1918 Allotment & Public Engagement with Research

Once people feel comfortable enough ask – a common question I get is about the mechanics of research closely followed by ‘where do the ideas come from?’ Although everyone has different ways of working, when I did some research into this myself, I found that an important piece is the potential your work has to impact others. It is a great privilege to be able to spend years of one’s life ruminating on thoughts and ideas and so I believe the research zeitgeist that engages the public with some of these thoughts and ideas, is a good one.

Even though I am recreating a 1918 allotment in 2021 – the seed was planted in 2018 when I attended The Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities (TORCH) summer school, just before I began my DPhil in Anthropology. I can highly recommend summer school for doctoral researchers at any stage. . It radically changed the plans I had about how to conduct my research. Prior to attending the course – I intended to carry out my research behind closed doors and the only public output that I had considered was publishing papers.

What the summer school made me realise was that not only does carrying out public engagement have the possibility of impacting the public positively, it also improves the quality of your research. Throughout my DPhil, from the moment I received my ethical clearance, I have been engaged in a public conversation about my urban gardening research. This means that I am continually having to think about what it is I am saying (and also usefully) get more adept at communicating my work without being too obscure.

Sometimes, it can feel as though I have two research projects happening at the same time. The theoretical framing of my research is about the anthropology of the imagination. I am interested in the ways in which we imagine nature impacts our environment. You can read more about that here. I am also acutely aware that not all members of the public are going to want to know the details of the dense arguments around utopian theory or indeed the long-standing anthropological debate on nature v. culture. That said, most people (especially those who have never visited one) are fascinated by what happens on an allotment site. We all interact with nature everyday (even if we live in cities) on a micro or macro level. As my research progressed, I wanted to find a way to be able to allow members of the public to engage with it but in a manner that would be meaningful for them. The opportunity arose when Sam Skinner from Fig approached me. Fig is a new horticultural, art and community project in Oxford and it brings together exactly what I am passionate about. The onset of the pandemic meant that I was spending even more time thinking about the link between nature and health. It was when I came across a Daily Mail piece from 1918 that was encouraging people to become allotmenteers in order to evade the effects of the flu pandemic that the penny dropped. Over a century ago, allotments were publicly co-opted as part of the defence against the pandemic. This is very different to 2020 when allotments felt like a hidden gem unearthed for those who were able to access them for the first time. Waiting lists for plots spread like weeds and yet there was no national call to garden. The year 1918 also saw the end of World War One and I wanted to explore further what it means to remember. Many people were calling for the current pandemic to be memorialised and yet there is no such commemoration of the 1918– -1919 pandemic. Although I published an open access paper  which can be downloaded by anyone about some of these themes it did not feel enough. I wanted to create a space that would allow people to interact with an allotment plot as it grew  and to experience the exquisite sense of getting one’s hands into the earth. Developing the plot with Fig has been, and continues to be, a transformative experience. Now, I feel like I have come full circle – as I work towards submitting my thesis, the good people at TORCH have once again kindly stepped in to support me to be able to open up this work to the wider public. We still have three dates available in August and September if you would like to come and visit. You are welcome to sign up here.

Black and white image of UK schoolboys at work on an allotment allocated for wartime vegetable production on school playing fields