curators — both Open Book (1996) and Atomism & Animism (1999). When I was designing a proposal for a history of science research centre at the Royal Society during the tenure of my post as Development Manager, I asked him to be a member of the proposed Advisory Board* and shared with him my 40 page business plan.  He was thus aware that my knowledge of the intersections between history of science, museums and archives, and funding opportunities, were very much up to date.

By 2005, the AHRC had been created, and in 2009 the Science Museum became (as the National Museum of Science and Industry) an AHRC-recognised Independent Research Organisation — just as I began work next door at the Natural History Museum, helping to set up the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research.



* Though there is now a fantastic Centre for History of Science at the Royal Society, it differs somewhat from the structure I had proposed in 2001, and does not have an advisory board to my knowledge.

Further Links: The Science Museum; Arts and Humanities Research Council; IRO Status

[Image References: bird’s eye view of the Science Museum’s Making the Modern World galleries (co-curators Tim Boon, Andrew Nahum and Alex Hayward); close-up of the reconstruction of Babbage’s Difference Engine at the Science Museum]

Consultant: Wellcome Trust

Consultant to the Wellcome Trust, London (2003 to 2004)

I have been a judge of the Wellcome Trust SciArt Research and Production Grants and also participated in the international development workshop exploring the form and direction of what was to become the Wellcome Collections exhibitions space in the Euston Road.  I contributed to the evaluation of the Medicine Man exhibition that took place at the British Museum in 2003 prior to its reworking for permanent installation in Wellcome Collections. The Wellcome Trust also sought my views in this period for a Discussion Group formulating grants policy in arts, public engagement, and medical humanities.


In 1996, the Wellcome Trust initiated an ambitious and forward-thinking funding stream to bring visual artists, film-makers, theatre practitioners, composers and musicians, choreographers and dancers and more together with their peers working in biomedical practice.  Though this was in the main a ‘public engagement’ activity for the Trust, it began to produce some very interesting artworks that begged as many important questions as they answered.  Granted, not all of what was produced under the short-lived title of sciart was very good — but then, there’s a lot of not terribly good science and not terribly good art out there already!

Sciart ran as a funding programme for a decade, and went through a period of partnership with Arts Council England, Scotland and the Gulbenkian Foundation before being wound down by Wellcome in 2006.  It was then absorbed into the general grants programme of the Trust.  The year I which I was a juror both for Research and Development and for Production Grants (2004), the programme was still run by Bergit Arends, who co-authored with her colleague Verity Slater the book Talking Back to Science: Art, science and the personal (Wellcome Trust, 2004).  Bergit is now Curator of Contemporary Arts at the Natural History Museum, where I met up with her again when I was working at the Centre for Arts and Humanities Research at the NHM.

Later that year, the Trust led an international workshop with directors and curators from medical museums, broadcasters, artists and others to discuss new uses for the Wellcome Trust building on the Euston Road.  Updating The Wellcome Story: 183 Euston Road gave a clear picture of the Trust’s plans for what was to become Wellcome Collections, and it was an exciting few days in which exchanges helped to finesse and improve the project design and also the potential for partnerships of the centre.  I spoke on the practicalities, advantages and future development of working with artists in science museums and museums of medicine.*

That workshop was the first official working day of the Wellcome Collections’ new curator, James Peto.  James and I had first worked together on my project Open Book, which he curated in 1996 while he was at the Whitechapel Art Gallery.  We also worked together later in 2004/2005 as he straddled his new Wellcome Collections post and his final project at the Design Museum, where he had worked for almost a decade: I assisted James in the curation of You Are Here: The Design of Information.

Ken Arnold, who is now Head of Public Programmes at the Wellcome Trust, directed and co-curated the exhibition Medicine Man. It first opened at the British Museum in June of 2003, while the buildings on the Euston Road were being constructed — and closed for reconstruction.  This first incarnation of Medicine Man was one of the most exciting exhibitions I have ever seen.  Between Ken’s deep knowledge of Henry Wellcome’s collecting practice, and the skills of Caruso St John applied to the exhibition design, a true sense of the collections emerged from the very high density of object display.

It was here that one felt both the enormity and magnitude of the collection, and an inkling of Wellcome’s thinking and his vision for it.  While making Atomism & Animism, I worked at Blythe House where the Science Museum keeps and cares for the remains of Wellcome’s collections; I can assure you that as installed at the British Museum, Medicine Man evoked the real thing.

Here is an excerpt from my written report about the exhibition:

I believe that the choices made for this exhibition’s contents and design were extremely sensitive and intellectually sound, and that the structure of Henry Wellcome’s collection both revealed and reformed itself like a crystal lattice around the organising principles of the show.

It is not a revisionist history of Wellcome’s collecting practice, but one which addresses the mind of the man himself in a way that evokes the intellectual context of his work in this domain, and by extension, how these thought patterns entered the more health-progressive and lucrative areas of his activities.

Echoes of the collecting model of the Pitt-Rivers collection can also be seen in the choice of the curators to use form as a teach-tool for contemporary visitors in the design of the exhibition. This is not just a museological trope or reference: Wellcome would have been very aware of the Pitt-Rivers Museum and it would have influenced his collecting and his rapport with material culture and the culture of health and healing the world over: several of the contributors to the catalogue reference this explicitly.

For the design of Medicine Man to incorporate Pitt-Rivers’ display principles is in fact a way in to the mind of Henry Wellcome. It also happens to be a display form accessible to everyone, regardless of their level of education or the language they speak: one can literally see the evolution of an instrument or an idea unfolding from one object to the next. Thus the curators and designers were able to leap from Wellcome’s mind directly into the mind of the visitor by organising the exhibition this way: it seems to me that this kind of communication is what the Trust is all about.



* I also gave this talk — Working With Artists in Science Museums — in 2007 at the Steno Museum, University of Aarhus, and am currently preparing it for publication.

Further Links:  Wellcome Trust; Wellcome Trust Sciart Programme Outline; Report; Medicine Man; Wellcome Collections; Caruso St John Exhibition and Museum Design

[Images references:  Mechanical arm (detail), Wellcome Collection at the Science Museum London (1850 – 1910); Installation of Medicine Man at the British Museum, design Caruso St John (2003)]