The dissemination and interpretation of research outside academia is, or at least should be, high on the agenda of any academic researcher. For those of us working in early modern and medieval studies, sharing our research with a wider audience has some rather specific ups and downs. Interest in the period is rarely lacking: people are endlessly fascinated with Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Shakespeare and other “big names” from the 16th and 17th centuries. Books and TV productions set in the Middle Ages, such as The White Queen, are endlessly popular. The point being, drumming up interest in the medieval and early modern period, or at least select parts of it, is generally fairly easy. But once you have the attention of an audience outside of academia, what do you do with it?
I completed my PhD earlier this year, and during and after it I have, alongside academic study and teaching, used what I have learned in a number of non-University settings. I hope that sharing these experiences will give some food for thought to anyone in a similar position wondering what they can do with their own skills and research.
One of my first experiences with outreach, or rather widening participation, was through the charitably organisation The Brilliant Club. If you enjoy teaching and want to see what it’s like working with a younger demographic than the usual undergraduates, this is a good place to start. The work involves travelling to schools to deliver university style seminars to groups of high achieving students in low participation schools. If you do several placements you usually get the chance to design your own course – very useful experience. The main challenge here is convincing students that they want to talk about strange texts from, say, the 17th century that they have never heard of. My course had the overarching theme of conspicuous consumption, and consequently I added a smattering of images modern analogues throughout my course booklet (bejewelled iPhone, anyone?) and regularly pulled the discussion back to the present day for contrast and comparison. Ultimately, it was quite surreal reading several essays discussing the finer points of a 1630s broadside ballad that literally nobody else has ever written (or cared) about, but in a very good way. One year 9 student even included a paragraph in her essay which was effectively a gentle reprimand to me about my question, which included the phrase “early modern people”, reminding me that a) there are a variery of thoughts and opinions among the populace in any period and b) the concept of an historic period is somewhat flawed anyway. She was absolutely right – that was me told, and I learned a good lesson there about oversimplifying things for a younger audience.
Performance and exhibition
My PhD focussed on a collection of early modern plays kept at Petworth House, a National Trust property in West Sussex. From the outset, I knew I wanted to find some way of performing something from the collection, not personally of course as I am certainly no actor. But I wanted these obscure and neglected plays to come to life somehow, in their “natural environment” so to speak. After a few false starts this was eventually achieved in collaboration with the Petworth Festival and The Guided Theatre Company. I selected and edited extracts from eight of the plays, and the theatre company worked their magic to turn this into a cohesive promenade performance staged in Petworth House itself. The performance was accompanied by an exhibition of the volumes themselves. When dealing with drama, performance is a (deceptively) simple and direct way to bring it to the public: it is both immediate and affective, and if you are dealing with obscure plays leaves the audience feeling like they have experienced something a bit unusual and special, which of course they have.
The heritage sector
My most recent foray into interpretation is certainly the most substantial of the bunch – I am currently working as a Heritage Education Officer at a medieval house in East Sussex, Bridge Cottage. This job is hugely varied and involves leading school visits and group tours, coordinating talks on local history, and helping to stage “Living History Days”. I am constantly learning, mostly through trial and error, how to balance the need to give correct and accurate information with keeping things relevant and interesting. It is important not to fall back on received wisdom and half-remembered facts, and it is rewarding in itself to correct errors where they are to be found, but at the same time nobody wants to hear a long lecture starting “well I think you’ll find it’s a little bit more complicated than that” in response to a simple question while on a family day out with the kids.
The historic environment, as at Petworth House, plays a big part in my interpretation of research. At Petworth, the vistas of the deer park or the paintings in the Long Gallery helped to create an atmosphere of ostentation which lends itself to the performative mode. At Bridge Cottage, the quiet intimacy of a family residence, inhabited for centuries from 1436 until the 1970s lends itself to an exploration of the domestic, and the everyday. Food, clothing, medicine, husbandry: these are the subjects we explore. Research techniques behind the scenes are manifested in a different sort of performance on the front line: cooking demonstrations and discussions, handling materials and trying on clothes – exploring history with the senses as well as the mind.
What’s in it for us?
So, what do researchers get out of this kind of public engagement? Well, it is liberating to step out of the office, library or archive for a start. Seeing your research “in action” is always a positive thing. Sharing things you have discovered or observed with others, and getting their immediate feedback, is hugely beneficial too. Often working in the heritage sector means working in the beautiful surroundings of an historic building, and I defy anyone to say they wouldn’t enjoy that. For me personally, it is a good outlet for my pet interests such as historic food (about which I once wrote a blog, another way in which researchers can take their interests and work outside of academia). A group of school children visiting the Cottage recently enjoyed watching me make pease pottage from a 17th century recipe, although they didn’t get to try it. The stuff looked horrible, but bizarrely, they were very disappointed that they couldn’t eat it and indicated this on their feedback forms.
I gave them all a printout of a recipe. Maybe some of them will try it at home. With a bit of luck, I’ve inspired a few budding early modernists to try a bit of practice-based research. I can’t guarantee it will taste good, but hopefully they’ll learn something and have fun doing it. What more can any of us ask for?
This blog post was written by Maria Kirk, recent PhD and Associate Tutor at Sussex University (amongst other things).