Any job, project, course or endeavour that we undertake is always a compromise. A compromise between what we get now (paying the bills) and where it gets us in the future. More profoundly, it’s a compromise between fun and values: between whether it gets us out of bed in the morning and whether it lets us sleep soundly at night.
My PhD — a project investigating public engagement in the Mesolithic (the early stages are still visible on the project wiki) began as a compromise that felt right for me. It allowed me to investigate public engagement in archaeology, museums and media/information design. Most importantly it had a practical component — I could play around with events and media creation — and remain true to my nerdy fascination with Holocene hunter-gatherers.
However, as I went along I became aware that my frustrations with the project went beyond the normal frustrations with work, problem solving and research that are felt by any PhD student. I became aware that I was a poor fit for the task and, though this took a while, came to believe that the PhD structure was poorly suited to the questions the project entailed.
That’s not to say that it didn’t create some fantastic opportunities. I made two trips to museums and heritage-parks in Germany and Scandinavia to see how the Mesolithic (and prehistory) was presented there. I also took part in and co-organised public events with a Mesolithic focus, either working in Yorkshire with the Star Carr team (the case study site) or at bigger events with teams from other universities. My findings were inspiring but frustrating: I began to realise that the reasons prehistory gets such short shrift in UK museums and public discourse were beyond the scope of a PhD. Worse, I felt that the sorts of outreach and engagement work necessary to bring Star Carr to a wider audience — though worthy of work — were not complex enough to provide doctoral-level problems: presenting Star Carr was just a case of getting stuck in.
I ended up caught in a slow, problematic research write-up of various analytic chapters whilst other members of the Star Carr team, did get stuck in to creating public output — a small booklet, a coffee-table book, and eventually an exhibition. These were great successes for getting the material out there but did little to shift or expand any ideas about the really thorny problems of presenting prehistory over other archaeological material.
So, where does that leave me?
I took a lengthy break from the project (to look after my Mum who eventually died from her illness — 2013 has been a little bumpy all round) and realised I couldn’t possibly go back to a project I didn’t believe in.
So here I am, turning aside from directly tackling a problem which I think is very troubling — the failure of British public discourse to engage in prehistory — not because I find it uninteresting or unworthy but because I felt that a PhD was the wrong tool for the job: like using callipers to measure wind speed. This is just my feeling though — the PhD has just been re-advertised and I genuinely hope it produces some fantastic results in new hands.
My plan, though, is to investigate more practical ways of engaging with all aspects of cultural heritage (hence the eclectic list on the front page) and arm myself with new ideas, and approaches to an issue I will always find fascinating. Better still, I hope I’ll find new people with fresh ways of working and new energy to charge my own endeavours. To find better compromises.
Originally published at pathadley.net on October 7, 2013.