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Familiarity with museums’ collections can be key to grant success

A number of museum and library grants have deadlines that fall during the autumn term, among them the National Maritime Museum’s Caird Research Fellowships, whose deadline is 5 October.  

The fellowships allow prolonged access to the museum’s collection to support research in maritime history and other fields, with priority themes including migration of people, objects and ideas and British identities in imperial, post-colonial and global contexts. Fellowships are worth £1,600 per month and run for between three months and one year.

In common with other similar grants, the museum expects grantees to hit the ground running, as Caroline Withall, an independent researcher who held a Caird senior research fellowship for a year up to October 2017, relates.

What spurred your application?

My doctorate was about child labour in the industrial revolution, specifically about the experiences of children living in the port towns of Liverpool, Bristol and Southampton. In the course of that research, I discovered a charity called the Marine Society that apprenticed boys to sea during that period. A whole raft of boys were sent to far-flung corners of the globe and many were never seen again, which I thought was scandalous. I decided to pursue further research into marine merchant apprenticeships and find out what happened to these poor boys. After a few trips to the [National Maritime Museum], it became apparent that, not only was the information there, but there was a huge amount of it. That’s when I decided I had enough to formulate a decent research proposal.

How was the application?

The only experience of funders I’d had at the time was with the Economic and Social Research Council, which funded my DPhil. The Caird fellowship was straightforward; it involved filling in a simple application form and lining up two referees, as well as a proposal of no more than two sides of A4 and a timetable for completion.

What did you highlight in the proposal?

I wrote about why my research was important, what the appeal was and who would read it at the end. One of the key things I wanted to get across was, yes, it’s a piece of maritime history, but also a really important piece of social and economic history. The registers I looked at were so detailed—they showed where the boys lived in London, and, for instance, their parents’ occupations. Sometimes they mentioned whether they were a success or not—there were some great stories of social mobility out of the East End slums. The National Maritime Museum, I think, are not just looking for things with solely maritime relevance.

How important is impact to the museum?

In the body of my proposal, I had to address what I hoped to achieve from the research, what the outcome was going to be and who would be interested in it. In my case, aside from the academic community, I felt my project had broad appeal for public engagement and would lend itself well to talks. 

How did you go about preparing the timetable?

The timetable is crucial because it forces you to make sure the documents are there and really think about the project. In fact, one of the reasons I think I got shortlisted for interview was because I did a lot of work before I applied—going to the archive and calling up the documents to see what was there. I also conducted a sample timed review of one full page of the register and then calculated how long the rest would take me. From that, I was able to come up with a review time of 11 and half hours per register.

I knew the museum would not hold me to ransom over that, but I believe it impressed them that I’d thought about how long the project would take and that I could hit the ground running. I wasn’t going to waste three months looking for the evidence. This may be good advice for library and museum grants generally— get to know the relevant records as much as you can. Institutions do not want to fund a good idea, then find that two months into the project there isn’t actually the evidence to support it.

How was the interview?

The interview was rigorous. There were at least three panel members, including the head of research—so it’s always a good idea to see in advance what they are interested in and what they have published. They thoroughly challenged me on the viability of my project, including asking about the sources I would be using, what I hoped to achieve and why it was important.

Is there anything about this fellowship that applicants might be unaware of?

One of the benefits of the fellowship is that it is flexible and you can visit the archive as frequently as you feel you need to. 

When I was looking for a postdoc position, I needed something that had that flexibility because I had a young child. Their approach was refreshing because I felt I was treated like an adult and able to manage my own time. 

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight