Tag Archives: Bristol

Reflections on mud, art, history and an exhibition

By Marianna Dudley

For fotogallery please scroll to bottom

Mud. Commonplace, messy, mucky. It is something we squelch through on walks, wash off boots, and rinse away on hands. Have you ever stopped to ponder its historical significance? Its sensory delights? Its visual possibilities?

From 14 – 18 March at the University of Bristol, ‘The Power and the Water: Connecting Pasts and Futures’ project invited the public to do just that, in a free exhibition of work by ceramic artist Tana West, who uses river mud to create beautiful – and thoughtful – objects that connect maker and place, process and product, material and environment.

In 2009’s ‘Subject for Change’ Tana walked the length of the River Severn, researching and digging for mud as she went. It was this artwork that captured my attention, as postdoctoral researcher investigating aspects of the Severn’s environmental history on ‘The Power and the Water: Connecting Pasts and Futures’. Her rigorous research process, the importance she placed on experiencing the changing river environment, and the production of objects which held clues to the river’s history within them, connected with the research of the project on a number of levels.

When you work on the Severn, mud asserts itself, historically and physically. It is a river whose water is the colour of chocolate milk, dense with mud and silt particles kept suspended by surface run-off upstream and the tidal movements of the lower reaches. Environmental historian of the early modern Severn landscape, John Morgan, shared with me a source he’d found in the Bristol city archives, in which the river mud was held in high esteem.  In a letter from Captain Charles Symes to Edward Southwell about building out near Sea Mills in 1694, Symes claimed of local river sand that ‘when tis Dry its Licke aney Rock and much stronger then aney Other Morter, (as well it may) Takeing up Such a Deal of Lymme’.  This mud, much like the mud that Tana uses in her art, was valued for its malleable qualities, its strength and its usefulness.

In recent times, not everyone has valued mud in the Severn. John’s source contrasts with a modern source I’ve found, a 1966 article in The Western Daily Press. It discussed the possibility of a tidal barrage across the Severn which would have the effect, the author thought, of stopping the tidal movement and allowing the silt in the water to settle, turning the estuary from brown to a ‘more attractive’ blue.  Until that point, I hadn’t considered the muddy ‘brown-ness’ of the river to be a problem, or something that people might not value. I am fascinated by the tides and the rich ecosystem supported by the mud and silt of the river. But to some others, mud is problematic. It is not a passive substance, but something that has shaped opinion, and identities. Between early-modern builders and twentieth century tidal power enthusiasts is a big space in which to think about mud.  The idea for ‘Into the Mud’, and later ‘Land + Water,’ was born.

‘Into the Mud’ secured funding from the AHRC’s Connected Communities Summer Festival fund to hold an outdoor creative workshop on the banks of the river Severn in June 2015. Tana led the workshop, which brought together members of ‘The Power and Water’ and ‘Towards Hydrocitizenship’ projects (which share research interests in water, rivers, and local understandings of place and identity); amateur potters; members of a local community group, Ideal Action; and passers-by. By creating a temporary manufacturing base down by the river, the workshop enabled informal, creative, environmentally-responsive expressions and discussions to take place. Two participants wrote about the experience here.

But we weren’t done with mud yet – there was more to say, and do. Tana visited the University of Bristol and I showed her around Royal Fort House, the home of the university’s research institutes. The ornate rococo detail on the ceilings, walls and cornices, Tana revealed, were made using some of the same techniques she’d shown us in the workshop. There were alcoves crying out for vases; plinths pleading for pottery!

We decided to hold an exhibition called ‘Land + Water’, that combined new pieces made by Tana in response to the venue; older pieces made from Severn mud; and the products of the riverside workshop. Two talks were also planned, with the help of the Institute for Advanced Studies (who also made available the beautiful Verdon-Smith Room and all manner of logistical support).

At the first public talk, Tana talked about her work and research, with comments by the project leads of ‘The Power and the Water’ (Prof. Peter Coates) and ‘Towards Hydrocitizenship’ (Prof. Owain Jones), who both participated in the workshop. In the second, organized by IAS, a multidisciplinary collection of academics spoke on anything ‘mud’ related, for 5 minutes, to inspire conversations surrounded by Tana’s work.  Throughout the week members of the public were welcomed to the exhibition, and left their comments in a Visitor Book. Among the works on display were ornate vases and ‘mass’ produced tea-cups (river mud turned delicate, beautiful and functional); ceramic installations ‘Into the Vernacular’ and ‘Under the Road, a River’ (that echo the utility of ceramics in building, sewerage, and water systems); and a print of diatoms, the microscopic inhabitants of mud that sustain the wildlife of the Severn estuary, made using Severn mud on paper.

Through ticket ‘sales’ for the (free) events, and visitor comments, we know that over one hundred people interacted with the exhibition, notwithstanding the challenge of finding it – the University of Bristol desperately needs a dedicated exhibition space. We also know that, for some, seeing Tana’s work, engaging with the discussions around it, and thinking deeper about mud, land and water, has changed the way they view the river’s place in city life and everyday experience.

Mary-Jane, Librarian: ‘I shall look more closely at the different types/colours of the Severn estuary mud in future’

Ben, postgraduate student: ‘ A superb reflective experience. Thank you for letting me in to your way of the seeing the world. A beautifully layered exhibition portraying such a dynamic place’

Kelvin, unemployed: ‘Love the way the work fits in the building – coming up the stairs and seeing this is a brilliant complement’

Robert, historian: Fabulous. I begin my mornings at Sea Mills on the river bank by the station – 3 minutes by train into Clifton Down. This is such a stimulating exhibition and way of bringing the river into the city (and into Royal Fort House)

Faye, ecologist: ‘An interesting study of the environment, history, and art. Thank you’.

(all comments from the ‘Land + Water’ visitor’s book)

 

Photogallery

All images by Marianna Dudley

Brief Encounters of the urban “Wild” Kind

By Alexander Portch

An otter in Bristol. A mere glimpse; a surge of water, a stream of bubbles and the hint of a tail and two rear paws disappearing into the murky depths of the harbour’s impounded waters. Then gone.

Otter

Otter (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

This now represents my first and only siting of a “wild” otter. Hitherto my experience of these elusive and once endangered creatures had been solely through the medium of the screen, usually to the accompaniment of David Attenborough’s familiar narration and, almost by definition, comprising depictions of windswept Scottish lochs or broad North American rivers, hemmed in by miles of forest and mountains, seemingly devoid of human presence. For my first “real-life” encounter with an otter (Lutra lutra) to take place in the very heart of one of Britain’s busiest cities seems incongruous, and utterly unexpected. I had heard rumours of such sightings before but, much like reports of seals in the Severn or Great White Sharks off the coast of North Cornwall,[1] I had assumed they were uncommon – almost “freak” incidents – not something that would be witnessed by someone such as myself, and certainly not whilst casually strolling along the quayside a Friday morning on my way to the train station.

Surely otters, like Eagle Owls (Bubo bubo) and Beaver (Castor fiber), are the preserve of veteran naturalists; wind-swept, weather-beaten individuals whose hours spent ensconced in hides perched high on rugged hills are rewarded with observations of the sort of (non-human) nature everyday office (or library)-dwelling folk will rarely, if ever, have a chance to emulate. The same might once have been said for other seemingly exotic creatures, particularly in urban environments long characterised by low biodiversity and high levels of air, soil and water pollution. Creatures like the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), a pair of which had been gazing placidly down at me all the while as I stared wide- (or should that be wild-) eyed down at the otter.

Clearly, however, times have changed. A century ago the area of the city docks where I was fortunate enough to see my first otter was a centre of sugar refining and iron working. During the second world war it bore witness to some of the most intense and destructive air raids by the Luftwaffe (nearby castle park is now a green space in large part due to the damage wrought during the Bristol Blitz).[2] Until relatively recently the cleanliness and clarity of the harbour’s water was also less than ideal. Prior to the construction and opening of the floating harbour in May 1809, the River Avon could at least benefit from the twice daily flushing provided by the flooding and ebbing tides. Once sealed, however, the harbour rapidly became stagnant, and polluted by the regular discharge of sewage from the city and the many ships that made Bristol such a prosperous and (in)famous international port. Whilst this issue was addressed in part through the development by Brunel of a dredging system using a number of sluices emptying into the “New Cut”, it wasn’t until the decline in commercial shipping towards the latter half of the twentieth century and the emergence, more recently, of an interest in the need to create a clean, healthy and pleasant urban environment, that conditions have improved sufficiently to support a wide array of floral and faunal populations.[3]

In many respects, therefore, the return of the otter is perhaps no great surprise; although “return” isn’t perhaps the most appropriate term in this instance. It is almost certain that otters existed along the Avon (and its tributaries the Frome and Malago) in the area that is now central Bristol long before the settlement developed into a wealthy port and cosmopolitan modern city. The intervening centuries, however, have borne witness to the complete transformation of the region’s waterscape, such that the Avon at this point is now a predominantly anthropogenic river. Where once the tides surged upstream from the Severn, the water now flows slowly and placidly within the confines of the harbour; its levels changing almost imperceptibly in conjunction with the opening and closing of locks and sluices. At present that massive tidal range is diverted along the New Cut, a channel carved out through human labour, which two hundred years ago didn’t exist at all. The otters have thus colonised a new human-made space and can, in many respects be considered an entirely urban population. Alongside the Peregrines, roosting high up on the ledges of a former electricity power station, these creatures are a clear example that every so often human activity can in fact have positive benefits for other elements of nature. Given the frequency with which reports concerning the interactions between humans and the rest of “nature” highlight negative impacts and impending threats, such as anthropogenic-enhanced climate change, I think this is something to celebrate.

And it’s not confined to cities. Even within the context of my own focus of research – the history of efforts to harness the power of the tides in the Severn Estuary, and the wider subject of tidal power throughout the British Isles and beyond – the potential for a more positive, almost symbiotic relationship between people and other plants and creatures is increasingly apparent. Research into the environmental implications of wave and tidal energy devices, in addition to offshore wind turbines, now concentrates as much on their ability to function as new habitats for marine creature as the possibility that they may exert a harmful effect.[4] Whether such technology will ever prove to be wholly benign and largely beneficial remains to be seen, but as the 21st century thirst for electricity shows little sign of abating it would surely be a good thing for the sources of that energy to give back to the world as much as they take away.

A brief internet search reveals that my otters aren’t newcomers. In 2011 the BBC reported that otter scat had been found in the harbour area, whilst remote cameras caught the creatures responsible during their night time forays.[5] The Bristol Naturalists Society now operates an otter recording programme, and the City Council lists otters amongst the various species that now call the city home.[6] I may not have made a unique discovery or an original contribution to science, but I have at least been given a new insight, however brief, into a city I thought I knew; much like the river Severn, which I still feel as though I’m discovering for the first time, despite having lived within sight of it for much of my life. Now when I wander along the concrete pavements, holding my nose against the traffic fumes, diverting my attention from the clatter of police helicopters overhead, or ambulance sirens nearby, I can at least rest assured that somewhere, not too far, away the principle sounds and smells are the gentle splash of an otter as it slips gracefully through the harbour waters, and the odour of its fresh fish dinner.

 

Notes

[1] At least I had assumed sitings of seals in the Severn were uncommon until I found this: https://www.facebook.com/keiththeworcestershireseal. For the shark: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/great-white-shark-is-spotted-off-cornwall-1115302.html.

[2] See the Know Your Place website to view various historical maps of the city, in addition to information regarding past activities in the city derived from the Historic Environment Record (HER): http://maps.bristol.gov.uk/knowyourplace/

[3] A brief history of the development of the harbourside is provided in a “Character Appraisal & Management Proposals” document produced by the Bristol City Council: http://www.bristol.gov.uk/sites/default/files/documents/planning_and_building_regulations/conservation/conservation_area_character_appraisals/City%20Docks%20Conservation%20Area%20Appraisal.pdf

[4] J.C. Wilson & M. Elliott, ‘The habitat-creation potential of offshore wind farms,’ Wind Energy, 12:2 (2009), 203 – 212; R. Inger, M.J. Atrrill, S. Bearhop, A.C. Broderick, J. Grecian, D.J. Hodgson, C. Mills, E. Sheehan, S.C. Votier, M.J. Witt and B.J. Godley, ‘Marine renewable energy: potential benefits to biodiversity? An urgent call for research,’ Journal of Applied Ecology, 46:6 (2009), 1145 – 1153; C. Frid, E. Andonegi, J. Depestele, A. Judd, D. Rihan, S.I. Rogers and E. Kenchington, ‘The environmental interactions of tidal and wave energy generation devices,’ Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 32:1 (2012), 133 – 139.

[5] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-bristol-14298095/

[6] http://bns.myspecies.info/content/bristol-otter-survey-group; https://www.bristol.gov.uk/sites/default/files/assets/documents/otter.pdf

Into the mud

Severn Beach

Location of the workshop at Severn Beach. Photo: Marianna Dudley

‘Into the Mud’ (21 June 2015) was an outdoor workshop organised by Marianna Dudley, from the University of Bristol’s Department of Historical Studies as part of a collaboration between ‘The Power and the Water’ and ‘Towards Hydrocitizenship’ projects, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities Summer Festival.

Artist Tana West ran the workshop which used clay extracted from the Severn riverbed at Aust. Tana is interested in exploring the intersections between nature and culture by using materials at hand.

The location, at Severn Beach, was ideal to work creatively with mud from the river and to make connections between object, processes, origin and materials, by creating a temporary manufacturing base on the riverbank.

Here, two workshop participants, Mireia Bes and Ana Miguel, reflect on why they attended the workshop and how it has changed their understanding of, and relationship with, rivers.

 


Mireia: I found out about this event at Festival of Nature and immediately decided to join. I’ve been doing pottery since I was a kid, but I rarely have the chance to do pottery with clay that comes directly from the landscape, it was always detached from my surroundings. There´s something quite primal about sourcing your own clay and doing pottery on the spot that really attracted me.

Ana: I found it fascinating as it brought together some of my passions: research, the environment and pottery. My experience with academia and the university has been through a formal approach of seminars and lectures. In this case, the location, format, material and topic were integrated in an innovative fashion. We engaged in a natural and relaxed way which allowed us to increase our creativity. Pottery is a recent discovery in my life. It allows me to connect with my creative side and disconnect from the daily life. I loved the idea to be outdoors with clay in my hands from the mud of the river.

Mireia: It was a luxury to be doing pottery at Severn Beach. The mix of the natural landscape left behind by the tide with the industrial buildings and the lack of people despite the sunny day, gave it a bit of a dystopian feel. For me the actual trip there, was as interesting as the final destination. Leaving the centre of Bristol and seeing a new landscape emerge and change until we got there. Sometimes we just jump into a train and get out at the final destination without even paying attention to the landscapes we see through the window. I had the chance to share the trip with Peter Coates who told me about the history of the area and that totally changed the experience, I felt I was more connected to that landscape.

Ana: The bank of the river Severn was the perfect location for this workshop. We were in the Severn Estuary which is one of the biggest estuaries in Europe. It was an impressive location: we could see the windmills and a really long bridge. The colour of the water is brown which created a real connection with the mud. We were surrounded by mud and different varieties of algae.

For me one of the most important aspects was the (de)contextualisation of the workshop. When I think about a pottery class, the image is of a room indoors. However, ‘Into the Mud’ was an outdoor workshop. We were surrounded by the origins of the clay, working with mud from the river and learning about the environment. Being in this new location generated an atmosphere, relationships and conversation completely different from a normal class.

Working with clay

Ana and Mireia working with clay. Photo: Marianna Dudley

Mireia: The clay actually came from Aust and it was there when we arrived, which was a relief as I didn´t have wellies! It was funny to work with that clay because it has a different texture. It was interesting to change this idea of the clay as something that comes in a bag for you ready to use to something that you can actually source from nature and work it to transform it into objects. We were also constructing something together, working as a group, which is not something that usually happens in a pottery studio.

Ana: Being so close to the clay’s origins connected me more with the environmental aspect of pottery. I have never thought before about the relevance of where the clay comes from and also that it was so easy to get clay from natural resources near me. We used the mud from the river to construct a waterpipe. We also used some objects around us to work with the clay such as algae or plastics. A key aspect in this process was that the researchers from the ‘Power and the Water’ project were explaining us the history of river Severn, the landscape and the connection with their projects.

We took some clay/mud to our pottery class, but all of a sudden it was decontextualized: it smelled and it felt wetter and stickier than when we used it on the beach. Our fellow potters didn’t really engage with the new material… but Mireia and I will use it anyway, we now have a special connection with this material.

Mireia: I really like cities that have rivers because I feel they create spaces for social interactions and connect you with other lands and people that the same water will touch. Obviously rivers are very important from an ecological point of view and for the societies that grow around them, but at a personal level I had never experienced a direct interaction where the river was actually providing me with something that then I could transform into an object that could have a function in my day to day life. It was a new way to look at rivers.

Ana: My main contact with rivers has always been from tourism and leisure. I have enjoyed the rivers with activities like canoeing or having a bathe. Another aspect of my relationship with rivers is from the point of view of the lack of water. Coming from a country [Spain] where we experience frequent droughts, I have experienced water cuts and the close monitoring of water levels in rivers and reservoirs in the weather forecast. This generates a completely different relationship with water than someone could have in England, for example, where there is a lot of rain, water and recent problems with floods. Since I have been living in England, for four years now, my relationship with water and rivers has been transformed.

 

As a result of the day we learnt things about pottery, history and landscape, and the relationships amongst those. But most of all it was a reminder on how important it is to create spaces to have proper conversations with people and how much you can learn from those. All of us had something to say about water and our relationship with it.

We really valued the opportunity to learn about the research that is taking place at the University through a workshop like that. Research is usually presented in a more formal way such as lectures or seminars and it is more difficult for the public to access. We also felt that the collaboration with other disciplines, an artist in this case, was key for us to engage with the research in a meaningful way through a practice that is relevant to our lives. It offered an opportunity to experiment, collaborate and learn in a relaxed way.

 

Stories of Consumption, Waste and Community in Bristol – European Green Capital 2015

By Jill Payne

‘The Power and The Water’ Project’s focus (read Marianna Dudley’s recent blog on this) at the Bristol Festival of Nature, 12-14 June, currently the largest free event of its kind in the UK, highlights the power of place as a platform for historical and political environmental debate. At our stand, the general Festival theme of all things ‘nature’ had a Bristol slant: hidden histories of Bristol’s rivers. Festival-goers interested in Bristol (mainly local, but also from up and down the country) came to talk to us about Bristol issues, and to compare these with issues elsewhere.

Aspects of local history depicted on our posters brought visitors over to share folk memories and childhood reminiscences with us: the River Avon as a busy shipping route; the whale that washed up on the banks of the River Severn in 1885; the traditional traps or ‘putchers’ used in the Severnside salmon-fishing industry. These opened the way for more contemporary topics: water quality and riverine/marine litter, especially non-biodegradable plastics waste, and possible solutions to this problem, about which there is considerable community feeling. Many people, it seems, regularly undertake their own private litter-picks along the river banks and other green spaces where they like to walk – and also feel strongly that the issue is as much one of plastics ubiquity as it is about responsible waste disposal.

Of course, many aspects of local waste management and water quality have improved significantly since the days when, as our posters showed, the River Frome became so polluted on its way through Bristol that the nineteenth-century solution was to culvert it. However, we can also look back to the era when Bristol water was an industry in itself, rather than a conduit for industrial and domestic waste. In the eighteenth century, bottled water from Hotwells on the banks of the Avon, then just downstream of the city and a famous spa destination, was exported as an elixir of health[1] – with the consequent rise in demand for glass bottles providing impetus for the Bristol glass industry.[2] Those eighteenth-century glass bottles can be seen as part of a cycle of bottled-water consumption extending forward to today’s plastic riverbank detritus, and, hopefully, towards future strategies for dealing with this and other products of the petrochemical age.

Team members at Avon

‘The Power & The Water’ Project team members and associates on the River Avon tidal floodplain at Sea Mills with plastics waste for the Festival of Nature stand, May 2015. Photo: J Payne.

The power of place in stimulating environmental debate also underpins the European Commission’s Green Capital initiative, which supports and encourages European urban authorities in their environmental commitments and achievements. Next week, Bristol will be halfway through its year as European Green Capital. Before it hands over the title to Slovenia’s Ljubljana in 2016, Bristol’s environmental provisioning will be given a global showcasing at the UN’s 2015 Paris Climate Conference in December.

Bristol’s presentation at the Paris Conference must necessarily focus on the future; viable strategizing for the environmental scenarios that may lie ahead will, however, be enhanced by further understanding of past as well as current and future issues, and the relationships that bind them.

 


[1] See for example ‘The Bills of Lading of Noblet Ruddock & Co, 1720’ in WE Minchinton, ed, The Trade of Bristol in the Eighteenth Century (Bristol Record Society, 1957), pp. 78; 80.

[2] William Matthews, The New History, Survey and Description of the City and Suburbs of Bristol (W Matthews, 1794), p. 40.

Historians at the Festival of Nature, 12-14 June 2015

By Marianna Dudley

In second week of June, ‘The Power and the Water’ project ran its first ever stand at the Festival of Nature, Bristol’s annual celebration of the natural world. It was a first not only for the project but for the School of Humanities too, as it was the first time a non-science subject had been included in the University of Bristol tent.

What?

FoN team

The Power and the Water Team, and 2nd Year Biology Student Volunteers, ready to engage with the public! Photo: Milica Prokic.

‘Hidden River Histories’ took the research that the Bristol-based team members are doing (Power and Water is a three-strand project with researchers at Nottingham and Cambridge Universities too) to create an interactive display that introduced environmental history to a diverse audience. We knew that the Festival is a popular event for all ages and backgrounds. Established in 2003, it is the UK’s biggest free celebration of the natural world with two days of free interactive activities and live entertainment across Bristol’s Harbourside. We wanted to introduce the field of environmental history to Festival-goers, and specifically some key themes in our project: how the natural world is intertwined with the human; how past water and energy uses might inform current and future environmental values; and how local issues fit with global environmental change.

Public engagement

Talking about river waters and history with members of the public. Photo: Peter Coates.

Our stand could not be boring: we were representing History and the Humanities among a sea of Science stands! For the kids we knew would visit (Day 1 of FoN is Schools Day), we had to provide something interactive – something they could get their hands on. Luckily, in environmental history, we have no shortage of fascinating natural, and unnatural, items to work with. River waters from four ‘Bristol’ rivers, the Severn, The Avon, the Frome, and the often-forgotten Malago (Bedminster) bottled in clear glass took an idea that was originally inspired by a Canadian artwork[1] to become an interactive way of thinking about tides, water quality, rivers-as-ecologies, and a quick way of testing people’s knowledge about their local rivers. Kids shook up the river waters and urgh-ed at the murky Severn and Avon. But they were fascinated to see old photos of salmon fishing and a beached whale in the estuary (in 1885), and we were able to talk about how ‘brown’ is not always ‘bad’, and how, from a salmon’s perspective, a nicely tidal, turbid (unbarraged!) River Severn is exactly where you’d want to be. The ‘pure’ Frome, on the other hand, was the river that was so dirty in the 19th century that the city chose to bury it.

Bottle water

Bottled water from the Bristol’ rivers, the Severn, The Avon, the Frome, and the Malago. Photo: Milica Prokic.

The bottled rivers were a way-in to talking about Bristol’s watery past, but we also wanted to discuss Bristol’s water future, particularly with an issue that we’d observed on field trips down to the riverbank at Sea Mills (a suburb of Bristol). On the intertidal zone there, plastics are a huge problem, brought in on the tides. The issue of marine litter connects local environmentalism with a global plastics issue – the river banks of Sea Mills with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Plastic trash

One item of plastic trash from the banks of the Severn. Photo: Milica Prokic

We collected a huge array of discarded plastic items one morning in May. Guided through Health and Safety requirements by the Centre for Public Engagement, we decided to bag the plastic items (in yes, more plastic – the irony was not lost) and create a Trash Table, in which the rubbish was laid bare for the public to see, pick up, question and discuss. It had something of a forensics scene about it, compounded by the presence of numerous, enigmatic, lost shoes. We’ve been discussing ‘future archaeology’ as an interesting methodology, and it provided us with our key question: what stories would future historians and archaeologists tell about us now, based on these non-degrading plastics? In addition to confronting the environmental impacts of consumer culture, visitors to the stand could engage in some informal, but not inconsequential, narrative building.

Eloise Govier

Artist Eloise Govier and her hi-vis installation, made from polystyrene found by the Avon. Photo: Milica Prokic.

Though an exercise in public engagement in itself, we were able to highlight other public engagement and knowledge-exchange initiatives we’ve been working on. Artist Eloise Govier has been collaborating with researcher Jill Payne on installations that encourage people to think about energy. Her high-vis block of polystyrene – sourced on our forage along the Avon – was a great talking point, likened to cheese, Spongebob Squarepants, fatbergs and a meteorite! Artists from the Bristol Folk House also contributed works, based on an outdoor workshop we ran at the Ship’s Graveyard on the River Severn at Purton. We made them into free postcards that included our project website and contact info, encouraging future communication. The watercolours updated our visual record of the river and helped us to think about how people see and value the River Severn today, and how this connects with – or departs from – traditions of viewing land- and waterscapes in Britain.

Why?

A 3-day presence at the Festival of Nature was the culmination of months of planning by me and Jill (Payne, researcher on Power and Water). We had our first meeting before Christmas, and plenty since! Was it worth the effort? Unreservedly, yes. In terms of disseminating our project research, FoN allowed us to communicate our work – and raise awareness of the vitality of environmental history at Bristol – to a huge number of interested citizens. We await attendance figures for this year but last year, over 4, 385 people attended the UoB tent. In 2013 it was 6, 284. This year the weather was good and there were queues to enter the UoB tent, so we are confident that attendance was a strong as ever.[2]

Drewitt at Stand

Naturalist and broadcaster Ed Drewitt drops by to say hello. Ed provided a wildlife commentary for our project boat trip down the Avon

But public engagement of this kind goes way beyond sheer numbers. The process of planning the stand has been productive, helping us identify the themes in our work that hold interest (and are therefore useful for telling histories, in and beyond academia). The photo of the 69ft whale beached at Littleton-on-Severn was a side-story to my research, but people were fascinated by why and how this creature came to Bristol. A trip to Bristol City Museum to track down the bones is being arranged, and the animal inhabitants of the river will be more visible in my work as a result.

Moreover, good public engagement goes beyond disseminating research. They may be buzzwords in funded research, but ‘knowledge exchange’ and ‘co-production of knowledge’ are very real benefits of engaging with groups and individuals beyond the academy. For a project like ours, which is interested in public environmental discourses and people’s relationships with place, talking with the public is a key source of information, and a way in which we can build research questions, identify key issues, and meet people who can aid our research. We learnt of more hidden rivers in Bristol, community action groups, and old records of the Severn Bore. We were also asked why we were not being more active on the issue of plastic waste, prompting us to reflect on the aims of the project, and the role of academics in communities where sometimes, actions speak louder than words. It was useful to recognize our strengths and limitations, as perceived publicly, and to articulate our key aim of providing sound research from which people can become informed, and motivated. Getting involved in an event such as Festival of Nature is a useful reminder that rather than ‘us’ and ‘them’, we are the public too, offering a particular set of knowledge and skills but equally willing to learn from others.

As researchers funded by the public purse (through the UK Research Councils) the expectation that we take our work beyond the university is entirely reasonable. Public engagement is now built into funding applications, and the impact it can produce is a measurable output of research. Meaningful public engagement, based on principles of knowledge exchange and co-production, is a pathway to tangible impact, rather than a one-sided conversation. If we hope to achieve impact, that is, through our research change the way a group thinks or acts with regards to a particular issue or topic, then we must engage with the ‘group’; talk to them, identify key concerns, think about how our research can address issues and contribute to understanding and practice. The language of ‘impact’, public engagement and knowledge exchange, serves to reinforce the academic/public divide. The practice of such ideas, through events such as Festival of Nature, helps to overcome such distinctions. It’s also (whisper it) fun


The Power and the Water project would like to thank the Centre for Public Engagement (University of Bristol) for all their logistical and design support; the 2nd Year Biology volunteers that helped man the stand with enthusiasm; Eloise Govier, for the loan of her artwork and for helping on School Day; and Milica Prokic and Vesna Lukic, for filming, photographing, and mucking in over the FoN weekend.

 

 

[1] Emily Rose Michaud, ‘Taste the source (while supplies last) (2006-present)’ in Cecilia Chen, Janine MacLeod and Astrida Neimanis (eds), Thinking with water (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2013), 133-38

[2] Thanks to Mireia Bes at the Centre for Public Engagement for attendance numbers.