Public engagement in Heritage Science: 5 lessons from the Cheltenham Science Festival

By Josep Grau-Bove*

The SEAHA Heritage Mobile Lab has spent 4 busy days in the Cheltenham Science festival. It was the first time heritage science features so strongly in the festival, and more than 550 visitors came to the Lab to discuss with SEAHA students. Here the top 5 lessons I take home.

1. Nothing beats a good story


Looking at tapestries under the microscope

In a science festival as big as Cheltenham you can see all the different styles of public engagement. Enormous gamified fun-fair machines with little-to-none content share space with well thought experiments that enlighten and entertain. Public engagement may or may not be spectacular, but always needs to be an intellectual experience. A good story, told with passion and authenticity, can be more captivating than wordless fireworks. Some visitors, after seeing a glued flowerpot that showed signs of “conservation interventions” or the faded pieces of tapestry that we displayed in collaboration with Historic Royal Palaces, told us “You have the best displays in the festival”. Next to us, there was a racing car and a bunch of dinosaur bones. But a good story makes all the difference.

2. Engagement comes in many size


Contemplating an IR image in the outdoor screen of the Mobile Lab

An error I commonly observe in public engagement is that often the same narrative is delivered to every visitor. Almost as if live public engagement was a youtube video with fixed length and content. I think successful setups for public engagement must include activities on different scales. Children were usually happy enough by playing with the thermal camera outside the lab. Some adults and families would have a 5 minute conversation about the objects displayed outdoors. Others would come into the lab to follow a 15 minute tour and see two experiments. Others would have stayed for 1 hour if we hadn’t asked them to make way for the next visitors. When doing public engagement, all these scales and intensities of communication need to be planned.

3. Our biggest selling point is that we exist


A room full of science activities in the interior of the Cheltenham Town Hall

 If there’s something all heritage scientists share is the satisfaction of explaining that we have an awesome job that captures the imagination. The fact that we spend our days surrounded by equally awesome individuals may make us forget that a large portion of society ignores our existence. I should start counting the number of visitors to the Mobile Lab that exclaim “It’s so good to know something like this exists!”. Someone said:  “I didn’t know heritage science was a thing!”. To which I found myself replying:  “Heritage Science even has a Wikipedia entry!”, as if appearing in Wikipedia was some sort of certificate of existence. The bottom line is: when you participate in public engagement events, always begin your story from scratch. Show off our existence!

4. Listen to your public


Discussing Reflective Transformation Imaging in detail

Maybe in Heritage Science more than other sciences, the public will sometimes know more that yourself. This happens for several reasons. Partly because we use so many different techniques that there are good chances of finding specialists. Partly because we deal with objects that are a big part of the lives of people, communities and countries. Then, suddenly, you will become the public and your public will become an expert. And this should not be seen as a failure of engagement, but the opposite. Someone helped me identify a pigment as Madder. Someone recommended me a camera for multispectral imaging. A kid found soot embedded in wool fibres, which I hadn’t seen.  I spent the festival showing this hidden soot to visitors. This reminds me why we use the word “engagement” rather than “teaching”.

5. Prepare for the silliest work


Disposing of the sand we used in an experiment with the Ground Penetrating Radar

Finally, forget your job description. To deliver an unusual activity you must be prepared for unusual tasks. We lifted, cleaned, run, wiped, transported, painted, decorated, cut, stapled, attached and improvised. For everyone, but especially for researchers, public engagement is an exercise that takes place largely outside your comfort zone.

* Josep Grau-Bove is a lecturer at UCL Institute of Sustainable Heritage and co-director of the MRes in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology

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