School of Advanced Study, University of London’s ‘Weaving Women’s Stories’
By Dr Emma Bridges, public engagement fellow in Classics at the School of Advanced Study, University of London
Emma Bridges, from the School of Advanced Study, looks back on her great event ‘Weaving Women’s Stories’ and discusses the importance of working collaboratively with cultural partners to attract diverse audiences. From selecting the right venue to reaching the right mailing lists, she gives us the inside track on creating fantastic public engagement events.
Tell us a little bit about your event.
Weaving Women’s Stories, which I co-ordinated in collaboration with a colleague from Royal Holloway, Dr. Ellie Mackin Roberts, was a series of events designed to explore the connections (metaphorical and literal) between textile making and storytelling in women’s lives from ancient Greece to modern London. It began with an evening performance in the Gallery Café at St. Margaret’s House in Bethnal Green. Here, creatives from By Jove Theatre Company performed newly-commissioned poetry inspired by the women weavers of ancient Greek myth, against the backdrop of a full-size replica ancient loom. The following morning at the Create Place (an arts space also run by St. Margaret’s House) we hosted a family drop-in session in which attendees could try spinning and weaving, or making ‘ancient’ clay loom weights. Then in the afternoon textile designer Majeda Clarke led a weaving workshop for a small group of adults.
How did you go about getting a public audience for your event?
Our community partners were absolutely key to the success of our events. St. Margaret’s House were able to share with us their local knowledge and their advertising platforms. People also came along because they were familiar with the venue, which really showed the importance of finding a location that works for your target audience. The creative partners (By Jove Theatre Company and Majeda Clarke) were also able to draw on their pre-existing networks to attract audiences who were already familiar with their work. A combination of some targeted social media activity – identifying groups interested in crafting, for example – and the use of the venue’s newsletters and email list enabled us to reach our audiences.
What was your motivation for getting involved in Being Human? Did you find it useful to be part of the festival?
When academic researchers share their work with wider communities, everyone involved – researchers as well as public participants – benefits. This can be through learning skills like teamwork or project planning, meeting people who can bring fresh perspectives to research, or simply by having conversations which deepen understanding and spark interest. The festival presents the ideal opportunity to be part of a major series of national events while still retaining ownership of your own project. I learned a huge amount from the festival team, drawing on their extensive experience of what works well for public audiences, as well as benefiting from support with everything from advertising to evaluation.
Jumping off from the festival theme ‘Origins & Endings’, we wanted to encourage our audiences to think about the ancient origins of contemporary ‘craftivism’ as well as making connections between feminist thought and women’s roles in cloth production and storytelling. We also wanted to give people some hands-on experience of the processes involved in making cloth, from its origins as fleece to the end product. I found that, as a researcher who ordinarily works mostly with ideas and texts, I too learned a great deal about the practicalities of cloth production and about practice-based research!
How did you ensure attendees could engage with your research beyond the event?
One of the challenges with public events is to ensure that people who have come along have some way of finding out more if the event has piqued their interest. We worked with a colleague at The Open University, Dr. Jessica Hughes, to create a themed podcast which tied in with the event, and we gave everyone who came to the events a postcard with the podcast address. Twitter was also useful, for which we created the easily-searchable hashtag #WeavingWomensStories. I used Twitter to post blog posts I had written about the research and links to online resources about aspects of the theme.
Did you face any challenges in organising your event?
I underestimated the anxiety attached to not knowing how many people would actually come! For the evening performance and the weaving workshop we had a rough idea as we’d asked people to sign up in advance, although I’m aware that many people sign up to free events and then don’t turn up. For the drop-in family event we had no way of knowing whether anyone would come, or whether there would be too many people for the space. I think that in future I’d think about ways of tracking interest in a drop-in event (e.g. a Facebook event page).
Do you have any top tips or lessons learned for future Being Human event organisers?
- Choose a community space as your venue – it could be a café, park, local library, or village hall.
- Invest time and energy in your relationships with your community partners – they are your greatest allies!
- Don’t underestimate the amount of time and energy it takes to run a successful event.