On Saturday 12th January 2019 the ICS’s second public engagement workshop for classicists took place in Manchester. Hosted by Manchester Metropolitan University, and supported by our colleague Dr. April Pudsey of ManMet’s Department of History, the workshop followed on from a similar event which took place in London last April. The ICS has a remit to facilitate research in classical subjects nationally, so this was an excellent opportunity to support colleagues for whom London is less accessible – we were delighted to welcome speakers and attendees from institutions across the north of England and Wales.
The day was designed to foster conversation around the practicalities of developing and running public engagement activities, to share ideas for new projects, and to discuss some of the challenges and benefits of engaging wider publics with academic research. After an opening presentation from Dr. Emma Bridges (ICS Public Engagement Fellow) on the ‘whats, whys and hows’ of public engagement, speakers with public engagement experience shared their own projects with the attendees, with plenty of time for discussion around some of the issues they raised.
Dr. Stephe Harrop (Liverpool Hope) began by sharing her extensive experience as a researcher and professional storyteller who uses drama and storytelling as methods for engagement; she encouraged us to think about the ways in which participatory activities help audiences to explore ancient texts using their bodies as well as their minds. She noted that this kind of engagement can give people ‘cultural self-confidence’ in ways which go far beyond what they might learn simply by reading a book. Stephe has written about one of her most recent projects, ‘The Messenger Speaks’, here on the ICS blog. Next up was Dr. Chris Mowat (University of Sheffield), who talked about their work with the LGBT History Project NE, and in particular about a well-attended public event held at Newcastle’s Live Theatre in 2018, featuring talks on a whole range of aspects of LGBT history from the ancient world to the present day. Chris’s presentation highlighted the value for engaged researchers of connecting with existing networks and community organisations who can help to generate audience interest as well as with providing practical support, including venue hire and sponsorship.
We were also fortunate to be joined by PhD students Kat Mawford (Manchester) and Matt Ingham (ManMet), who co-ordinate and deliver Athena’s Owls, a project supported by Manchester Classical Association. This is a regular series of well-attended story and craft sessions for children hosted by local libraries on Saturday mornings. The energy and enthusiasm which Matt and Kat bring to this project was clear from their talk, in which they shared some excellent practical tips for engaging with a young audience (everything from thinking about how to deal with some of the challenging aspects of ancient myth to protecting tabletops from spills and ink stains); this presentation really emphasised the fun which can be had when working creatively with children and their families!
Creativity is also at the heart of the work of our next speaker, Dr. Sally Waite (Newcastle), who has worked with a whole range of community partners (schools, museums, and creative practitioners) to devise and deliver a ‘community curriculum’ based on ancient Greece. Sally explained how a community curriculum is designed to encourage children to participate in different kinds of learning experience outside the classroom, with a focus on social development. It’s therefore a great way for academics to get involved in engaging schools and wider communities with hands-on activities connected to their research. Sally has written about aspects her engagement work on the ICS blog here and here. Our final speaker, Dr. Matthew Fitzjohn (Liverpool) shared his project ‘Grand designs in ancient Greece’, which uses Lego to develop an understanding of ancient Greek art and architecture. Matthew’s talk highlighted the importance of involving the target audience (in this case, teachers and their pupils from 7 to 16 years old – Key Stages 2-4 in the English National Curriculum) in the planning of any public engagement project, so that researchers devise activities and resources which are relevant to their users. Matthew has made some of the resources he has devised freely available here for use by schoolteachers.
Having been inspired by this series of projects, attendees were then able to participate in a workshop, facilitated by Emma Bridges, which was designed to encourage them to think about how they might develop engagement projects based on aspects of their own research. Each group was given a hypothetical budget of £500 and a series of prompts to encourage them to think about the practicalities of their ideas. A couple of hours of lively discussion ensued, with groups coming up with a range of suggestions for possible engagement activities. These included a ‘choose your own adventure’ app exploring ideas around gender, a museum-based event on ancient witchcraft, activities to engage older adults in research on ideas about ageing in the ancient world and today, and a project which engaged autistic adults with the creation stories of ancient myth. The discussions reflected the breadth of research expertise and professional experience in the room (we were joined by education professionals and colleagues from museums as well as academic researchers based in universities), and reinforced my conviction that many classicists really do love sharing their work with audiences outside academia!
If you’d like to know more about the discussions which took place at the event, search for the hashtag #publicclassics on Twitter. April Pudsey has also kindly collated tweets from the day here. The ICS would like to extend warm thanks to April, and to the History Department at ManMet, for all their support for this event.
by Emma Bridges
(Photographs in this post by April Pudsey and Emma Bridges)