From research to stories: university-museum collaboration in Kent

This paper explores the interdisciplinary methodologies adopted in an AHRC-funded collaborative project (called ‘Inspiring Women’) which aimed to tell the ‘hidden histories’ of women in Tunbridge Wells and surrounding areas in the early years of the twentieth century. Artefacts from the borough museum’s own collections and archives, together with loans from national repositories, were brought together in a physical exhibition, now closed, and a more permanent one online, to disseminate the findings of historical research beyond the academy to the general public, students and teachers. The project aimed, in this way, to have ‘impact’ by increasing knowledge and understanding of local and national history in West Kent and East Sussex.

Despite the shared objectives of academics and museum, there are disciplinary differences to be overcome and compromises to be made. The historian’s instinct to use material culture in an object-driven way as a starting point from which to explore context and to tell stories, and to see text as the natural end-product of their endeavours, must be adapted to accommodate museological theory that places the object centrally as the bearer of information. This paper will therefore focus on some of the challenges involved in narrating complex ‘stories’ through a mixture of text, 2D illustrations and 3D objects. The nature of a two-dimensional exhibition, in which visitors to the physical space can be encouraged to continue their visit virtually helped to address this dilemma, as did an associated programme of live events and talks. The paper will argue that the choice of pathways offered by the virtual exhibition allows engagement with additional text at a level determined by the visitor, and that ‘impact’ resulted in unexpected ways as a result of community engagement.

Anne Logan, University of Kent
Ian Beavis, Tunbridge Wells Museum
Catherine Lee, Open University

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