Sensory Stories’ headline event took place on 15 January, bringing together industry experts, innovative workshops and fascinating case studies to train over 60 doctoral students from across the north of England in the skills of public engagement. Months in the planning, the organisation and inspiration behind ‘Making Sense of Public Engagement’ has proved a learning experience for the Sensory Stories team every bit as much as the day was itself.
The training day, held at the University of York’s Humanities Research Centre, included workshops on ‘Making Objects Speak to Research’, ‘How to Tell Tales’ and ‘Communicating with the Media’. Participants divided into three groups for the first two workshops and were guided through practical exercises by Sensory Stories team members. The whole group came together for an introductory talk by Patrick Wildgust, curator of Shandy Hall Museum, the Storytelling spotlight by Stephe Harrop and a media workshop and Q&A led by IPUP‘s Helen Weinstein.
Case studies of public engagement in practice were showcased by Thom Richardson of the Royal Armouries and Iona McCleery of Leeds University and the Wellcome Trust ‘You are what you ate‘ project. A dance performance by Holly Clarkson and Kate Prosser interpreting research ignited the afternoon and led into the roundtable discussion. The afternoon also saw the launch of our ‘Sensory Opportunities’, links established with local organisations to put the ideas of the day into practice.
Here are a few of our reflections on the day.
The workshops took up much of our planning attention. The storytelling workshop was reworked to a design by Stephe, while the objects workshop was designed entirely by the team. This was another case of the committee having to learn by doing and we were very concerned to ensure that we were offering the PhD students something worthwhile.
It was very pleasing, therefore, that the attendees responded to the workshops so enthusiastically. They seemed to appreciate the value of how we were encouraging them to use objects and they threw themselves eagerly into the storytelling. This was also reflected in the feedback, which saw the two workshops score highest for the day. This is probably the proudest aspect of the day for me – that we had achieved what we set out to and emphasised doing rather than just the talking. Matt
The workshops enabled us all to think outside of the box – a sometimes terrifying but, more often, liberating experience. I was amazed at how responsive all the workshop participants were, and it was great to see others enthused and be enthused about our own research too. Jasmine
Having worked on the Sensory Stories project for four months now, I don’t think I’d realised just how far outside the ‘academic’ comfort zone we had gone in our quest to redefine ‘research skills’! I know that some people found the performance elements of the storytelling workshop a little daunting, but I was so impressed by how quickly the participants adapted to the challenges we set them and how brilliantly creative they were under pressure! Kate
I thought the way that Patrick really brought objects to life, revealing how evocative they can be and the stories that can be found in the most mundane of objects was so interesting. It really gave energy to the start of the day. The media workshop was a great introduction to the different types of media available to academics and the ways in which research can be turned into something of public interest, for example by drawing out wider themes and linking them to political, social or cultural events happening at any one time or by looking at important anniversaries and how research can tie in with that. Laura
The expert speakers really helped to anchor the event and proved to be a revelation on the day, being both inspiring and really showing us the practical side of their approaches. Matt
The talks by Patrick and Stephe were my highlights of the day. They were exciting, stimulating and engaging. Mark
It was really insightful to hear from Iona McCleery, who has addressed many similar public engagement issues through her work on the ‘You are what you ate’ project. Her encounters with the public have challenged assumptions, reshaped approaches and produced a variety of fun and interesting interpretations and responses. It was nice to see that these projects are often ‘works in progress’, difficult to measure and predict. I think we will face such challenges when our Sensory Opportunities begin. Jasmine
Iona’s case study was fascinating because it showed how a public engagement project develops and how even more experienced academics can also struggle. I liked the attention she drew to knowing your audience and picking your locations accordingly. Laura
The roundtable was a real highlight for me, I think it was the most buoyant closing session I’ve ever attended! The excitement and enthusiasm as we discussed the possibilities that sensory engagement could open up for our own research was palpable, and helped to remind those of us on the committee that the training day was really just the first step. I can’t wait to hear about all the imaginative projects and new collaborations that the day will have inspired. Kate
The experience of the day
This was an amazing day and I feel so proud to have been part of it. Sensory Stories has really helped to develop my confidence and approach challenges unfazed. This was all down to the commitment of the team because I always felt that someone had my back. At times I questioned what I was doing—particularly when I found myself feverishly drawing out seating plans in the early hours! Yet moments such as seeing Holly and Kate bringing research to life through dance, in ways I could never have envisaged, made it all worth it. It has been brilliant to meet such creative people from very different disciplinary backgrounds, but all passionately committed to sharing their work with a wider audience—whether it’s research, contemporary dance or a unique heritage site such as Shandy Hall. Claire
The behind the scenes organisation for the event was rigorous and Claire’s masterplan was inspired. It ensured the day ran very smoothly. Overall it was a great day and I feel proud to be part of a team that work really hard with everyone contributing. Mark
The day demonstrated to me that public engagement can be fun and exciting; and that as researchers we all have a lot to offer to communities outside of academia, as well as within our own fields of expertise. Jasmine