Matt took Sensory Stories international in September, visiting the United States to attend the Imagining America 2011 national conference.
Imagining America is the leading organisation for public engagement in North America and it was therefore very exciting to be given the opportunity to attend their national conference in Minneapolis. The main aim of attending was to present the work of Sensory Stories and to share both our approaches and the details of the Sensory Opportunities that we had developed. The work of the project was very well received, both in the formal poster presentation session and in informal chats during practically every coffee and lunch break. Other delegates were very interested in our work, primarily I think for two reasons. Firstly for the range of techniques we were using within one project (storytelling/narratives, oral history, object interaction, dance, to name but a few) and also how we were using these methods to illuminate research from traditional academic disciplines. In the United States there is an emphasis on public engagement as a tool for social justice and also to engage with more modern work (such as contemporary literature, contemporary history and social policy). Our project was therefore something that was new and different.
The conference also allowed me to discover the exciting developments in public engagement within the United States and to discover a host of fascinating projects. Several themes emerged, in particular the rising use of technology as an aid to sharing our research stories with the public. This included oral histories shared via YouTube and also the recurrent use of maps to inform people, recreate the past and to connect communities together. One project in this regard stood out and this was an app for iPhone and iPad based around Iowa City as a UNESCO city of literature. It offers maps of the city embedded with information about the featured literary figures, allowing the user to be their own guide but also locating the user in physical space as they move around the city. The conference also highlighted that American academics were struggling with many of the same concerns as we are, particularly wrestling with the idea of rigour and how public engagement work could be rigorous. Many recognized that rigour was an important part of university research but believed that it could be articulated more broadly to allow for public engagement projects to be recognized. All in all, the trip was a tremendous experience that allowed me to share the work of Sensory Stories with an international audience and to learn much about how others have been telling their research stories.