University of Manchester: Building an ‘arts lab’ fuelled by the appliance of science

The John Rylands Research Institute pairs collections and curators with scholars and scientists

February 19, 2015

In an age where even ancient texts and artefacts are becoming instantly accessible to researchers via online images, should university libraries accept that only mites and spiders are likely to continue frequenting their special collections?

Not according to Peter Pormann, founding director of the University of Manchester’s John Rylands Research Institute, housed at the university’s historic John Rylands Library. He notes that when organisations such as Google scan documents and books, they prefer “clean copies”, which lack “all the annotations and richness” of real books.

However, Pormann is anything but traditional in his approach to boosting the use and cataloguing of Manchester’s “outstanding” special collections, which range from 5,000-year-old clay tablets to email archives. He describes his institute – officially launched last October after an 18-month pilot phase – as an “arts lab”. Its pioneering matchmaking between scholars, curators and scientists, he says, could lead to a “paradigm shift in how people view at least some of the research going on in the arts”.

One of the projects the institute is already hosting involves sequencing the DNA in parchments to learn more about the provenance of the books. Another proposed initiative involves applying approaches from computational and corpus linguistics to the analysis of ancient texts. And the Arts and Humanities Research Council recently approved a £1 million grant to use “multispectral” imaging techniques from the life sciences to study the erased “undertext” of a Syriac palimpsest; further work on palimpsests is also being planned in collaboration with Manchester’s Photon Science Institute.

The scientists involved are typically sought out by the institute, rather than approaching it, but Pormann says they find it “incredibly interesting” to apply their expertise to a whole new field.

Pormann also sees science as the inspiration for his approach to funding. While many humanities researchers rely on internal funding streams or confine grant applications to the AHRC, he says, scientists are used to making multiple applications to different funders, treating rejected proposals as a “learning experience” and “rejigging” applications before resubmitting them elsewhere.

He also takes a very strategic approach to applications, handing out small amounts of “seedcorn” funding to academics in the hope that their initial findings can leverage further external grants.

These methods have yielded dividends: the institute has already raised £1.7 million from a wide range of funders, including the Wellcome and Leverhulme trusts, charities and private donors, as well as the AHRC. It also has eight applications pending for British Academy early career fellowships.

Meanwhile, its headcount has grown from just one (Pormann himself) to 15 (including four postdoctoral researchers and three PhD students), with another 10 “supporting us in various ways” and at least five more due to arrive by September.

Pormann is also keen to set up joint fellowships with other institutions in order to tap into their expertise to enhance the cataloguing of Manchester’s special collections.

If the institute continues on this trajectory, Pormann is confident that it will greatly “over-fulfil” the requirement to be self-sustaining by 2018, when the £2.2 million launch funding provided by the university library, the Faculty of Humanities and the office of the vice-chancellor runs out. By that time, he hopes to have between 50 and 60 people in post.

Aside from sheer persistence and the employment of a specialist grant writer, Pormann believes that it is the institute’s innovative approach to research itself that is proving so beguiling to funders. Although he does not insist on involving scientists in every project, he strongly advocates a team approach, which, while not unknown in the arts and humanities, his institute “takes to the next level”.

“We make sure researchers who want to work on something in our special collections are embedded in a team and get a curatorial buddy,” he explains. “The curators who know the collections intimately can show researchers things they didn’t know. That marriage has already worked incredibly well on a number of occasions.”

However, while he reserves the right to try to convince lone scholars to “join us”, Pormann insists that the special collections’ doors will remain open even to those who resist his blandishments.

“There will probably always be a place for intellectuals who read books on their own and think deep thoughts,” he says.

“I have done some of that myself. But what I really enjoy is working with colleagues. Often it is fun and you can just do so much more.”

In numbers

£1.7m already raised by the institute from funding councils, charities and private donors

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