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

Research to Public – Workshop Two 28/02/2013


The second Research to Public workshop took place on 28th February 2013 in the Kinaris Lecture Theatre at the Manchester Museum with a great mix of researchers and representatives from cultural organisations in attendance.  The aim of the day was to discuss how researchers and cultural partners can better work together and to hear case studies, from both perspectives, of working together on cultural engagement/public engagement projects.

The Morning

The day began with an icebreaker exercise focussing on the meaning attributed to certain words associated with public and cultural engagement.  Everybody had the opportunity to pick a word and discuss what it meant to them – words such as “heritage”, “communication”, “impact”, “community” and “collections” were included.


Henry McGhie, Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology at the Manchester Museum (above) started the day’s talks with a fantastic account of the museum’s collections and the development of the Living Worlds gallery which opened in 2011.  Henry spoke of the importance of engaging visitors with research and debates.  His account took in the history of the collections and the involvement of Thomas Henry Huxley in engineering the University/Museum partnership, including a diagram, dating back to 1868 showcasing the public gallery and curator space.  These designs were pivotal in establishing the museum as a social, as well as an intellectual, space.  Henry also discussed the University’s third strategic goal, social responsibility, and how the museum contributes to the promotion of understanding between cultures and working towards a sustainable world.  Finally, Henry drew on the potential of collections and for cultural organisations to connect with the public through emerging technology, such as tablets and smart phones, and to collaborate with researchers – ensuring that each partner plays an important part in the process.


Henry’s talk was followed by a great presentation by Antonio Benitez (above), PhD Researcher at the University of Salford (Antonio’s slides can be accessed at the bottom of this post).  Antonio’s presentation focussed on a researcher’s perspective of University-museum partnerships.  Antonio’s research focusses on older audiences (post-75) and their engagement with museums and his work has involved cross-institutional collaborations with a number of cultural organisations across Manchester.  Antonio views these partnerships as an excellent opportunity to learn about developing projects with older people.  Antonio’s talk considered the many benefits of working with cultural organisations such as offering networking opportunities, insight, clarity, the development of ideas etc.  The most important feature of collaborations is to ensure that the expectations of both partners is realistic – both in terms of expectations and responsibilities.

Antonio’s talk was followed by Esme Ward’s presentation on Public Engagement and Audiences which included an excellent quote from Benjamin Franklin (see title photograph).  Esme focussed on the importance of involvement in learning, drawing on current research and expertise to understand what is happening in cultural spaces.  Esme’s talk went beyond the Humanities and considered the importance of science communication, moving from the “chalk and talk” to a more experiential form of learning.  She emphasised that researchers have the necessary skills and knowledge to engage large numbers of school audiences with their work, and acknowledge the immense value of this social form of learning and interaction.  Esme also touched upon the importance of practitioner research, highlighting that researchers can challenge museums to think differently (and vice versa).

The Afternoon

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After lunch, participants were divided into two groups.  The first group consisted of those who had a working proposal already (some of whom were accompanied on the day by their cultural partner).  They were tasked with fine-tuning their ideas by reflecting and critiquing.  The second group consisted of researchers and cultural partners who had not yet partnered up.  The aim of the session was to broker potential partnerships and to present back ideas on what works well and what might not work so well when researchers and cultural partners work together.  Suzanne Spicer presented a great document about “finding the right people” for partnerships which can be downloaded here: Reflecting on Your Planning Proposal.

Antonio’s slides are available here: Afterlife presentation