The Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences has a lively postgraduate community and many of our PGR students are involved in Engaged Research. In this series of blog posts, postgraduates from across the Faculty reflect on their how their work engages with publics, uses co-creation and creates impact. In this first installment, History PhD student Hannah Reeves discusses her experience working as a Collaborative Doctoral Award student.
My thesis, ‘The ‘railway family’ 1900-1948’ is part of an AHRC scheme which funds PhD students in collaborative partnerships between universities and cultural and heritage institutions. The Collaborative Doctoral Award scheme is “intended to encourage and develop collaboration and partnerships providing opportunities for doctoral students to gain first-hand experience of work outside the university environment and enhance the employment-related skills and training a research student gains during the course of their award.” The AHRC now intends to merge the CDA projects into their Doctoral Training Partnerships, and encourage greater collaboration between universities, students and cultural and heritage institutions as standard practice. I am undertaking my PhD in collaboration with Keele University and the National Railway Museum (NRM) in York.
The nature of my Collaborative PhD has provided me with a unique experience, which combines the academic rigours of undertaking a PhD with the object-based, public facing role of working within a museum. I have chosen to base myself at the NRM; this has given me unrivalled access to the collection and to the knowledge and expertise of the staff at the museum. Being at the museum on a regular basis allows me to develop excellent working relationships with the curators and archivists. Their support has been invaluable in constructing the different sections of my thesis and targeting my research into areas which have hitherto had very little study. On a day-to-day basis, I have an academic supervisor at Keele and a museum supervisor from the NRM, who facilitates training and opportunities at the museum.
As part of the CDA scheme, it was the National Railway Museum who identified some of the areas which merited further study – my thesis is intended to provide the museum with further research on the role of women within the railway industry, both working and non-working women, and a greater understanding of how the idea of the ‘railway family’ was utilised by railway companies, trade unions and employees in a variety of different ways. This research impacts on the collections, exhibitions and public engagement at the museum and I am working with the museum in order to disseminate my research in a number of different ways.
Public engagement is a key part of my research role at the museum. I have been able to take part in a number of public engagement events including two ‘research nights’ intended to showcase the research done at the museum by staff and students. I have also participated in a Family History conference, held annually at the museum, as in 2015 the subject was the ‘railway family’. This was a very rewarding day, which allowed me to discuss my ideas with other researchers involved more generally in the study of railways, or in family and social history. The Institute of Railway Studies (IRS), a partnership between the NRM and the University of York, has facilitated networking and research opportunities and offered me the opportunity to participate in their regular seminar series. Through connections I made at the IRS, I was able to act as a guest speaker for a group of Postgraduate Diploma students on their residential study weekend at the NRM. This public engagement work, and the opportunity to showcase my research to wider audiences would have been a great deal more difficult without the support of the NRM.
I have also been involved with the creation of a new Masterplan for the museum. This Masterplan involves the redesign of one of the main exhibition spaces in the museum, and my research will play a key role in telling the story of women in the railway industry, not just as workers but as members of trade unions and trade union auxiliaries and part of the ‘railway family’. There are currently very few items in the collection which reflect this focus, and I hope that my research will allow the museum to create a collecting policy which focuses on the wider role that women played within the railway industry.
Practical projects have also given me new skills and enhanced my knowledge of the workings of an archive. I was involved in creating a catalogue for documents relating to the Southern Railway Servants’ Orphanage in Woking. I had to identify links between these documents, write catalogue descriptions and was even able to be part of the bidding process for a new set of records concerning the Orphanage. I am currently in the process of writing a blog about this experience, and some of the interesting information I found on the Orphanage for the NRM’s blog. The catalogue can be found at: http://archives.sciencemuseumgroup.ac.uk/Details/archive/110071552
There are currently only three PhD students based at the museum, and we all have differing schedules and commitments to our universities to fulfil which means that the sense of a PhD community, which is so well-established at Keele, is often lacking. However to counter this, we try and organise meet-ups with other PhD students who are CDA students at Science Museum Group museums in the North of England (The National Media Museum in Bradford and the Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester). Through these meetings, we can create a sense of a shared community through our experiences as CDA students within the same museum group.
Working as a Collaborative Doctoral Award student has enabled me to undertake unique opportunities within the National Railway Museum, which have given me an insight into some of the different roles at the museum. It has also encouraged me to understand how collections objects can relate to the idea of the ‘railway family’, and the knowledge and expertise shared with staff has been invaluable. Being a CDA student also presents a series of challenges, including the need to find a balance between working on my thesis and working on projects at the museum but the excellent working relationship between myself, my supervisor at Keele and my supervisor at the museum means we have negotiated these smoothly.
 AHRC (2015), http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/funding/opportunities/current/collaborativedoctoralawards/ [20/07/2016]