Dissertation Work, April Update, Part I

Last week I discussed the ongoing research I’ve been doing on the VMFA Artmobile. This week we’ll take a look at how I distilled that research into something manageable for Chapter 5.

Given all the rich details I was finding in the archive, I decided that I needed to take a macroscopic view of my research before I got further immersed in interesting but tangential minutiae. After finishing my initial perusal of Newspapers.com then, I stepped back from all the research I’d done and assessed what I actually had available in terms of material. As I assessed my archival notes, freewrites, and spreadsheets, I made note of the following points:

  1. What I knew about the Artmobile program
  2. What I didn’t know about the Artmobile program
  3. How my research related to the other chapters
  4. What I still needed to do research-wise to write a first draft of Chapter 5

Sorting out my research and putting it in relation to the other chapters helped me zoom out from the minutiae and get a better sense of how to analyze the information I’d gathered. As I’ve been learning throughout this experience, the dissertation process is as much about cutting out the information you don’t need as including what you do want. You aren’t there to prove everything or make every possible argument. After all, you need to leave space for future researchers. Rather, you’re there to make your particular intervention, whatever that may be. Instead of including everything you find, you use the materials that best serve the argument or observation you’re trying to make. Otherwise, each chapter would be 1,000 pages, and nobody, including myself, will want to read that.

So after going through my notes, I organized my observations into three categories that correlated with both the strengths of the materials I had and the arguments I’ve been making in the other chapters:

  1. Exhibition content and destinations
  2. Community relationships
  3. The Artmobile’s public image

Making these three categories allowed me to start envisioning both sections within Chapter 5 and ways to relate those sections to the other parts of the dissertation. Thinking about the research through the lens of the dissertation itself also helped me filter out information that was interesting but not necessary to the project. After all, writing a comprehensive history of the VMFA artmobile program, as fun or engrossing as that might be, is not my dissertation’s objective. That’s a future project, whether for me or for someone else. Rather, the goal of this chapter is to position the Artmobile within my emerging argument about the role of collections mobility in developing relationships between museums and the communities they purport to serve.

Once I set up these categories, I then started thinking through another issue distinctive to the VMFA Artmobile: the duration of time. Unlike the other programs I’ve been studying, which lasted for less than ten years, the artmobile program was on the road for four decades, not including its 2018 revival, and I’ve been debating how to address this. After all, a major reason why I picked this particular program as a case study, as opposed to any number of similar initiatives out there, was because its duration suggested it was especially successful. At the same time, tracing a program over forty years is an awful lot for one dissertation chapter to accomplish, especially when the others address a shorter time span.

Once I started getting a macroscopic view of the research, however, I realized that the actual distribution of documentation across those forty years was not equal. On the contrary, for both the VMFA archive and Newspapers.com, the bulk of materials focused on the first ten years of the program, from the development of the first artmobile in the early 1950s through the opening of the second artmobile in 1962. Following a brief spike in the mid-1960s with the opening of Artmobile III and IV, materials drop off considerably, with references becoming increasingly scant throughout the 1970s and 1980s. As a result of this analysis, I’ve been favoring concentrating on the Artmobile’s first decade of operation, when the program was getting established. Narrowing the focus to the first ten years also meant I’d only need to concentrate on one vehicle and its exhibitions instead of four.

I further honed my focus when I turned to the Artmobile’s social relationships. As I mentioned in a previous post, each of the four Artmobiles in operation under the VMFA developed their own network of social relationships, albeit with significant overlap. Artmobile I operated through a collaboration between the VMFA and the Virginia Federation of Women’s Clubs, and as a result focused on communities with member clubs. Artmobiles II and III catered to communities that were members of a statewide association that the VMFA started in the 1960s, with art organizations in different cities around Virginia joining to gain access to the Museum’s traveling exhibitions and other resources. Artmobile IV concentrated on Virginia colleges and universities. As with the rest of the archival material, documentation for these different organizations is uneven, with the majority of references correlating with Artmobile I and the VFWC. So I decided to further hone my focus on Artmobile I and its relationship with the women’s clubs, as it was this interaction that enabled the expansion of the program into additional vehicles and networks.

Having narrowed my focus then, I then went back and assessed what information I needed to comfortably write a first chapter. Within three days, I had gathered that material. What could have easily become a weeks-long rabbithole plunge was wrapped up in a few days thanks to some reflection and perspective. Not that I wouldn’t mind taking that plunge in the future, but this dissertation isn’t the time or place for that excursion.

But assessing research is only part of the process. Later this month, I’ll provide another update on the actual outlining and writing.

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