Curious Encounters: reflections from the researchers

Laura Anderson, Research Fellow, School of Music:

I found the whole ‘Curious Encounters’ experience very positive, from the organisation of the two workshops to the development of our pilot project. The initial workshops were beneficial in seeing how other researchers have organised their events and the sort of activities they developed to engage different groups.  In particular, Iona’s checklist was a practical tip that we could utilise straight away!  The phrase ‘make them taste the gruel’ stuck in my mind as a reminder of how important it can be to bring research alive for participants.

Regarding the day of our event, my exhibit centred on ‘the audiovisual archive’ and comprised items from the Trevor Jones collection in the School of Music.  I showcased a variety of different formats that have been used to store film music.  I had several interesting conversations with people from within and outside the university about our project aims and, directly linked to the objects at hand, what the residual value of the formats can be once their content has been digitised. In terms of the skills developed, the following stand out for me: the opportunity to practice and improve the presentation of my research both to other researchers and the public more broadly; organisation of an event over the course of several months; and thinking through the logistics of actually putting the event together (I hadn’t realised how much planning goes in to apparently small details!).

I definitely think that participation was beneficial for my own research and it encouraged me to make interdisciplinary connections and to think about how my research might be of interest to the public and furthermore how the public’s interest might contribute to the direction of the research. Through our meetings with Ged Hall, I started to think beyond seeing the event itself as the end point and instead to consider it as a starting point for future conversations.

Montu Basak, PhD student, School of Design:

The significance of research and its impact on the society is a yardstick for measuring the effectiveness and fruitfulness of a research project. And one way of achieving that level of success in research is public engagement; engaging people with the research.

When I read about the Public Engagement workshop in our school, I thought it could be an excellent tool for my PhD research to communicate with people and making people aware about the social problem I am working with, thereby could have a better impact on our society. I joined one of their workshops and decided to continue with its further programmes on public engagement.

Visualisation is a better of way of understanding of any principle or technology. So, involving people in one’s research through physical objects was an excellent idea. The final activity of the Public Engagement workshop was an exhibition and was aptly named as ‘Curious Encounters: With Objects from Past, Present and Future’. I presented my research in that exhibition showing how I could use the technology that I am planning to develop in my PhD research through a physical object which drew interest and attention of the general public in better way rather than only speaking about it.

It was a great experience and more importantly, I was amazed learning people’s awareness about the social issues I am working with and their curiosity to know the outcome of the research project. Few detailed technical discussions with the veterans in this field helped me shaping my thoughts and focus of my project. I hope this kind of workshops is surely going to help researchers to reach out to a broader society and make a real impact on our society. I really enjoyed the whole process and I am proud to be a part of it.

Last but not the least, a special thanks to Amy Twigger Holroyd and Laura Anderson for organizing this amazing event which I am sure is going to inspire other researchers and give a framework to follow.

Lee Broughton, Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellow, Centre for World Cinemas:

The numerous attendees who interacted with my exhibit ‘The changing appearance of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” on British home video’ were a pleasing mix of university employees, students and visitors from outside of the university. As such, the Curious Encounters exhibition provided me with useful experience of communicating with a diverse audience in an unusual public setting.

Films are shot and subsequently issued on home video in a variety of aspect ratios and differentiating between these different aspect ratios can be a confusing process. I was happy to be able to answer a number of questions concerning this facet of the filmmaking process and its more obvious role in the presentation of films on home video in the age of widescreen televisions. The screen grabs that made up part of my exhibit came in handy as instructional tools in this instance.

The various dialogues that I had with visitors were very much two-way affairs and everyone seemed to enjoy the tactile nature of the exhibit (picking up, handling and commenting on the video and DVD cases that I had on my stand). Most visitors had some knowledge of ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ and many of them recounted happy memories of when they had first seen the film or expressed their affection for the film’s main characters. Some of those who were not familiar with the film declared that they would make a point of seeking it out based on the strength of my enthusiasm when talking about the film’s presentation on home video.

One immensely interesting conversation involved an Italian gentleman who provided a detailed account (to both myself and others who were visiting my stand at the time) of his firsthand experience of watching ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ in a Southern Italian cinema at the time of its original release. Crucially, he was able to pass comment on the screen grabs that made up part of my exhibit. The recent Italian restoration of ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ possesses a noticeably yellow-ish hue, which results in a “warm” picture quality. This looks odd to British and American viewers who are used to seeing the film – as presented by United Artists/MGM – with a blue-ish hue, which results in a “colder” picture quality overall. As a guide for their colour timings, the Italian restoration team referred to the original Technicolor prints of the film that had been projected in Italian cinemas during the 1960s. The Italian visitor at the Curious Encounters exhibition confirmed that the screen grab taken from the recent Italian restoration of ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ closely matched his recollections of how the film’s colouring had appeared when he first saw it in a Southern Italian cinema.

Working on the Curious Encounters exhibition has enhanced my team working skills and provided me with further skills relating to event design and management. The exhibition also provided further experience in terms of setting up a cross-faculty project and communicating aspects of my research to audiences who are based outside of the academy.

Elaine Durham, Research Fellow, School of Design:

I very much enjoyed being part of the Curious Encounters project. It was interesting to be part of a team project which started off with the very broad objective of a public engagement activity and slowly narrowed down to the Curious Encounters event in the gallery. Full credit should be given to the project leader who gently steered the project towards its end point while developing the confidence of the whole group and remaining flexible to everyone’s suggestions and ideas. The diverse backgrounds/research interests of team members greatly enhanced the event; both from the point of view of the dynamics of the organising team as well as enriching the public’s experience with the breadth of research at the event. The platform which was developed to showcase the work is adaptable and could be used by other researchers wishing to undertake a public engagement event of their own.

Daniel Mutibwa, Research Fellow, School of Media & Communication:

The revelation for me working with the PVAC PEG group between September 2014 and February 2015 was two-fold: First, I learnt that approaching an undertaking without any preconceived ideas of what the outcome might be can be a painful and frustrating process however committed those involved might be. At times, it can even feel like an utter waste of time. However, if Curious Encounters is something to go by, there is a lot of truth in the saying that ‘patience pays’. I learnt that continually reflecting on past dialogues, remaining focused and keeping the conversations going – even if discussions sometimes may appear to hit dead ends – is essential as opposed to hastily trying to draw conclusions about things that haven’t been discussed thoroughly and thought through properly. For me, part of the success of Curious Encounters stemmed from the patience, focus and commitment that were demonstrated throughout.

Second, the willingness to bring a charged and open mind and the ability to step back from one’s disciplinary comfort zone and embrace other ways of thinking, approaching and doing things/conducting research was a key factor for me. It is by far not as easy as it sounds – certainly not in the beginning – but if the willingness to work towards it is there and if harnessed well, I think truly innovative ideas and projects can emerge.

Judith Simpson, PhD student, School of Design:

I decided to join what ultimately became the Curious Encounters Project because I wanted to increase my confidence in talking about my research to non-specialists.  Although this objective was met (I did manage to overcome my traditional British reserve to a significant extent!) I ultimately felt that some of the other “learning experiences” were more valuable.  These included networking with other researchers, rising to the challenge of communicating my work visually and finding out more about the support and facilities available to researchers within the University.  I also found that conversations with the general public suggested new avenues for research: several “contributed data” by telling me about their own experiences and two suggested useful new sources of information.

One of the biggest surprises was how helpful and supportive other members of the department were when I announced that I had the challenge of creating a visual representation of the role of wool in British death ritual!  A professor sent his friend who worked in the wool industry to talk to me, two of the technicians made me a Barbie-sized coffin and a lady from the admissions team produced doll-sized patterns for mourning wear!  This was a fantastic experience of team work and an unexpectedly efficient way to disseminate my research!

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