Monday, 21 September 2015


... In which three second year thesis students reflect on lessons learned the hard way over the summer. 



Despite our best laid plans, research is often a wily creature with a mind of its own. Frustrating though this can be, Mary Simonds, Emily Meikle, and Lindsay Small ponder the serendipity of the research process and share nuggets of advice for those moments when the plan gets left in the dust.

Mary Simonds: Overcoming Researcher's Block

At the beginning of this summer I was excited to really dive into my research. I had a list of recommended readings from my supervisor and second reader, I had my collection and some it’s associated documentation, and a couple of leads from the museum staff for where to further pursue the collections’ history. It felt like I had a pretty good start…


… but I felt stuck. I felt like my research wasn’t really moving forward. I had the tools to get started, but I didn’t know how to apply them for the benefit of my project. I felt like I still had no idea what I was doing. I had what I like to call researcher's block (this was on top of how hard it is to motivate yourself to do school work during summer!).


However, I realized that I did not have to make any amazing leaps forward in my research throughout the summer. I was still in the beginning stages and what I was doing was a good start. I had to keep reminding myself that I didn’t have to have everything done by the end of summer. So what did I learn? Don’t panic just keep at it!

Emily Meikle: Navigating Collaboration

We hear it time and again: establishing collaborations between an institution and the community is difficult and requires patience. Yes, we all nod, this is certainly true… But until I began trying to recruit participants and develop a collaboration as a case study for my research, I just didn’t get how complex this process is.

I called dozens of people and left messages across the province to no avail. When I did get a response, it wasn’t the one I was hoping for. This felt like a good time to panic. The truth of research involving human participation hit me hard: the hypothetical participants you imagine when drafting your proposal are real individuals and have other (more important) things to do besides helping you with your research. Collaborations should work equally for all parties, and I was asking for too much commitment without enough benefit.

Sometimes you think you're going about a collaboration in the right way, when really you're an overly affectionate ostrich. Source.

While it was scary at the time, encountering this challenge helped me explore the viability of the collaboration. I decided to change my methodology slightly, so the project would require less of participants – which also allowed me to include more participants, making my data more reliable. Once I had made the changes and returned to recruiting, I noticed a positive change in responses almost immediately. People were interested in the project after all, it was just that (unlike for me) the project wasn’t at the centre of their attention.

(For a surprisingly comprehensive "quick and dirty" guide to collaboration, check out this handy Museum 2.0 post)

Lindsay Small: Finding Data in Unexpected Places

This summer I read dozens of aviation documents during my internship. A lot of these newsletters and articles came from a pre-moon-landing era. It was wild to try and get into the mindset of someone who was writing about firsts in aviation or space before the Apollo program. A significant portion of my thesis surrounds the cultural narrative of space travel. What assumptions do people make when talking about space? How do people buy into or subvert the dominant narrative of exploration? By having access to these documents, I was able to look, firsthand, at what was being said about these accomplishments at the dawn of the space age in a Canadian context.

Excerpt from Propwash Newsletter September 1953. Photo credit: Lindsay Small.

Also, as you can imagine, many of the narratives were rife with sexist terminology. This is another aspect of my research. Do the words we use to talk about space play into a dominant cultural narrative? I found myself drawn to articles about female pilots who excelled in classes or won top awards and could only hope to secure jobs as airline stewardesses (I'm using that term consciously!) if they wished to make a career in the aviation sector. While this is not a surprise – it did drive home that this was not that long ago, and that there is still a ways to go before we stop talking about 'manned missions' or 'man made objects'. 

"Girl?!?" Photo credit: Lindsay Small.

(For more on inclusive language in space travel, see Dr. Alice Gorman's "How to Avoid Sexist Language in Space" if you're curious.)

Editor's note:
Emily Meikle is an MMSt candidate with a background in archaeology and English literature. Her thesis research explores accessibility in indigenous archaeological collections with specific attention to the use of radio as an interpretive tool. Find out more about her research here.

Mary Simonds is a second year MMSt student. She has her Honors Bachelor of Arts in Cultural Anthropology and Classical Studies. Her thesis, entitled Becoming Antiquities: how museum artifacts gain educational and heritage value, focuses on the “value” of archaeological objects as defined by their institutions as either educational or heritage objects, and how this value can evolve over the course of an objects “life”. Find out how her thesis research began  here.

Lindsay Small is an MMSt student with a master’s degree in Science and Technology Studies from York University. Her thesis is on cultural heritage management in outer space. Lindsay's interest in outer space began as a young child, but her proclivity for motion sickness and a fondness for gravity supersede any ambition to actually go there. She will be giving a paper on this topic (space museums, not motion sickness) at the Ontario Museum Association conference in November. Follow her on twitter at @lindsaymarlies, and check out the latest Musings post about her research here.

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