While I had prepared thoroughly for outreach and public engagement sessions during the Enchanted Community project, I didn’t anticipate just how much I would also learn from the sessions. I discovered that ‘outreach’ – despite the name – is about much more than reaching out from the University, instead it was just as much about listening and bringing new ideas back to your work. Outreach worked best when it involved not just dissemination but engaged interactions. In this post, Dr Alice Eden discusses outreach based on a session held at Southfields Primary School, Coventry.
I was excited about delivering an outreach session at Southfields Primary School, Coventry as an Early Career Fellow with the Institute of Advanced Study, University of Warwick. I planned to give the talk I had prepared, show images of paintings and display props – ‘enchanted’ art and objects – all to stimulate discussions with the children. Following this, the children would make artworks inspired by these discussions. I hoped the children would be interested and engaged with the subject. I aimed that they would both learn and enjoy the afternoon – that would be a success.
However, the session exceeded all my expectations!
After about five minutes (of a planned ten minute presentation) the children’s hands started to go up… I wanted to capture these responses and shifted into more of a conversation. Once the children started giving comments they didn’t stop – and the things they said were so interesting! The children noticed everything, thought about feelings, colour, mood. They observed particular parts of the images, some more obscure. They imagined stories or context to the figures and made comparisons to events or ideas in their lives. The strongest responses centred on mood or the haunted feel of the pictures. Creating an uncertain, uncanny atmosphere which inspired questions was certainly an aim of the artist.
I was moved by the children’s responses during my presentation especially after having spent years studying the pictures mostly on my own. PhD students endeavour not to become isolated during their studies, but the work often necessitates working alone in archives, reading or writing up. By contrast, this shared response to artworks was invigorating. I did not complete my full presentation, nor impart all the ideas I had planned yet I learnt a more valuable lesson for all PhD students/Early Career researchers – that sometimes less is more! Shortening my presentation allowed everyone to engage for longer and to engage with a spirit of enquiry and curiosity which is so important when viewing artworks.
These moments of interaction created the most important learning points to take from the project:
Positive impacts on my research
The comments and interactions during this and other sessions allowed me to reconsider my research. The session demonstrated why the artist (Frederick Cayley Robinson) along with many other peers often created children’s book illustrations, child-like paintings or fairy-tale images. These were made to inspire wonder, or a child-like response. The children, through their wonder and curiosity gave unguarded responses. Children can look at images so well while adults may forget to do so, and children notice everything! Of course this has been more than reiterated for me at home by the observations of my own (four year old) daughter! Sometimes as adults, with our busy lives, we can forget to slow down and look and can too easily seek a ‘quick fix’ of someone else’s interpretation rather than spending time considering our own responses.
Thinking about art and the viewing process
As soon as we prompted the children to actually capture their ideas in writing responses came more slowly. This echoed the process of giving an adult a feedback form, suddenly there is a struggle to find something to write. The pen hovers over the blank space on the page as we pause to think. Adults respond differently when talking informally and then when a tape recorder or formal element is added to the same discussion. The session made me rethink the effects of viewing art and recording that experience. While acts of viewing might be spontaneous and impulsive, impressions will change or fade after the event. More useful food for thought for my research as well as future public engagement activities.
Art history in schools
This session, and others during the project, reaffirmed for me that art history should be taught more in schools. It provides fantastic resources for children to respond to and describe, encouraging analysis, critical thinking and creative writing. The children benefitted from the historic context, not just a picture in front of them, which reinforced the value of art historical learning. However, the educator should balance providing context with space for individual interpretations. I look forward to delivering more activities, using art history knowledge to reach children and encouraging them to enjoy the arts. Taking the creativity of University scholarship to schools is important and it is clear that this age group (9-10 years) both enjoyed the paintings and learnt from the session.
The true value of outreach…
Results from the afternoon included ideas for more sessions which apply art history to practical educational and craft sessions as well as new perspectives on art and University arts engagement. The session helped to demonstrate the relevance of art history today and how well studying paintings can be applied in the ‘real’ world. Outreach like this gives children and members of the public insights into the rich variety of learning and research that happens in universities.
However most importantly for me, the session showed me what outreach is really about: taking university research into new environments and making conversations; I had learned from the children and the community: we had learnt together. These interactions have stayed with me, coming into my mind now I am writing my book on this artist and his peers.
Your outreach memories will also stay with you! They can help motivate you for another project or energise you when returning to the archives. They will help you to keep perspective in your work and maintain important dialogues and paths between the academy and the ‘real’ world.
Alice Eden is an Early Career academic and Associate Tutor in the History of Art department, University of Warwick. Her primary interests are modern British cultural history, spiritualties and feminisms, with expertise in Victorian and Edwardian art history. She currently works in educational administration and is writing a book based on her PhD thesis (see future posts!) Alice can be contacted via email and followed on twitter at @Alice_Eden4.