Banksy comes to Port Talbot

Amanda Roderick, MA History of Art student at Birkbeck, discusses Season’s Greetings, the Banksy piece that appeared on a garage wall in Port Talbot late last year, and the wider context of a crisis in arts funding. 

This is possibly the first time that Port Talbot has made news on Birkbeck’s blog – although I note that included amongst Birkbeck’s impressive alumni is one Ramsay MacDonald, the first Labour Party Prime Minster and MP for Aberavon in the 1920’s. Politics and connection to place are important in this story.

Last December, one week before Christmas, a striking image of what appeared to be a small boy enjoying the snow was discovered on a garage wall in Port Talbot. The site, a lane behind a row of early nineteenth century terraces in an area called Taibach (means ‘small house’ in Welsh), is sandwiched between the M4 and Tata Steelworks. Recognised and then confirmed as Banksy’s work within hours on his website and titled Seasons Greetings, it had his typical combination of hard-edged social commentary mixed with humour. In this instance, a small boy playfully sticking out his tongue with arms outstretched catching snow is bundled up for winter with coat, hat and scarf, complete with sledge at his feet. Only by turning the corner can the observer have a different reading – the flakes are not snow falling from the sky but ash blowing over the boy from what is either a burning bin or chimney. Subverting messages, questioning authority and creating political site-responsive work, is all familiar territory for Banksy. He’d played on Christmas before: in August 2005, he painted a series of images on the Palestinian side of the West Bank barrier erected by Israel, returning again in December 2007 with new images for ‘Santa’s Ghetto’ in Bethlehem.

Port Talbot is my home town. The site of the Banksy is on the street I grew up in, its lane is the route my sister and I took as a shortcut to school every day, where we played in the evenings, learnt to ride our bikes – and interestingly where bonfires were a regular occurrence. Visiting the Banksy was the Boxing Day walk for many families – mine included – and the security staff in place there (paid for by the actor Michael Sheen who is also from Port Talbot) informed us that in the days leading up to Christmas alone, there had been around 2,000 visitors to this small lane, causing traffic chaos and security issues (the number of visitors apparently rose to a grand total of over 10,000). The guard also confirmed the stories of various attempts at vandalism and concerns that the work would be damaged, stolen or destroyed by those wishing to own a small piece. Life, news and the art world have moved on since then of course; the work has been purchased for an ‘undisclosed six figure sum’ which will be paid to the owner of the garage, a local man. John Brandler, art dealer, street art expert and collector of Banksy’s work, was the buyer; he, promised that it would remain in Port Talbot for two to three years but insisted it be relocated somewhere else in the town for protection: ‘The piece has a relevance with the surroundings. It is important for me to keep it in the town as art is very often specific to a place, especially street art. The piece conveys what Banksy is about – it has a social message and it doesn’t matter where you are. It is about global pollution. We are creating an environment in the planet that will wipe us out.’ He makes very pertinent points, importantly highlighting pollution – the dangerously high levels of pollution must be recognised as amongst the most damaging in the UK. It cannot however be attributed the steelworks alone. The fact that a motorway cuts through densely populated areas must also be considered. Apparently somehow ‘improving’ in recent years, in 1983 it was reported that the town was the most polluted place in Wales and the most polluted in the United Kingdom outside London – only Marylebone Road and Camden had higher levels. There is also no doubt about the level of support, enthusiasm and pride in the town. Cottage industries have popped up selling merchandise; Banksy’s work on mugs, key-rings, t-shirts and bags, with one man having the image tattooed across his chest! Questions have therefore arisen around ownership, copyright, intellectual property – and what it will mean if/when the work is placed in another environment or different context of a gallery/public venue. All are provocations which of course is what Banksy wants.

It’s worth pointing out that Port Talbot was already on the cultural map before the new Banksy appeared. The school mentioned earlier was also the primary school Anthony Hopkins attended and for a time, the young Richard Burton lived a few hundred metres away in that same street, also attending the comprehensive school in the town. Michael Sheen’s 2011 promenade performance The Passion, produced by The National Theatre Wales, used a biblical account to tell a contemporary story of the town’s social history and the destruction of homes there to build the M4. Significantly, the two largest cultural events to take place in Port Talbot over the last decade – Sheen’s performance and the appearance of the Banksy – existed outside of any fixed or ‘physical’ venue and attracted audience numbers estimated in the tens of thousands, proving there is a need for what the arts can bring – and that engagement with the arts is a natural instinct and could not be stronger. This is despite the town not having any arts venue at all and very little provision for such activity – but lots of potential. Bristol, Banksy’s hometown, is a city where street art has been used to regenerate an area but there are examples closer to home in Cardiff and Swansea where the street art group Pure Evil has already been commissioned.

One new home being suggested for the Banksy work once it’s removed from the garage wall is the site of an old police station centrally based opposite Port Talbot Railway Station. Recently developed by social housing group Pobl (translates as ‘people’ in Welsh) the £4m development has flats on the top three floors and would provide the visibility, space, protection and accessibility required with its large glass windows facing onto the street, on the ground floor. Brandler has said he would be prepared to show some of his personal Banksy collection there, adding that he was also interested in developing education and participation opportunities with groups in and around the town, proposing a ‘street art school together with a cafe run by people who were homeless or unemployed’. At a time when the Welsh Government is undertaking a consultation process regarding the site of proposed new modern art gallery in Wales, Port Talbot council must surely be hoping this boosts its chances. For now, Port Talbot joins the list of international locations and institutions in providing a home to prized Banksy work. It follows a flurry of Banksy news in recent weeks. His fake £10 banknote depicting Diana, Princess of Wales named Di-faced Tenner, joined the British Museums collection of coins, medals and other currency in February 2019; Love is in the Bin, the self shredding work memorably auctioned at Sotheby’s in October 2018 and a poignant artwork on the fire door at the Bataclan theatre in Paris thought to be Banksy’s homage to the 90 victims who died in a terrorist attack on the venue in November 2015 has been stolen.

As I write this, three new murals have appeared on walls in Port Talbot, which are not Banksy’s. They depict Lego mini-figures, all referencing the Banksy piece: its sale and removal and its critique of pollution. The artist responsible, who goes under the name Ame72 and is also known as ‘the Lego guy’, has confirmed that the three pieces are his work. For Brandler, this is exactly what is needed; ‘By using the Banksy to bring other interesting pieces into the town, I want to make Port Talbot the go-to place for street art in the UK’. He continues; ‘Ame72 is an up-and-coming artist, well known and well-respected within that sphere and the first one to come to the town – he would not have come here without the Banksy. I want to bring Blek Le [a French graffiti artist that inspired Banksy], Pure Evil and Damien Hirst. Internationally known artists will come if we give them Banksy. This is just the starting point; the more you have got, the more people will come’

Ame72 Lego Mural, Feb 2019. Taibach Rugby Club, Commercial Rd, Port Talbot.

There is a very important backstory here however and Brandler through his patronage perhaps unintentionally foregrounds the crisis that now looms. The danger for Port Talbot is that all the excitement generated by the media will fade and, as with other areas across Wales, these rare moments of inspiration and opportunity are rarely appreciated and acted upon by the Local Authority and Welsh Government. Without the philanthropy we have witnessed here, it is difficult to envisage how artists and small regional arts organisations will thrive and survive as public funding rapidly dwindles. The UK is fast approaching the US model of reliance on private and charitable funding – a strong tradition there, its infrastructures are built up over many generations where money is usually raised by wealthy Board members and Trustees. The encouragement of similar ‘business’ models in Wales has been a brutal transition into a different kind of dependency and one not easy to achieve, especially in the poorer regions or inner cities of Wales and England. Here there can often be little or no track record, resources or economic success related to individual giving and corporate sponsorship.  An arts venue in Port Talbot off the back of the Banksy would be hugely beneficial but the reality is that any new or ‘redeveloped’ space for showing or producing art, would come with unaffordable rents, overheads and often insufficient budget allocation to pay its artists and staff properly. It would, like, increasingly, the NHS and many school classrooms, be reliant on volunteers for many front of house staffing and operating responsibilities.

Secondly, there is a question as to whether urban graffiti is the only kind of art that can now be truly accessible, affordable and popular in some areas. It does not require a building but will it always need to be covered with ugly protective screens and fencing (as is the Port Talbot Banksy). What of the emerging, local artists, the art students and grassroot collectives? How and where will they make their art, who will pay to see it, buy – and how will it be collected, maintained and archived for the future?

Banksy has been labelled a Situationist, and ‘part graffiti artist, part windup prankster’. In Port Talbot he has created a timely metaphor to shine a light on the town and through his art, re-opened and reignited excitement and creative discussion amongst its inhabitants across class and generation – appealing to all those who identify with notions of self-expression and the spirit of rebellion that he represents. He has also reminded us, in case we needed it, of the dereliction of duty towards arts and culture (and other public services) by the current government ideology of austerity – the repercussions of which are manifested in cost-cutting exercises by regional authorities across Britain. How this impacts the next generation of artists and museum visitors and collections we will see. The final word goes to London-based Welshman, Iain Sinclair who refers to Banksy in his thoughts and writings on an urban walk through Hackney;

There is now a fascinating interzone where a guerrilla street artist like the character known as Banksy is collected and patronized by Hollywood stars. Stencils and strategic cartoons are either destroyed as acts of public vandalism or endorsed by changing hands for huge amounts of money. And you have to argue over the fabric of the city as to whether this is the art the authorities want to sponsor (as they have done in St Leonards-on-Sea, by immediately sealing a Banksy paint job under perspex); or whether, in some way, these interventions should remain an encrypted secret. We live in a society avid for gathering up anything that seems to have spirit; anything that is dangerous can be captured and converted into a form of energy. Which is also wealth, money and credit.

All images and John Brandler quotes courtesy of Wales Online & BBC Wales.

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Changing Titles – arriving at ‘Caravan of the Lost and the Left Behind’

MA Creative Writing alumna Deirdre Shanahan, discusses how her degree helped her refine her skills in fiction writing and bring her characters to life, as her debut novel Caravan of the Lost and the Left Behind is published. 

The reality of publishing a novel came forcibly to me in Oxford Street when I was Xmas shopping.  I had an email from my publisher saying they felt the title suggested the novel to be sci-fi. Having lived with the title for years and never thinking of it in this way, I was surprised but since the novel was not sci-fi or anything like it, I knew the publishers were speaking from a sense of how it would appear to any potential reader. They asked if I could think of another title. Changing felt as though it would be quite a wrench but I did not want to confuse potential readers – I didn’t want to lose any! So I accepted their professional judgement. Assuming I would not be able to come up with any other title, I  finally thought of about a half a dozen others and thankfully the one I liked most was agreed upon –  ‘Caravan of the Lost and the Left Behind.’ I am grateful the publishers alerted me to the possibility of confusion over titles, and for lots of reasons I like the final choice probably more than its original. I like the idea of- ‘caravan,’ from the Persian and all it suggests of journey and movement; a trail of people following one another and the way we have adopted it. I also like the other stolid words – from Old English,  clearly stating what I think are some of the themes.  The combination of these two languages,  what they suggest  in  a blend of culture and traditions – how we negotiate between differences is  a central focus of the novel.

Having to re-adjust to look at my own words in a public context, after all, is what publishing means. I knew this, having published short stories both here and in the USA, but not in terms of a novel. The MA in Creative Writing’s workshops provided a forum to share work and develop skills in fiction. We gave and received constructive criticism and learnt to appreciate and accept other genres, other kinds of writing.

Although I had written this novel and undertaken some drafts before the MA, I did not know what I had in terms of a sustaining narrative or characters and whether the novel overall would work- would it hold a reader. Would these people I had created be of interest to anyone else?  I was able to discover all this and more – discuss challenges, characters, constructing a narrative. Through the MA workshops, I was able to refine what I had already achieved.  Of course only a small part of the novel could be work-shopped but from the feedback I was better equipped and able to gauge how much I had achieved and how I needed to work on the rest.

The novel is about Eva an Irish traveller who returns to Ireland to try to reconnect with her daughter Caitlin who she left there years before. She takes her son Torin  as he is implicated in a stabbing and we follow the engtanglement of Torin and Caitlin as they try to negotiate their relationship in the  aftermath of  Eva’s actions. The novel looks at notions of family and flight, belonging and secrets and their unravelling, notions of displacement between rural and city environments. It is about the turmoil and dissonance that can occur when there is a rupture between living in one of the two places and having to form a new life elsewhere.

Caravan of the Lost and the Left Behind will be published May 2019 with paperback and hardback available from Bluemoose Books.

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Why I did a PhD in my 70s

The rewards of taking on a major research project are enormous at any age. Dr Mairi McDonald discusses completing her PhD in Iberian and Latin American Studies at 72, which she is now turning into a book.

2018 was the four hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Spanish painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo which seems to me to be the appropriate year to finish a PhD relating the artist’s paintings and their relationship with discourses on poverty in seventeenth-century Seville.

What use is a PhD to a seventy-two-year-old? Not much, you might think. However, the rewards are great: meeting the challenge of adding something new to a particular subject, the satisfaction of joining an academic community dedicated to the subject you are studying and also a huge amount of fun.

I started taking a variety of Open University courses in the history of art while I worked part-time at Channel 4 after leaving my full-time post there, then progressed to an MA Renaissance Studies at Birkbeck. A friend had strongly recommended this course and I was attracted by the range of subjects on offer, including the chance to pursue a module on Power and Control in Spanish Golden Age Art. My dissertation for the MA made me want to continue investigating the topic of seventeenth-century Spanish painting further and keep my brain functioning in old age. Since I had retired by then, and with the support of Dr Carmen Fracchia who had supervised my MA dissertation, I enrolled as a part-time PhD at Birkbeck in what was then the Department of Iberian and Latin American Studies. As a student of Early Modern Spanish art, I was the exception in a department where most PhD students were studying contemporary topics, but I found their enthusiasm and dedication stimulating. I also loved Birkbeck for the impressively wide range of students studying there and the fact that there were even a handful of people around my age. There were workshops to assist me at every phase of the PhD, from the initial stages of how to plan your work through to coping with the Viva. Above all, I received invaluable help and encouragement from my supervisor throughout.

The most difficult aspect of this work was not the research, or the writing up of my findings but learning Spanish from scratch. Learning a new language in my sixties was a tough proposition. Without Spanish, I could not read the seventeenth-century documents relevant to the PhD, such as sermons of the period, discourses on poverty, seventeenth-century chronicles on Seville as well as the writings of current Spanish scholars, none of which were available in English. Through courses at the Instituto Cervantes in London and some perseverance, I eventually attained a workable reading knowledge of Spanish.

Since surviving the viva and graduating at Birkbeck, I was invited to present a paper on Murillo and poverty at a prestigious symposium Murillo in Perspective which was held at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London earlier this year and am working on converting my PhD into a book, amazing opportunities for a seventy-two-year-old!

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La Serenissima: five weeks in Venice

Uli Gamper, MA Museum Cultures student, discusses his summer as one of Birkbeck’s first recipients of the British Council’s Venice Fellowships. 

I was one of the lucky two students from Birkbeck’s History of Art department that was awarded a Venice Fellowship this year. The Venice Fellowship, a partnership between the British Council and Birkbeck, and other universities from all over the UK, supports students to spend a month’s time Venice during the Biennale di Venezia, one the world’s most renowned art/architecture biennials.

Inspired by topics encountered during seminars and lectures in my MA Museum Cultures, I formulated a research proposal around themes of cosmopolitan museology, representations of nationality and arising friction in the collision of local and global forces. The Venice Biennale and museums in general and the British Pavilion in particular were a rich pool for empirical research and observation on these subjects. Subsequently, I used the research conducted in Venice to inform the case studies for my dissertation.

I left for Venice in mid-May as I was part of the first group of fellows, working during the opening period of the Biennale. The great advantage of being part of the first group was to help to prepare the British Pavilion for the opening and meeting the team of the British Council that commissions the pavilion every year. Furthermore, Venice was packed with art, architecture and museum/heritage professionals from all over the world and hence it was a valuable opportunity to network. Last but not least, there were a plethora of great parties all over Venice during the opening week of the Biennale, and that was another unforgettable experience that we all hugely enjoyed.

My working week as a fellow was split into four days working at the British Pavilion. This consisted predominantly of engaging with the audience and introduce them to the installation. We also helped with the daily running of the pavilion as well as condition-checking the installation. The other three days we used to conduct our own independent research, which led me to visit most of the national museums in Venice and collateral events of the Biennale. Other highlights organised by the British Council were the staff seminars at the Peggy Guggenheim Foundation that we were allowed to attend. I had the opportunity to participate in a seminar with the head of exhibitions of the foundation that proved to be a very insightful experience.

Overall, there were many positive aspects about my time in Venice. I hugely enjoyed and benefited from being part of a group of 12 fellows from diverse academic disciplines such as Architecture, Fine Art and Graphic Design. This resulted in extremely fruitful exchanges and debates that informed my ongoing research positively. Apart from this benefit, I left with a bunch of incredible new friends. Venice itself was a bliss beyond words; the light, the sea, the absence of cars, the architecture I immersed myself and rested in awe in its shadow, all invaluable experiences and memories I took back to London with me.

Upon my return to London, our group of fellows continued the discourse and organised an exhibition in August, held at a temporary space in Shoreditch. And it didn’t stop there; The British Council is keen to organise another show in the new year, featuring the research outcomes of Venice Fellows. I didn’t imagine that so many further opportunities would come along from this encounter.

Yet again, and I couldn’t say it often enough, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Birkbeck’s History of Art department for awarding me with this Fellowship and particularly to Sarah Thomas for being so supportive during the preparation for the Fellowship and after, many thanks!

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Venice Biennale: creative research in the floating city

Danilo Reis, BA History of Art with Curating student, looks back at his five weeks as one of Birkbeck’s first recipients of the British Council’s Venice Fellowships.

The five weeks that I spent in Venice as a recipient of the British Council’s Venice Fellowship programme were truly life-changing. The fellowship, offered in partnership with Birkbeck, is an amazing platform for academic, social, and professional development. The opportunity to work at the prestigious Venice Biennale, while also conducting my own research allowed me to gain a valuable understanding of both the unique city of Venice and the Biennale.

From the very beginning, Birkbeck and the British Council offered me a lot of professional support. Birkbeck helped me with the preparation and planning of my research project, while the British Council offered training sessions in London and put Fellows in contact with renowned institutions in Venice, such as The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, which ran study trips and tours, the European Cultural Academy, which offered professional advice on our research projects, and the We Are Here Venice project, a really interesting initiative engaged with the socio-cultural preservation of Venice. I really enjoyed working with all of these institutions, and I particularly liked the aims and mission of We Are Here Venice. We were invited by the organisers of We Are Here Venice to actively engage with their projects and visit and work in their exciting studio, which was a really enriching experience.

The social element of the fellowship was another important aspect of this trip. Our group of twelve Fellows was very diverse, which made us stand out from other national pavilions of the Biennale. We all became friends very quickly and made really good friends with the workers of other pavilions. Every now and again someone posts a picture of our time in Venice on our group chat, which is normally followed by the recalling of beautiful memories and lots of heart emojis.

Being around so many creative and inspiring people made me want to engage with my research creatively. I had never been to Venice before so I did not know what to expect. Once I was there, I was amazed by the functioning of the city: the environmental challenges that the city faces, the use of boats as public transport, the overwhelming amount of tourists visiting the city, the particular geography of Venice… all these elements were immediate indicators of the uniqueness of Venice. From this, I started to think about the need to contextualise Venice according to the socio-political frame within which it operates, a subject which is not normally included in the many guidebooks which the thousands of daily visitors to Venice carry around. I felt the need to address this lack of socio-political contextualisation, to bridge Venice with Italy and with the rest of the world, perhaps in an effort to demystify the romanticism of the city. This meant that the themes of globalisation, capitalism and immigration also needed to be explored. Halfway through my stay in Venice, I met with two representatives of the European Cultural Academy. Their advice helped me to focus my research on the topics of politics, culture and society. I presented some of my findings to the British Council in my ‘AlieNation Playbook’. This was a conceptual book which I created by interacting with a standard guidebook of Venice and ‘subverting’ it. Through collage, I expressed my personal feelings in relation to the geopolitics of Venice, with a strong focus on the many issues faced by Venice and society at large.

I really enjoyed the whole experience and I wish I could express how much it meant to me, but it is very hard to express my gratitude with words. All I can say, finally, is that I really do hope that this fellowship programme continues for as long as the Venice Biennale exists. All the experience that I gained from working at a world-class art event, all the friends that I made, and everything that I learned with my research project made this experience a turning point in my professional, academic and personal life. I feel very grateful for having been given this opportunity and I do hope that many more students will be able to benefit from the Venice Fellowships in the future! I would like to say a huge thank you to Birkbeck and the British Council for an unforgettable experience.

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Birkbeck Library website redesign; or, my adventures in a digital transformation project

Elizabeth E. Charles, Assistant Director of Library Services, discusses the redesign of the library website. 

Today, we have launched a brand-new Birkbeck Library website, with completely revamped content, navigation and design.

The Library website has been redesigned on two previous occasions: we changed the landing page, but the content remained the same, which is like repainting your front door and landscaping the front garden, but doing nothing to the interior of the house! I hasten to add that this occurred because, every time the opportunity arose, we just didn’t have the time and it was too close to the start of another academic year.

This time, we asked Naomi Bain, the College’s user experience (UX) expert, to undertake some UX testing with Library website users. This told us some things that we already suspected or knew – there was too much text on the Library website, and it was difficult to find information – but, we also learned that the layout was confusing, alongside a number of other issues.

We knew that the main Birkbeck site had been redesigned and restructured and we liked some of the features, as did our users; so, I contacted Jane Van de Ban, Web Content Manager in External Relations, with a list of the things we would like changed on the Library website. As the Library site is the second most popular section of the entire Birkbeck website (after the online prospectus), Jane suggested that, rather than simply update our existing site, it would be worth integrating it into the new design. She asked us whether we would be prepared to undertake this as a collaborative effort. The Library web editors agreed that this would be a good opportunity to refresh our website, so we said yes!

The redesigned library website

Getting ready

Jane supplied us with a content audit and looked at traffic to the Library website in the past year. This showed us that a large proportion of the Library site was not being used, and it also told us which content was most popular with our web visitors. Jane presented us with a collaborative spreadsheet, listing all the content areas, and her advice on what to do in relation to each area. After the initial emotional reaction, we reviewed the comments and suggestions and either agreed with them or explained why we disagreed with her assessment.

The next step was to come up with a new structure for the Library website. We were invited to a Library web workshop and, using post-it notes and sharpies, we wrote down the most common queries that we get from our users (one query per post-it note). Then we stuck them on the wall, and grouped and sorted them. We then filled in the gaps and took pictures of the grouped post-it notes for future reference. This then became the basis of the Library redesign, alongside the initial, annotated content audit.

Jane then set up a project on Trello – a collaborative project tool – with a list of tasks, organised into columns like ‘To do’, ‘Doing’, ‘To review’ and ‘Done’.

The project

Given the importance of this project to our web visitors, Jane wanted to complete the improvements as quickly as possible and asked if a member of Library staff could be seconded to the project. I volunteered, as I felt I was best placed to answer queries. So, for one day a week, starting in early April, I was scheduled to work on the website.  As homework, I had to familiarise myself with Birkbeck’s Style Guide and tone of voice guidelines, as well as other support materials provided in the digital standards section of the website. I also attended a bespoke training session, run by the External Relations web content team, then prepared to set to work.

Using the Trello project board, I chose the content areas I wanted to work on (everyone works from the same board, which means that there is no duplication of work), and my job was – for each content area – to answer the queries that came out of the Library web meeting, find all of the pages on the live Library site that related to them, then review the content and rewrite it, to meet the digital standards and to reduce the amount of text.

My first task: getting membership under control

I decided to start with our membership information. My challenge was to convert 55 separate pages to one page. Working with Ben Winyard, Senior Content Editor in External Relations, who gave me one-to-one training and advice, I rewrote and changed the formatting to match the house style, then experimented with how the information is presented.

Jane then reviewed the new page and wrote a detailed report on the format, the tone of voice, grammar and house style – I felt I had received a C+, ‘Could do better’ mark! I worked through Jane’s detailed report, addressing each point raised and making changes as necessary. This was helpful because it meant I could then review other pages to ensure the same issues didn’t crop up.

The new membership page was then moved to Ben’s list on Trello, to check that it met the requirements for the Birkbeck tone of voice and the use of plain English and active voice. He cut the text even further while ensuring that the content flowed. Then, the page was given back to me, to check that nothing crucial was missing, giving me another chance to suggest other edits.

This process meant that I received a crash course in writing for the web from a team of experienced content editors, working collaboratively, using live content. It is all well and good to read guidance notes, but quite another thing to implement them and keep to the task!

Improvements

Rewriting content wasn’t the only improvement we made to the Library site. We also improved navigation and findability of content:

  • We didn’t duplicate information that already existed elsewhere – we linked to it.
  • Forms to suggest new books for the Library and for staff to request teaching materials were converted into Apex forms and located either in My Birkbeck for Staff or in My Birkbeck for Students. So, Library users do not have to retype personal information that we already hold about them.
  • We also made huge improvements to navigation in two key areas of content:
    • Angela Ashby, Digital Editor in External Relations, reorganised the navigation for past exam papers, which had included a separate web page for each department for each year of exams – amounting to more than 200 pages. Angela cut the navigation down to 26 pages – one for each department.
    • I compressed 232 web pages listings our for databases and online resources into just one page. This was made easier by deciding to move extensive help guide information for each database into a document, which will eventually become a support manual for Library staff on the helpdesk.

Keeping Library staff updated

This has been the first opportunity I have had to fully examine the content of the existing Library website and to undertake a root-and-branch review. I focused on thinking always of what our users want/will be looking for and trying to ensure that they can visit a web page, scan it, easily find what they need, and move on. Helping users to find the resources they need without adding additional layers of unnecessary content was very important. When in doubt, I would look at the website traffic figures, the feedback from the UX testing, and the post-it notes.

After all that work had been done, the slimmed-down website was shown to Library staff and to students who attended a Student-Library Partnership meeting. The response was very positive: obviously, we were on the right track.

Creating the wayfinding page

The wayfinding, or landing, page was the last component of the project. We had more post-it-note sessions with groups of Library staff to consult with them. This enabled us to come up with an initial layout, based on a top-task analysis, to inform the order in which signpost tiles appear.

Then, I built the wayfinding page. We decided to use new photos taken last year, focusing on images of our students using the Library.

Redirects

Before we could go live with the new website, we had to create a comprehensive list of redirects, to ensure visitors following old links ended up on new content. This was a huge task, which ended with 1700 redirects (and, wouldn’t you know, I also got to help with that, too).

Looking forward

We have already requested UX testing to ensure that we have not overlooked anything, to pick up on any issues, and to provide evidence to make informed decisions on any further changes/tweaks to the Library website before the beginning of the 2018–19 academic year.

Conclusion

It has been a challenging and stimulating experience. But, I have learnt a great deal from the External Relations web content team and I can honestly say, I now understand what is required to write for the web in a consistent and engaging fashion. I’ve also learned the importance of optimisation for search and paying consideration to where our users would expect to find the information they are looking for. I also know the whole of the Library website intimately, and I will continue to learn and retain my newly acquired skills, through continuous practice and actively reviewing the content on our website.

My thanks to Jane, Ben, Angela, Emlyn, Steve, Naomi, John and Outi and the Library Web Group and the Library staff for their support and for providing feedback at the drop of a hat.

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Interacting with the dead

Birkbeck student, author and mortician Carla Valentine describes how she came to her unusual career, and the impact her MA in Museum Cultures has had on her work. 

I’d wanted a career in a mortuary from when I was a young child and, as odd as this seemed at a time before CSI and Silent Witness, I do write about the different issues which came together to send me along that unusual path. Over the years I gained experience of embalming, forensics, post-mortems of adults and the young, decomposed and freshly deceased, radioactive decedents and those with highly infectious diseases, as well as victims of the July 7 Bombings in 2005.

After nearly a decade of working alongside pathologists at the same time as the Human Tissue Authority was being created I became more aware of the variety of ways in which we may encounter the deceased today: in the post-mortem sector, at medical schools for teaching students, and public display (all areas which the HTA now regulate).

Fascinated by the concept of our interaction with the dead in the public arena, I sidestepped from dealing with the recently deceased in mortuaries to becoming the curator of Barts Pathology Museum, part of Queen Mary University London. Although my work now involves human remains around a century old, the basic method is very similar: it’s my job to ‘read’ these human remains in order to find out about how they lived and how they died, then decide why and how this is relevant for a public audience.

I was therefore thrilled when I discovered the MA in Museum Cultures at Birkbeck, which gave me the option to study Exhibiting the Body as a module with Dr Suzannah Biernoff and then carry out an Independent Research Project and a dissertation of my own choosing. Now I work with human remains and research their display at Master’s Level, with my day-to-day work supplementing my studies and vice-versa – it’s ideal! However, my previous career as an autopsy technician was a rollercoaster-ride and I’m thrilled I was able to tell the story in my book Past Mortems.

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Birkbeck teams up with Refugees at Home

Naureen Abubacker, coordinator of the Compass Project at Birkbeck, writes about the College’s partnership with charity Refugees at Home, which matches people with spare rooms with refugees and asylum seekers in need of a place to stay.

The Compass Project at Birkbeck launched in the autumn of 2017, providing 20 fully funded places on a university level qualification for 20 asylum seekers. This offers an opportunity to students to study for and gain a UK qualification, who would otherwise face a unique barrier to accessing higher education.

With few opportunities like this elsewhere in the UK for mature asylum seekers, The Compass Project has welcomed students living outside of London, including Wales, York and Birmingham – which would mean several hours of travelling in and out of London in order to attend class. As classes at Birkbeck take place in the evening, it has been important to find ways to support these students, ensuring that they have a secure place to stay and they aren’t travelling home late into the night. For others, their precarious status has meant that overnight they have found themselves homeless.

Through the wonderful work of Refugees at Home, a charity that brings together those with a spare room with asylum seekers or refugees who need a place to stay, it has been possible to support our students who live outside London, through temporary accommodation with local host families in and around London. The accommodation provided by Refugees at Home is invaluable and offers them a safe and welcoming home environment whilst they focus their attention on their studies.

Michael, a Compass Project student who is studying for the Certificate of Higher Education in Counselling and Counselling Skills, has been living with Refugees at Home hosts Hannah and Charlie since the Spring term Michael said:

“I had the pleasure of being hosted by Charlie and Hannah and it’s been such an awesome experience. Being here allowed me to enter the year 2018 in a loving home full of love and warmth; I am not exactly sure where I would be now if Charlie and Hannah had not come to my rescue. I have been able to continue with my course.

I first heard about Refugees at Home through Naureen, the Compass Project coordinator at Birkbeck, who made several enquiries and a request on my behalf to find secure accommodation, following a challenging time. That very same night when I thought everything was against me, Refugees at Home came to my rescue and sent me to a host’s house in London whilst they sorted out a more long-term place for me with Charlie and Hannah.

The help I have received has really been overwhelming. I have been supported, shown love and affection not just by Charlie and Hannah, but their respective families, Spergen, the dog, and friends. I am treated like a member of the family by those within this lovely community.

I am by far probably the worst guest in a long time as my mood has been going up and down like a yo-yo but through it all these guys have been amazing giving me space when I needed it and always being there to talk to and help me with any difficulty I might be facing.

For those being hosted by the wonderful people through Refugees at Home, here is my tip on being a good guest: learn as much as you can from your host and for you to share any knowledge or tips about anything with your host as this allows you to better understand and be understood. Above all open mind and love in your heart, you will never go wrong.”

Hannah talks about her experience of how she became involved with Refugees at Home and what it’s been like having Michael as a guest through the scheme:

“My husband and I have spare rooms in our house and had been wanting to host for some time. I came across Refugees at Home on Facebook and got in touch. A few forms, references and a house visit later and we were contacted about a couple from Eritrea who spoke no English and had been the country a very short while. Fortunately for them, they found more permanent accommodation before they came to us. Then we were contacted about Michael. It is fair to say Michael is not the type of person we were expecting to host as a refugee – which just goes to show all stereotypes should be blown out of the water when it comes to those seeking asylum. Michael has been in the UK for over 20 years and through a series of unfortunate events and system failures has slipped through the net and is still awaiting leave to remain.

Having Michael with us has been more like having a friend to stay. He’s easy going, full of interesting facts and stories and a fantastic cook. He has been a huge support and help to another refugee we host who does not know English or the UK system well- Michael has been able to work with us to guide him through.

We’ve found hosting to be a real joy and have learnt the support of our community through it- we’ve been given bikes for everyone to get around, invites for our two guests to meals, birthday parties and cups of tea. A group from our church even wanted to give our guests Christmas presents and made up Christmas hampers for them.

It takes a while to settle into hosting if you’ve not done it before. Learning each other’s daily routines, figuring out how to do the shop (we have a list app), finding the balance between wanting guests to be at home and be autonomous in how they live, while being able to live your own life as well. But our every growing, slightly unconventional family has enjoyed working out these ways of living with others.

We have learnt the importance of time, patience and listening and have had our eyes opened to a whole world of navigating systems and of backstories of other people’s lives that we might have touched the surface of previously but never fully understood.

If you have a spare room in your accommodation I would highly recommend you consider hosting, even if for a short time!”

The success of the students on the Compass Project who have found accommodation through Refugees at Home would not have been possible without the support of this incredible organisation. To find out more about Refugees at Home and to become a host, please visit: www.refugeesathome.org

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BBK Chat: our experience of student mentoring

BBK Chat is a mentoring scheme which pairs students who are in their first term at Birkbeck with students further on in their studies. Mentors and mentees meet at a coffee shop near campus to chat about all things Birkbeck. The scheme runs through the autumn term and has now come to an end for the academic year. We asked Christine, a mentee, and Les, a mentor, about their experience on the scheme this year.

Christine was a BBK Chat mentee in 2018

“When I first decided to study law at Birkbeck, I was so excited. Once I received my letter of confirmation and a start date I knew I would require support to build my confidence.

Within two weeks of starting university, I received a call from the mentoring team reminding me of my request and I gladly accepted their offer of support and was told that in due course a member from the team would contact me to arrange a suitable date/time.

When I received a call from Les, he introduced himself and we agreed to meet and because it would be our first meeting we provided each other with a brief description of ourselves and what we would wear on the day to make it easy to recognise each other.

On meeting Les he gave me a guided tour of the building which I found really helpful and to date I make full use of each domain, including the calm atmosphere of the student bar; this advice I have shared and meet regularly with my fellow students.

In the following meetings with Les, he has shared so much about study skills with me that I have gained so much more confidence in myself and have put into practice much of his advice. This has made me understand my course so much better and I am even considering studying other areas in the future.

Having a mentor has made a real difference in how I see the introduction to studying as a mature student and would definitely recommend BBK Chat to other students.”

Les was Christine’s BBK Chat mentor in 2018

“My experience mentoring over the past two years has been very rewarding and enjoyable.  As a mentor, I am there to support a new student through the first stage, after the initial worries students discover how enjoyable studying at Birkbeck is. At later meetings, the discussion is about the interesting things we are studying, and the location moved to the bar (they sell tea there as well). Occasionally results after the first term are a big concern, and it is easy to feel disheartened afterwards. As a mentor I have been able to help put it into context, it’s not a disaster, learn from the feedback and apply it next time – and speak to your tutor as they are always very supportive.

For those considering mentoring, do it! It only takes up a couple of hours and changes the experience of a new student for the better. Your experience can help calm the worries we all have when arriving for our first term. Being there to offer advice if a student does struggle is vital, just being there to reply to a text message after a difficult first essay meant a student went and spoke to their tutor, got the advice they needed and didn’t drop out. On top of that, you will make new student friends from other departments. I still keep in contact with those who want to, and meet up to keep up with what’s going on.”

If you are either a current student interested in supporting a new student or a prospective student interested in having a mentor when you start at Birkbeck this autumn, please get in touch with the Widening Access team at getstarted@bbk.ac.uk.

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