As a long-standing Arts & Humanities student, it’s typically assumed that we don’t have much of an interest in or know much about science (and attending the fascinating and complex student discussions here at the AOP certainly didn’t disprove the latter theory in my case!). However, when the opportunity cropped up to come and work at the Armagh Observatory and Planetarium on a two-week placement through the Northern Bridge Consortium (the North-Eastern and Northern Irish branch of the AHRC), I saw a much broader opportunity to grow my museology skills, to gain new knowledge in collections management, and to learn about the new cross-disciplinary and interdisciplinary research being conducted at the AOP, in which science and the arts and humanities are being brought together in a way which modernizes and revolutionizes the traditional disciplines of higher education. For Arts & Humanities, the way forward is through collaboration and innovation, finding new ways to make the arts relevant and responsive to our new scientific and technology-focused modern society.
My Ph.D research looks to trace the influence of the eighteenth-century author Laurence Sterne through French experimental literature, running from the Romantics up to the present-day members of the OULIPO group, and on the surface seems to have little relevance to astronomy or science. However, when one looks deeper, these seemingly separate disciplines often interlock and interlace – for example, connections have been made between Sterne’s use of asterisks and the stars, and what this might suggest about his texts, his scientific understandings, and his religious beliefs. As a Collaborative Doctoral Student with the Laurence Sterne Trust, my Ph.D project also involves working within the literary home Shandy Hall (former home and workplace of Sterne) where I am both cataloguing the Hall’s twentieth-century texts and informing my research through the Trust’s eighteenth and nineteenth-century collections. Since commencing my Ph.D, I have set out to build museology skills such as document handling and archival best practice to assist me with this partnership work. The opportunity to come to Armagh Observatory and Planetarium challenged me to apply my knowledge to new object collections, moving from a primarily textual collection towards one based in brass, glass and paper. As an eighteenth-century-ist I was also excited to explore an eighteenth-century observatory to experience how Sterne would have seen the universe in the 1700s, and to immerse myself in a new world of Georgian architecture and history in the City of Armagh and its environs.
During my time at AOP, I have been working alongside the Museums Collections Officer to expand my existing knowledge and skills and apply them within a new museum environment and collection. I have learnt about all the day-to-day tasks which happen behind the scenes at AOP, exploring conservation, document handling, a new cataloguing system (MuseumPlus – I’ve previously used MODES), archival best practice as well as the AOP’s policies and procedures. The main project in which I have been involved during my time here is to implement a system of location hierarchy within the Observatory’s collections of over thirty-one thousand documented objects, two-thirds of which did not have a registered location. This project involved assigning specified and documented codes to object locations. This will facilitate future archival practice at the Observatory by making it easier to find things, record where things are, and track where objects are moved to or from. Before this, the Observatory was predominantly dependent upon human memory as a record of object location. This system trusted to staff members’ long-standing ability to retrieve objects from their mental database, and then, the shelves. However, this is not a failsafe system, and as other heritage institutions have discovered, when knowledge is stored only within the human brain, it can very quickly be lost – and once so, it has no method of recovery. Implementing this location system will now help to secure this knowledge in a physical and tangible system which will ensure its reliability and permanence. We hope it will remain in place for many years to come, aiding and supporting the next generations of museum staff and astronomers in their research and exploration of the skies.
During my time with the AOP, I have also undertaken three field trips which allowed me to see “behind the scenes” at other museums and heritage sites, exploring how they manage their collections and how they engage with the public. This included the Cultural and Heritage Service Library, the Armagh County Museum and the Armagh Robinson Library (where I was very excited to see Swift’s handwritten edits to Gulliver’s Travels!). Visiting these sites allowed me to learn about alternative museum policies and practices and compare and contrast these with both my knowledge and experience at AOP, and back at Shandy Hall in England. For example, visitors to the County Museum are keen on an ‘older’ style of museum presentation, the Robinson are engaging with the ‘Playful Museum’ practice (which finds ways to engage children in museum environments) and the Cultural and Heritage Service Library’s ‘reminiscence’ session connected and brought together members of the public through sharing memories inspired by objects and photographs. I also got an insider peek into how collections are stored and managed and the day-to-day workings and practices of running a museum.
The knowledge and skills gained during my placement experience at AOP will reflect onto my future museological interventions at Shandy Hall. Funding cuts, the pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis add to the usual challenges of the museum sector and require continual waves of innovation which both protect and conserve the history of the museum whilst keeping it young, alive, and relevant for a modern audience. This presents both challenges and opportunities for museums and through my experience at AOP I can transpose my new knowledge and skills into my work, preserving the history of Sterne whilst demonstrating how and why his work remains relevant for a contemporary audience.
As my research tracks Sterne’s influence across the centuries, tracing a pathway through the AOP collections presents a new interdisciplinary opportunity to position an individual literary legacy within our ever-changing understanding of the universe. In addition to all this, the placement has inspired a future interest in astronomy, by allowing me to explore the stars through the ART telescope, to learn about the creation of the universe through the Planetarium’s dome show, to touch a meteor older than anything I’ve ever known, and even to witness a new fusion of arts and science in the Planetarium’s 50th anniversary show of Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon. This placement has opened up a whole new universe to me, and I look forward to exploring it the future.
Written by Laura Sadler