Unusual ways of engaging public with humanities research

Dozens of humanities academics will be taking part in a major public engagement event called FRIGHTFriday tonight (25 November). The event is a collaboration between The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) and the Ashmolean Museum.

In a guest post, TORCH Director Professor Elleke Boehmer tells us a little more about what will be happening, and why this is part of TORCH's creative strategy to get a wide audience to engage with humanities research.

'It is easy to get people interested in research into a new life-saving drug, or a discovery that birds can use tools to get food. But for us arts and humanities researchers, it is sometimes harder to engage the public with what we do.

So here at The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH), we have set out to demonstrate the dynamic and impactful ways in which we work by organising an evening event at Oxford's the Ashmolean Museum this Friday (25th November).

Thousands of people are expected to attend the event, called FRIGHTFriday, and in some ways it will be a typical night out: there will be music, dancing, and a bar. But visitors will also be mingling with dozens of humanities academics, who will explain their research in some very creative and often unusual and challenging ways.

One of the stars of the show will be historian Professor Steven Gunn, who studies coroners' reports of accidental deaths in Tudor England. He will be hosting a game show, in which he sets the scene for deaths that really happened in Tudor England and asks teams of visitors to guess what happened next. From killing by bacon to death by books we learn how precarious life was in this period, and how people coped with extreme events.

English literature expert Professor Sally Shuttleworth leads a research project called Diseases of Modern Life. To engage people with her research, she will be talking about the various phobias she has discovered in Early Modern England, including a fear of cats, phobias that continue to this day.

Crime writer Margie Orford will explore the attraction of the dead white woman in western art. While music researcher Leah Broad is leading drama pieces from the Swedish playwright Strindberg where the actor answers a series of phone calls and the audience only hears half the eerie conversation. Again we develop a very real sense of the fundamental fears that drive what we do.

As you can imagine, our academics are leaving their 'comfort zone' of lecture halls and classrooms far behind on FRIGHTFriday, while at the same time demonstrating the inventive and creative thinking that is involved in all their research.

Working with other arts organisations and cultural institutions, like the Ashmolean Museum, allows humanities scholars to reach a large, new audience with their research. This kind of knowledge exchange has been a major focus of recent TORCH projects.

We have historians using their research to help the National Trust refresh their visitor materials. At FRIGHTFriday, there will be a theatrical performance which has come from a collaboration between the University of Oxford, a youth theatre in East Oxford, and the Fondazione Cini in Venice.

It is also important for us to look to apply our expertise beyond the world of culture and the arts. Recent projects have brought together humanities academics and scientists, and collaboration has deepened both groups' understanding of the questions they are working on.

Oxford theologians and philosophers are working with healthcare professionals on the importance of compassion in the health system. A collaboration between TORCH and the eating disorders charity Beat has investigated how fiction affects and is affected by readers' mental health.

The humanities disciplines have so much to offer to society and, here at TORCH, we will continue to facilitate connections between our academics and people from all backgrounds and all disciplines.

That might mean advising NHS commissioners, or entertaining revellers on a Friday night at the Ashmolean Museum.

FRIGHTFriday is a collaboration between TORCH and the Ashmolean Museum, with support from the Wellcome Trust. It is the national Festival Finale for the Being Human Festival.'

This post was written for the Oxford University Arts Blog.

Public Engagement with Research
Diseases of Modern Life

Elleke Boehmer