Tag Archives: environmental humanities

Wasting Millions… of Stories, Insights and Experiences? An Inspiring Workshop on Academia, Environments and Engaging with the Public(s)

By Leona Skelton

David Matless, a Professor of Cultural Geography at the University of Nottingham, highlighted an important story from the history of academic public engagement in his presentation at the University of East Anglia’s ‘Environment(s) in Public(s)?’ workshop on 3rd November 2014. It was a story from 1911, the year in which the renowned Arthur Tansley, a Botanist and pioneer in the science of Ecology and a lecturer at the University of Cambridge, embarked on an in-depth study of river valleys and species in the Norfolk Broads. He and his academic team purposely ignored a group which they referred to pejoratively as ‘local workers’ in their quest to understand this particular environment. This led them to exclude most of the members of the local naturalist societies and clubs, who, of course, understood their local environment very intimately indeed. The story ended happily, however, as the academics did a U-turn, eventually including the ‘local workers’ in their project, after admitting that their knowledge was both valuable and useful to their study.

This historic story is hugely relevant in the light of recent academic research funding objectives, encouraging academics to beat their own imaginative, successful and above all useful ‘pathways to impact’, ensuring that their research has a real use and benefit for wider society, and rightly so. Environmental historians are approaching this objective not as a one-way process, but as an opportunity for symbiosis. Following the albeit redrafted example of Tansley, to inform their research, many are successfully utilising the often very deep knowledge, experience and understanding of those who live, and have long lived, in particular environments, who face particular local environmental challenges as part of their daily lives. They are conducting oral history interviews and attending meetings of local history groups, wildlife charities and local sporting and outdoor pursuit clubs and societies, as well as ensuring that such research delivers benefits on the ground in the environments under their study by contributing to future policies or leaving beneficial educational or recreational legacies behind. Ruth Tittensor’s From Peat Bog to Conifer Forest: An Oral History of Whitelee, its Construction and Landscape (2009) is a good example of an environmental history which has been enriched by direct engagement and participation of experienced local people in its creation.

The two concepts of 1) locals contributing to academics’ publications and 2) academics providing pathways to beneficial impact in local communities are not mutually exclusive. Very often, the process of involving the public in academic research can produce benefits in their own right. Creating a volume of oral history interviews, which provide a snapshot of local life, the environment and locals’ projections for their future provides a legacy, which benefits the community at large as well as facilitating increased academic understanding through publication.

The purpose of the workshop held at the University of East Anglia (UEA), and hosted jointly by 3S: Science, Society and Sustainability (which is a research group at UEA), Science in Public and the Broads Authority, was to interrogate the question of whether or not academics should tailor their approach to public engagement more specifically to multiple and separate publics with which they aim to engage rather than simply to the whole public. For example, should busy farmers, a canoeing club and a Parish Council be amalgamated into one homogenous group called ‘the public’, which incorporates all non-academics, or rather given special consideration as respective publics with different needs, different capabilities for contribution and potentially different sensitivities? The argument is further complicated by the issue of different environments; even within one country, a sheep farmer living in an upland location might require a different approach to an arable farmer in East Anglia, for example. The general consensus was that more detailed consideration should be given to the particular needs and expectations of the groups we approach for public engagement through our academic studies and that it is indeed useful to imagine ‘publics’ rather than the ‘public’.

The issue of scale was also raised, in relation to climate change, highlighting the propensity for people to force change at local, regional and even national scales, compared to the general disinclination of the majority to invest in forcing global change. Globally, the goal is too big, and, as Angela Cassidy pointed out in her paper on ‘Animals, People and Places: Connecting Public Debates about how we Live in a Changing World’, using the image of a polar bear, which is remote to the majority of the world’s population, is probably far less effective than using more immediately relevant images of a flooded village or a family and their pets in distress. The workshop was grounded within quite a small scale by its focus on the environment surrounding the University of East Anglia, the city of Norwich, the rivers, farms, broads and coast of the East of England, but the questions which the workshop raised could be applied to many other different environments on a far wider scale, and they are relevant to all academics working with environments, including environmental geographers, environmental historians, ecologists, artists and environmental scientists.

Ultimately, academics can think imaginatively, not in desperation as salesmen and women under the pressure of punitive targets, and not from above as benefactors who kindly impart their infinitely superior knowledge, but rather as inspiring positive forces in local communities, who approach the publics with whom they intend to engage as equals, offering to give as much as or even more than they take. Working with practitioners, businesses, museums, engineers, councillors and charities can speed up the process of public engagement for academics, but such collaborations can also enhance such professionals’ own work by introducing exciting, interesting and beneficial elements from our academic research to their projects and schemes which would otherwise have not occurred to them. Alexandra Johnson, Curator at the London Science Museum, explained how she worked with artists to create an exhibition called ‘The Rubbish Collection’, which showcased to the public in a creative and visually attractive style all of the items of rubbish which were disposed of by the museum over a period of thirty days. Despite the widely held perception among some of the public that waste-disposal and recycling is a boring and overkilled topic, they were inspired by the exhibition because of the imaginative and visually stimulating manner in which the issue was conveyed. Environmental historians, too, can design imaginative, innovative and ultimately useful ways in which to introduce the benefit of hindsight – the mistakes, successes, issues and debates of the past – to contribute to present-day challenges.

Our own project, ‘The Power and the Water: Reconnecting Pasts with Futures’, aims to reconnect severed, but important, links between historic and present problems in the development of the UK’s energy and water infrastructure. In my own project, I have learnt as much, and in some cases even more, from attending the Clean Tyne Project’s Steering Committee or riding downriver on their debris-collection vessel, from talking to local volunteers working at the Low Light Heritage Centre, or to the volunteers of the Tyne Rivers Trust’s Riverwatch at their 10th Anniversary celebrations, or by taking a tour of Howdon wastewater treatment works with Northumbrian Water, a tour of the Port of Tyne facilities or an art walk to the Dunston Staiths. All of these experiences have provided insights into the problems faced throughout the Tyne catchment today, which inform and enrich my archival research into the problems of the Tyne’s past, which in turn can and will (very soon) inform and enrich those present day institutions’, charities’ and authorities’ approaches to improving future Tyne policies.

Rubbish from Tyne

Power & Water project leader, Peter Coates, rejuvenated after observing the work of the Clean Tyne Project aboard their debris-collection vessel, the ‘Clearwater’ (Photo: M. Dudley)

The workshop at UEA was a success precisely because of the diversity of its attendees. A journalist, a museum curator, an ecologist, the director of the Norfolk Broads Authority, environmental historians, scientists and geographers, chemists and members of the public. We achieved a great deal in one day through face-to-face and direct communication. It certainly boosted my own conception and attitudes towards public engagement. Academics are doing really well in their efforts to include publics in and to improve the experiences of publics through their research, but they can and should always try to do better. For every ten stories, insights and first-hand experiences we incorporate into our research, there are millions more which we have not heard and will not incorporate, and which are arguably being wasted. Perhaps technology will provide an even larger opportunity to capture and analyse this important source of information in the future, in the way that citizen science projects have been developed recently on scales which were unthinkable fifteen years ago. Until then, we are wasting millions… millions of stories, millions of insights and millions of experiences.











‘Saturday Night at the Movies’: An Acoustic Performance in a Dark Corner of Kielder Forest

By Leona Skelton

If someone had told me a week ago that I’d be spending the following Saturday evening sitting still and silently in a cold corner of Kielder Forest in the dark with one hundred others, appreciating the sounds of dancing tree trunks creaking and the wind brushing earnestly against the leaves while pre-recorded raven calls were played from hidden loudspeakers, I would have been surprised. However, that’s exactly what I did on the evening of Saturday 25th October, and it was a worthwhile, deeply relaxing and hugely inspiring experience.

The event was commissioned by Jerwood Open Forest, which is a partnership between Jerwood Charitable Foundation and the Forestry Commission England, and it’s supported by the University of Surrey, the Arts Council England, Forest Artwork and Kielder Water and Forest Park. Entitled ‘Hrfan: Conversations with Odin’, it was created by Chris Watson and Iain Pate and the Jerwood Open Forest team, and delivered with the help of a group of marshals, of whom I was one. We were led on a mile-long walk through the forest from Stonehaugh as we were told interesting stories about raven lore and the history of Kielder Forest. A small bridge marked the official entrance to the site, and the point after which human words were banned and the sounds of ravens, as heard by Odin in the halls of Valhalla, took precedence. With immense anticipation, we settled down on the forest floor of a Norway Spruce plantation to enjoy a unique acoustic production. The sounds were conveyed effectively, sheltered by Wark Burn to the south, and a steep slope to the north of the site. The production was contributed to by the ‘live’ sounds of resident robins, crossbill, chaffinch, mistle thrush and blackbirds. Apart from the unscheduled cacophony of the Air Ambulance helicopter at its mid-point, the event was a resounding success. These things happen, apparently, when your cinema is situated in an open forest, beneath the stars.

As we left the venue, in complete darkness, I could appreciate Kielder’s dark sky, and the crystal clear stars piercing through it. Kielder Water and Forest Park is now marketed as a single destination for tourists by the Kielder Development Trust; and its isolation, situated south-east of the Anglo-Scottish border in Northumberland, is being marketed successfully through the construction of an observatory in the forest and the recent award in December 2013 from the International Dark Skies Association of Gold Tier Dark Sky Park status. This award is well deserved, in my opinion. They have recently opened a circular, timber stargazing construction complete with seating in Stonehaugh Village, which, I found, also works well as a picnic area at lunchtime.

Stonehaugh is an area of Kielder Forest which I had never visited previously. It was established by the Forestry Commission in the 1950s, to house forestry workers involved in logging, sawing and generally preparing the timber for transportation. There are 35 houses in the village, but around 150 houses had been planned originally, before mechanisation kicked in and reduced the number of forestry workers needed. The planners reacted by reducing the programme of house building substantially, by around 80%. Surprisingly, it’s a lot further south than Kielder Water and Leaplish Waterside Park, taking approximately one hour to drive from Stonehaugh to Kielder Village, yet both lie within Kielder Forest. This demonstrates the scale of Kielder Forest explicitly. On my way there, I discovered new roads, and new panoramic views of the immense plantations, as the southern boundary of Kielder Forest stretched out before me, edge to edge. Quite eerily, I spotted a very large, abandoned piece of rusty, heavy machinery on the open moorland quite close to the forest boundary. I think its purpose, before abandonment, was to dig trenches in the forest, but I can’t be sure; it might well have been a piece of general agricultural machinery.

Abandoned Heavy Machinery

Abandoned Heavy Machinery, immediately south of Kielder Forest near Stonehaugh (Photo: Leona Skelton)

Above all, attending the event inspired me to think more about the senses in the environment beyond the visual, which tends to take prime position in human appreciation of landscape and environment. Recently, I’ve been reading quite a lot about the sub-discipline of acoustic ecology. These ecologists are breaking new ground in developing narratives and theories in

Squirrel alert poster

Poster on the Stonehaugh Picnic Area Noticeboard (Photo: Leona Skelton)

relation to how the sounds of the landscape have changed as a result of industrialisation, the development of transport and energy supply infrastructure. I’m trying to tune into sounds I have previously ignored in the present landscape and also when I’m reading documentary sources in the archives, with some success. The sounds, and indeed smells too, of the historic Tyne have been written about in many different documents and they are there to find, if your mind is alert to them.

As a final thought, I had hoped to spot a couple of red squirrels in return for my 7-hour round trip from Yorkshire, but unfortunately I had no such luck. I did spot a poster, however, reminding us of their vulnerability.




Relevant links




Reports on ‘cultural ecosystem services’

Project team members Peter Coates and Marianna Dudley have been involved in the preparation of two reports on ‘cultural ecosystem services’ that were published as part of the findings of the 2-year UK National Ecosystem Assessment Follow-On exercise (NEAFO)  that was launched in London on 26 June 2014.
The first report, ‘Arts and Humanities Perspectives on Cultural Ecosystem Services’, for which Peter was lead author, is the output of an AHRC-funded working party representing the broad spectrum of arts and humanities disciplines that Peter convened with the assistance of the AHRC’s Gail Lambourne. The other report, a ‘Keywords Manual’ on cultural ecosystem services, was prepared by Marianna with Peter’s assistance, and funded by Defra and various UK research councils through the Cambridge-based World Conservation Monitoring Centre (part of UNEP).
Download the reports below:

The humanities and Engaging with Government

By Marianna Dudley

The Power and the Water is an environmental history project.  We are investigating how our twenty-first century understandings and experiences of place and community have been shaped by historical environmental processes. But, in creating the project and shaping its research path, thoughts of current and future environmental challenges were never far away.

We want, from the outset, to connect our research into the pasts of our project sites with possibilities for their futures.  Working with external partners such as Northumbrian Water and engaging with local independent experts such as Dr Jim Rieuwerts (a sough historian working with Carry and Georgina in Derbyshire) is helping us identify research questions and think about how our research will be useful for government, energy and utilities companies, heritage bodies, and local interest groups. Our interest in water management and infrastructure feels particularly timely in the wake of the extensive flooding here in the Southwest and other parts of Britain.  Now, questions of the impacts of climate change, discussions of best practice and planning for the future in water management and infrastructure, and the evident power of water to impact on lives and livelihoods have made many of the issues we are investigating part of widespread public debate and put them firmly on the policy agenda. The AHRC-Institute for Government’s ‘Engaging with Government 2014’ course that Post Doctoral Research Assistant (PDRA) Carry van Lieshout and I attended in London 11-13 February couldn’t have come at a better time.

The Institute for Government (IfG) sits just off the Mall, deliberately close to the centres of power in Whitehall. The UK’s leading independent charity and think tank promoting more effective government, it works with cross-party and Whitehall governance to increase government effectiveness and promote good policy making, with an emphasis on the use of evidence to support policy. As academics, the key way to influence or engage with policy is by presenting our research as evidence to inform decisions.  The course taught us that it matters how we go about doing this, and imparted some techniques for doing so. Being aware of the changing political landscape, for example, is helpful: crisis points and changes of office create windows of opportunity, for it is at these times that new approaches are often taken, and policy-makers are looking for experts (us!) and new ideas.   It also matters how our research itself is presented.  It must be accessible, succinct, direct – and, with the preference of civil servants for statistics – full of usable data.  For us arts and humanities scholars, this presented some issues that we worked through over the course –  more on which later.

Jill Rutter is programme director at the IfG and led the course, which was specifically for Arts and Humanities scholars working in areas with the potential to engage with policy. Before working at the IfG, Jill was director of strategy and sustainable development at DEFRA; previous civil service roles include policy lead on tax, development and local government finance.  She was able to explain to us the structures of government and processes of policy-making that are necessary to know in order to engage meaningfully with decision-making.  This crash-course in the theories and realities of politics and policy-making was one of the most useful aspects of the course.  What was made clear, across the three days, was that in order to be heard by civil servants you have to know who to target.  You essentially have to do your homework by mapping out where the power lies, and who makes the decisions.  This is one area of engaging with government that we, as researchers, should all be able to do.  We are well-versed in doing our background reading and establishing key research questions.  By extending early project research to include stakeholder mapping – identifying key figures and networks in your subject or case study area – not only are you better placed to connect with relevant decision makers, but you have a usable working picture of relationships and decision-making in your area that can aid your research too.  Stakeholder mapping in this respect is a win-win exercise that I suspect many of us do to some extent anyway, but that benefits from a rigorous and focused approach.

IfG brought in a range of people working at the heart of government to speak to us, including Stephen Aldridge, Director of Analysis and Innovation at the Department for Communities and Local Government. Stephen was convinced of the importance of the humanities (especially history) to his Department’s policymaking, but recognized that there was a heavy preference for statistical evidence. If government ultimately wants neat stats and big data, how can we – who work with narrative, long-term change, visual and textual documents, testimonies and case studies – hope to register on the short attention span of a time-harried civil servant?

There are ways, and the responsibility lies with us.  We need to make it easy for non-academics to quickly understand our research.  By quickly, I mean, in a paragraph. Producing regular newsletters and blog posts (tick) creates a flow of information through which we can create an audience for our work, from stakeholders we already work with to those we think should be taking notice. But in this form of communication, brevity and clarity are key.  We can (and do!) save methodological concerns and academic debate for journal articles and extended dialogues. When we take our work into the public, non-academic sphere, things like presentation and design can also make a real difference to how it is received, and are worth budgeting for where possible.

If we are looking to engage with government and gain a voice in decision-making processes, we must be prepared to raise our own profiles as academics. We are looked to as experts in our field.  A public profile and willingness to engage with media outlets are part of this. The IfG’s director of communications, Nadine Smith, impressed upon us the power of networking, through twitter – gaining info on public lectures, events etc. – and in person.  Though using social media was a predictable suggestion, the reminder to use it proactively (seeking out key figures, gaining public voice) and intelligently (directing people to our website and blog posts, where they can learn more about our project) was useful. The course achieved the impossible, and got me to finally join Twitter: @DudleyMarianna; project feed: @envirohistories.

Hearteningly, several speakers confirmed the value of a good case study.  We already know this: part of the previous, AHRC-funded ‘Local Places, Global Processes’ research network (part of the Researching Environmental Change programme) was to explore why the local can convey global narratives such as climate change in a meaningful way. This new project, having grown out of that research network, is enacting those convictions by placing local case studies at the heart of the research methodology.  But it is great to hear that those within (or with the ear of) government agree.  This is an area, I think, where arts and humanities scholars have a real chance of communicating change and perceptions of change, where numbers and data cannot.  Case studies, connecting pasts and futures, the local with the global, the personal with the societal and environmental, are the secret weapon in our toolkit.

The last word on this (bearing in mind my point about brevity) I give to Wayne Martin, a philosopher whose Essex Autonomy Project is influencing how government deals with issues of patient autonomy in mental healthcare.  Wayne gave us a masterclass in how to connect with multiple external partners and influence policy.  Yet, he said, at the end of the day it comes down to one thing:  good research.  Really, really good research.  Because if we are researching the things that matter, producing work that deserves to be heard, and working hard to make sure it is disseminated, then people will take notice. And that, I think, we can all do.

With thanks to the AHRC and the Institute for Government for running the course; and for Jill Rutter, for delivering it with indomitable energy.