A PhD by the sea…

If you think that doing a PhD is all about being surround by endless piles of books and journals – one long deskbound literature review, this might make you think again! The School of Social Sciences at Heriot-Watt offers a world of opportunities, and some of our current PhD researchers are a great example.

Lifeboat from the Oceanic Liner, restored by the Shetland Museum and Archives

Cait McCullagh, a PhD researcher with our Intercultural Research Centre, is undertaking research under a SGSAH Applied Research Collaborative Studentship in Shetland, looking at how people in vulnerable and remote environments connect around their maritime heritage. Her work, Curating Heritage for Sustainable Communities in Highly Vulnerable Environments: The case of Scotland’s Northern Isles, is a practice-based PhD, with hands-on work at Shetland Museum and Archives. Cait finds this approach beneficial, describing it as “ensuring that my praxis is grounded in the experience and learning opportunities that working behind the scenes with colleagues there affords.”

Flitting to the Northern Isles might not be the first thought in most academics’ minds, but Cait had a solid previous history and connection with the area, as she outlines:

“Prior to starting my PhD I worked as a community-based archaeologist and ethnologist in the Highlands and Islands. More recently I developed a career as a museums-based curator in the region. This included living and working with the community of the Isle of Lismore to co-curate their island heritage into a newly-developed museum and, at Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, developing the newly created role of Curator of Collections Engagement. For five years, I’ve work on nurturing an ethos of co-curation, inviting people from throughout the Highlands collaborate in identifying, exploring, researching and adding their knowledge and insights to the museum’s collections.”

“My PhD gives me the opportunity to bring my experience to the task of critically investigating the practice, complexities and benefits of communities collaborating to curate their heritage. More specifically, it enables me to discover and share findings on a major case-study for cultural heritage-based shared learning and practice as a contribution to Scotland’s attainment of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.”

Heriot-Watt’s Intercultural Research Centre, sited within The School of Social Sciences, brings together academic disciplines under three research themes addressing cultural issues including community, identity, language and lived experience. The work going on at Heriot-Watt, and the IRC in particular, was a big draw for Cait.

“The blend of disciplines and expertise that the University’s Intercultural Research Centre’s team offers is the perfect context for my inter-disciplinary research. I was also attracted by the University’s international outlook and status. My own field, Critical Heritage Studies, is made up of a dynamic and globally dispersed community of scholars whose grasp of our global context is well understood by my colleagues at Heriot-Watt.“

Of course, many of our students choose Heriot-Watt for our geographically-dispersed locations and opportunities to study in some of the most beautiful places in the world, and Cait was no exception, as she says: “what really sealed the deal was the fact that the University has a campus in Orkney and that I have been able to base myself there, within close reach of my fieldwork and the communities who are collaborating in my research. Who wouldn’t want an office that looks out onto the ocean, island views and some of the biggest skies ever?”

A PhD at Heriot-Watt can offer immense career and personal development opportunities and this has certainly been the case for Cait, whose work has had a major on-the-ground impact both for the museum and communities she has worked within. From immersion in the local community to the legacy of developing a permanent resource, she outlines the path down which her research has taken her and achievements along the way:

“In the first year of my PhD research I spent a great deal of time closely observing, engaging and listening to people who were involved in diverse aspects of practicing or caring about the pasts and futures of their maritime cultural heritage throughout both of the archipelagos of Orkney and Shetland. The relationships I developed supported me in inviting people to join a research collaborative. At present, six representative heritage-concerned organisations are now piloting a new maritime heritage network across the Northern Isles.

“Through this partnership, I have successfully applied for development funding from Museums Galleries Scotland to both enable the practice-base of my research and though this provide the foundation for an ongoing resource in the region. Together, the collaborative will co-curate a new, virtual museum of the North Atlantic, including co-producing new films, artworks, 3D digital modelling and a virtual gallery of aspects of their maritime heritages that are otherwise set adrift in diverse locations including boat sheds, sail lofts, personal and formal collections, afloat, submerged, suspended and in people’s knowledge and remembering.”

Cait’s PhD experiences have set her up for a career in the heritage participation arena, with many potential avenues open to her. She says “The participative turn in heritage requires critical and creative thinkers who can get their hands dirty by ‘doing’ research-in-practice in many settings.

I want to keep collaborating with people across academia and beyond, raising awareness and knowledge about how our collective processes of ‘remembering’ and ‘forgetting’ our cultural pasts significantly affects the narratives we share about who we believe we are today and what futures we hope for.

My dream would be to be able to continue as I’ve started, practicing the discipline of academia, sharing research-based learning and expertise that is based on observing, listening to and engaging actively with the new and really useful knowledge that can emerge through people’s experience in their ordinary extraordinary lives and living.”

If you’re interested in PhD Research at Heriot-Watt School of Social Sciences, visit our website to look at the current opportunities available in our four departments.

To follow Cait’s work in progress, follow her at https://twitter.com/NorthernNousts

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