September 28, 2012 by Amy Ryall
Who is Public Engagement for is a good question and one which anyone planning an event needs to ask themselves. Essentially, the answer to that question doesn’t really matter. It’s more important that it’s asked and the answer used as an evaluative tool after the event. By avoiding being self-critical, public engagement can turn into a self-congratulatory and paternalistic being, where engagement is ‘done’ to people. No one wants engagement done to them, that’s not really the point. The point is that people are engaged by what we’re doing and are allowed to be so on their terms, rather than ours. Many museums were founded on the basis that they were to educate the masses and what and who that meant was dictated by the organisations or individuals making the big decisions. Although free, the British Museum’s original Trustees limited entry to ‘studious and curious persons.’ There’s an interesting article on the debates and the meaning of this here. John Ruskin’s aim for his museum, opened in Walkley, Sheffield in 1875 was that the working man should be able to see what the wealthy saw when they travelled to Europe. A noble aim, but essentially top-down and dictatorial.
There’s a danger here, in that trying to dictate to people, we risk doing more harm than good. There will always be an audience for events that the University organises. Its reputation within certain areas of the city, and connections with those areas means that if we put events on, they will come. And that’s fine. More interesting is looking at the areas that don’t, won’t or can’t access what the University has to offer and working out whether this is something that can be changed. Will certain groups only engage if it is on a collaborative basis, and by that I mean planning, developing and executing a project or event as equal partners with the University? For many, now, engagement with culture and other leisure and educational pursuits is a luxury, and no amount of people telling them otherwise will change their minds. What we have to do as a University and as a City is to work out where the luxury and the necessity collide and take advantage of those collisions. Sheffield is setting up an Arts and Well-Being Network, to bring together those working in those fields. If it works it will allow those involved to think and do really creative things by bringing their fields together. The area of Medical Humanities is another research area that lends itself to this collaborative approach and there are many others. My favourite session at a conference on Challenging History that I was involved in this year was about Margaret and her Wardrobe. Margaret is an Alzheimer’s sufferer and her son Chris was struggling to get those caring for her to view her as a real person and treat her as such. Prior to becoming ill, Margaret, like all of us, had a varied and interesting life. She had been an air hostess and also had a lifelong obsession with collecting high fashion clothes. Chris researched Margaret’s Wardrobe, and the associated ‘archive’ of receipts, information and packaging that she had also collected, finding out when the clothes had been purchased, where Margaret had bought them, who they had been designed by, and their significance. He had the results made into a poster which he took to the hospital. By using this research, Chris was able to address the issue of Margaret’s care by introducing her to medical staff as she had been before her illness. It provided him with a way in and the medical staff with a way out of the cycle that they’d become trapped in. Maybe not public engagement as such, but providing a clear use for and illustrating the benefits of humanities research in other areas.
In crude terms, getting it right is about thinking what you can do for public engagement as well as what public engagement can do for you and acknowledging that as a University, we don’t always know best.