Making a Festive Engagement – Blog Post by Niki Black

Making a festive engagement!

The Afterlife of Heritage, Research to Public

I’ve just received confirmation that I’ve been awarded one of the grants for the Research to Public strand of the Afterlife of Heritage Project. Time to celebrate you might think but no, I had to hit the ground running as my first public event was already looming large on the calendar merely a week after hearing the good news! Having planned my proposal in some detail, knowing that if I got the funding I’d have to leap into action, I immediately set off to contact printers, recover exhibition stands and track down willing artists!

But just to give a little context to this whirl of activity, perhaps I’d better explain what my research entails and how I intended to engage beyond the walls of my institution. My PhD research looks at how small-scale cultural festivals contribute to the social sustainability of their host communities. I’m aiming to do this through an examination of potential bonds and bridges of connectivity which such an event may influence, particularly the connections between place, artists and local residents through heritage practice and display at festivals.  It’s a case study focused project with all the events taking place in the county of Northumberland. The four case festivals I’ve selected take place between April and July and are my four ‘partner’ organisations in the Afterlife of Heritage project. My proposal was to put together an interactive exhibition and activity explaining and demonstrating my research whilst simultaneously working to gather data from visitors towards my thesis. This ‘two-angled’ approach was designed to engage the public in an educational sense, explaining not only my research but also opening a broader window onto research into the arts and humanities within universities. Secondly, the aim was to gather responses from the public which could then be fed into the development and future direction of my research and assist in ensuring appropriateness and relevance. The exhibition/activity was designed to be able to stand alone if I wasn’t present and thus potentially be displayed between events in venues in the respective communities.

I attended both preliminary training events in Manchester which were excellent, not least as they gave me an opportunity to meet fellow students and arts and heritage professionals from far flung parts of Britain. We discussed the challenges of putting our research work out to the broader ‘public’, in between cakes, coffee and a quick dash around the new exhibits at the Manchester museum. I already had my cultural partners lined up, being the organisers of the four case study festivals at the heart of my research although, owing to the scale of the events all are volunteers in their posts and tied up in other work when the Manchester training events took place and thus unable to come. When approached all four organisers readily agreed to take part in the project, although one was understandable a little reticent at first as to potential added work-loads. This reflects the pressures which voluntary-run festivals are under to provide high quality events for no financial reward, often in addition to holding down the day job.

Having a professional arts and interpretation background before embarking on my PhD, I was already convinced that I wanted to share and ‘display’ my research with the non-academic public in a colourful and interactive way (ie beyond the academic journal!). The training given at Manchester gave me the confidence to believe that what I wanted to do wasn’t just an overly ambitious or inappropriate idea and that I would be taken seriously! Putting together a proposal based around demonstrating my research but using activities which would appeal to children and adults in a colourful setting had huge appeal.

My final proposal took the overall theme through which I am exploring social impact, ‘Connections’. I designed a temporary exhibition split into three potential areas in which cultural festivals may connect with aspects of their host community. These are ‘place’, ‘cultural heritage’ and ‘people’. The display was intended to provoke public response through open statements and questions relating to my research in both text and image. The public were then invited to respond, either by joining in the supervised activity or by taking part in a short interview. The activity consisted of pre-cut bunting triangles which visitors were invited to decorate with their own responses to the sub-themes before being added to the exhibition. An artist was invited to help facilitate the activity. The end result, it was hoped, would be a visual demonstration of the connections made through festivals between people, places and the cultural heritage within.

So, that was made up my proposal and the thinking behind it! Now, having heard I’ve received funding I’d better launch into action and set off for the first event. More news on this later!

Niki Black, PhD Researcher

ICCHS, Newcastle University