Report: Nineteenth-Century Matters, Public Engagement Training Day

[This story was published on February 6 on the BAVS Neo-Victorian blog. Read the original story at victorianist.wordpress.com/2017/02/06/report-nineteenth-century-matters.]

On January 28, Chawton House Library in Hampshire hosted the Nineteenth-Century Matters Public Engagement Training Day.

The event was sponsored by the British Association for Romantic Studies (BARS) jointly with the British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS), and was organised by Catherine Paula Han.

Nineteenth-Century Matters is a new initiative run by BARS and BAVS, and offers unaffiliated early career researchers a platform from which to organise nineteenth-century workshops and research seminars. Catherine is the current Nineteenth-Century Matters Visiting Fellow at Chawton House Library and the University of Southampton.

Located near to Jane Austen’s House and owned at one time by the author’s brother Edward, Chawton House Library is a fitting location for an event hosted by Nineteenth-Century Matters. For Romantic and Victorian historians, the location proved a delight, with its historic interior, collection of paintings, and assortment of fascinating features – including ornate carvings and witch marks in the Great Hall.

The event opened with a keynote, entitled ‘Living (in) the Library’, from Mark Llewellyn, the Director of Research for the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Han, chairing the keynote, set the tone for the day by explaining her view on the importance of academics communicating their work. This is something that she feels is crucial for the ‘survival of the humanities’.

Llewellyn explored this further by considering the definition of ‘public engagement’, and how his own work at St Deiniol’s Library (now known as Gladstone’s Library, after its original owner) has shown him that engagement has to be reciprocal. Both sides, Llewellyn explained, have to be interested and willing to engage with each other – and this can mean ‘training’ the public how to engage with research.

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This was followed by a lightning talk from Claire Wood from the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement on ‘The Three Ps of Public Engagement’.

Whereas other talks during this training day provided examples of public engagement in practice or explored the practices’ various definitions, Wood’s talk focused on the logistics of engaging with the public, and how to effectively do so. In addition to analysing how best to define ‘public engagement’ as a ‘two-way process […] with the goal of generating mutual benefit’, Wood demonstrated how the ‘Three Ps’ are central to achieving effective interaction with non-academics.

Purpose must drive the engagement, and academics must think carefully about the needs and interests of the people being engaged with. The process (or mechanism) through which this engagement takes place must relate back to the purpose.

Three case study presentations followed Wood’s insightful and practical talk.

Executive Director of Chawton House Library and Senior Lecturer in English Literature for the University of Southampton, Gillian Dow, gave a talk entitled ‘Jane Austen’s Lost Preface: The Danger of Public Engagement’.

This humorous talk about an error in a local newspaper’s editorial on Chawton House Library’s ‘Emma at 200’ exhibition explored the possible pitfalls of sharing research with the public. Dow’s talk made clear not only that Austen did not write a Preface for Emma, but also highlighted that events such as centenaries can be useful tools for reaching out to the public.

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‘Call it What You Like: A Few Examples of Collaborative Outputs between Museums and Universities’ was the title of the talk given by Mary Guyatt, Curator of Jane Austen’s House Museum. Guyatt stressed that museums can act as agents for social change, and that even seemingly small tasks such as writing labels for artefacts is a form of public engagement and must be carefully considered and researched.

Holly Furneaux, Research Ambassador for the National Army Museum and Professor of English Literature for Cardiff University, spoke on ‘Military Men of Feeling and Dickens Afterlives’.

Furneaux’s talk gave an excellent example of research having an impact on young learners. She spoke of her academic work on boy-soldier Lempriere, and how that led to her experiences helping schoolchildren to produce two original folk ballads on the theme of ‘the Ballad of the Boy Captain’.
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Lunch was followed by workshops sessions. My workshop group took part in a Consequences-style game, in which we wrote down answers to questions about our research and how we hoped to engage the public with our work. These forms, circulated around the table, were returned to each of us with comments from three other training day attendees. Personally, I found this an extremely useful activity as I was given suggestions for public engagement projects that I hadn’t considered before.

A plenary/roundtable session with Llewellyn, Wood, Dow, Guyatt and Furneaux, along with Joanna Taylor (Lancaster University and BAVS) and Marie Thouaille (University of East Anglia and Vitae), was chaired by Han. It looked to the future of Nineteenth-Century Matters and congratulated Han on her successes as the Visiting Fellow. Thanks and further congratulations to Han for organising such a useful and insightful training day.

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