An unexpected journey
Stuart Bowes writes about his first few months as a postgraduate researcher in the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies.
I am a researcher of museums based in Leeds. I first became involved in the subject through studying history as an undergraduate, which led me to volunteer in a number of museums and heritage institutions.
In 2019, I completed the MA in Art Gallery and Museum Studies at the University of Leeds, where I developed a particular interest in museum collections and their management. Soon after I was fortunate enough to secure a role at Leeds Museums and Galleries, cataloguing and re-housing its collections of coins and medals.
Following this short break from academia, I returned to the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies in October 2020 to start my journey as a PhD student.
My project is a distinct kind of PhD called a Collaborative Doctoral Award, which is designed to increase the real-life impact of research by working closely with an external organisation. It is funded by the White Rose College of the Arts & Humanities (WRoCAH).
The partner organisation for my project is the Royal Armouries: so I will be studying how it manages its collections of arms and armour, and suggest future strategies that could be adopted by the museum’s registrars. This is hopefully the first of many articles where I will chart my experiences of undertaking a collaborative PhD over three years.
The official title of my PhD is as follows: How do ethics influence the development policies for accessing public collections which are essentially restricted by law: A case study of the Royal Armouries.
It’s a bit of a mouthful I know, but after three months and many ‘elevator pitches’ I’ve just about memorised it. It outlines a number of important themes that are central to this research — ethics, policy, access, public accountability, collections management, law — and it is an exciting but daunting prospect to reveal how they interact in the work of the Royal Armouries. My current pile of books somewhat reflects this variety, covering subjects from weapons law to creating history in museums.
Looking back after Christmas, it has been an eventful first three months. Like so many others, my work has been profoundly affected by the coronavirus pandemic. I’ve been unable to travel to libraries or archives to consult important documents, meetings with my supervisors or other postgraduates have been conducted online, and I have yet to set foot in the Royal Armouries.
Under such circumstances, there has not been much opportunity for collaboration in this Collaborative Doctoral Award so far. It has certainly been frustrating at times, as I’ve been restricted in what I can research and I’ve mostly been confined to working from home. Though I must admit I have been rather fortunate in my working space, there are worse views to have from an office window.
So what have I achieved so far in such unusual circumstances?
Mostly reading, to be honest. The original intention was that I would immediately begin working in the registrar department of the Royal Armouries as part of the Registrars Training for the Future programme. As the museum has largely been closed since October, however, this has not been possible. Instead, my supervisors and I agreed that I should conduct a thorough review of the existing literature and use this to contemplate the future direction of the PhD.
After three months of largely uninterrupted reading, thinking and writing, I feel confident that I have established a secure foundation for the next three years of research in spite of the unfavourable circumstances.
Perhaps the most important thing I have learned during this process is that a PhD is not set in stone. Instead, it is a versatile research project whose guiding questions and objectives constantly evolve in response to prevailing conditions, even to global pandemics it seems.
After all, in the immortal words of Freddie Mercury, ‘the show must go on’.
‘Hall of Steel’ in the Royal Armouries Museum. Image copyright: Royal Armouries.