Go back

Learning curve

Image: Angel Santana, via Getty Images

Bids involving cultural institutions can involve a change of perspective

Over recent years, several Arts and Humanities Research Council funding schemes have sought to strengthen ties with independent research organisations and the heritage and cultural sector more generally. The £80 million Research Infrastructure for Conservation and Heritage Science programme is one noteworthy example.

In late 2022, the AHRC opened a call for specialised early career research fellowships in cultural and heritage institutions to boost researchers’ experience of working in these settings while also delivering novel projects.

Eight fellows were selected and started work in late 2023 or early this year. Among them was Aparajita Mukhopadhyay, a lecturer in 19th-century imperial history at the University of Kent. Her project is now underway in collaboration with the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew, where she will be digging into the archives to further her work and contribute to the exhibitions there.

What were your thoughts when you saw this fellowship? 

The fellowship opportunity conceptualised academic research in a way to align it more closely with that of our research partners and their outlook. I found that a very novel idea, because my research on a day-to-day basis focuses on the 19th-century British empire and Kew’s research agenda is based on 21st-century botanics.

How did you respond to that challenge?

I thought about how my work is relevant to climate change. My project will provide Kew and a wider audience with a perspective beyond the existing analysis of how the agrarian regime in colonial south Asia was transformed through the introduction of improved agriculture.

My project focuses on the ways in which Indians themselves shaped this agenda, rather than just the imperial state. So, how an imperial agenda was mitigated by Indian participation. More importantly, I’m asking how this participation might prepare south Asia to enter a postcolonial agrarian regime considering its current loss of biodiversity and the climate crisis.

How was the application? 

It was both an extremely challenging and an extremely rewarding learning curve, especially thinking about how my research agenda could align with that of an independent research organisation whose research is mostly scientific. But Kew helped me step by step. I would not have been able to put together the application without the help of Kew’s humanities research support officer. It was a very close process because the fellowship went through about three or four internal selection processes. 

How did those processes work? 

To start with, applications were invited from anyone interested in working with the Royal Botanic Gardens, and these were sifted and selected by them. So the AHRC did not even look at all the applications.

The first shortlisting I found very challenging, because I was blindly entering in a compatibility competition and did not know who my competitors were. More importantly, I had to continuously think, as a historian, how I could link my interest in botanical knowledge production and the impact of it in colonial south Asia with the current challenges of the climate crisis and Kew’s related research priorities.

What feedback did you get during the application process? 

I shared it with colleagues and friends who all offered comments. The process was similar to preparing and submitting a peer-reviewed journal article. It was important to think about how people with varied professional levels and experience—some of whom are very senior in their specialist fields—might understand it.

I found it an excellent learning experience to keep my core focus while addressing the concerns, questions and comments, which honestly greatly enriched the final product. My advice to people applying to similar opportunities is that the timeframe and communication with your collaborators are both crucial. You need to get the feedback in good time so you can work on incorporating it.

What will be the outcome of the fellowship? 

The main outcome will be a monograph. There will also be a couple of journal articles. I did not think it would get going this quickly, but in April and August I will participate in conferences and workshops, to present research findings as I go along.

I will also be working closely with the learning and interpretation team at Kew on various exhibitions. As Kew gets many school visitors, I will help to create materials for young learners.

It sounds like this is very much about a two-way relationship. 


Exactly. My project will directly influence Kew’s strategy, but such impact is probably a feature of all AHRC fellowships. At the end of the day, it is about public funding: your research should have tangible impact. I think the AHRC is very keen to see that level of engagement—it’s important to everyone that this is not ‘ivory tower’ research, based on private collections, but will have a tangible impact on how Kew organises its conservation efforts and activities.  

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