Openness, creativity, and reflections on my PhD process

In recent weeks, I’ve made a major shift to my PhD process. After 2.5 years of exploration, I’ve moved into a period of consolidation. In other words, I’ve started writing in a far more formal capacity, with the hope of finishing my dissertation early next year.

Following this change in approach, there has been a certain fallowness here on the blog. I have struggled to find inspiration of the kind that has come so easily until now. It has been harder to pull myself out of the PhD in order to write on tangential subjects. It is not exactly that I am lacking in ideas. It is just that all of those ideas now seem to weave in and out of my other writing, and I don’t know exactly how to parse each into their own space.

This change in my writing habit has prompted me to reflect on my creativity, and its relationship to openness. From my amateur reading of psychology papers, I know that openness to experience is one of the Big Five personality traits, and that there has been a correlation found between openness and creativity. But what I hadn’t realised is that there are interesting qualifications to that correlation. One of them, as discussed in Kaufman and Sternberg (p121) is that:

‘creative behavior was highest if very open participants were given tasks that were open and somewhat undefined. In other words, highly open people are not creative in all work environments. They are most creative when the situation and task is ambiguous and not well defined.’

People high in openness are more creative in unstructured environments. The kind of writing and thinking that takes place when in an exploratory phase of research and open to new ideas is different from that which occurs when trying to close down avenues, and stabilise an argument. The shift in my PhD working process is forcing me to push some of my ideas, to develop those that are or were only lightly sketched in my mind. There is a sense of maturation, both in my ideas, and in my self-concept of what it means to be a researcher. But there has also been a drop in my externalising of problems. I have been looking in more, and out less.

The process of the PhD has involved much more personal change than I imagined from the outset. Research necessarily involves a lot of time spent inside your own head. There are many times that it’s just you and the screen, and nothing else to distract from that reality. There have been times when I’ve noticed my thinking patterns changing; when I’ve discovered a greater capacity for focus than I’d once had, or learned to have faith in my capacity to be creative. There have been times when I have felt so entirely at sea I never imagined making it back to land. I am sure there will be many more such times between now and the end.

This blog has given me a much-needed sense of connection to the ‘outside’ many times. As I move further into this next phase of research, I am going to try to remember that, in order to keep producing and pushing myself here. In the meantime, a short note of thanks to all of you who read, who comment, who participate. It matters more than you’d likely suspect.

As my blogging diverges in this more personal direction for a moment, I’d love to know if you’ve ever taken on a project (research or otherwise) that changed you. What was it, and what did you learn in the process?

There is a man behind the curtain

In a couple of weeks, I’m giving one of my first ever lectures. The subject is Museums, Galleries and the Politics of Institutions, which is a thoroughly juicy and exciting topic. Colour me excited!

I’ve just started ‘building’ my lecture, but already I’ve had an unexpected realisation about both teaching and museums. Until now, it’s never really occurred to me the extent to which every class I’ve ever attended, and every museum I’ve ever visited, constructs the information and stories within. The message is not just built around what is important to say, but also on what will fit within the limitations of time and space; on what will make a compelling story; and on the personal whims and preferences of the information architect.

This observation is so obvious, I don’t quite understand how it hasn’t smacked me square in the jaw before. As much as I’ve ‘known’ that museums can never tell ‘truth’ since every story has innumerable sides, the reality of that situation had never occurred to me so starkly until I had to create a lecture on the subject.

You see, I want to give the students insight into the historical development of museums; to educate them about (some of) the myriad of ways that the choices made in museums are political; to equip them to start seeing museums and exhibitions through critical eyes; and, ideally, to inspire them and capture their imaginations. And I’ve only got an hour in which to achieve all this.

It’s a big ask. Due to the time limits, I will obviously have to leave out far more than I can include, and the things that I do decide to include will be those that are both relevant/important and that reinforce the narrative direction I decide to construct.

And that’s the kicker. The information that makes the cut will be the information that best helps me tell a compelling story – one that is logical, and memorable, and in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The examples I use in the lecture will not necessarily be the most critical – they will be the ones that best help make my argument. I’ve looked at the examples used by the lecturer who gave the course last year, and they are entirely different from my choices. He and I used the same subject as a starting point, but each of us constructed a very different lecture – and a different story.

Yet most students will probably hear my lecture and believe that the information I give them is the canonical stuff that they need to know, simply because of the forum in which it is presented. In choosing works of art to focus on, I will be privileging those works and artists simply by drawing attention to them in the context of a lecture. It is a great responsibility. If I choose (intentionally or by neglect) only to talk about works of art by men, or European artists, or painters and sculptors but leave out video artists, then I too am guilty of neglecting to present a whole perspective about the subject… and yet I will have to make said choices because of the limitations of time. Therefore, my lecture is every bit as political as its focus.

Curators too are faced with these difficult choices. It is never possible to include everything when constructing an exhibition. Doing so would probably make the exhibition less clear and less impactful. But visitors don’t necessarily consider this. Most visitors will accept at face value that what is included is there because it was the most deserving – not because it best illustrated a point, or was the only appropriate work in the museum collection. This is precisely why museums are such political institutions.

I have known this at some theoretical level for years. I’ve taken dozens of courses at University and worked in museums for a little while. But it was not until constructing my own lecture on a subject that is so open-ended, with many possible paths that the journey could take, that I gained real insight into the extent that my own knowledge has been constructed around the ‘curatorial’ choices of my teachers. It’s been fascinating.

I think we have a responsibility when teaching people about history – or anything – to provide them with a story that is clear and legible. Without that, they are unlikely to learn at all. But I also think that we as teachers – whether in universities or in museums – have a responsibility to remind people that what we select for such a purpose is not the be all and end all of knowledge, and that the lecture or the exhibition is a great starting point but it should not be the final destination.

And I think this is the ultimate message that I am hope to get across to the students. I am going to use the process of constructing a lecture as a metaphor for the process of constructing an exhibition, and show them that there is a real person behind the choices that get made – and that those choices have real meaning. Thus, I think I will finish my lecture with a statement like this:

This lecture, like a museum exhibition and like every lecture you’ve ever sat in, does not tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
It weaves one story of the history of museums. It leaves out more than it includes.
It is not neutral. It is never neutral.

I hope they get the point.

Reflecting on museumgeek’s first three months

This blog has now been running for just shy of three months. In that time, I’ve written 31 posts, and received double that many comments (yep – you’re starting to talk back, which is awesome). Within a day or two, I should hit 2500 views, which is significantly more than I imagined I would have at the start (and even more surprising because my Mum has only read the site once – so it’s not just her!). I’ve been shocked (and excited) to find people responding to my ideas by writing entire posts of their own (and here), and have been honoured to discover my site listed in blogrolls of people whom I respect.

With all this, museumgeek has thoroughly exceeded my expectations.

What has surprised me is finding out the posts that get the most reads and reactions. When I started blogging, I thought I’d post a fair bit about technical innovation in museums. After all, that’s what the people whose blogs I read write about, and they’re always interesting to me.

What I quickly learned however is that the difference between those bloggers and me is that I’m not actually a tech geek. I might love technology and enjoy seeing the technological advances taking place in museums, but I have neither the background nor the mindset needed in order to best exploit the possibilities of technology.

Instead, it’s my more philosophical posts like Museum objects and complexity, Visualising the museum collectionWho owns the virtual space in your museum? and Who are you collecting for? that have drawn the greatest interest. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by this… museums are inextricably linked with philosophy, and my own bent of inquiry leans towards the existential. I probably write more passionately on these issues than on other things. Despite this, I didn’t expect that these would be the posts that would inspire the greatest response.

So there is that. In the last few days, this feedback has led me to start reconsidering the approach I was intending to take in my PhD. Although I need to discuss this with my supervisor, I’m starting to think that my research should be a philosophical inquiry, rather than a strictly “scientific” one. This is probably a silly idea… It will involve far more work, and be a lot harder. But I also think it will be a very interesting approach, and will certainly push me to look deeply into the issues. Hmm. I’ll keep you posted on this idea once I talk to my supervisor…

On a personal level, I’ve discovered that blogging is a lot of work, but very enjoyable. My writing muscles are growing stronger from regular use, and writer’s block is far less tyrannical than it was. Writing for an audience is great for helping me clarify my thoughts – although I still get scared every time I hit the “publish” button in case I’ve said something really stupid… although even if I do, hopefully you guys will take me to task for it so I can learn something new as a result.

In the mean time, thanks for reading and being part of my first three months!

On creative risks and PhD blogging

Nina Simon has just written a post entitled Empowering Staff to Take Creative Risks in which she asks “What are you willing to risk to pursue your dreams?” It’s a somewhat timely post for me, because I am stuck deliberating on the role of blogging for me in the PhD process.

Yesterday I drafted a new blog post which I think poses an interesting perspective on moving museum collections to the Internet. Only in its fledgling stage, the idea is probably not particularly groundbreaking – but I think it has the potential to be developed further and it could be relevant to my PhD. And suddenly I find myself stuck as to whether to put it – and other PhD thoughts – online or not.

I’ve asked my supervisors for their thoughts, as well as asking an open question on Facebook and Twitter about what academics think of the issue. The responses have been mixed. Some have said they couldn’t imagine it being a problem, some have warned against the risk that someone would steal my ideas, and one friend pointed out the possible intricacies involved with people posting ideas in comments, and how difficult attribution might be if my ideas were later informed by discussion that took place online.

And so when I read Nina Simon’s post, it made me question precisely what I am willing to risk in the pursuit of my ideas and my career. This blog has become an interesting vehicle for me. Although it has only been up and running for a few weeks, I’ve had quite a few people contact me because of it, and have started some interesting conversations as a result. It is letting me make some interesting new professional (and personal) contacts, and has helped ensure that my mind never completely switches off thinking about the field, because I’m always on the look out for something new to post about.

But until now I have never actually wanted to post thoughts that might later be important to my research. Doing so could be a risk. Someone could indeed steal my ideas without attribution. Having said that, just starting a public blog and putting my ideas – mostly half-formed and in need of work around the edges – into the blogosphere carries with it certain risks. But ultimately, I think that hiding away from criticism and the opportunity to fall flat on my face would be worse. After all, the things that appear safe in life often aren’t. Seth Godin wrote recently on ‘exceptional’ brands, and why they fail:

The problem with brand exceptionalism is that once you believe it, it’s almost impossible to innovate. Innovation involves failure, which an exceptional brand shouldn’t do, and the only reason to endure failure is to get ahead, which you don’t need to do. Because you’re exceptional.

The take home message from both Seth’s and Nina’s posts is that pursuing big things – like dreams, careers and in the case of museums, innovation – is risky, and that risks bring with them real opportunities for failure. But that it’s only by being open to failure that really interesting things happen.

Does this mean that I will upload the post I drafted yesterday? I haven’t yet decided, and will seek further advice first. Though unless anyone can give me a compelling reason not to, I probably will. If someone steals my ideas, at least that means they were worth stealing (is this a Web2.0 attitude?).

In the mean time, I’d love to hear from anyone else who is or has been in a similar situation on what they decided to do. I know that a lot of museum bloggers are also research students, so surely this is something other people have grappled with too.