For a while I’d been thinking about how the public engagement with research (PER) team might create a novel platform event to bridge arts and science research / practice together in a creative, entertaining and educational way…
I’m a big fan of the revamped Lapworth Museum of Geology (re-opened in June 2016 following a £2.7 million investment) and I’ve been dragging friends along with me to visit the collection for their first time on the odd weekend ever since it’s re-opening. This got me thinking about how spaces take on very different atmospheres out-of-hours and how often museums and others buildings of ‘learning’ are inaccessible after regular working hours, making it tricky for certain groups of people to visit. This is not always the case though, and increasingly we have seen museums and galleries open their doors after closing time to collaborate with creatives and educators for special ‘Lates’ events aimed at bringing in altogether new audiences – young adults/professionals, families, children with special education needs and disabilities etc.
I mulled this over in my mind as I’d previously spoken to Jon Clatworthy (Director of the Lapworth Museum of Geology) about the fact that the Lapworth had a strong commitment to carrying out public engagement as part of their redevelopment funding, as well as diversifying audiences and bringing in new people to explore what is a wonderful University asset.
Hmmm… and with that the idea of a Lapworth Lates began brewing in my mind…
In late 2017, the Development and Alumni Relations Office (DARO) released a call out for applications to their Alumni Impact Fund. This I thought would be the perfect opportunity to trial a ‘Lapworth Lates’ event and so I thought, why not give an application a shot! I approached Laura Milner (Cultural Partnerships Manager) and Jon to pitch the idea of piloting ‘Lapworth Lates’ and happily everyone was on board with the concept. An application was submitted in December 2017 and we learned the outcome at the end of January 2019… we’d got ourselves £2000 to pilot an inaugural Lapworth Lates!
By this time Laura was headed off on maternity leave (congratulations Laura!) and Lorna Hards was now covering her post. I think it’s important to highlight at this point that cross-team collaboration was really important for creating an ‘event experience’ of this nature because all of our teams have slightly different, but aligned institutional strategies and so working together on a bigger – mutually beneficial – project is really where we can all make impact in the shorter term. That old Gestalt principle of the ‘whole is greater than the sum of its parts’!
The application had some clear aims aligned to DARO’s funding requirements:
We recruited a small team of enthusiastic volunteer students to help us programme and deliver Lapworth Lates. We made a conscious effort to recruit students who had no previous experience working with the Lapworth, to offer us new perspectives and insight by enabling us to look at the museum through fresh eyes. Indeed, none of the students we recruited had ever stepped foot in the museum before this project! This highlighted a key issue for all of us… if much of our own student community do not engage with the cultural assets we have on campus, how can we expect people further afield to? Engaging new people with the museum, whether affiliated with the university or not therefore became a key goal for us.
Our student trio consisted of three brilliant PhD students: Ting Yan (Electronic, Electrical & Systems Engineering), Usman Abdurrahman (Centre for Railway Research & Education) and Christopher Harrison (Chemical Engineering). Originally the team was made of four students, but unfortunately one student from the College of Social Sciences had to drop out due to a family emergency. I can say now that we could not have been luckier with the students we worked with… their work ethic, good will and enthusiasm has been exemplary throughout – they are true assets to the student and research community at UoB!
Academic Endeavour & Public Engagement with Research
Being part of the PER team I am biased in saying that getting our research and researchers ‘out there’ to engage in dialogue with the public is important! For me, public engagement with research was the driving motivation for doing Lapworth Lates to begin with and this also resonates with the Lapworth’s aims to be a much more publicly-engaged space, which offers opportunities for public engagement to researchers from all Colleges. By offering our researchers, particularly postgraduates, an opportunity to do public engagement, perhaps for the first time, our research community has a space and opportunity to develop interpersonal communication and engagement skills vital for navigating the real world.
We put a call out for activities and were really fortunate to have some brilliant, ‘leftfield’ ideas come forward. People who took the event theme and made it their own, however seemingly tenuous the link! Who would have thought we could engage people on cancer research or biomedical engineering at an event themed around ‘Dinosaurs in Popular Culture’? Well we did, and whats-more people loved it! One of the things I am proudest of was the fact that our feedback was so overwhelmingly complimentary of all the hands-on demos and talks, and the comportment and warmth of the researchers involved in delivering those for us. The theme for the event by the way came from Will Tattersdill’s (Department of English Literature) Drawing out the Dinosaurs exhibition which is currently up on display in the temporary exhibition space at the Lapworth until 27Th Oct. Go see it!
To find out about everyone involved, please take a look at the programme we put together for the night HERE. I want to say thanks again to each and every one of you who gave up your time to contribute on the night!
Lapworth Lates was designed to encourage playful, thought-provoking and cross-disciplinary approaches to engagement with Lapworth’s collections and research at University of Birmingham. The ultimate aim was to craft a creative, experiential learning opportunities for our audience so that they leave having enjoyed the entertaining evening -of course- but moreover, critically knowing what collections exist here, what research takes place here and how these local assets have relevance and value to their everyday lives. We hope we achieved at least some of that!
Another important part of the night was to demonstrate that the University is a collaborative institution, open to working with cultural partners and external parties to make great things happen for our community. We wanted to create an immersive and entertaining experience, filled with curiosity and opportunity for our audience to participate actively. A call out to creative practitioners went out and we commissioned two artist proposals. Picking between proposals was difficult, as there were many different wonderful-sounding proposals, however in the end we picked two extraordinary projects which complemented each other really well and offered our audience variety.
LYNNEBEC brought us ‘Taste Tapesty’ a spectacular durational performance piece (involving alumni and current students volunteers as performers), culminating in show-stopping feats of human movement. Their roaming creatures and superfood platters also bewildered, slightly scared and delighted people throughout the evening
Image above: Jo Gane
Meanwhile artist and educator Jo Gane created Light / Chrystal, a striking, ethereal and otherworldly exhibition of photograms and etchings drawing on the beauty and mysterious properties of light shone through crystals taken from the museum’s mineral collection. Shadow images were displayed upstairs alongside their respective parent mineral.
On the night Jo also ran a hugely popular pop-up dark room studio where the audience could have a go at making their own dino-inspired image to take home with them. Some fabulous images were produced!
Image above: PER Team
Variety and value for money
In addition to all the above, we also had other fun activities catering to different tastes, modes of learning and levels of scientific interests including dinosaur origami, a still-life drawing workshop involving a paper mâché volcano lovingly made by our student team over a weekend (that’s dedication, folks!), dinosaur dress up, silent screenings of stop-animation short ‘Dinosaurs & Things’ , object handling and so much more…just look at the hashtag #LapworthLates to see for yourself!
It was astonishing to see a queue of people lining up outside the museum bang on 7pm and in total we had over 150 visitors as well as 30 odd staff, contributors etc. It was the busiest the museum has ever been and also rather hot due to the extraordinary July weather we’ve been having! Our stock of free beer ran out in the first 10 minutes, but luckily there were plenty of other dinosaur-themed cocktails and snacks to go around…