AHRC ‘Connected Communities’ Showcase: 12th March, 2013

I have been spending the last several weeks frantically writing, something that may come as a bit of a surprise to any regular readers out there.  At the beginning of February I realized that I had three months to write three conference and/or seminar papers, plus several planning documents, so I have had to get my head down.  The results of my industry are drafts of a variety of things, including a call for papers that you will be seeing a lot more of in the future, I suspect.

In between writing and the general demands of family life, however, I also seem to have spent a great deal of time in London, mainly in relation to the AHRC and HLF-funded Research for Community Heritage project that I am now a postdoctoral research fellow for (this is in addition to my Wellcome fellowship which is on-going).  The project is part of phase two of the AHRC’s Connected Communities programme which is funding some 200 projects bringing together community groups and academic institutions in a variety of ways.  After a session on public engagement for postdoctoral fellows which I attended last week, this week I found myself in London again for a showcase event which allowed me to get a much better sense of the breadth of the programme, as well as bringing me into contact with an extraordinary range of highly engaged (and engaging) individuals.

The day started with a series of short presentations from representatives of the AHRC and the programme’s leadership fellows, followed by a key note address from David Willetts, the Minister of State for Universities and Science.  This sought to emphasize the importance he, as minister, placed on humanities and social science research which he believed to be a ‘bold, significant, world-class participant in UK research’.  He also labelled as ‘unfair’ the impression that the humanities had less connection with the wider world than the sciences.  I couldn’t help feeling there was an element of the lady protesting too much with this. Should the government really need to reassure arts and humanities researchers that they are just as important as all the big scientists and their funding, ring-fenced with funding for the sciences was safe?  If so, it must be down to the impression given by the policies and pronouncements of said government.  The message was also rather undermined by the answer given to a question from the floor about how arts and humanities researchers might influence policy, to the effect that ministers might be accessed via the chief scientist of each department.  Apparently this included social scientists.  I am not sure this was of much comfort to various groups whose excellent work in the arts, often in collaboration, was on display.

The bulk of the remainder of the day was an opportunity to explore the projects whose work was showcased around the venue and participate in breakout sessions.  I missed the session which involved weaving small circlets but did go to a showing of the Imperial War Museum’s film ‘Whose Remembrance?’, based on their on-going project into the black and colonial history of the world wars.  This was fascinating, not only because it tied so beautifully into last week’s Legacies of War seminar from Santanu Das, but also because of the questions it raised about how communities can be encouraged to engage with archives which, all too often they feel excluded from by institutional gate-keepers.  Given that communities are often the very sources that these archives spring from, this is something that needs to be tackled, something that I hope to contribute to through my work with groups involved in Research for Community Heritage.  Making sure that the Liddle and Bamji Collections here at Leeds are better known and fully exploited by all interested communities has suddenly become a very important part of what I am trying to do.  And I was very excited to make the acquaintance of  Cliff Pereira who worked on the Bamji Collection when it was still held in Sidcup.  My one reservation about the session was the rather London-centric nature of the discussion of archival resources.  Given the community-based nature of the research that Connected Communities supports, local and regional archives and their accessibility to community groups really needs to form part of the discussion.

Outside the breakout sessions there were 30-odd stands presenting information about a huge variety of projects.  Many involved mapping and I had long and potentially fruitful discussions with researchers from Birmingham and Bristol about how to present images and information relating to historical geography in an interesting and accessible way.  I ended the day with a fascinating conversation with Paul Crawford from University of Nottingham about health versus medical humanities which gave me some exciting new ideas about how to frame aspects of my own research.  The focus on community activity and expertise within healthcare implicit in health humanities is something that chimes with my long-term interests in the role of families in supporting disabled service personnel.

The formal schedule concluded with round-table discussion about how the Connected Communities project  could evolve in order to achieve ends that will include, as hoped by Keri Facer, one of the programme’s leadership fellows, a change in how universities approach and structure research in the arts and humanities.  Few definite conclusions were reached, but points were raised about interactions with other funding bodies, the need for spaces to share failures and discuss difficulties as well as celebrate achievements, international connections between communities, how resources can be made visible and accessible and, again, that question of how the research being undertaken might affect public policy.

All in all, it was a stimulating, if exhausting day (not helped by the cancellation of my train ‘due to technical failure’ which made it that much longer).  Quite apart from all the ideas generated for the various research projects I am engaged with, and the potential for at least one, if not two, new sources of funding for the Legacies of War project, it was my first experiment with live tweeting a professional event.  I am still not sure I have worked out how to do it.  I certainly wouldn’t want to try at an academic conference as I think I might do injustice to a denser, more complex argument simply through lack of proper concentration.  And I owe a huge apology to my friends and family who, through the linking of my twitter feed and Facebook page, were subjected to a stream of posts of little or no interest outside my professional sphere.  Yet again the question of the work/life balance raises its ugly head in the most unexpected places.

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