Phoebe Thomas, a UCL Laidlaw Scholar, on improving the accessibility of art and speaking up for what you believe in.
Research title: Recalibrating the Object-Lesson: Implementing New Media Technologies as Teaching Tools for Object-Based Learning
My summer research expanded upon my previous work with the Cabinet of Obsolete Technologies, a teaching collection based in the History of Art department in UCL. This collection facilitates object-based learning: a way of creating knowledge through interactions with and reflections on “obsolete” media. Students are encouraged to search the items using the Cabinet’s online database, as well as physically interacting with the objects. They are allowed to hold the items, and, in some instances, activate their mechanisms—such as spinning the zoetrope, or peering through the stereoscope, to see images come to life. This year, in response to COVID-19 and the temporary closing of many collections, nationally and internationally, I looked at ways of providing object-based lessons when the objects in question could not be physically accessed. My research led me to consider in which ways digital approaches can simulate “real world” experiences of teaching objects, as well as the ways in which it cannot substitute in-person interactions with media items. For instance, currently, digital 3D renderings of items cannot provide us with tactile sensations, a true sense of scale or weight of an object. Rather than see this as a detriment, I considered the ways in which the digital object lesson can provide new experiences, and in tandem, provide new forms of knowledge-making.
Where did your passion for this research originate?
My initial plans for my second year of research, which would have involved visiting teaching collections abroad, were halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to restrictions, many galleries, museums, archives, and collections were temporarily closed to the public. These new conditions prompted me to rethink the direction of my research, and I questioned what I could do remotely with the resources I had to hand. Though unprecedented circumstances altered the research I could conduct, and the topics I would further explore, I found it interesting that I was prompted to revisit a subject that was of pertinence to me in my first year of research into the teaching collection: accessibility. Currently, the teaching cabinet is located at the top of the History of Art department; it requires scaling many flights of stairs to reach, and as such is inaccessible to those with mobility issues. Though I hope that the cabinet will be relocated in the future, the digitisation of the collection would allow anyone, disabled and abled bodied alike, to gain insight into the teaching collection. In addition, the creation of an app to facilitate object learning allows for a wider audience to gain access to information on these media items. It encourages those who may not have a background in art history, anthropology, museum studies or any related field, to foster their curiosity for the teaching collection and its acquisitions. Through the creation of an application that would have digital renders of cabinet acquisitions, alongside valuable information on the objects (as well as a section for creative input), the number of people who can access knowledge about the cabinet is increased—this would be a very positive outcome! I hope that my ideas on how to create a successful digital object lesson will be listened to, reflected on, and hopefully integrated in the future.
Real-life leadership lessons
The Laidlaw Scholar programme has allowed me to develop my leadership skills in ways I couldn’t imagine before! I feel that my confidence in leadership and mentoring roles has grown; I am able to calmly step up and take charge in situations that require me to do so. In group projects, I ensure that every member of the team has their voice heard and is encouraged to take an active role in shaping the direction of the project. If conflict arises, I can mediate the situation to help the team make decisions that are balanced and fair. I am particularly skilled at uplifting shyer members of my team, as I sympathise with having a lack of trust in your opinions from time to time. However, having support from your teammates and team leaders can often give you enough confidence to speak up for what you believe in! I look up to leaders who take charge with a calm, empathetic approach, and who provide gentle encouragement. I try to base my own leadership style on my personal belief that good leaders do not think that they have the most power or authority in a team. Rather, a good leader is a source of motivation and guidance, who can offer practical solutions and help when needed. A good leader is goal-orientated, yet understands the importance of celebrating small victories along the way! I feel that applying this mentality to day-to-day life increases your gratitude and your ability to celebrate your own accomplishments, as well as the victories of those around you.
Top leadership tips
⚡️ Remain empathetic ⚡️ Reserve judgement ⚡️ Provide accommodation: your team will thrive when individuals’ needs are met ⚡️ Have an open mind ⚡️ Trust in your decisions
What does it mean for you to be a Laidlaw Scholar?
Being a Laidlaw scholar means that you are open to new experiences and ways of thinking! It allows you to practice in-depth analytical and research skills within a field of study that you are truly passionate about. In addition, you gain experience and confidence in relaying your findings and personal conclusions. The interdisciplinary nature of the scholarship allows you to learn from your peers from other disciplines; naturally, you will learn from each other, which will broaden the scope of your research as you integrate new ideas and possibilities into your own work. Remaining curious, thinking innovatively, and being collaboratively minded are important parts of your Laidlaw journey!
Which leaders inspire you and why?
.My immediate response to this question would be that I am most inspired by the leaders around me, in day-to-day life: my lecturers, peers, family, and friends. I am encouraged to see my true potential through the accomplishments of those around me! More broadly, I am most inspired by leaders who I believe are true pioneers. Activists, revolutionaries, and real change-makers who advocate for the rights of and respect for disenfranchised individuals in society earn my deepest admiration. Off the top of my head, I consider the members of Group Material (1979-1996), which included artist-activists such as Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger, to be truly inspiring pioneers. The group were community-centred, creating accessible exhibitions outside of art institutions. They also utilized art and advertisement strategies to advocate for policy changes; their project AIDS Timeline called for more understanding and better healthcare for individuals (mostly those subject to prejudices at the time, such as queer and POC individuals) affected by the AIDS epidemic. In my eyes, these individuals demonstrated incredible leadership skills as they were unafraid of those who were in power, and those who perpetuated the oppression that worsened the epidemic. Without their efforts, research into HIV and AIDS would not be as advanced as it is today; now, individuals who have AIDS can access medication that allows them to be confidently untransmittable and expect to live long and happy lives. They were true pioneers!
Briefly describe a scene from the future you are striving to create.
A utopia is only utopic when it serves the needs of every individual. In an ideal future, those who are most marginalised in society at present would have equal opportunities, equal pay, equal respect, and equal healthcare (both mental and physical) to those who are currently in the most privileged positions. Equity, not equality, is of the upmost importance; allocating the most resources to those who have the least, in order to strive towards balance. Through careful listening, active allyship, and working towards a more just system, my ideal future would never lose sight of harmony. I don’t believe that this is a fantastical idea! I’m truly optimistic that there is a better tomorrow.
🌈 Something that made me feel joy recently: Taking time to reconnect with nature
I can say that I will be posting more of my art and writing on my Instagram, phoebevthomas, and hope to set up a website for my work within the coming year. I have a few collaborative projects in the works with some amazing creative minds!
I would like to thank my mentors, Hanna Hölling and Andrea Lathrop Ligueros, for their continued support and encouragement. I would also like to encourage anyone who doubts that they can achieve the goals that they have set out for themselves that no matter the obstacles you face, the time it may take you to get where you want to be, it will happen, and it will be worth it.
Phoebe is a Laidlaw Undergraduate Leadership and Research Scholar at UCL. Become a Laidlaw Scholar to conduct a research project of your choice, develop your leadership skills, and join a global community of changemakers from world-leading universities.
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