Dissertation Work, April Update

Last month I told you about the process I went through to create my prospectus draft, and how I determined that traveling outreach exhibitions organized by museums and related cultural institutions is my core topic of inquiry. Today, I’ll share the revisions I made to that initial draft, and how I refined my burgeoning argument.

Overall, my advisor thought the draft was good, but the main thing I needed to do was make my argument more explicit. Rather than imply my intended intervention, I needed to come right out and state what it is and why it’s important. After all, why bother writing about outreach exhibits if there’s some other topic demanding an intervention?

I suspected that I would need to do this. Between being a woman in a patriarchal society, my personal family history, and my own awareness of the limitations of my knowledge and abilities, I’ve never been an especially assertive person, and this reflects in my writing. The prospectus asserts the significance of your project though, so I knew I would need to use a more direct rhetoric. The argument was already there, but I needed to make it overt.

Fortunately the faculty members on my comps committee were more than willing to help. Elizabeth Losh, in particular, suggested an exercise that proved crucial to the editing process. She recommended that I create a new outline based on what I had actually written in the draft, as opposed to what I had intended in the initial outline. More specifically, she encouraged me to identify the riskiest assertions I made in the draft, the ones I would need to back up with evidence, and then see what kind of evidence I actually had. If I couldn’t find any risky assertions, I needed to delve more deeply into my topic. If I did have one but nothing to back it up, I needed to either find that evidence or scale my assertions back to something more manageable.

So I did exactly that. Based on conversations with my advisor, I knew what my main intervention was: that outreach exhibits housed in public spaces such as libraries or mobile galleries constitute a different genre of spectacle from exhibitions housed in more conventional museum spaces. Rather than be regarded as derivative of in-house installations, they should be studied in their own right. Having established this argument as my main assertion, I now needed to back up my claim. Looking back through the draft, I found three interconnected, implied assertions:

  1. Outreach exhibits are different from installations designed for museums because they occupy different spaces. In the case of exhibits intended for schools or libraries, they use spaces that normally serve a different function but temporarily become transformed into galleries. This is different from historical buildings such as houses or factories that have been converted into museums because outreach galleries will revert to their original function once the show leaves. In the case of mobile galleries, the space itself may function as a permanent gallery, but they do not represent a permanent fixture within the communities they visit. Whereas museums hosting traveling exhibitions remain even after the shows leave, artmobiles depart altogether.
  2. Since outreach exhibits occupy different spaces, they have their own distinct logistical concerns which affect their narrative content, particularly regarding conversation and security.
  3. Outreach exhibits can approach audience differently from exhibitions housed in museums because they can target specific communities and visitors. In this way they are more akin to educational programs geared for specific age groups, but instead of expecting visitors to travel to the museum’s stationary location, they attempt to access these groups by appearing in places they are most likely to visit, such as schools or libraries.

In short, I was arguing that outreach exhibitions are distinguished by their mobility and their impermanence with respect to space as well as content, and as such should be evaluated through different criteria than exhibitions intended for more stationary museum galleries.

After this exercise, it became much easier to revise. Following further conversations and revisions, I handed in the second draft. Moving forward, I feel much more focused about not only my topic, but the intervention I intend to do. I know it will change as I continue to research and gain new perspectives, but it will at least get me started and provide a sense of focus.

My prospectus colloquium is on April 12, so if all goes well, I’ll be on my way to writing a dissertation!