Collaboration

Collaborative work during your DPhil: My time at Empires of Faith

By Stefanie Lenk, current research student in the History of Art Department


Doing a doctorate in a research project is still fairly rare in the humanities at Oxford. The idea polarizes people. Being part of a research project helps connect students to others with similar interests quickly. Getting feedback on your work, a fresh eye on an old problem, or simply a little bit of moral support, are some of the perks that come with project work. If your project is functional, that is. If it isn’t, a research project soon can become exhausting.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Empires of Faith team

Empires of Faith, my research project, has taught me a lesson. I know now for sure that collaborative work during your PhD can be done successfully, for everyone involved. And I know how much impact it can have on you as a researcher, in ways that you couldn’t imagine at the outset. The key to making it work, I think, is the goodwill of each to be part of a group. For me, this meant putting my energy into group projects, besides my daily DPhil work, and being open to my colleagues’ ideas and suggestions, which often led to research avenues I had not originally contemplated.

I embarked on this journey four years ago, together with most of my DPhil and Postdoc colleagues, simply by responding to a call for applications. EoF is a collaboration between Oxford University and the British Museum, so we also have a BM curator on board, and of course the head of the project, Jas’ Elsner, professor of classics at Oxford. This makes for a jolly team of ten. We all work on religious art in late antiquity (c. 200-800 AD), but from different religious and geographical vantage points. From day 1, we immersed ourselves in the art and material culture of the early Islamic empire, the Sasanian empire, the Kushan empire, and the Roman empire – the latter tackled through Roman religions, the British Isles, East and West Rome. Only a fraction of my colleagues are trained as art historians. The others have backgrounds in history, classics, archaeology and the social sciences.

2Empires of Faith at the Kosmos Summer School 2015 in Berlin © Stefanie Lenk

My own DPhil project looks at pre-Christian imagery and architecture used in 5th and 6th century Christian baptisteries in the Western Mediterranean. Many of the issues that I focus on in my DPhil, like questions of religious identity in late antiquity, what material culture can tell us about religion, how important iconographic readings are for the meaning of art, or how we can compare the evidence of different sites to one another, are also of interest to my colleagues. To some extent, this has to do with the similarity of our research fields. Some topics lend themselves more to some questions than to others. But my suspicion is that most of what interests me today is a product of our continuous conversations and the work we did together.

3Choosing wall colours for Imagining the Divine with our designer Byung Kim and my EoF colleague Rachel Wood © Stefanie Lenk

We started by meeting up militantly for at least three hours a week during term. This was in October 2013. At the time, few of us were truly engaged with any other fields of religious art beyond our own research areas. Most had not worked collaboratively or across disciplines before. Now, four years later, Empires of Faith has curated two exhibitions, Imagining the Divine. Art and the Rise of World Religions, the Ashmolean Museum’s current lead exhibition, and Those Who Follow, a cooperation with contemporary artist Arturo Soto, also currently up in the Classics Centre of the university. Four of my colleagues and I have co-written Images of Mithra, the first volume of a new OUP book series called Visual Conversations, which OUP offered to run, as they liked the first book so much. Moreover, we have written a historiographical volume altogether on how the different ways of art history writing in our respective disciplines developed over the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as the exhibition catalogue for Imagining the Divine. To arrive at this point, we gathered much input from fellow researchers on numerous occasions in Oxford, London, Edinburgh, Berlin and Chicago.

4Public workshop in Those Who Follow at the Ioannou Centre, run together with my EoF colleague Dominic Dalglish © Stefanie Lenk

In our final year, 2017, we opened up Empires of Faith’ research to wider audiences, both in academia and to the general public. My two DPhil colleagues on the programme, Philippa Adrych and Dominic Dalglish, and myself, launched a graduate student workshop series called Talking Religion for ten DPhil students in the humanities. In a series of seminars, held at Wolfson, the Ashmolean and the British Museum, we discussed the question of how to write religious history from objects. The Talking Religion group gives collaborative and interdisciplinary student tours on a regular basis through Imagining the Divine. Currently, we are running weekend workshops for Oxford’s religious communities on Those Who Follow and Imagining the Divine. In Michaelmas term, we held an Empires of Faith academic seminar series, and from 11th to 13th of January 2018 we celebrated our immensely productive time together with the Empires of Faith conference.

5Talking Religion student Hugo Shakeshaft at work in Imagining the Divine © Stefanie Lenk

You might wonder how all of this relates back to my DPhil work. Well, I will be finishing this year, my fifth year as a DPhil student (having deferred last year), and cannot pretend that Empires of Faith expedited the progress I have made on my dissertation in terms of getting the words down on paper. I am not sad about this, though, because I consider my work to have become so much better thanks to my colleagues. I have also been involved in terrific publications, and worked as the lead curator of Imagining the Divine.

Most importantly, however, I have experienced the tremendous benefits collaborative work can bring to academia. None of what we have achieved would have been possible, or even enjoyable, on our own. True, not every PhD student has the luck of participating in a project like Empires of Faith. I don’t think, though, that this is necessary for similar experiences. All it takes is a little leap of faith. Under the pressure of DPhil work, it can easily seem too challenging to dedicate energy to experiments with others. But at least in my experience, it works the other way around: collaborative work gives you more energy than it takes.

6We made it! Imagining the Divine up and running at the Ashmolean museum! © Stefanie Lenk


Stefanie is working on Baptismal Art in the Late Antique and Early Medieval Western Mediterranean (400-800 A.D.)

DPhil is the Oxford term for a PhD. For more information about the History of Art DPhil, please see the Department’s Research Degrees page.

Imagining the Divine is currently on at the Ashmolean Museum.

For more information about the Empires of Faith project, please see the project page.

Advertisements

Trusted Source: A New Oxford University and National Trust Collaboration

By Alice Purkiss, Knowledge Transfer Partnership Associate, University of Oxford and National Trust


stoweStowe Gardens © Dr Oliver Cox

At the beginning of February the University embarked upon a new collaboration with the National Trust in a bid to enhance visitor experience at the charity’s historic properties and outdoor spaces through research.

Funded by the AHRC and the National Trust, the Trusted Source project is the culmination of a series of successful collaborations running over the past five years between the University and the Trust, coordinated by Oxford’s Heritage Engagement Fellow, Dr Oliver Cox. Having studied at the History of Art Department for my MSt, I was delighted to return to the University to develop this exciting new partnership, and to work with colleagues old and new at both institutions.

Trusted Source has been commissioned as a Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP), an Innovate UK scheme devised to encourage businesses to innovate and grow. It does this by linking them with a university and a graduate to work on a specific project. Usually awarded to the science and industry sectors, this is one of the few heritage-based KTPs funded in the initiative’s 40 year history, and the first awarded to both the Humanities Division at Oxford and the National Trust.

What is Trusted Source?
The aim of the partnership is to create Trusted Source; a new online resource featured on the National Trust’s website containing concise, engaging and accessible articles about history, culture and the national environment that draw out connections between collections, places, properties and people. Crowdsourced from university researchers and National Trust specialists, this resource aims to enhance visitor experience of National Trust properties and places. Furthermore, in doing this we hope to encourage more meaningful public engagement with, and enhanced understanding of, Britain’s wider cultural heritage and natural environment.

As a key advocate for the project, the Trust’s Director General, Dame Helen Ghosh, states:
We want to tell the stories of the collections and properties in our care in an engaging, accurate and inspiring way. Using the latest academic research, Trusted Source will help us enhance the experience we give our members and visitors, uncover new information and deepen our understanding of the heritage in our care. As well as enriching our interpretation at properties, the resources created during this important collaborative partnership will be freely available online for everyone to explore.

Benefits & Opportunities at Oxford
It’s important to stress that the National Trust and its visitors are not the only intended beneficiaries of Trusted Source; the opportunities the project offers to researchers here at Oxford are significant too, and a particular consideration of mine. In addition to providing research and networking opportunities with a leading cultural institution, Trusted Source offers its contributors meaningful work experience and visibility within a highly competitive sector that is increasingly hard to come by.

The articles are authored, and contributors are given an ‘Author Profile’ page on the National Trust’s website featuring a short biography and a list of the articles they have written. With the Trust’s website receiving over 11 million page hits every year from over 2 million unique visitors, becoming a contributor can significantly boost online research profiles, offer valuable Public Engagement with Research (PER) experience, and enable researchers to experiment with communicating their work to a new and diverse audience. Academics from across the University from Masters level upwards are invited to contribute, be it with one Trusted Source article, or 20!

First Steps
To begin the article commissioning process, the first call-out for researchers was devised to support the current Landscape Programme at Stowe Gardens in Buckinghamshire, an initiative comprising of fifty four tasks taking place over five years to return the gardens to their former glory. Highlights include the return of missing statues, monuments and paths, and the opening of parts of the gardens not currently open to the public. In support of this, Trusted Source involvement sought to assist in unravelling the puzzling circumstances surrounding Stowe’s Gothic Cross, a Coade Stone monument placed in the landscape in the early 19th century and later destroyed, it is believed, by a falling tree.

stowe-basestowe-fragment
Left: The base of Stowe’s Gothic Cross, 1991. Right: Fragment of the Gothic Cross. Photographs © National Trust.

In March, University researchers and National Trust staff attended a workshop at St John’s College at which Trusted Source was introduced and opportunities for academic research on the Gothic Cross detailed. A variety of articles were written as a result of this workshop, including texts on lost medieval villages, Whig landscapes, Gothic Revival, Coade stone and the meaning of patriotism, to name a few. Each article uses Stowe as one of a number of examples of the feature or question being explored, therefore these short articles connect up the National Trust’s portfolio of properties, places and collections in new and surprising ways. See the articles with the corresponding ‘Author Profiles’ on the Trust’s website here: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ktp

What’s next?
Over the coming months the Trusted Source project team will continue to foster strong bonds between these two leading organisations and commission engaging and accessible articles which support a whole host of Trust properties, places, and projects; from stately homes, working farms and natural landscapes, to Trust-wide programming themes. Articles will be commissioned through a variety of means, including events and workshops based upon specific National Trust projects and themes, through general article writing workshops hosted at the History of Art Department, and by embedding Trusted Source into Humanities doctoral training.

The project’s legacy beyond the two years of the KTP is highly significant, and a central consideration for both institutions. By formalising a clear methodology for sharing knowledge between these two leading organisations, we hope to establish a blueprint for collaboration that can be adopted by other academic institutions and heritage organisations internationally, thereby encouraging further stories about places to be told and enriched through research.

Interested in becoming a Trusted Source contributor?
For more information on Trusted Source including details on how to contribute, please visit http://torch.ox.ac.uk/trusted-source or email alice.purkiss@history.ox.ac.uk.


Alice completed her Masters in the History of Art and Visual Culture at the Department in 2012. Before this role Alice was a Curatorial Trainee at The Charleston Trust, an experience which she wrote about for the blog last year.