BARS Blog

BARS Blog

News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Report from the 19thC Matters public engagement training day at Chawton House Library

Thank you to Jessica Hindes for the following post, reporting from the Nineteenth Century Matters public engagement training day. This event was held at the stunning location of Chawton House Library on 28 January 2017, and was sponsored by BARS and BAVS. You can follow tweets from the event by searching for the hashtag #C19Matters. Jessica is also on twitter (@bleakho).

The Nineteenth Century Matters Training Day on Public Engagement: A Report for BARS

The Nineteenth Century Matters public engagement training day at Chawton House Library offered postgraduate researchers in Romantic and Victorian studies the opportunity to come together in order to consider both the wider purpose of public engagement in academia, and the types of engagement activity they might begin to develop from their own research. With bursaries on offer to researchers without permanent academic employment, the day’s organisers displayed a refreshing awareness of the pressures faced by those coming out of the PhD into a difficult job market. As an early career researcher without institutional affiliation, one of the aspects of the day that I most enjoyed was the chance that it offered to connect with others in the same situation.

chawton2

Chawton House Library in Hampshire

It was also a delight to attend an event where every one of the papers, panels and activities was so practically useful and so well thought out. The morning began with a talk from Professor Mark Llewellyn, the Director for Research at the AHRC, on ‘Living (in) the Library’, which considered the ways in which academics’ work might be enriched through contact with cultural centres outside of the university (libraries, museums) and which centred on Mark’s own experience as an early career researcher living and working in what is now the Gladstone Library in Hawarden, North Wales. In a highly entertaining paper, Mark raised thought-provoking questions about the ways in which scholars’ work is perceived by those outside the academy, invoking the notion of ‘hospitality’ to describe an approach that starts from an audience’s existing knowledge and beliefs rather than holding them to rigid academic standards from the outset.

As the day developed, Mark’s ideas about meeting an audience in spaces outside the university and his emphasis on the public engagement process as something reciprocal – something that benefits both sides – reappeared in papers from Dr Claire Wood (of the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement) and Professor Holly Furneaux (of Cardiff University). Claire’s paper provided a whistlestop tour through some of the fundamental principles of public engagement best practice, recommending that researchers planning any public engagement activity consider purpose, process and people (audience) as well as prioritising evaluation as a fundamental component of their work. Claire offered links to numerous resources and pointed those attending toward NCCPE’s work in linking researchers with institutions beyond the academy, in particular the MUPI programme which connects university scholars with small museums. Holly’s presentation reflected on a public engagement project undertaken in collaboration with the National Army Museum, for whom she is a research ambassador. Holly had worked with children in schools local to the Museum (and incidentally, to Chawton House) on ‘The Ballad of the Boy Captain’, a story from the Crimean War. Holly made an enthusiastic case for academic public engagement, suggesting that done right, it could shape the direction of research in fruitful and unexpected ways. However, she was also honest about some of the challenges of this work. She pointed to the ‘opportunity cost’ involved in establishing the relationships that underpinned good engagement activity, as well as the real financial cost incurred in making study visits and giving up time to volunteer. Of course, any early career researcher is familiar with the investment of time and often money required to participate in the activities necessary to maintain a strong academic profile, but it was refreshing to hear this addressed so openly here.

Mark Llewellyn

Mark Llewellyn

Other speakers were drawn from the type of non-academic institution suggested as useful partners in undertaking this kind of activity: Professor Gillian Dow, the Executive Director of Chawton House Library (and an academic at Southampton), and Mary Guyatt, the curator at Jane Austen’s House. Gillian spoke about her experiences since joining Chawton House in 2014 and the efforts she has made to bring new audiences into the library, focusing on an exhibition hosted at Chawton in 2016 to mark 200 years since the publication of Emma. As Mark had done earlier in the morning, Gillian offered an amusing insight into some of the difficulties of reaching out to the public alongside her assessment of the many benefits of doing so (with an acknowledgement that working on a popular figure like Jane Austen brings particular challenges of its own). Mary then shared some of her expertise about the ways in which universities and museums can work together, suggesting that this might take the form of less obvious collaborations, such as writing labels for exhibits, or cataloguing parts of collections as well as offering talks or events.

After lunch, participants separated into smaller groups to work with the speakers and experts in attendance on developing public engagement activities from their own research. Although the time limitations meant that ideas could reach only a very early stage at this point, I found the exercises thought-provoking, and my fellow conference-goers full of creative insight. I also appreciated the focus with which Gillian (leading my session) encouraged us to consider the practicalities of what we suggested: where would the money come from? Where would we stage and how publicise our work? As was the case with all of the morning’s talks on the day, the session felt grounded in the reality of today’s humanities research environment, offering concrete suggestions to point the researcher on their way. Alongside the chance to connect to others in a similar position, this was for me the best thing about the whole event: its pragmatic focus on getting things done.

The grounds at Chawton

The grounds at Chawton

The last session of the day offered the opportunity to come back together, to thank those who had offered their expertise throughout, and to express gratitude to the event’s organiser Catherine Han for her hard work in putting on the day. I left Chawton not only with some useful new connections in hand, but with a renewed confidence in my own position within the nineteenth-century studies research environment and (most of all) with a number of positive ideas about my own future practice as an academic in the public sphere.

Jessica Hindes

Some tweets from the day-

Also, you can read the BAVS report here: