Getting started with public engagement

Michael Noble is a PhD researcher based at the University of Nottingham. Since 2014 he has been the project co-ordinator at the Centre for Hidden Histories.

This post is based on January’s FWW network workshop, which took place at the University of Nottingham, and which had as its theme, Public Engagement in Research. It is a timely topic, given the launch of the FWW Network Collaborative Research Grant Scheme, but also a broad one. Any blog post that attempted to cover every aspect of academic public engagement would be doomed to failure. With that in mind, I intend to break it down into sub-topics. Later posts will address subjects such as developing a co-production project, navigating university administration systems and avoiding the ‘exploitation of goodwill’. If there are any other aspects of academic public engagement that you would like to see on this blog, please leave a note in the comments below or contact me on Twitter.

For now, I will concentrate on the fundamentals of public engagement; why is it important and how a researcher might go about establishing productive relationships with non-university partners.

With a particular focus on co-production, this first post is aimed at giving readers an insight into some of the methods for making this sort of collaboration a success. It is based on my experiences of brokering and managing university-community collaborations, supported by the Centre for Hidden Histories between 2014 and 2017.

The post is in two sections. The first attempts a (necessarily) loose definition of co-production and outlines its current importance in academic research. The second provides advice on forming productive relationships with non-university partners.

Co-production and academia

Public engagement is a broad, and ever more important topic. It has huge potential for research impact and significant relevance to the Research Excellence Framework (REF).[i] With the new Knowledge Exchange Framework (KEF) now in development, we can expect the concept to be around for some time to come and for public engagement to continue to be a core aspect of the academic’s work.

Researchers have described a ‘participatory turn’ through which traditional forms of knowledge transfer (whereby academics ‘transmit’ their research to non-academic audiences) evolved firstly into knowledge exchange (academics transmit research and receive non-academic knowledge and understanding in return) and more recently into full co-production (the academic and non-academic engage in fully collaborative activity).

In practical terms, it usually means an academic researcher and a non-academic partner coming together to collaborate on a research project for which they both take responsibility for completing. They share equally in its success.

Here are some examples:

This type of collaboration is still relatively new and there is little in the way of formal definition. Although there is a small literature on the topic, much of it is concerned with co-production in the public policy arena. However, whenever I have been asked what I mean by co-production, (it was a frequent question posed by people making applications to the co-production grant fund that I managed) I have said that it is the shared responsibility that makes it distinctive as ‘co-production’ rather than simple knowledge transfer or knowledge exchange.

 Dr Andy Davies (University of Liverpool) and Madeleine Heneghan, Writing on the Wall community action group.

Simply put, if either of the partners was to cease participating, the project itself would fail.

It is an incredibly rewarding approach to public engagement and, done properly, can yield greater benefits than ‘traditional’ research approaches. It can provide researchers with access to ideas and information, to resources and to insights that are otherwise not available as mainstream sources. Furthermore, it recognises the value of the individuals and communities in research and opens the gates of the academy a little bit further.

However, for it to work effectively, it is crucial that a solid relationship exists between the partners.

Building an effective relationship with a non-university partner

First, some advice. You, the researcher, should take ownership of your community relationships. Think of them as a personal asset and an aspect of your portfolio. Consider them in parallel with your publication record. Maintain them, transfer them, develop them. Own them.

Working relationships with non-university partners are valuable, even if they don’t all lead to collaborative projects. A network of contacts in heritage organisations, local authorities and the third sector can provide the researcher with access to information and knowledge that hasn’t reached the academy, or is unavailable in established archives. I have worked with non-university partners who, for example, possess private collections of historical documents, such as photographs and letters, or are members of a minority community that is of historical interest to researchers. These groups have been able to share their resources and knowledge and the ensuing relationships have been of immense value to both parties.

 Dr Lee Humber (Ruskin College) and members of the My Life, My Choice group.

OK, so where do we start? How does a researcher build a relationship with a non-academic partner?

What is a non-academic partner?

It can be difficult to come up with a single definitional outline that covers all of the types of organisation with which you may collaborate as a researcher. They may be publicly funded organisations, charities, clubs or voluntary societies or even commercial organisations. The particular type will depend to a large extent on the nature of your research and you may also find that your funder has strict rules about which type of organisation you may collaborate with, particularly if some of the funding will be shared with the partner.

The type (and size) of the organisation is also somewhat important. For some organisations, the project will be a single activity among many that they do. An example would be a school that sets up a small group of pupils to take part in a project. For others, the project is the group; it is the reason that the group was established or represents the total current workload of the organisation. An example would be a local history group that has been established to commemorate a significant anniversary event.

The question of size and focus is important for your relationship -it will effect how largely you feature in their plans and whether the group has to balance its work on the project against other demands on its time. It may also have an impact on how ‘professional’ or ‘personal’ your partner regards their work and this will set the tone for your relationship. For instance, a school may have stricter finance rules but will be more dispassionate about the finances than a small network of local householders who have formed a project group and who are largely self-financed.

The most important element of this phase is the building of the relationship. There are some barriers to a successful university-community partnership and in some ways, it’s easier to provide a guide to success by describing these barriers and suggesting ways through them.

On the community side, you will find that some individuals and organisations have a mistrust or suspicion of universities or otherwise feel that they are not suited to collaborative work of this nature. In my experience, the underlying reasons for this fall into three main categories.

  1. The partner feels proprietorial about their work/project/sources and fear that the university is going to come in and take over, or dominate the project to their exclusion.
  2. Imposter syndrome. The partner worries that their work is of minor importance or that they are not qualified to carry out the project. They convince themselves that the university is mistaken in taking an interest and worry that they will be ‘found out’ before long.
  3. Some potential partners have a mistrust of the state. They may come from a culture or society in which having the government (including state-supported institutions such as HEIs) taking an interest in you is something to be feared.

It takes time and effort to overcome these worries. It can be challenging and frustrating but it is worth pursuing and there are methods that you can use to put your new contact at ease.

Try to identify the reasons for the barrier. Don’t push (unless you feel it’s worth pursuing the reasons) but it might help when you come to offer reassurance as it can help you to have an open and constructive conversation.

Explain to your new partner what is in it for you. They may believe that you’re ultimately trying to snatch their historical collection of correspondence, while you’re sitting there mentally working out the impact factor that this it is worth to you. The best co-produced projects are ones in which each partner has a distinctive, but mutually dependent goal. It’s best to be honest about your goals from the outset.

Make yourself useful early on. This might be by sending them some formal research that you have discovered or forwarding them a relevant news article that triggers a conversation. As I’ve developed my own network, I’ve found that brokering a second relationship can be useful. One new contact of mine wanted to work with the Imperial War Museum. I was able to personally introduce them to the relevant person at IWM. This established my credentials and catalysed my relationship with the new partner.

Where possible, go to see the new contact in person. This can be tricky to manage with costs/time but it is well worth doing if you can. It’s always helpful to meet in a relaxed environment. My preference is always to suggest meeting in a coffee shop. They’re easy to find, usually conducive to quiet chat and offer an environment that sets people at their ease. Remember, you’re looking to develop a friendship. Find other topics to discuss and have a laugh with your new partner.

 Meeting community group participants in Edin’s café, Nottingham, August 2016.

Throughout this, be aware of the timeframe. If you’re developing a project idea with a new partner, you will need to factor in the relationship building to the development time. This may take several months, and it may not be appropriate to write a formal proposal until after you have established the basis of a working relationship. It is for this reason that I suggest building a network as you develop your career and before you even have a project idea in mind. Some of the best projects I have seen have been developed by partners who have had a long-standing relationship and who created their project jointly.

Remember, the relationship is the most valuable product of all this effort. Even if you don’t succeed in launching a project, continue to nurture the relationship -other project ideas will come. The drive for co-production isn’t going to go away and, as a researcher with a rich network of non-university partners, you will be in the best position to meet its unique demands.

[i] [i] According to figures prepared by NCCPE, nearly half of REF2014 submissions cited public engagement as part of the path to impact.




Witnessing War – Booking now open!

In her photographs, Käthe Buchler captured not only German citizens during the First World War, but also illustrated the widespread impact of conflict. The photographs are of interest not only for their artistic merit but also for what they tell us about war and they way it changed lives on the German Home Front. For more information on the photographs, click here.

Witnessing War is a one-day workshop that will seek to answer a series of questions. Who witnesses war? From what perspective? How do they capture it? War is not only witnessed by those who choose to participate, but has lasting and significant impact on lives of many. This workshop focuses on first-hand experiences of conflict, with no restraints as to time period or geographic location. From medieval annals written by monks, to children’s diaries, documentary film, and the use of social media in modern conflict, there are many different ways to witness war.

The workshop is a collaboration between the War Through Other Stuff Society, First World War Network, and Everdayday Lives of War. It will take place at the University of Hertfordshire Galleries on 24 March. This free event is open to all.

To register your attendance, please visit:


10.00: Registration / coffee & tea

10.30: Welcome talk

11.00: Talks

Jo Young, University of Glasgow: ‘Finding Freedoms in War Writing: Narrative Control of the Female Soldier’s Poetic Response to War’
Trevor Russell Smith, University of Leeds: ‘The Use of Classical Writings in the Representation of War during the Later Middle Ages’
Kirsten Lawson, State University of Milan: ‘From ‘Somewhere in France’: Sharing experiences of war through epistolary discourse’

11.45: Keynote

Anastasia Taylor-Lind, photographic journalist:

12.30: Lunch (provided)

1.30: Activity

Interactive session responding to the war photography of Käthe Buchler

2.30: Coffee & tea

3.00: Talks

Stacey Clapperton, University of Glasgow: ‘‘The work of an eye-witness’: An examination of the working methods behind John Lavery’s Wounded: London Hospital, 1915’
Siobhan Doyle, Dublin Institute of Technology: ‘Representations of Death in Commemorative Exhibitions in Irish Museums’
Melissa Bennet, University of Warwick: ‘Insights into Military Photography, Ranks, and Relationships through Lieutenant Charles Howard Foulkes’ 1898 Hut Tax War Album’

3.45: Keynote

Jason Crowley, Manchester Metropolitan University: ‘Beyond the Universal Soldier: Combat Trauma in Classical Antiquity’

4.30: Closing remarks

We look forward to welcoming you to Hertfordshire for what promises to be a fascinating day!

Witnessing War, 24 March 2018

The First World War Network is proud to be organising a one-day workshop on Saturday 24 March at the University of Hertfordshire alongside our colleagues and friends at War Through Other Stuff and the Everyday Lives in War AHRC First World War Public Engagement Centre.

Witnessing War has been scheduled to coincide with the University of Hertfordshire’s display of Beyond the Battlefields, an exhibition of photographs taken by the German photographer Käthe Buchler during the First World War. The workshop will  include a series of talks from both academic researchers and those that have experienced conflict at first hand. There will also be an activity centering on Käthe Buchler’s photographs, giving participants the chance to interact with and respond to the images.

A full programme will be released shortly along with registration details. Attendance for First World War Network members at this fascinating event will, of course, be FREE, and travel bursaries will be available.

Joining the First World War Network is free. To join our rapidly expanding network of First World War researchers from a range of backgrounds, please see our ‘How to join’ page or click HERE.

Keep your eyes peeled here and on Twitter for further announcements!

@FwwNetwork  |  @stuffofwar

Buchler announcement flyer


Announcing the next FWWNetwork workshop!

We are delighted to announce the details for the next First World War Network workshop, which will be taking place at the University of Nottingham on Wednesday 17 January 2018.

Once again, the theme of the workshop has been chosen in direct response to the wishes of our members, and will focus on one of the most exciting areas of historical research: public engagement!

FWW Network Workshop January 2018

This is your chance to come and meet the next generation of First World War researchers, share your research in an informal, supportive atmosphere, learn about how public engagement works, and be the first to hear about the First World War Network’s own bespoke public engagement funding scheme!

Attendance for this event is free to members of the First World War Network, but numbers are strictly limited. Travel bursaries will be available, and the workshop will commence at 11am to reduce the need for attendees to arrange overnight accommodation.

Not yet a member of the First World War Network? Join today by visiting the link below and completing our introductory questionnaire:

Reflections on the Centenary of the First World War

The AHRC-funded ‘Reflections on the Centenary of the First World War: Learning and Legacies for the Future’ project will launch its online public survey on the 11th November. The project team are keen to hear from individuals from community groups and those who have taken part within commemorative activities and events to mark the war’s centenary.

We kindly ask all members of the First World War Network to assist us in promoting this survey. In particular, we ask that those with existing links to local museums, kindly circulate a copy of the poster below or print it out for display.

(Click here for a downloadable version of the poster).

For further information about the project and its objectives, please contact Dr James Wallis (University of Essex) –

Or check out the project website at:

Reflections on the Centenary of the FWW - Survey A4 Poster



CFP: 1918-2018: The End of the War & The Reshaping of a Century

‘1918-2018: The End of the War & The Reshaping of a Century’, 6-8 September 2018, University of Wolverhampton

This conference, hosted by the Centre for Historical Research at the University of Wolverhampton in association with the WFA and the FWW Network for Early Career & Postgraduate Researchers, seeks to spotlight the latest research on the events of 1918 as well as the global significances, consequences, and legacy of this watershed year.

The conference will include keynote addresses from some of the leading names in the field: Professor Alison Fell (Leeds), Professor Peter Frankopan (Oxford), Professor John Horne (TCD), Professor Gary Sheffield (Wolverhampton), Professor Sir Hew Strachan (St Andrews), Professor Laura Ugolini (Wolverhampton) & Professor Jay Winter (Yale).

We invite abstracts for 20-minute presentations fitting within the conference topic. Therein we encourage international perspectives and seek a range of historical approaches together with cross-disciplinary insights. Suggested themes may include but are not limited to:

  • Warfare in 1918
  • The War in 1918
  • Women in 1918
  • Strategy, Tactics & Technology
  • Victory & Defeat
  • Winners & Losers
  • Peace & (Ongoing) Conflict
  • Revolution(s)
  • Aftermaths, Legacies & Impacts
  • Veterans (Male & Female)
  • Civilians & Consequences
  • Gender, Class, Race & Ethnicity
  • Ends & Beginnings
  • Learning/Understanding the War
  • Commemoration & Memory
  • The Centenary

We welcome submissions from scholars, including early career researchers & postgraduate students, as well as independent researchers, organisations, and community projects.

The First World War Network is delighted to be among the institutions supporting this conference, and we are keen to encourage members to submit submissions on relevant topics. We hope to be in a position to offer a limited number of bursaries to help support the participation of ECRs/PGRs in this event, and will be providing opportunities for ECR/PGR development as part of the conference. For further details, please contact Dr Oli Wilkinson at the address below.

Abstracts of 250 words should be accompanied by your name, affiliation (if applicable) and a brief biographical statement (c. 100 words). Panel submissions will also be considered.

Submissions should be directed to Dr Oli Wilkinson: by 3 January 2018.

A PDF copy of the call for papers can be downloaded from this link: 1918-2018 Conference CFP.

Nurse Nellie Spindler died 100 years ago today

Network member and musician Martin Purdy has commemorated the death of a First World War nurse in song. On the one hundredth anniversary of Nellie Spindler’s death, Martin has written a brief introduction to the commemorative project for us. Please do check out the song, and hopefully plenty of our members will be able to catch a performance from Harp and a Monkey soon!

On this day 100 years ago (August 21, 1917), Nellie Spindler, a nurse from Wakefield in Yorkshire, was resting in her tent after a hard night-shift at the No.32 British Casualty Clearing Station in Brandhoek, Belgium, when a German shell fragment  pierced the canvass, hit her and killed her.

The sacrifice of Nellie Spindler, and nurses in the First World War in general, has been the focus of a recent project involving the folk experimentalists and storytelling trio Harp and a Monkey – and they have released a video today (which you can view by clicking the link below) to mark the anniversary of Nellie’s death.

Harp and a Monkey – ‘Clean White Sheets’

Martin Purdy, the band’s frontman and a First World War historian, said: “Recent events to mark the centenary of the opening of the Third Battle of Ypres, or ‘Passchendaele’, have focused on the soldiers, but it would seem fitting today to spare a thought for the nursing staff, many of whom – like Nellie Spindler – were never too far from danger.”

‘Clean White Sheets’ (The Nellie Spindler Song) was inspired by the work of secondary school children from Nellie’s home town, who worked with Professor Christine Hallett from Manchester University to remember the sacrifices of their local heroine, who was only in her mid-twenties when she died.

Nellie Spindler

Martin added: “The idea of Clean White Sheets is based around the memoirs of the wounded, who would often judge how close they were to home – and safety – by how clean the sheets were. It just seemed like a very simple but evocative and powerful image.”

As well as performing their standard shows, Harp and a Monkey have spent the past two years highlighting different aspects of the First World War, and challenging stereotypes about it, by performing in unusual venues related to the conflict on home shores. This has seen the Lancashire trio perform to the inmates of a prison that once housed conscientious objectors; disabled veterans on a community purpose-built for the maimed in 1919; at the scene of a Zeppelin attack in the middle of the West Pennine Moors; at the former parish church of the most decorated WW1 clergyman; inside the pithead of a mine that was crucial to the war effort; in front of the railway van that brought home the body of the Unknown Warrior; and on the site of a former WW1 aerodrome.

In coming weeks they will perform two more free shows open to the general public:

The first show will be on Sunday, September 10 inside a First World War military hut in a farm field in Suffolk.  More than 800,000 volunteers needed housing around the country after the outbreak of the war in 1914, and providing the huts to do so became the biggest building project of its kind ever undertaken. After the conflict, many of the huts went on to have useful lives and some are still found in communities around the country today under the guise of scout huts, churches, church halls and the like. A project is now underway (courtesy of the Khaki Devil organisation) to restore and preserve a number of these huts and build a museum around them, and it is this collection that will provide the backdrop to the Harp and a Monkey show at Brook Farm, Bells Lane, Hawstead, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk IP29 5NW.  The show starts at 2pm, is free and suitable for all ages.

The second show will be on Saturday, September 30 at the Heritage Centre in Crossgates Library, Leeds. This is the community that housed the Barnbow munitions factory during the First World War in which there was a huge explosion in December 1916 that killed 35 of the female workers and injured many more. Sadly, many of the dead could only be identified by discs with their names on that they wore around their necks. Because of the censorship at the time, the explosion was kept secret and production started again soon afterwards in the affected workroom. It would be six years after the end of the war before the story was made public. The memorial to the dead is near to the heritage centre on Farm Road, which also hosts an exhibition about the event. The show starts at 1pm, is free and once again suitable for all ages.

The performances include field recordings and interviews with veterans, new songs and re-workings of traditional and contemporaneous songs. The shows are tied to the band’s critically acclaimed third album ‘War Stories’, which was described by the likes of The Observer as “bold and brilliant”.

Martin Purdy is a former newspaper editor, battlefield tour guide and First World War advisor to the likes of the BBC Who Do You Think You Are? magazine – for whom he wrote a book in 2008 (reprinted in 2013) on how to research First World War service people. He is the co-author of two popular First World War books (The Gallipoli Oak and Doing Our Bit) and has written numerous articles and academic papers on the subject. He gained his BA and MA (researching Roman Catholic chaplains in the First World War) at UCLAN and is awaiting his viva voce for a doctorate completed as a collaborative doctoral award (on war disability and philanthropy) between Lancaster University and the Westfield War Memorial Village. He has fronted the modern folk trio Harp and a Monkey for 10 years.