Dissertation Work, June Update

Summer may be underway, but I remain busy with my dissertation work. In the weeks since the writing retreat at the beginning of the month, I’ve been working to maintain the momentum I experienced there. Let’s take a look!

Completing archival research has been an important task during the past few weeks. Image: a computer screen with a photograph of an archival document.

Drafting a Conclusion

During the week immediately following the workshop, I wrote a conclusion. Actually, I wrote two. The first, shorter version offered a summary of the dissertation and my recommendations for making outreach exhibitions more effective as a form. Aside from reviewing the dissertation as a whole, I wanted to engage some of the contemporary issues affecting museums today and the recommendations activists have been making to improve them, such as decolonizing collecting practices and embracing a more collaborative approach to curation.

The second conclusion included an additional section comparing current outreach initiatives with traveling exhibitions. More specifically, I talked about online engagement experiments like The Met Unframed and community-curated shows. In this new section I posited that although these newer methods might appear quite different from traditional outreach shows, they share an underlying belief that providing collections engagement beyond the museum’s gallery walls is important and good.

The reason I wrote a second, longer conclusion is because I think it would work better as a sixth chapter. Engaging contemporary issues and case studies demonstrates the relevance of your work, but I’m not sure the conclusion is the best place to dive into new media in detail. Given my intended completion timeline, I may not write it at all, or save it as a future article or book chapter. By sending both versions to my advisor though, I’ve shown that I’ve at least considered how to connect my historical research to contemporary issues and events.

Secondary Reading

When I haven’t been writing, I’ve been boning up my secondary readings. Since I prioritized archival documents for my first drafts, I didn’t do as much background reading as I would have liked for each chapter. Now that I have a better sense of my overall argument, I’ve been filling in the gaps in my literature.

Right now, I’ve been catching up on contemporary readings about museum reform and innovation. Some of these works include Transforming Inclusion in Museums, co-written by Dr. Porchia Moore, Dr. Rose Paquet, and Alethia Wittman (also check out their blog The Incluseum) Mike Murawski’s Museums as Agents of Change, and Nina Simon’s The Art of Relevance, among others. While I started reading some of these last summer in preparation for Museum & Crisis, this past spring I prioritized archival work to write Chapter 5. Over the next few weeks, I’ll dive into more historical topics like suburbanization, women’s clubs, and other social phenomena closely connected to outreach exhibitions.

Finishing Archival Work

Although I’ve been putting more emphasis on secondary reading, I’m still doing archival work. In February I took hundreds of new photographs of the Roswell Museum archive, but since I was writing Chapter 5 at the time I set them aside for the future. With that chapter now drafted, I returned to the photos. I’d already organized and labeled them in Tropy, but during the first three weeks of June, I read through them and took notes. Since I was already familiar with a lot of these documents, I was able to do this work relatively quickly.

I also went back through my other Tropy projects and took notes on the documents I hadn’t already read, including papers from the Middlesex County Museum, the Greenville Museum of Art, and the Mildred Baker papers at the Archives of American Art. Although I had read through most of these documents before, I added notes to them so that I would remember their contents in the future. Whenever I’ve encountered documents that are especially pertinent to the dissertation, I’ve added them to Zotero so that they’ll be ready to cite when I start revising chapters.

Finally, for all of my archival repositories, I’ve been creating spreadsheets listing each document, its creation date, location, and a brief summary of its contents. Aside from having a key for all my documents, I’ve been creating these spreadsheets for future digital humanities projects, as it’s critical to keep your data organized.

Plotting Out Dissertation Revisions

During the last weeks of June, I started turning my attention to my chapter revisions. I’d already read the dissertation and made notes on revisions, but now I needed to figure out how to make those changes. Focusing on Chapter 1, I made a new outline incorporating my changes, from which case studies to keep, to making my overall argument more explicit.

With this outline as my guide, I’ll begin reworking the Chapter in July. I’ll enact a similar process for each of the remaining chapters.

Upcoming Research Trips

While you might think I’d be winding down the research phase, I actually have two trips planned for the summer. Both are intended to tie up loose ends on specific chapters. During the last week of June, I’ll head back to New York to finish my Chapter 2 research. I’ll first go to the New York Public Library, which has yearbooks and student publications from some of the high schools the Neighborhood Circulating Exhibitions visited. My goal is to see whether any of these publications mention the shows, and if so, how they discuss them. From there, I’ll head back to the Met to take another look at this archive, specifically its collection of newspaper clippings. I didn’t get to look at these in detail last time, but given the importance of newspapers to my research, I wanted to see these clippings again.

The following week, I’ll be heading to the National Archives branch in College Park, Maryland to look at their WPA repository. I’ve been meaning to visit this collection for years, but between the pandemic and other archival research, I’m only now getting to it. Given the amount of research I’ve already done for the Community Art Center Project, my main goal for the dissertation is to demonstrate that I’ve visited the site. I may not have time to read everything I’ll photograph, but I’ll at least show that I’m familiar with its resources.

Continuing Good Dissertation (and Work) Habits

To stay focused while I work on all these different tasks, I’ve incorporated the habits I picked up at the writing retreat. I divide my day into time blocks. Writing happens first thing in the morning, followed by archival research. In the afternoons, I worked on secondary readings. To stay on schedule, I’ve approached the readings as I did for comprehensive exams, focusing only on the main arguments rather than the details.

The most important change I’ve made is limiting my time on email and social media. Rather than check email intermittently throughout the day, I set aside a specific time for reading and responding to them. Similarly, I’ve limited my time on social media, only logging on at the end of the workday. I’ve also turned off notifications on text messaging so that incoming messages don’t distract me.

In essence, I’ve made a clearer distinction between my work time and my rest time, and it’s made a difference. I’m more focused and get more things done over the course of my day. And when the day is finished, I’m better able to relax and recharge.

Looking Ahead

For July, I’ll continue the work I’ve started this month. As was made clear at the beginning of the writing retreat, this year is going to be intense, but with my revitalized work habits, I feel I’m off to a good start.

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