GUEST BLOGGER: Walking with the SGSAH: The ‘Thinker’ Hat of Mine (Part two)

This week’s guest post comes from Matluba Khan, who discusses her experiences as thinker-in-residence at Deveron Arts, a position funded by the SGSAH. You can find Part 1 of Matluba’s story here

On the verge of being overwhelmed writing my PhD thesis, I decided to go for a short writing retreat in Berwick-upon-Tweed. I enjoyed the quiet environment of the small town and wished I could prolong my visit. So it was hard to believe when I got the news after coming back from Berwick – I had been awarded the SGSAH thinker in residency position to work on something related to my PhD research for three weeks at Deveron Arts, based in Huntly. This residency is designed to help PhD students at advanced levels of study to make progress in their work while staying in an environment away from their day to day one.

Being the first ‘subject’ in this pilot project was exciting and also challenging in a way. I was a bit hesitant whether I should avail the opportunity at a critical writing stage of my PhD, however, in reflecting on the experience, I know I made the right decision to trust my instincts and go for it.  I packed my bags and headed into the unknown to experience something new. Even as I’d doubted the wisdom of shifting my focus even slightly, my time in-residence helped me do the same work in a different environment with more fun. Besides, I kept an open mind, which helped me to learn new things and also look at my research from different perspectives.

Though my research is interdisciplinary, working in education, architecture and landscape architecture, I was not originally aware of the implication of my research for artists who are involved in art works in real life outside the museum. While preparing my proposal for the residency program, I discovered a whole new world that, though perhaps beyond the remit of my Ph.D. at present, has great potential for future research. A significant part of my Ph.D. deals with children’s perceptions of their outdoor environment, their preferences, likes, and dislikes which might have implications for landscape artists. Because of this I felt it would be worth exploring children’s perception of aesthetics related to landscape elements while working with Deveron Arts.

So, how was the journey?

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Figure 1: View from my room from the residence at Old Road, Huntly where I stayed with two other artists

During the first week, I discussed with Claudia, Director of Deveron Arts my goals for my three week stay, what was expected from me and also what I could expect from Deveron Arts that would be helpful in my present research. Though I wrote a proposal while applying for the residency, I was reassured that I could carry on the writing I was doing or I could work on the proposal I sent.

I found Deveron Arts to be inspired by the philosophy of Patrick Geddes (a biologist turned urban designer), and as such their activities included engaging with local people, something that is also core to my own research. This prompted me to explore children’s perception of aesthetics in the context of Huntly. Joss (Project Manager, Deveron Arts) helped me contact the local primary school so that I could talk with some children and learn their favourite places and activities. I could then compare their answers to my previous research findings of primary school children in Bangladesh, highlighting the similarities and differences of children’s perceptions in different cultures and contexts. I also started studying perception of aesthetics and development of aesthetics in children in particular.

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Figure 2: Working at Deveron Arts Office with caffeine every hour

My study on children’s perception of space so far reveals that young children display a preference for the functionality of a space or object rather than the form or aesthetic value of the object itself. However, during my field survey, children repeatedly used the term ‘beautiful’ to explain the reason for their preferences to some settings. This inspired me towards further study, because understanding the relationship between preferences and aesthetics can clarify many aspects of my PhD findings. I began work on this during the residency and later used what I found to update the literature review chapter of my thesis. If this issue is further explored and investigated, it can help artists and landscape architects by providing knowledge of how children value the aesthetics of a landscape, which can in turn influence how urban and city landscapes can be designed and can appear in art forms.

Because I was only a temporary resident in Huntly, I could not utilize the opportunity of being local, which meant I was unsuccessful in my attempt to work with the local school. However, I came across some resources in their library mostly focusing on Huntly, and from their walking book I came to know about the experience of a child from the city centre—what she liked there and why she liked it. Conversation with artists in Deveron Arts helped me think about the same issue in different ways. Future thinkers might benefit from forward planning for what they want to achieve in their three-week residency program (see a detailed post on the residency program on my blog).

As part of my residency, Deveron Arts asked for my design input for their garden. As a researcher interested in the participation of children and the community in designing their own spaces, I proposed to conduct a brainstorming workshop with members of Deveron Arts and also some locals. I thought it might be fun to experiment with the methods I had previously used with children in Bangladesh for developing a new school ground, and in Edinburgh during an award winning Innovative Learning Week event, and apply those methods to elicit information from adults. We identified the landscape elements that users liked, as well as those they weren’t as happy with and then brainstormed how the garden could be improved. We also explored how the garden can be a community space, particularly for the children and senior citizens of Huntly. This workshop was an attempt to find out the positive aspects of the landscape which the local community could utilize for creating a better community space and I think they found it helpful.

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Figure 3: Workshop on Brander Gardens Design

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Figure 4: Workshop continued in the greenhouse

Once a week, usually a Friday, people from the local community were invited to have lunch together with the Deveron Arts family and to listen to the lecture of a guest speaker or artist at minimal price. I shared my research on my first Friday with Deveron Arts and some people from the local community. It generated a lively discussion and the comments were valuable for my research. On the last Friday of my residency, my husband, Sheik Rana (a song-writer by profession) was visiting and I cooked a Bangladeshi meal for lunch. On Claudia’s invitation my husband shared his song-writing journey at the lunch talk accompanied with some Bangla music played by him.

What I achieved and what I did not achieve

During my three week residency, as well as making progress on my core research work, I was exposed to new information related to artist practices in the UK. I saw how my research is related to so many disciplines and how I can improve in my approaches to future research based on that. I attended the seminar ‘Living the Land’ where I came across many artists working in rural areas of Scotland in diverse fields. I was able to learn a bit more about the activities of Creative Scotland and how they support the artists. In many areas architects, landscape architects and artists work together on projects for children’s benefits which I was not aware of. This gave me food for thought as to how I can collaborate with people from related disciplines to improve children’s learning environments.

Things worth considering

Such an opportunity is desirable to any PhD student to make progress on research. However, it would have been beneficial to both the parties if there was a little more time for preparation and a discussion of expectations before arrival. I did not get the opportunity to talk to the local children as the teachers were very busy before the school holidays – this might have been possible if we could have contacted them earlier.

Having a definite achievable goal would help the researcher to make the most of those three weeks. However, one needs to be flexible enough to receive new information and also adapt to the new situation. The most important thing is to enjoy and not be overwhelmed with expectations.

Participating in courses and programs by the Scottish Graduate School of Arts and Humanities has enriched my experiences and given me copious exposure to how research can be connected to a wider audience. I am looking forward to more experiences with the SGSAH.

Matluba Khan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Architecture, Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) and currently on study leave for her PhD in Landscape Architecture in the University of Edinburgh, UK. She is interested in built environment research specially creating better environments for children aiming at their learning, health and well-being. Matluba’s PhD research includes co-design and development of a primary school ground in Bangladesh which won the Great Places Award 2016. Matluba is also the winner of Falling Walls Lab, Edinburgh and ABTA Doctoral Researchers’ Award (2nd Place).

More information about her work can be found here. You can follow her on Twitter @mishtush and check out the Learning in Nature Facebook page, which also relates to Matluba’s research. 

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