Something I’ve really not done enough of during my PhD has been speaking about my research – which is a shame as it’s been one of the aspects of my work I’ve found the most rewarding. For this reason, I was really pleased to be invited to speak at a symposium at the University of Derby exploring the surrealist painter Marion Adnams, as part of the university’s International Women’s Day celebrations.
The symposium brought together academics and practitioners in order to explore both Adnams’ life and work in detail, and the artistic milieu of which she was a part, as well as issues around collecting and exhibiting women’s work more broadly.
My paper was more loosely connected with Adnams than some of the other presentations. As Adnams sold work to school loan collections in Manchester, Derbyshire and Leicestershire, I used Pictures for Schools and the work of Nan Youngman as a way to introduce some of the ideas and motivations behind the development of post-war educational art collections. My presentation attracted a lot of interest. Partly this was due to the local connection, and concerns about current-day threats to these types of resources; I was even interrupted by a local keen to point out that the Derbyshire School Museum Service was under threat of closure! It also prompted some discussion about the extent to which my discussion of progressive post-war education tallied with the experiences of those in the room who had been at school in the post-war period. Whilst one man said he didn’t benefit from the supposed educational reforms which took place in post-war schools, a woman who had been at school in rural Leicestershire said she looked back on her schooldays now and was ‘amazed’ at what she did in school, saying it had a ‘profound effect’ on her, and that her teachers believed passionately in the arts and educational reforms at that time. Another man, who had been at school in Hertfordshire in the 1960s, told me that art had been a huge part of his education. I also got some good questions, asking why I think my research is pertinent now, and how I feel education today contrasts with post-war attitudes to creativity.
For me the highlight of the day was a presentation by Jane Stanton, Head of Design at the University of Derby, which showed the value of personal experiences, storytelling and biographical approaches to historical and artistic research. Stanton knew Adnams, who was a friend of her family, as a young woman growing up in Derby. Her presentation was centred on a journey, as a learner driver, with her father to the south of France to collect Adnams from her second home there in the early 1970s. It was illustrated with photographs of Stanton – at that time just eighteen, and about to embark on a foundation degree and career in art – hand-in-hand with an elderly and almost-blind Adnams. It told the story not just of Adnams’ impact on Stanton, the significance of which is becoming apparent decades later, but of intergenerational exchange and friendship, and the ways in which we frame and reflect on our work and experiences at different stages of our lives. Stanton’s presentation prompted some interesting questions about provinciality – Adnams spent her entire life living and working in Derby, and the day’s presentations gave both a sense of her connectivity within the East Midlands, as part of the Midland Group in Nottingham and the Derby cultural scene, and her sense of distance from London, and desire to escape the constraints imposed at different stages of her life, from the war, to the necessity of earning a living through teaching, to caring responsibilities. As someone who was sometimes characterised as a ‘difficult’ character, the presentations also raised the issue of personality – as one person asked, was every woman of that generation defined by her relationships with others?
I also particularly enjoyed hearing from Colette Griffin, Assistant Curator at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, about the challenges of curating a woman-only show from a collection containing only a small percentage of artworks by women, and the factors which influence the ongoing acquisition of more work by female artists.
The symposium was a starting point for further explorations into Adnams and other artists by the newly established Women Artists in History Research Group at the University of Derby; I’m really looking forward to seeing how it develops.
I’m really pleased to announce that I passed my viva on Friday, at the University of Central Lancashire.
I was examined by Dr Sarah Mills from the University of Loughborough, who has done a lot of work about the history of twentieth century British youth movements in relationship to informal education and citizenship, and Dr Keith Vernon from UCLan, whose work I had come across in the context of adult education and the co-operative movement.
I talked them through my research and methodologies, at the same time as giving them more detail about how the scheme worked in practice, including the voluntary involvement of the artists involved and the ways in which the artists chose the pictures that they submitted to be exhibited. They asked me some interesting questions about the ways in which I framed my research – including the extent to which the ideas which informed Pictures for Schools were new ideas, or the extent to which they were older ideas that found a receptive environment for implementation in the post-war period; the extent to which the recent interest in post-war Britain is informed by nostalgia; and critical reactions to Pictures for Schools, and the extent to which I maintained a critical distance from Nan Youngman, despite my admiration of her as the founder of the scheme.
I spoke to several former PhD students before my viva, and the best bit of advice I was given was to try to enjoy my viva, and to bear in mind that it was a one-off opportunity to discuss my work in-depth with people who had read it more thoroughly than it is likely to be read by anyone else. I certainly felt really encouraged by my examiners’ interest in and enthusiasm for Pictures for Schools.
Reflections on Pictures for Schools paper at International Conference of Historical Geographers, LondonPosted: July 7, 2015
My presentation at this year’s International Conference of Historical Geographers at the Royal Geographical Society was a step up from last year’s RGS-IBG summer conference. Whereas last year I presented a particular aspect of my PhD research on Pictures for Schools in a general session for post-graduates to share their ongoing research, this time I was invited to be one of five speakers contributing to a session themed ‘Making post-war Britain: Mobility, planning and the modern nation’.
Papers explored research already undertaken as well as projects in their early stages. My Director of Studies, Hannah Neate, chaired the session, linking each paper through pointing out shared themes and overlaps. Papers included Ruth Craggs on returning colonial administrators, co-written with Hannah. This attempted to direct attention away from a focus on the often-told national and domestic story towards wider international motilities and geopolitical shifts and changes, as told through the figure of one administrator, RW Phelps, as part of a bigger picture of people such as architects and planners. Ian R. Cook then spoke engagingly on post-war planners’ organised study tours abroad, and the way in which certain organisations shaped the way in which planners and policy-makers thought about post war development. Heike Jons’ work on the location and development of post-war universities was well-illustrated with maps and diagrammes. Finally, Ben Rogaly presented his ongoing work with Rebecca Taylor on the experiences of strangeness and belonging in post-war new towns, and the way in which communities were unsettled in the 1950s and 1960s due to building and redevelopment and large-scale migration from places such as London to new and expanding towns such as Peterborough.
As ever, it was hard to narrow down the focus of my research to fit a fifteen-minute slot, but I attempted to convey something of the story of the Pictures for Schools exhibitions and the way in which they aimed at – and succeeded in – distributing original artworks to not just schools but to county councils, education authorities, universities (including Imperial College, where the session took place!) and teacher training colleges across the country. My presentation was led heavily by the use of visuals and archival finds such as exhibition posters and photographs of visitors to the exhibitions, as well as a selection of representative artworks purchased by educational buyers, offering an opportunity to revisit and make use of material I hadn’t yet highlighted elsewhere. The visuals received particularly positive conference from members of the audience, unsurprisingly, particularly a series of 1960s posters advertising the exhibitions. I was also keen to demonstrate that, although Pictures for Schools was enabled by specific post-war developments such as the post-war school building programme, the formation and support of the Arts Council and Ministry of Education endorsement of the role of the arts in schools, it operated autonomously of the state and was driven by the ideas, values and experience of its founder, the painter and teacher Nan Youngman. I aimed to show how Pictures for Schools benefited particularly from the support and engagement of networks of geographically dispersed artists and organisations Youngman encountered both in her dual career as an educationalist and a painter, and in her social life, and to suggest that I have experienced the value of biographical approaches in historical geographical research.
The panel format for taking questions meant that unfortunately I wasn’t asked any questions in detail – beyond whether there was any measurement of the impact and engagement of the artworks sold through Pictures for Schools. I answered that the exhibitions must be understood on more than one level – firstly, engagement with artworks at the exhibitions themselves, by visitors to the exhibitions, which was measured to some extent through questionnaires and voting boxes, and secondly the life of the artworks once they had left the exhibitions, which strangely did not seem to be of interest to the organisers. Some interesting questions were put to the panel, including: whether it was possible to see any specific outcomes of the influences of study tours abroad on post-war British planning; the apparent tensions between a time in Britain’s history generally regarded as being dominated by leftist welfare statism, and the fact that people such as returning colonial administrators were often part of a more old-fashioned establishment and old boys’ network culture; and what motivated and drove individual reformers such as planners, and whether it was political or ideological or otherwise.
The conference was a great chance to hear from people who’d been at the previous talk I did and said I’d made interesting progress, both in my research and presentation and in the discussion of my findings. It was also great to meet researchers, elsewhere at the conference, who were interested in related figures and ideas, from Henry Morris, Director of Education in Cambridgeshire and founder of the county’s village colleges (who employed Youngman as a peripatetic art adviser from 1944-1954, travelling around these colleges as well as other rural schools), an influence highlighted in my presentation, to the Rosc exhibitions in 1960s Ireland, which I was told about by another delegate.
I also enjoyed the plenary from Catherine Hall, historian at UCL, on slavery and freedom, which touched on not just the ways in which the fields of history and historical geography inform and are informed by one another, but showed how historical research can frame and be framed by contemporary issues and discourses, in this case the construction and perception of race in society, though economics, society and culture.
Finally, I was pleased to receive a bursary from the Historical Geography Research Group covering half the price of my ticket, which assisted greatly in covering my conference expenses.
Although I talked about my PhD project at an internal research seminar for my school at UCLan (the Grenfell-Baines School of Architecture, Construction and Environment) earlier this year, the paper I presented at the RGS-IBG (Royal Geographical Society – Institute of British Geographers) annual summer conference was a great opportunity to share my research and get more specialist feedback among researchers in my field – cultural and historical geography.
Despite only attending one day of the three-day conference (partly due to cost and partly so I could use my time in London to spend a day in the Tate Archives either side), which was spread out over the premises of the RGS and Imperial College around Exhibition Road in London, I was able to spend a stimulating and enjoyable day dipping in and out of other sessions. Whether or not they related directly to my research, this gave me a real flavour of the diversity of practitioners, topics and approaches encompassed within geographical research, from hearing about different methodologies such as walking, and how it can inform experiences and understandings of place, to learning more about the study of ‘childhood geographies’. I particularly enjoyed some of the sessions in smaller meeting rooms, which had a more informal feel than those which took place in lecture theatres.
The session I took part in, which was one of three entitled ‘New and emerging research in historical geography’ and organised by the Historical Geography Research Group (my Director of Studies, Dr Hannah Neate, is on the committee of this group), was specifically aimed at researchers at a similar stage to me. It was beneficial to hear and see how other PhD students both went about undertaking research in historical geography, and presenting their research – I was relieved to discover that I was not the only presenter to read from a script, although I did feel that the one paper in my session which was not read out benefited from a more natural and less stilted style, and I hope that I will have the confidence to do this in future without relying on a written-out paper. Another thing I observed was that other presentations dwelt far more on archival research and empirical findings, whereas I really tried to explicitly situate my research in a wider thematic context, in relation to previous or similar research in the field, something which other speakers seemed to focus upon less.
As my presentation was only fifteen minutes long (I think it actually lasted slightly less time than this, maybe 12/13 minutes) I aimed to really focus on one aspect of my research, calling my paper ‘Pictures for Schools: Educating the aesthetic citizen 1947-1969′. In this, I discussed Pictures for Schools and art education in relation to ideas of taste and aesthetic appreciation. Despite a phone going off for what seemed like ages during my paper (every presenter’s worst nightmare!) people commented that they found my paper really interesting, and I received some perceptive questions. Although I only had five minutes to answer questions, so could not provide answers as fully as I would have liked, they have given me useful points of consideration to bear in mind as I start to write up my research. These included questions about how many children were involved in Pictures for Schools over its lifespan and how the success of the project can be evaluated; whether I had looked at similar schemes such as the Victoria and Albert Museum’s ‘Circ’ collection, and notions of engaging with art through schemes such as Pictures for Schools and how this differed from owning art; how Pictures for Schools was linked to or differed from schemes circulating reproductions of artworks and what happened to the artworks sold through Pictures for Schools. It was also great to hear from an audience member who had attended one of the Cambridgeshire Village Colleges set up by innovative Director of Education Henry Morris, who I discussed in my presentation – Comberton School – in the 1980s (the school was the last village college to be built, opening in 1960, a year before Morris’ death in 1961). He commented that he didn’t like it at the time, but that since he left the school he has had memories of being surrounded by sculptures and other artworks which gave the impression of a cared-for environment, which was crafted and designed. He asked whether there was a legacy of this kind of approach being taken forward after Morris died. I have also continued conversations started at the conference over email, and have been invited to contribute a collaborative piece of writing for the Visit 1862 research blog, drawing parallels between post-war ideas of taste and nineteenth century ideas of raising standards of taste through exhibitions of design.
All in all the RGS-IBG conference provided a really valuable and useful introduction to presenting at conferences and has given me lots of ideas and pointers to put into practice in future – I look forward to the next time!