The Geographical Museum: Making Knowledge through Objects

   Department of Geography

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  Prof Felix Driver  No more applications being accepted  Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

This PhD project is fully funded by an Arts & Humanities Research Council Collaborative Doctoral Award, co-supervised by Royal Holloway, University of London and the Royal Geographical Society (RGS). It involves research on the artefact collection of the RGS, its past role and potential uses in the context of humanities research and engagement in museum settings. The successful applicant will have the opportunity to adapt the project according to their own interests.

The project is supervised by Professor Felix Driver (Royal Holloway, University of London), Dr Sarah Evans (Research and Collections Engagement Manager, RGS), Professor David Gilbert (Royal Holloway, University of London), and Dr Katherine Parker (Cartographic Collections Manager, RGS). The student will be expected to spend time at both partner institutions, as well as becoming part of the wider cohort of AHRC-funded students. The student will have the opportunity to undertake placements at the Royal Geographical Society or elsewhere. The studentship can be undertaken on either a full- or part-time basis.

We encourage the widest range of applicants for this studentship and are committed to welcoming those from different backgrounds and non-standard pathways. Applicants should have a Master’s degree in a relevant subject or be able to demonstrate equivalent experience in a professional setting.

Project Overview

The research for the project will consider the history, current and future role of the artefact collection of the Royal Geographical Society, including the history of the Society’s museum, whose history has yet to be written. Intellectually, the project originates in the ‘material turn’ within the arts and humanities, which has forged fruitful connections between geography, archaeology, art history, anthropology, global history and the history of science while also highlighting questions of museum practice.

The PhD project will build on research in: (1) the history of colonial-era exploration and encounter, understood through objects including commodities, specimens and artefacts; (2) cultures, economies and networks of collecting in the modern period; (3) museum studies, including curatorship and exhibition understood as forms of research practice (‘museum as method’) and object-based learning; (4) studies of object biography, object trajectory and provenance, especially in relation to community engagement and knowledge repatriation. The project will consider fundamental questions about the role of objects in the making of geographical knowledge in the colonial era and the challenge of reinterpreting these objects today.

The core aims of the project are:

1.     To provide the first systematic account of the RGS artefact collection (c.1,000 objects), mapping its history, provenance, documentation and uses

2.     To consider the historical role of artefacts and specimens within exhibitions organized or supported by the RGS

3.     To examine the history of the RGS museum, established in Lowther Lodge in 1913 and continued until the 1960s, in the wider context of twentieth-century museological practice

4.     To explore the actual and potential role of object collections within the Society’s current strategies of public engagement, research and education

The project will draw on object-centred research methodologies as developed in cultural geography, museum studies, history and anthropology, including collections-level mapping and item-level object biographies. These typically involve working between objects and museum archives in order to contextualise processes of object accession, management, cataloguing, storage, exhibition and circulation. However, the project also requires critical reflection on the classification of objects as ‘artefacts’ not simply on the basis of their material qualities but also their functions in museum display. (Indeed, this is crucial to understanding why some objects, such as an 1822 oil portrait of an Inuit woman or a 1950s Aboriginal bark painting, were catalogued as ‘artefacts’). Historically-informed critique can generate new insights, as demonstrated by research at Royal Holloway on colonial-era Indigenous maps, understood as artefacts of encounter. The RGS artefact collection itself has yet to receive substantial attention from researchers, with the exception of specific work on scientific instruments and a small number of relief models. Yet the RGS museum, abandoned as a relic of the imperial age, continues to haunt contemporary attempts to reanimate the Society’s collections.

The student will become part of the collections research team at the Royal Geographical Society. The project will include excellent opportunities for public engagement, through blogs, public talks and/or temporary exhibits at the Society, and contributions to the preparation of learning materials and research guides on the object collection.

Information on how to apply can be found here:

Education (11) Geography (17) History & Archaeology (19)

Funding Notes

This is a full-time AHRC PhD studentship fully funded for at least 3.5 years (42 months), extendable by up to six months for placement/career enhancement activity.
The award includes a full maintenance grant. The PhD Stipend for 2023/24 is £20,622/year, inclusive of London weighting. Figures for 2024/25 will be available in Spring 2024. The award also pays tuition fees up to the value of the full-time home UKRI rate for PhD degrees. Where an international student is successful, RHUL will make an additional tuition fee award, wholly covering the difference between the home and the international tuition fee rate.

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