Author Archives: Anthony

Categorising ‘Public Engagement’

Mary-Clare Hallsworth, Public Engagement Manager at Birkbeck, University of London outlines the College’s approach to categorising public engagement for the inaugural Public Engagement Awards.

Recently at Birkbeck we ran our first ever Public Engagement Awards. The aim of the awards is to showcase and reward the great public engagement with research that goes on in our College. Thankfully there is plenty of it to reward so we didn’t need to overcome that particular challenge but instead we needed to make sure that the breadth of engagement practice was well represented and colleagues felt there was a category that they could apply for.  A lot of thought went into what our award categories should look like. There is quite a variety of models out there for categorising and dividing up public engagement. You can group PE by who is doing it, who it is being ‘done to’ (!), who is involved, reasons for the engagement or methods used – this is even before we start arguing over the nuances of the various definitions for public engagement (what should/shouldn’t be included?!).

Personally I like to avoid defining public engagement as a ‘thing’ altogether and prefer to think of it as an ethos – an underpinning way of conducting yourself and your research. This breaks the need to ask things like ‘does a blog count as public engagement?’; the answer to this is always ‘depends how you use it’, which is an irritating response. Instead, thinking of public engagement as an ethos enables us to think about the plethora of methods available as tools and choose the ones most useful and relevant to both the research and the community involved.

Bearing in mind then that we are trying to promote an ethos, not a tick-box ‘thing’ we looked at options for dividing the categories for our awards: by School/Department, by career level, by levels of involvement/influence in PE, and by engagement ‘type’.  We decided that, however we divided them, the final categories should adhere to certain principles. They must:

  • Reward the engagement work and not just individuals
  • Allow academics and researchers from every School/subject area to be able to apply
  • Be open and fair to all career levels
  • Showcase and reward the full spectrum of engagement activity at Birkbeck

To narrow down potential categories we looked at awards run by Queen Mary, University of London, University College London (check out their experiences!),  Oxford University and, of course, the National Coordinating Centre for Public Engagement (NCCPE). We also looked at definitions of public engagement from RCUK, the Wellcome Trust, NCCPE and various categorisation of public engagement within reports, the most enlightening being:  Reviewing Public Engagement in REF 2014 by NCCPE, The State of Play Report commissioned by Wellcome and RCUK and the Factors Affecting Public Engagement by UK researchers.

Because the language we use about what we really mean by public engagement is not universal and differs significantly by discipline we also had to take into account the language we used to describe each of the categories (full category descriptions at the end).

After all this we ended up with the following categories:

  • PhD and Early Career Researcher Award
  • Communicating Research
  • Collaboration
  • Engaged Practice
  • Transforming Culture or Public Life

On the whole I think these worked well. We did receive a good number and range of applications from all the Schools in the College for all of the categories. There were noticeable gaps though. Applications to the Engaged Practice category were a little low for my liking. Additionally, pockets of some departments were completely missed. Our Geography department, for example, does some great work which I would put firmly in the ‘Engaged Practice’ category but there was not a geographer in sight. We clearly didn’t get the messaging and language right for them – definitely something to think about for next year!

Categories – Full Descriptions

  • Communicating Research

This award recognised excellence in communicating research projects and ideas through stimulating or innovative activities. These activities aimed to: Inspire wonder, curiosity and learning; challenge conventional wisdom or provoke scrutiny and debate amongst their targeted publics. Classic forms of communication may have been used for this work including talks, workshops and media work (such as contributing or creating TV, film or radio content, appearing as a ‘talking head’ in factual programming), as well as publishing articles in non-scholarly outlets. Innovative use of websites and social media for communication were also considered in this category.

Applicants were asked to note the distinction between activities which are ‘publicly available’ as opposed to communicating to the public. Publicly available activities are scholarly activities such as conference talks or lectures that are made available to the public rather than those specifically designed for a particular non-academic audience. Publicly available activities did not fall within the remit of these awards.

  • Collaboration

This award recognised engagement based on an active collaboration and a two-way relationship with an external partner(s). Collaborators might have included museums, charities, schools, individuals and artists, arts organisations or social enterprises who work with the researcher/s to reach their public/s. Collaborations in this category often resulted in the development of new pieces of work, exhibitions, performances or resources. This type of engagement usually looks to prompt new ideas and ways of working, build skills/ knowledge on both sides of the collaboration, whilst providing publics with access to research and opportunities to get involved.

With these types of projects the true engagement could be said to be with the collaborator rather than the public, although the outputs of the collaboration often add an additional level of engagement with a wider public.

  • Engaged Practice

This award recognised research that has participation and involvement of publics as a core approach to the creation of research. Projects in this category could be described as community engagement, participatory research, co-production of knowledge or socially engaged practice amongst many labels. This type of research works directly with a community of place/interest in order to: empower the subjects of the research; use dialogue and deliberation to influence the research; build networks; develop skills or improve the health and well-being of those involved. This form of engagement often takes years to establish relationships enabling publics to share their knowledge and expertise and can often contribute to issue-based awareness, support activism or take a ground up approach to policy change.

  • Transforming Culture or Public Life

This award recognised research engagement activities which aim to stimulate change within our culture and society. These projects tend to work ‘behind the scenes’ to influence organisations, professional groups or policy makers. Activities were designed to: inform decision making; encouraged scrutiny and debate; galvanise change and influence the behaviours and practices of organisations or groups who work in the public realm.

Common strategies for affecting influence might include: commissioning artworks/film/theatre; input/creation of think-tanks and advisory groups; workshops for professional groups and policy makers; collaborating with businesses/communities to provide a service or influence a change in practice.

Note: Collaborations within this category tend not to produce single new pieces of work but rather change the way in which a group/organisation approaches work.

  • PhD and Early Career Researcher Award

The Early Career Award recognised the public engagement work of doctoral students or early career researchers (ie Post-Docs in their first two years in post). This included projects where the applicant has spearheaded a project or contributed significantly to a larger project.


Arts Week 2018: Gigantic Children of the Sun – Kew’s Palm House

Keith Alcorn reports on the talk by Kate Teltscher, Gigantic Children of the Sun: Kew’s Palm House.

The re-opened Temperate House at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has been much in the news recently, but as Kate Teltscher, Reader in English Literature at University of Roehampton, told her Birkbeck Arts Week audience last Thursday: “For my money, the Palm House is the greatest!”

She was introducing her research on the Palm House and the meaning of palms in the Victorian era, the theme of her forthcoming book The Palace of Palms, at her talk `Gigantic Children of the Sun: Kew’s Palm House`.

The Palm House opened at Kew in 1848, three years before the Crystal Palace at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. It was a wonder of the age, `an erection unmatched in the world` according to The Florist’s Miscellany. Its vast curving structure, using the latest construction methods in iron and glass, asserted Kew’s new role as a national botanic garden, open to all and free of charge. Visitor numbers doubled in the year after it opened: over 130,000 people made the journey to Kew Gardens in 1849 to admire the enormous palms, luxuriate in the tropical heat and perhaps to imagine themselves looking down on a jungle from the viewing gallery.

Commentators at the time welcomed `this wonderful age when the gigantic children of the sun can live amongst us`.

The Palm House `evoked the wide reach of British imperial power and technological triumph over distance and climate`, as well as ostentatious Victorian wealth, Kate Teltscher argued. But why were palms given pride of place at Kew? What did they mean to the Victorians?

Palms had religious, scientific and economic significance for Victorian audiences, she said. Palms in the Bible represented triumph and abundance and were associated with the landscapes of the Holy Land. They also stood for numerous other geographical locations in the tropics.

As plants, palms were considered `the very perfection of organisation`, representing a union of beauty and utility that distinguished them from other trees. They were viewed as the summit of the plant world due to their beauty and utility, just as humans were considered the most evolved of the animals.

Palms were also considered an economic boon, for they had so many uses. Date palms and coconut palms provided food, the enormous leaves provided material for weaving and shelter, and the enormous trunks provided building material.

Palm oil was used as a lubricant on the railways, in soap and in candles. Price’s brought out a coconut oil candle for the royal wedding of 1840 – at the time it was customary to have a candle burning in the front window at the time of a wedding.

Palm oil, seen today as a problematic product because of the impact of its production on deforestation, was seen by the Victorians as an ethical product. The trade in palm oil was seen as an effective way of combatting the slave trade, by providing an economic alternative to the trade in West Africa. (Suppressing the slave trade was a central objective of British foreign policy after the abolition of slavery in British colonies in 1833).

Kate Teltscher’s analysis illustrates the wide range of meanings and social processes embedded in gardens and plants, especially their relationship to Britain’s empire during the nineteenth century. Palms were objects of scientific and commercial fascination, located within global networks of exploration and trade. `Gigantic Children of the Sun` was a tremendous overview of a rich topic.

Keith Alcorn is a PhD student in the departments of History and Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London. His research investigates the relationships between Britain’s empire and the transformation of British gardens through the introduction of exotic plants in the first half of the nineteenth century.


Arts Week 2018: Black Mirror

Caroline Mawer reflects on her experience visiting one of the more unusual events which took place during Birkbeck’s Arts Week

What tremendously thoughtful fun I had meandering round Birkbeck with a black mirror, gazing into a fairy ball!

This gazing ball is one of those black mirrors that tempt you into looking off to the side, at the unseen and unseeable.

Sheila Ghelani had designed our route by placing one of the mirrors she’d created onto a map: we were going to meander around the black hole thus created. Decked out with palm-size pebbles of mirrors in black velvet pouches and incongruously unromantic leatherette bum bags, we headed off into the unknown of John Dee and his magic 16th century angels.

It didn’t feel that unknown to start with, since our first stop was only in the square opposite Birkbeck. But we were reflecting. Literally, in our mirrors, and also with lots of the thinking sort of reflection. I pondered and confected. And the unknown gradually came into – or maybe I should say, out of – focus. Our black mirrors held deceptively small-yet-enormous universes. You really can see something remarkably close to 360 degrees when you angle them correctly.

We sketched the landscape like an artist: a 17th-century artist using a ‘Claude glass’ to produce something as eerily picturesque as a Claude Lorraine painting. We acted like tourists: 18th century tourists so horrified by the awesome crags of the Lake District that we could only view them in our black mirrors by turning our back on them. Then like more modern tourists, trying – and generally failing – to get the perfect selfie-shot in, and of, our Fairy Ball.

The nigh-on-360 degree views were, we discovered, seductively slippery. How many times did I perfect my view, to lose it when I tried to sketch or photograph it! And how many times did I discard an impressive vision of pillars or a tree (both, we discovered, were splendid subjects) – in the quest for somehow more perfect perfection. ‘Authenticity’ has sometimes been badged as a holy grail for ‘creatives’. And we kept on looking at, and so creating, authentic black mirror views. So authentic that you really do have to be there to see them. So uncopied, that they are nigh-on uncopiable.

We discussed materiality as another unpredictable and evasive construct. ‘Claude lenses’ and our own black mirrors are glass: sand miraculously made into liquid. The oldest constructed black mirrors were Aztec polished obsidian: volcanic glass was used for divination and as a status symbol. Water is, of course, another ancient black mirror. So we looked out for, and thought about, the water we had overlooked: the drains and rivers trapped under the streets we were walking on.

We noticed, too, how many modern black mirrors there are. Not just the mirrored sunglasses we had seen in Gordon Square, but all those blacked out cars and enigmatic urban windows. Of course, the ubiquitous mobile phones all have sleeping black mirror screens. We’re not that different from the Aztecs: our black mirrors, too, act as finely-graded status symbols and for 24/7 divination.

We were so busy reflecting – in all senses – that we didnt get  time to do any scrying. This is what it is called when you look intently into a black mirror – and not simply for reflection. Scrying has been thought to act as a portal to other planes of existence. But maybe we did well to miss that. John Dee, master mathematician and polymath, was convinced by his scrying partner, Edward Kelley, that the angels had informed him that God required them to swap wives. Fake facts are obviously not a new phenomenon! Nor is #metoo: Dee’s journal reports that the task was achieved ‘after initial protestations’ by his wife.

It’s easy to point fingers at the inhabitants of the past-is-another-country. We were not (quite!) as ridiculous. Only a minority of the passers by actually stopped and stared as I processed down the pavement gazing regally into what must have looked something like a shiny black football.

On reflection, though (ha! see what I’m doing here!), the black mirror and the gazing ball raised fascinating questions about how and what we can and do see.  The transitory nature of what could be seen is a great joy. I’m definitely going to keep on playing with the best souvenir present I ever got: my very own hand-crafted black mirror. Thanks. Sheila!

You can also construct your own black mirror.


Arts Week 2018: Marilyn Monroe – An Unlikely Feminist?

Social worker Benjamin Meißner has had a lifelong fascination with Marilyn Monroe since he saw one of her movies as a boy and has been a member of her German fan club Some Like It Hot since it was founded in 1992. He attended Birkbeck’s Arts Week lecture while visiting London on holiday from his home in Kiel, Germany.


While I was in London, I was delighted to attend the event Marilyn Monroe: an unlikely feminist? which took place at the Birkbeck cinema. Gabriella Apicella who is a screenwriter and studied at Birkbeck herself, hosted the event, while Catherine Grant, Professor of digital media and screen studies at Birkbeck, gave a lecture about Marilyn as an actress. She showed film clips of some of her movies and interviews, and the focus was on her gestures and body language. She slowed down the footage so you could discover how much choreography there is going on in just a few seconds. Catherine selected the opening scene from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes with Marilyn and Jane Russell both wearing the red dresses. By viewing it in slow motion, you became aware of how much acting there is going on. It is known that Marilyn worked very hard – Jane Russell once said in an interview that Marilyn was the first on the set and the last one to leave. Marilyn went through the dancing numbers with choreographer Jack Cole again and again.

Catherine next compared the Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend numbers performed by Marilyn with those later in the film by Jane Russell. By watching them together, Jane’s performance seemed almost grotesque because it is so exaggerated.

Catherine also noted the queer elements of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. In the final scene, Marilyn and Jane are so much the centre of attention, one could be forgiven for thinking they were married to each other.

Host Gabriella then presented the highly-regarded author Michelle Morgan who has written several books about Marilyn and other Hollywood stars. In her latest work, The Girl: Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch, and The Birth of an Unlikely Feminist, Michelle discusses Marilyn’s influence on women’s liberation. Marilyn was ahead of her time in many ways, Michelle pointed out. Especially when she left Hollywood in 1955 for New York, taking acting classes and founding her own production company with Milton Greene.

Michelle explained how Marilyn became stifled by her image as the ‘fluffy blonde’. It seemed that some people just wanted to see her in these kind of roles, which left Marilyn herself very unsatisfied as an actress. Michelle illustrated how pervasive – and enticing – this image was by pointing out how a British electric company sent out its bills with a photo of Marilyn because they knew that people would pay attention to it and would open the envelope!

During a Q&A with the audience, Michelle was asked if Marilyn still continues to be a significant role model almost 56 years after her death. Michelle believes she still has an enormous effect. “We can still learn so much from Marilyn”, Michelle observed. Everyone has their own interpretation of Marilyn and there are still many aspects to discover. With so many people fascinated by her after all these years, it is interesting to consider the sort of influence she would have had if she was around today in an era of  social media networks.

Benjamin during his visit to London, at the Proud Gallery’s exhibition of Marilyn photographs by Milton Greene