Conferences Part II: This Time It’s Personal

Postgraduate Researcher Stuart Bowes recounts his experience of presenting the current findings of his PhD at the European Registrars Conference 2022.

For a few days in November 2022, the French city of Strasbourg became an unlikely outpost of Yorkshire. Seven museum professionals and academics from a range of Leeds institutions descended on the city for the European Registrars Conference (ERC 2022) – the biennial gathering of museum registrars from Europe and beyond.

We were much in demand, with no less than four presentations accepted between us. This included my first ever in-person conference paper, which I was to deliver solo before an international audience. No pressure then.

conference delegate badge and lanyard

European Registrars Conference lanyard. Photograph by Stuart Bowes, 3 November 2022.

This was no impromptu decision. My supervisors and I had long identified ERC 2022 as a key platform for research dissemination, even before the PhD had actually been confirmed.

This is what I wrote in my initial funding application back in January 2020:

"Internationally, I hope to attend the biennial European Registrars Conference in 2020 to make contacts within the field and by 2022 I aim to share the findings of this PhD there."

The 2020 event never took place due to a certain global pandemic, but nearly three years after submitting this application I secured the opportunity to present my work at ERC 2022, as intended.

I aimed to cover three key aspects of my research: my attempts to define registrar practice, the intricacies of the Royal Armouries’ regulatory framework, and the collaborative nature of the PhD itself. I figured that these would be the most interesting and, indeed, most valuable insights I could share with practicing registrars.

With my presentation ready and the travel arrangements sorted, all that remained now was to attend the event. After three trains, border security checks, and a lot of queuing, I made it to Strasbourg without any unpleasant surprises. ERC 2022 awaited.

I was scheduled to present on the second morning of this two-day conference, so I sought to keep myself occupied throughout the first day. This was hardly difficult given the amount that was going on.

I attended a range of panels, cheered on my Leeds colleagues at their presentations, developed new professional contacts, explored Strasbourg, and briefly attended the main drinks reception at a local bar, before turning in for an early night.

Lecture theatre chair with reserved sign

‘Reserved’. Photograph by Stuart Bowes, 5 November 2022.

My day of reckoning then arrived, and with it a touch of anxiety. I generally knew what to expect having delivered a paper to the Weapons in Society online conference in 2021, but this time I would be directly addressing my audience. If there even was one, that is.

The session began at 9am, and as the aforementioned drinks reception (with complimentary drinks) had taken place the previous evening, we wondered if anyone would turn up. This fear proved groundless, as the room quickly filled up. Conscious of the growing audience, I focused on the other speakers until it was my turn to take the stage.

Years of planning had led to this moment. When I picked up the microphone, I noticed my hand was involuntarily shaking a little. All I could do was steady myself and begin. Words started to flow, and as I entered my stride, any nerves faded away. It was especially reassuring when the audience laughed when they were supposed to.

Person presenting next to a screen at a conference

Presenting at the European Registrars Conference. Photograph by Jill McKnight, 5 November 2022.

In my allotted eighteen minutes, I communicated my experience of the PhD as eloquently as I could. I did cut it rather fine, finishing my piece with just seconds to spare, but I had delivered the paper as intended. The audience even applauded, so I must have done something right. I was hugely relieved that everything had gone well.

The following papers allowed me some respite, the second of which happened to be presented by two of my PhD supervisors. It felt great to be able to properly appreciate their findings now I didn’t have to worry about my own presentation.

Once the session ended, it was time to see what the registrars thought of my performance. The response was better than I had to dared to imagine. I was congratulated by a range of delegates (and not just my Leeds colleagues), received requests to share my slides, was questioned on the workings of Collaborative Doctoral Awards, and I was even approached to deliver a similar presentation to the UK Registrars Group. Not bad for a first attempt.

As my first in-person conference, I was largely new to this subtle art of networking. Fortunately, my Leeds colleagues already knew many of the attendees, so that was my route into many enlightening conversations. Hopefully, I have forged some lasting connections here. The importance of coffee breaks cannot be underestimated!

Conference delegates in a lecture theatre

UK Delegates at the European Registrars Conference, Strasbourg, 2022. Photograph by Jill McKnight, 5 November 2022.

Before I knew it, it was Saturday evening and the end of the conference, closing with, you guessed it, another drinks reception. All that was left was to say our goodbyes and make the long return to Leeds. My journey home was certainly eventful, highlights included getting drenched in Paris and extended train diversions.

Now that I’ve had a chance to reflect on this experience, what have I gained from attending ERC 2022? Firstly, I feel more confident in presenting before a live audience. It may be a cliché, but practice does make perfect.

Then there has been my interaction with the registrars themselves. I was able to cement existing relationships and make new contacts within the field, the foundation of all prosperous endeavours.

Perhaps most importantly, it has reaffirmed the value of this Collaborative Doctoral Award. Judging by the favourable response to my presentation, there is professional appetite for research into the everyday realities of registrar practice.

The complimentary food and drink wasn’t half bad either, I suppose.

Looking forward, the next European Registrars Conference will be held two years from now in Italy. Now that I’ve experienced first-hand the opportunities (and perks) this event offers, it would be a shame to miss out. I’ve already started planning a follow-up paper, so watch this space.

Bring on ERC 2024!

More information

Read more about Stuart Bowes’ research on his staff profile on the Arts Humanities and Culture website.

You can follow Stuart’s journey as a Postgraduate Researcher on the Registrars: Training for the Future blog.

Feature image

ERC conference 2022. Image © Styl'List images - Charlotte Cavaleiro, 5 November 2022.