I’m just coming to the end of my first year as a funded PhD student, working on a Creative and Critical Writing thesis that also crosses over with the field of Museology. The last few months have been strange, and quite surreal, but I’m in a fortunate position – though I’ve had to re-adjust and postpone some of my research, I do have the benefit of full-time funding.
Arts and heritage organisations are really struggling right now, and it made sense, therefore, to consider whether there was anything I could do to help promote the good work being done by one small museum in the Welsh Valleys. The Cynon Valley Museum has already been through some tough times. Back in 2014, a lack of funding from the local council forced the museum to close, and it took a huge community effort to re-open the building, with the support of trustees and numerous volunteers who have invested a lot of time and energy into what has become a valuable community resource.
The museum is known for its temporary exhibition programme, showcasing the work of local artists. In an effort to continue featuring this work during the lockdown, they have been sharing it online, via their ‘Exhibitions at Home’ page. This provided the perfect opportunity for me to offer my services as a virtual writer-in-residence. I spent a month writing poems in response to the artwork displayed on their website, and then delivered an online creative writing workshop, encouraging others to continue this process of engaging with the museum’s online content.
But I was also able to use this as an opportunity to further my own research. I’m investigating the use of ekphrasis (poems written in response to works of art) in museums, examining how the ekphrastic process can be used as an effective tool for visitor engagement. Coronavirus has forced me to postpone some of my fieldwork, but it has also had a big impact on the museum sector as a whole, and museums everywhere have been working hard to transfer much of what they do to online formats. It’s impossible to predict what will happen in the years to come, but this crisis, and the resulting changes, have implications for my research, and the residency has helped me to take a few tentative steps in a new direction. I’ve been able to experiment with different formats, sharing my ekphrastic poems in the form of images on Instagram, and this has inspired me to run an Instagram project as part of my thesis, where I’ll invite members of the public to share their own poetry in response.
My research involves encouraging people who do not normally write poetry, to read and respond creatively to ekphrastic poems and the artwork that inspired them, seeking out new ways to do this without assuming previous knowledge or ‘dumbing-down’ the text. I decided to experiment by sharing a short reflective piece beneath each poem, describing how one thought led to another, resulting in the final piece. I had positive feedback from a range of people who appreciated this insight into the creative process. But this also helped me to reflect critically on my own writing. The reflective piece became a beneficial element in the writing process itself, and this has sparked further ideas for my thesis.
I’d recommend a ‘virtual residency’ as a brilliant opportunity for any PhD student to gain valuable experience, but this kind of project can also help you to see your research from a fresh perspective. Click here to see the poems I wrote as part of my residency – http://cynonvalleymuseum.wales/virtual-poet-in-residence/
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