How can we know if our work is reaching the right people, or having an impact where it's needed most? FUTURES, a recent event held across Bath, Bristol and Cardiff as part of European Researchers' Night, offered a unique opportunity for members of the public to interact with innovative research. In this post, Deborah Brewis and Elizabeth Mamali reflect on their participation in the event and on what can be learnt from this type of engagement with wider audiences.
As the arrangement of public funding for research becomes increasingly centralised in some European countries, competition for research support is high stakes. In a bid to succeed in winning such resources, both institutions and their academics strive to demonstrate the relevance, timeliness, and impact of their work for the good of society. However, these reflections also form part of an important broader conversation about the role and responsibilities of the university today. For university-based researchers, the public are central to our work, and yet are somewhat distanced from our everyday realities of data analysis, writing, and even teaching. Engaging the public with our research reminds us of the purpose in our work and prompts us to ask ourselves if that work is reaching its intended stakeholders. Scholars can be guilty of producing knowledge on social phenomena that are too inaccessible to the very people they concern.
The European Researchers Night, funded by the European Commission, seeks to ‘boost[s] public awareness of the positive role of research in society’. To that end, on 28th September 2018 researchers from five universities from Bath, Bristol, and Cardiff organised a variety of interactive events across the cities. Activities hosted in Bath included pop-up talks on a train, and a scientists’ city tour. We took part in a ‘takeover’ of the Holburne Museum as part of the Gender and Sexuality Research Cluster organised by Fran Amery and attended by around 60 visitors. We wanted to use this theme to engage with the idea that communicating with the public not only presents the value of our research but can play a vital part in creating its value: public engagement activities also allow us to redress power inequalities between researchers and those who are being researched, by incorporating reciprocity as a core value in our work. We do not just ‘take’ stories, insights and data from the public but strive to collaboratively develop research questions and concerns.
The theme of the evening was ‘women and creativity’ and we took this opportunity to experiment with the idea that engaging with the public offers a chance to practice modes of expression that differ to those habitual to us such as writing (usually typing) and lecturing. On different floors of the grand Holburne Museum, the non-conventional learning activities generated involvement and excitement for visiting public, researchers, and colleagues who stopped by. These included a feminist scavenger hunt that led visitors to view the permanent exhibitions in a new light (Nina Parish and Sandra Daroczi), while photo exhibitions of same-sex wedding rituals (Elizabeth Mamali) and Women and War (Hannah West and Sophie Whiting) which gave life to the stories told. The reading of a poem derived from the first-person accounts of female academics reverberated their voices (Pierre McDonagh), and Penny Hay talked through the Forest of Imagination project that periodically transforms areas of Bath into ‘future forests’.
Some activities encouraged members of the public to reflect on their own experiences to create new forms of knowledge. A body-mapping exercise asked visitors to create life-sized images to reflect on and articulate the problem of blocked creativity (Simone Fullagar), and an embodied writing exercise asked people to use their physical senses to access their experiences of concepts such as ‘joy’, ‘freedom’ and ‘creativity’ and contribute these images to a collective poem as a way of rethinking research writing (Deborah Brewis). Such activities might be described as what has come to be known as ‘serious play’, a method that is increasingly used by private sector companies to transfer knowledge and unlock employees’ imagination through playful activities that tap into both the conscious and subconscious.
Those who visited the museum and took part in the activities were more than recipients of our research: they reflected and debated with us. Responding to Elizabeth’s work, some members of the public confessed to being challenged by it. In one instance, a group of visitors who identified as queer and who generally held critical views towards the institution of marriage, expressed that they were finding it thought-provoking to read the personal accounts from married same-sex couples in the exhibition. During the embodied writing exercise led by Deborah, it was interesting to see how some visitors responded immediately to being asked to think about concepts such through their bodies, with smells, images, tastes and sounds springing to mind quite viscerally; for other visitors, the connection between the abstract and the embodied took up to a few minutes to re-establish. These responses were carried over to the exhibition texts on how the body can be highly managed in workplaces, and on ‘feminine writing’, inflecting visitors’ reflections in relation to these ideas. The images that were volunteered, and that now compose this collective writing, ranged from shared human experiences, to highly culturally-embedded, or intriguingly idiosyncratic.
Coming away from this event, we took pleasure in sharing our research with the public, and even gained a sense of reassurance in our work from seeing its value understood. In addition to this though, engaging with the public in these creative, playful, and embodied ways facilitated an exchange of joy in the production of knowledge.