Curious Encounters: post-event press release

Curious Encounters, a highly engaging ‘pop-up interactive exhibition’, took place at the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery on 26 February 2015, involving researchers from four schools across the faculties of Performance, Visual Arts & Communication and Arts and attracting positive feedback from visitors from within and outside the university.

The event was part of a skills development project, funded by the LEAP Researcher Training Hub and coordinated by Dr Amy Twigger Holroyd and Dr Elaine Durham (School of Design) and Dr Laura Anderson (School of Music). The project aimed to enable early career researchers to develop skills in public engagement, and to support networking amongst researchers.

The project commenced in September 2014 with two afternoon workshops, featuring presentations from speakers such as Dr Iona McCleery from the School of History, who shared her experiences of co-ordinating the You Are What You Ate project. Workshop attendees were then invited to get involved in organising and delivering a pilot public engagement activity, in order to develop their skills further.

The group of seven researchers worked together to devise an activity which would embrace their diverse research interests and enable them to discuss their research with the general public on a one-to-one basis. Working in collaboration with Lotte Inch, the Marketing & Events Officer at the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery, they developed the concept for an event which would engage visitors in their research through interactive displays of intriguing objects which represented their research.

The exhibition received excellent feedback from visitors, with comments referring to ‘an array of fantastic and diverse subject areas’ and praising ‘the ability to speak to researchers during an exhibition and to discuss your own ideas.’ The feedback also captured the project’s impact, with many visitors suggesting that they intended to further explore some of the diverse topics highlighted in the exhibition – including The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, the traditional craft of smocking, and the School of Media & Communication’s Pararchive project.

Meanwhile, the researchers were aware of the many skills that they had developed through taking part in the project. Dr Laura Anderson highlighted ‘the opportunity to practice and improve the presentation of my research both to other researchers and the public more broadly’, while Dr Lee Broughton felt the project had ‘enhanced my team working skills and provided me with further skills relating to event design and management’. The researchers also benefited in other ways; Judith Simpson ‘found that conversations with the general public suggested new avenues for research’.

Lotte Inch commented: ‘For the Gallery, it has provided the opportunity to engage in a project outside of our normal circles of activity and with researchers from a variety of fields of interest. It has been great to introduce them to the Gallery and to create connections between subject areas, and to welcome, in turn, the many people who visited the Gallery in order to attend the event.

‘In the future, it would be wonderful to repeat this event with a new group of researchers and to consider making this public engagement project an annual event in our calendar. If there are any groups of researchers out there interested in talking about this, then please do get in touch. We are always open to ideas for collaboration!’

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Curious Encounters: reflections from the Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery

Lotte Inch, Marketing and Events Officer, Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery:

From our very early meetings with members of the Curious Encounters group, myself and my colleagues at The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery have been overwhelmed by the professional and organised nature of this group of researchers. In a scenario where what they were planning was new for both them and us, the process had the potential to be challenging. However their professional approach to working within a public facing environment, with new audiences and with new partners has run very smoothly and has been a resounding success. Only further highlighted by the overall success of the event itself!

I can honestly say that it has been lovely working with the Curious Encounters group. For them, I think, it has been good to see ideas become a reality and to see that engaging with new audiences can be a reciprocal process of learning and sharing research, ideas and interests. I’m hoping too that it has offered them an insight into the practical processes involved in organising events in public spaces, in particular, the Gallery, which I know some of the group had not been aware of prior to the project.

For the Gallery in turn, it has renewed our faith in working with researchers and has provided the opportunity to engage in a project outside of our normal circles of activity and with researchers from a variety of fields of interest. It has been great to introduce them to the Gallery and to create connections between subject areas and to welcome, in turn, the many people who visited the Gallery in order to attend the event. Personally, I have found it enlightening to discover just a small snippet of some of the interesting and diverse research topics that are being addressed literally on our doorstep.

In the future, it would be wonderful to repeat this event with a new group of researchers and to consider making this public engagement project an annual event in our calendar. If there are any groups of researchers out there interested in talking about this, then please do get in touch. We are always open to ideas for collaboration!

Alice Clayden, Gallery Attendant, Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery:

Myself and Laura were unsure about how the Curious Encounters event would go at first as we weren’t entirely sure a) how many visitors we would get in b) how the visitors would interact with the research on show and also the researchers as individuals. But because the event was so well organised and involved such a range of work it went great! The group knew exactly what they were doing when they arrived and it was obvious that they had really thought about the space we have to offer in the Gallery. They had planned out and taken the time to anticipate the flow in which visitors would view the different stalls.

We had a great mix of visitors. Regulars who had come along to see what was going on, people who were just generally visiting but then were happy to ask questions get involved and we also had people who had never visited the Gallery before (many of which worked/studied at the Uni!) and had come specifically for the event. It’s always good to get new people in the Gallery! Because the ‘stalls’ were so varied there was something for everyone. Also it was inviting for visitors that a lot of the researchers were really laid back but obviously passionate about their subjects, there were no forced/over the top/intimidating welcomes when people were near them.

On a personal level myself and Laura found out a lot about various things which were going on in the University which we wouldn’t have found out about otherwise. A lot of the researchers were working on things which involved in some way archives within the University eg music/film. This focus on archives for example then has a strong link to what we do in our collections work. It was interesting and highlighted how many links/opportunities to collaborate with other departments there are within the University. We think the Gallery and the University would really benefit from having these type of public engagement events again in the future.

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!