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Personal profile

Research interests

Helen Mears is Keeper of World Art for Royal Pavilion & Museum and a lecturer and researcher in Museum Studies and the History of Art and Design.

Helen's research interests reflect her experience of working in the museum sector for nearly two decades, as a curator, researcher and community engagement officer. For much of this time her focus has been on non-western or ‘world art’ collections, which were largely formed by British people working within a colonial context. Thinking through the implications of this for museums and society today is one of the key drivers for her research and she is especially interested in the interface(s) between 'official' heritage practices and those of diaspora communities.

As a curator Helen is engaged in exploring the possibilities inherent in historic collections of 'non-western' material, through community engagement initiatives like the creation of a new permanent gallery at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, which was co-curated with young people (World Stories Young Voices), contemporary international design shows (for example the major exhibition Fashion Cities Africa) and collaborative collecting projects (such as the Heritage Lottery Fund-supported Collecting Cultures initiative, Fashioning Africa, which established a new collections strand documenting post-1960s African fashion identities).

Her doctoral research focused on the cultural practices of the Kachin, an ethnic minority from northern Myanmar, and she has established ongoing collaborations with Kachin researchers and cultural activists. Through her doctoral research with members of overseas Kachin communities she has become interested in the intersection between museum collections and diaspora communities, an interest amplified by her experience of partnership activity with members of Brighton’s BME Heritage Network.

Helen's growing interest in this field is reflected in her membership of various sectoral advisory boards, including for the British Museum and Horniman Museum. She regularly speaks at museum-related events, such as Museum Ideas, as well as academic conferences and workshops. She also draws on this interest, and her wide-ranging museum experience in her teaching, particularly in developing and delivering content for the University’s new MA in Curating Collections and Heritage.

Approach to teaching

My research into museums remains firmly grounded in my continuing experience of working within them. As well as questioning the ideological functions of museums, I encourage my students to think about how the physical space of the museum, its buildings, objects and displays, enables meanings to be made manifest. I’m also interested in issues of governance, policy and sectoral strategy and the influence of these on museums and I work with my students to examine the wider social, political and economic frameworks and contexts in which museums operate. At a more intimate level I also encourage students to work closely with objects and to use material culture frameworks for investigating what objects can tell us about the past.

As I continue to hold a curatorial role at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, I spend much of my time running between university and museum buildings and thinking about the interrelationship between museum practice and museum theory. It is a model which I aim to encourage my students to follow.

Education/Academic qualification

PhD, University of Brighton

External positions

Keeper of World Art, Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton & Hove

Aug 2002 → …

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ethnography Social Sciences
museum Social Sciences
field research Social Sciences
documentation Social Sciences
conservation Social Sciences
Museum Collections Arts & Humanities
Reappropriation Arts & Humanities
Photographic Images Arts & Humanities

Research Output 2009 2017

"We owe a historical debt to no one": The reappropriation of photographic images from a museum collection

Mears, H., 1 Jul 2017, In : Museum Worlds. 5, 1, p. 162-176 15 p.

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Museum Collections
Photographic Images

Counting the Days: The Kachin Ceasefire and the Emergence of a New Graphic Medium

Mears, H., 2016, War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar: The Kachin Ceasefire 1994-2011. Sadan, M. (ed.). Copenhagen: NIAS Press

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceeding with ISSN or ISBNChapter

"We are surviving without a dream" Kachin refugees in Malaysia

Mears, H., 6 Dec 2016, New Mandala.

Research output: Other contribution

field research

Museums, African Collections and Social Justice

Mears, H. & Modest, W., 23 Apr 2012, Museums, Equality and Social Justice. Routledge, p. 294-309

Research output: Chapter in Book/Conference proceeding with ISSN or ISBNChapter