Researching museums during lockdown

By Matthew Jones, PhD Student at Sussex University.

For many people lockdown necessitated a reimagining of how to complete even the most everyday tasks. For me, researching museums it was no different. In the months prior to lockdown I was planning and carrying out fieldwork that was meant to continue into summer of this year. This consisted of going to various museums across the country, analysing their displays and interviewing museum professionals. As lockdown was enacted museums closed, staff furloughed, and traveling was no longer safe. My fieldwork was disrupted to say the least. The interviews and trips I had spent months planning fell through. I no longer could go see displays and exhibits meaning I had to rely on the blurry photographs I had taken on previous visits. Above all with staff being furloughed there was no one able to reply to emails. The out of office message became the theme of my summer as I tried to salvage my research.

My first thoughts, however, when lockdown hit was not to do with my research but that feeling of anxiety that many shared about the state of the world. Research became second fiddle to checking morbid graphs and listening to politicians fumble around for solutions or outright denial of the severity of the situation. So, I took a break. This allowed me to step back and revaluate how my research was going and most importantly how to continue forward while I no longer had access to the physical object of my study, the museum. One aspect, the interviewing of museum professionals, I rethought quite quickly. I would turn my interview questions into questionnaires that they could do at their own pace. I was conscious that many of the people who I wanted to give me their time to help my research were also reorganising their own lives and trying to adapt to the ‘new normal’.

A typical Western Museum.

The second aspect of my fieldwork, visiting museums and critiquing displays was not possible to salvage. While some museums created online exhibitions or put more effort into creating digital resources it is simply not the same as being in a museum space that has been carefully constructed to be embodied by an audience. That being said, one of the best examples of a museum adapting to this is the International Slavery Museum who, google street view-style, have created a virtual reproduction of their galleries online so that you can digitally walk through them, look at objects and read labels. It is not quite the same as being there, you can ghost-like warp through walls very easily by accident, but it is the best I have seen. Moreover, being unable to access museums physically meant thinking more about them in other ways. I turned my focus to looking at what museums produce: reports, blogs, videos, podcasts and so on. This allowed me to continue understanding the approach of museums to the topics I was interested in and provoked me into thinking about museums as more than a physical manifestation of curatorial intent.

The end of Colston.

Regarding the topic of my research, I was perhaps very lucky that it became a major news story over the summer rivalling the daily doses of pandemic coverage. My research centres on how museums display and exhibit the British slave trade and its legacies, therefore, when Black Lives Matter protestors unceremoniously dumped the statue of the slave trader Colston in Bristol harbour my research gained a new lease of life. It was reinvigorating to see not only decisive action being taken to challenge the ease with which slave traders are monumentalised in public space but also to see the passion with which many people had about confronting the legacies of enslavement. During lockdown my motivation to do research and work towards my thesis had been severely hit. Each day became a drag as my fieldwork turned into a slog and the enforced separation from friends and loved ones continued on. The actions of these protestors reminded why my research matters and that even though doing research was hard, it was still important to do.

Above all then, lockdown forced me to revaluate and rethink how to research a physical thing, the museum, in a time when it was not safe to do so. Some aspects were easily adapted while others could never truly be reformulated for the digital world. The challenge of this was both useful in making me rethink aspects of my research but it was also demoralising for much of the summer as my research slowed down to a snail’s pace. On the other hand, selfishly, the events of Black Lives Matter and the museum sector’s response revitalised my research and opened new terrain for me to look at.

Juggling work, practice and research at the times of Covid-19.

By Mattia Cobianchi, PhD in Music, Goldsmiths University of London, Chase Student Committee Rep

My name is Mattia, and I`m a permanent resident of the UK since 2013, but I`m originally from Italy, and since we Italians were the first in Europe to be hit by the pandemic, I started to worry about the impact of Covid-19 on my friends and family there first, and about myself only a month later. It was a little bit like seeing a catastrophe in slow-motion. You see it coming, you brace for it, still you can`t do anything about it. The first personal hit for me came on the second week of March, when I had to cancel a trip abroad to attend the VIVA of an interesting researcher that works in the field or urban planning and soundscape research. Then, a couple of weeks later, came the second. I am a part time PhD student, but also a part time employee in a large audio company, and I was put on furlough, together with a lot of colleagues, starting from April (I was finally recalled back at work in July).

I`ve been working in the audio sector no-stop since 2004 (oh yes, sorry, I forgot to mention that I`m quite a senior student 😊) and being told to stand down and stop working, was quite a shock. I didn`t know how to do it at the beginning! Even if of course I was aware that I was one of the lucky ones able to keep my job and that I could dedicate more time to research while on furlough, it had been the first time for years that I had to completely stop working. What I ended up doing, although by a fortunate coincidence, was to write some technical articles for a magazine about what I design and research at work – loudspeakers, and that helped me feeling not as isolated from my job.

Figure 1 – A measurement session at work – lasers and speakers, what else could I wish for?

On the academic side, my research is practice based and deals with the issue of improving the urban soundscape through adaptive and dynamic compositions to mask or at least steer away city-dwellers’ attention from annoying noises such as that produced by traffic and construction works.

An exciting part of my research has been attending hands-on workshops and events organized in London both at Goldsmiths University and in other venues with fellow scholars or musicians: this of course has stopped completely and has not been replaced by any online surrogate unfortunately. Total disruption.

A second aspect of the practice that has been instead only partially disrupted, is the chance of spending time outdoor with all the senses alert, especially my hearing, both in the built environment as well as in nature reserves and parks, often bringing along a portable audio recorder for field recording.

Figure 2 – Capturing the sound of pebbles rolling up and down the shore along Hove beach

Once the lockdown was in place (or an edulcorated version of it, since here in the UK it`s been very “permissive”), the daily walk to exercise constituted a useful although limited chance to appreciate how the soundscape of my city, Hove, had changed. New faint sounds, both natural and artificial, started to be audible: sparrows’ calls in the streets, faint ventilation and air conditioning units breathing sounds, car or house alarms ringing from far, far away…

Figure 3 – A woodland patch near my flat has been a regular lockdown escape for a walk

When at home, I started to register to the myriad of webinars that popped out like mushrooms, and to some conferences that had been ported online, hoping to keep myself engaged and active, but found just a few useful or interesting. I realized that it was much harder to focus, the temptation to do something else, in the privacy of my flat and with the webcam off, was high. The ones that I enjoyed the most were the ones where either by nature of the workshop or by personal commitment, I kept the webcam on and tried to focus on the speaker face, as if in trying to establish a personal connection. With a lack of stimuli from a real environment, it`s easy to seek new stimuli while on an online meeting by browsing the web or checking your emails: well, at least for me, it causes both a predictable deficiency of engagement and retention, as well as increased mental fatigue. Human beings are not meant to multitask. Trying comes at a price.

I also noticed a new pattern: while I`m not usually checking social media or emails more than a couple of times per day, the lack of physical interaction with my colleagues at work and fellow students at college, kept me going back over and over again, waiting for signs of life from the outside world… I`ve not yet mastered a strategy to overcome this, but I`m trying to use the Pomodoro technique and check Whatsapp or emails only during breaks. Plus I`ve started to plan in advance at least one online catchup with friends living far away every week, so that I always have a virtual meeting to look forward to.