The dinner conversation that turned into my masters thesis

It’s been just over four months since I returned to the States from my internship in England. In that time, I wrote and defended my Masters thesis, and graduated on December 15th, 2012.

Before I went to England, I had an entirely different Masters thesis topic in mind, than the one that I ended up using. I was originally going to discuss the Visitor Experience at the Florida Museum of Natural History, and ┬ámake suggestions on how to improve the experience in the lobby/front desk area. This would have been the easy way out, since I’d been working with the front desk staff for several months and already had ideas in my head for improvements and really just needed to figure out how to couch them in theoretical museological principles.┬áBut…I don’t like taking the easy way out.

Some time toward the end of my stay in England, I went out for dinner at the Hundred Monkeys in Glastonbury with Neil and Sarah, and we discussed what the Churches Conservation Trust was planning on doing in the way of interpretation of its sites. The CCT’s main goal was always to conserve the buildings and hopefully, reintegrate them into their communities. However, as is the case with most nonprofits, government funding is decreasing and organizations need to prove their relevance…so the CCT has been heading in a more traditional heritage site direction.

Over dinner and a bottle of wine, we talked about what forms interpretation could take on CCT sites, and what the pros and cons would be to dedicate funds to those types of projects. Being a Museum Studies person, I obviously am biased and believe all sites should have some form of interpretation. Sarah agreed, and has been heading up the group of senior staff members who are working on an interpretation policy and plan for the CCT. In the back of my mind, I thought perhaps I could contribute in some way. If I was able to write up an interpretation plan for one of the churches I’d worked on, it would help with the development of a foundational interpretation plan for the CCT as a whole. I took the idea away from dinner and slept on it. And for my last days in England, I let it simmer. When I got back to the States, I contacted Dr Willumson, the director of my MA program at the University of Florida (UF), and asked if I could change my thesis topic.

Now, it’s not usually common practice to change your MA thesis topic the same semester you hope to graduate. In fact, unless you aren’t taking any other classes or working, it’s probably a bit of a suicidal idea. But I knew I wasn’t taking any more graduate seminars, and only working part time at the natural history museum…and he thought I could do it. So I did.

I adjusted my thesis committee, by adding Dr Moseley, an archaeologist in the Anthropology Department at UF, and adding Dr Rushton, who I worked for at the CCT, as a guest member. I started from scratch, with just under two months before I needed to defend. Looking back, it was actually pretty ballsy of my to do…but I’m so very glad that I did.

The process was anything but smooth sailing. There were many sleepless nights, and hundreds of tears shed while reading Dr W’s comments on my chapter drafts. But in the end, I was really happy with what I produced. And when I walked into my thesis defense, I felt like I had done everything I could possibly do to make it a good one, and wasn’t even really nervous. My project-in-lieu of thesis was titled:

Reading Between the Layers: Exploring Wallpaintings in Our Medieval Parish Churches – An Interpretation Plan for the Churches Conservation Trust

The plan was based in basic museological visitor theory, mainly from John Falk, and Beverly Serrell. But I also put to use Visit England standards through the use of their Visitor Attraction Quality Assessment Scheme and their Place of Interest Quality Assessment Scheme. The plan was created specifically for the Church of St John the Baptist in Inglesham, Wiltshire, but was also developed in such a way that it could easily be adapted to other medieval CCT churches with wallpaintings.

For my defense, Dr Rushton Skyped in from England, and drilled me with question over speaker phone following my presentation. Dr Moseley seemed to like it and didn’t have many comments, and Dr Willumson asked his usual convoluted questions that I had to think twice about. But I passed.

And then it was over. Suddenly I was done…just before Thanksgiving, with three weeks to go before graduation. The end of to graduate school career was fairly anticlimactic. And maybe that’s why I still feel like I’m waiting to go back to school. Even graduation felt like it was part of the process, but not the last and final one. But it is over. And I moved out of my apartment and back home to my mom’s in Kentucky. The job search has commenced. I have had such wonderful experiences with co-workers both at the CCT and at the Florida Museum of Natural History, that I hope my first real job isn’t a disappointment…

In the meantime, I have a few weeks to be nostalgic and write blog entries like this.

Here are some photos from graduation:

Just after the graduation ceremony, outside the O'Connell Center on UF's campus.

Just after the graduation ceremony, outside the O’Connell Center on UF’s campus. From left to right, my fellow museum studies folks: Hannah, Amanda, Austin, Natalia and me.

For more pictures, just click the link below…

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