Thursday, 16 August 2012

Blogging from the Jerwood Centre: public engagement and local history


I am currently visiting researcher at the Jerwood Centre, the archives which hold the Wordsworth Trust collection, through a pilot scheme run by the Trust and Newcastle University. For the next ten days, I'll be carrying out a mixture of archival work relevant to my own research on the Coleridge children, gaining some insight into curatorial practice and what's involved in running heritage sites and museums,  learning about archive management, and helping the Trust to think about ways in which their collection can be brought to a wider academic and public audience. This is the first in a series of posts in which I'll be reflecting on some of my experiences while I'm at the Jerwood Centre.

Curator Jeff Cowton invited me to sit in on a meeting this morning with some members of the local Grasmere community, so I could get some idea of ways museums can engage with their communities. One of the Trust's more recent bequests was the scrapbook collection of a Grasmere librarian. The scrapbooks cover the post-war years up until the later part of the 1970s and so provide a highly personal insight into a period of unprecedented social and economic upheaval in the Lake District and Grasmere in particular. The Trust, in partnership with a small group of Grasmere residents, is planning an exhibition on the scrapbooks and the wider social and cultural context of the period, and the purpose of the morning's meeting was to plan for this.

The local residents who were involved with the project included long-standing 'locals', newcomers from outside Cumbria who were referred to as 'off-comers' (many of whom had in fact lived in Grasmere for over twenty years!), and those with public roles that seemed to refer back to an older, perhaps less prevalent iteration of the English village: the rector, the school teacher, the local historian. The meeting, as perhaps can be expected when personal narratives of local history are at stake, was passionate, long and detailed. The Trust was providing exhibition space, materials, curatorial advice and archive access, but all of the research and the vast bulk of the decisions about the objectives and thematic structure of the exhibition was being undertaken by the residents' group. It perhaps reveals something about my prejudices as an academic researcher that I was struck not only by the sophistication of the exhibition proposed, but also the understanding common to all of the group that this was about far more than local history for history's sake.

As the meeting  progressed, it became clear that what the scrapbooks signified was not just what they could reveal about the Grasmere of the past and social changes in the Lake District, but some very fundamental questions about what a community was. Everyone round the table had a parallel understanding that this planned exhibition could not only say something about the nature of community and how it changed, but could potentially effect a genuine transformation in how the current Grasmere community thinks of itself. Deep-seated ideas about 'locals', 'off-comers' and tourists could be re-thought in the light of an exhibition that would show Grasmere had been a village in flux for a long time; sectors of the local community who had felt isolated could be sought out to share their stories and connections between different parts of the village society could be mended or strengthened.

Working in academia, I've become so accustomed to fielding accusations of existing in the ivory tower sequestered from the 'real' world, that I suppose I've made assumptions that this is how most people view us: disastrously disconnected from political, cultural and social realities. It certainly is how academia is often represented in the media. One of the more heartening aspects of today was meeting a group of people who were outside the academy and who understood absolutely that scholarship, even of a past theoretically out of the way and beyond us, affects, for want of a better phrase, 'the real world'. They could envision how their research might act as a catalyst for discussions that could create a more inclusive and flexible community.

If it sounds like what I'm describing is successful public engagement of the kind to make the AHRC weep with joy, well, I suppose I am, but with some important caveats. I, like many academics and students, am suspicious of the public engagement and impact model as set out in  current HE policy and in the assessment criteria of the upcoming REF. Applying a top-down model indiscriminately across all research fields purely for the purposes of meeting government policy objectives does not make for a worthwhile experience, either for academics or the public.

This partnership between the Trust and the Grasmere community on the other hand seems to me to exemplify an example of public engagement that is working. The group involved are genuinely invested in their research and the exhibition and they know that their community stands to benefit – this is an opportunity they've actively embraced. The Trust, in providing expertise and support, and allowing a local group to use that expertise to shape and present their own understanding of local history, are acting as stewards of knowledge in a way that is welcoming, open, and meaningful to the public. It's the first time I've seen a really successful example of the public and the academy working together in a mutually beneficial way. From what I observed today, the reason lies in the project's fitness for for the local community, their sense of having real buy-in, the potential for meaningful outcomes and, most importantly, the feeling that this meant something far more than a policy box-ticking exercise.

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