Birkbeck, University of London’s ‘International London walking tours’

Birkbeck, University of London’s ‘International London: walking tours’

We asked Siobhan Morris, Public Engagement and Events Coordinator for The Reluctant Internationalists research project at Birkbeck College, University of London to reflect on the success of their Being Human festival event, ‘International London: Walking Tours’. The tours invited people on a series of research-led walks around London, based on work undertaken by the Wellcome Trust funded Reluctant Internationalists project.

Tell us a bit about your event. What subject areas did you cover and what did you want to achieve?

For Being Human 2016, the Reluctant Internationalists led a series of walking tours around central London exploring the city as the home of international projects. We tried to present an alternative history of London, as a magnet for international ideas and collaborations.

We conducted three tours on Wartime London (led by Jessica Reinisch), Epidemic London (led by Dora Vargha), and Communist London (led by Ana Antic & Johanna Conterio). Each tour took participants through the streets of central London to illuminate the stories, lives and organisations often hidden amid the contemporary bustle of the city.

The tours aimed to bring to life the Reluctant Internationalists project’s research on the history of twentieth-century internationalism, by telling engaging stories about people, places and events. Anchoring these stories in the sites of contemporary London, allowed us to engage the public with research and demonstrate how the history of international collaboration was shaped by and in turn helped to shape the city.

What worked particularly well in the planning, design and delivery of your event?

Organising three tours around separate themes helped to ensure the walks had a clear focus and a consistent historical narrative. The tours’ academic leads drew on their research and specialist knowledge of the international history of London.

The format of the walking tours also helped to open up the project’s research to new audiences and created an excellent opportunity for academics to conduct Public Engagement with Research in an accessible format. The academics created engaging, personalised tours –one handed out home baking made to an original wartime ration-era recipe and another evoked the spirit of the era by leading a group sing-a-long of socialist songs.

Additionally, the design of the event provided an opportunity to live tweet the walks. This created a new means of visual engagement with the project’s work using social media – it greatly helped that the sun was shining for all three walks!

What were the main challenges and how did you overcome these?

For the event, registrations were managed via an online booking system. However, this proved challenging; attendance numbers were difficult to monitor and regulate, especially as the tours were free and open to all. Similarly, keeping the walking group together at times proved problematic due to the number of attendees.

What, if any, other audience outcomes did you identify? What were the main outcomes for you and /or your organisation?

We were delighted with the range of participants and that several people attended more than one tour. From the feedback collected in online questionnaires and interviews recorded on the day, it was noted especially that the tours were engaging and informative:

I learned much more than I had expected. They were really informative.’
I thought it was very well formulated, the guides were all well informed, a good mixture of walking as well as information…I can go away and think about the themes of people and networks and places and how they fit together.’

What top tips would you give to anyone contemplating or running a similar event or events in the future?

  1. Planning is key! Walk the routes in advance and take consideration of access requirements.
  2. Utilise social media both for promotion and during the event. Live tweeting the tours enabled us to create a visual record of each tour as well as engaging a wider audience.
  3. Be flexible and ensure schedules can be adapted if unforeseen circumstances arise, for example blocked routes or having to change the pace of a walk.
  4. Document the event through a variety of means (for example photographs, interviews, blog posts, and guides to key stops.) We are also developing digital ‘reconstructions’ of the tours to enable links in London’s international history to be further emphasised.