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Historians at the Festival of Nature, 12-14 June 2015

Cross-posted from The Power and the Water project website

In the second week of June, ‘The Power and the Water’ project ran its first ever stand at the Festival of Nature, Bristol’s annual celebration of the natural world. It was a first not only for the project but for the School of Humanities too, as it was the first time a non-science subject had been included in the University of Bristol tent.

What?

FoN team

The Power and the Water Team, and 2nd Year Biology Student Volunteers, ready to engage with the public! Photo: Milica Prokic.

‘Hidden River Histories’ took the research that the Bristol-based team members are doing (Power and Water is a three-strand project with researchers at Nottingham and Cambridge Universities too) to create an interactive display that introduced environmental history to a diverse audience. We knew that the Festival is a popular event for all ages and backgrounds. Established in 2003, it is the UK’s biggest free celebration of the natural world with two days of free interactive activities and live entertainment across Bristol’s Harbourside. We wanted to introduce the field of environmental history to Festival-goers, and specifically some key themes in our project: how the natural world is intertwined with the human; how past water and energy uses might inform current and future environmental values; and how local issues fit with global environmental change.

Public engagement

Talking about river waters and history with members of the public. Photo: Peter Coates.

Our stand could not be boring: we were representing History and the Humanities among a sea of Science stands! For the kids we knew would visit (Day 1 of FoN is Schools Day), we had to provide something interactive – something they could get their hands on. Luckily, in environmental history, we have no shortage of fascinating natural, and unnatural, items to work with. River waters from four ‘Bristol’ rivers, the Severn, The Avon, the Frome, and the often-forgotten Malago (Bedminster) bottled in clear glass took an idea that was originally inspired by a Canadian artwork[1] to become an interactive way of thinking about tides, water quality, rivers-as-ecologies, and a quick way of testing people’s knowledge about their local rivers. Kids shook up the river waters and urgh-ed at the murky Severn and Avon. But they were fascinated to see old photos of salmon fishing and a beached whale in the estuary (in 1885), and we were able to talk about how ‘brown’ is not always ‘bad’, and how, from a salmon’s perspective, a nicely tidal, turbid (unbarraged!) River Severn is exactly where you’d want to be. The ‘pure’ Frome, on the other hand, was the river that was so dirty in the 19th century that the city chose to bury it.

Bottle water

Bottled water from the Bristol’ rivers, the Severn, The Avon, the Frome, and the Malago. Photo: Milica Prokic.

The bottled rivers were a way-in to talking about Bristol’s watery past, but we also wanted to discuss Bristol’s water future, particularly with an issue that we’d observed on field trips down to the riverbank at Sea Mills (a suburb of Bristol). On the intertidal zone there, plastics are a huge problem, brought in on the tides. The issue of marine litter connects local environmentalism with a global plastics issue – the river banks of Sea Mills with the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Plastic trash

One item of plastic trash from the banks of the Severn. Photo: Milica Prokic

We collected a huge array of discarded plastic items one morning in May. Guided through Health and Safety requirements by the Centre for Public Engagement, we decided to bag the plastic items (in yes, more plastic – the irony was not lost) and create a Trash Table, in which the rubbish was laid bare for the public to see, pick up, question and discuss. It had something of a forensics scene about it, compounded by the presence of numerous, enigmatic, lost shoes. We’ve been discussing ‘future archaeology’ as an interesting methodology, and it provided us with our key question: what stories would future historians and archaeologists tell about us now, based on these non-degrading plastics? In addition to confronting the environmental impacts of consumer culture, visitors to the stand could engage in some informal, but not inconsequential, narrative building.

Eloise Govier

Artist Eloise Govier and her hi-vis installation, made from polystyrene found by the Avon. Photo: Milica Prokic.

Though an exercise in public engagement in itself, we were able to highlight other public engagement and knowledge-exchange initiatives we’ve been working on. Artist Eloise Govier has been collaborating with researcher Jill Payne on installations that encourage people to think about energy. Her high-vis block of polystyrene – sourced on our forage along the Avon – was a great talking point, likened to cheese, Spongebob Squarepants, fatbergs and a meteorite! Artists from the Bristol Folk House also contributed works, based on an outdoor workshop we ran at the Ship’s Graveyard on the River Severn at Purton. We made them into free postcards that included our project website and contact info, encouraging future communication. The watercolours updated our visual record of the river and helped us to think about how people see and value the River Severn today, and how this connects with – or departs from – traditions of viewing land- and waterscapes in Britain.

Why?

A 3-day presence at the Festival of Nature was the culmination of months of planning by me and Jill (Payne, researcher on Power and Water). We had our first meeting before Christmas, and plenty since! Was it worth the effort? Unreservedly, yes. In terms of disseminating our project research, FoN allowed us to communicate our work – and raise awareness of the vitality of environmental history at Bristol – to a huge number of interested citizens. We await attendance figures for this year but last year, over 4, 385 people attended the UoB tent. In 2013 it was 6, 284. This year the weather was good and there were queues to enter the UoB tent, so we are confident that attendance was a strong as ever.[2]

Drewitt at Stand

Naturalist and broadcaster Ed Drewitt drops by to say hello. Ed provided a wildlife commentary for our project boat trip down the Avon.

But public engagement of this kind goes way beyond sheer numbers. The process of planning the stand has been productive, helping us identify the themes in our work that hold interest (and are therefore useful for telling histories, in and beyond academia). The photo of the 69ft whale beached at Littleton-on-Severn was a side-story to my research, but people were fascinated by why and how this creature came to Bristol. A trip to Bristol City Museum to track down the bones is being arranged, and the animal inhabitants of the river will be more visible in my work as a result.

Moreover, good public engagement goes beyond disseminating research. They may be buzzwords in funded research, but ‘knowledge exchange’ and ‘co-production of knowledge’ are very real benefits of engaging with groups and individuals beyond the academy. For a project like ours, which is interested in public environmental discourses and people’s relationships with place, talking with the public is a key source of information, and a way in which we can build research questions, identify key issues, and meet people who can aid our research. We learnt of more hidden rivers in Bristol, community action groups, and old records of the Severn Bore. We were also asked why we were not being more active on the issue of plastic waste, prompting us to reflect on the aims of the project, and the role of academics in communities where sometimes, actions speak louder than words. It was useful to recognize our strengths and limitations, as perceived publicly, and to articulate our key aim of providing sound research from which people can become informed, and motivated. Getting involved in an event such as Festival of Nature is a useful reminder that rather than ‘us’ and ‘them’, we are the public too, offering a particular set of knowledge and skills but equally willing to learn from others.

As researchers funded by the public purse (through the UK Research Councils) the expectation that we take our work beyond the university is entirely reasonable. Public engagement is now built into funding applications, and the impact it can produce is a measurable output of research. Meaningful public engagement, based on principles of knowledge exchange and co-production, is a pathway to tangible impact, rather than a one-sided conversation. If we hope to achieve impact, that is, through our research change the way a group thinks or acts with regards to a particular issue or topic, then we must engage with the ‘group’; talk to them, identify key concerns, think about how our research can address issues and contribute to understanding and practice. The language of ‘impact’, public engagement and knowledge exchange, serves to reinforce the academic/public divide. The practice of such ideas, through events such as Festival of Nature, helps to overcome such distinctions. It’s also (whisper it) fun


The Power and the Water project would like to thank the Centre for Public Engagement (University of Bristol) for all their logistical and design support; the 2nd Year Biology volunteers that helped man the stand with enthusiasm; Eloise Govier, for the loan of her artwork and for helping on School Day; and Milica Prokic and Vesna Lukic, for filming, photographing, and mucking in over the FoN weekend.

[1] Emily Rose Michaud, ‘Taste the source (while supplies last) (2006-present)’ in Cecilia Chen, Janine MacLeod and Astrida Neimanis (eds), Thinking with water (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s UP, 2013), 133-38

[2] Thanks to Mireia Bes at the Centre for Public Engagement for attendance numbers.

The future of the past: Shining the light of history on the challenges facing principled humanitarian action

Prof Andrew Thompson, Cross-posted from Humanitarian Practice Network

Even as Red Cross and Red Crescent societies around the world mark the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the movement’s Fundamental Principles, there is a palpable sense that they are at risk. Threatened not only by the resurgence of state sovereignty and proliferation of non-state armed groups, the very universality of the principles may be in question. As the twenty-first century draws on, are the principles of ‘impartiality’, ‘neutrality’ and ‘independence’ still fit for purpose as Western influence wanes and the nature of conflict itself rapidly evolves?

ICRC blog post ThompsonThe Red Cross’ principles have marinated in a century and a half of humanitarian history. That history matters. The past helps us to understand how different types of threat to humanitarian principles have emerged from different types of conflict and geopolitical environments. History also sheds light on how, despite such obstacles, the principles came to acquire the public prominence and moral authority they currently possess.

Where did the Fundamental Principles come from?

The principles were first articulated by the Swiss jurist and co-founder of the international Red Cross, Gustave Moynier. His four principles of the 1870s ‒ ‘centralisation’, ‘foresight’, ‘mutuality’ and ‘solidarity’ ‒ were more firmly focused around the role of the national societies and their relation to the ICRC and each other.

Right from the get-go, the idea of giving aid based purely on the needs of the suffering, irrespective of religious, ethnic or political affiliation, was built into the Geneva Conventions. Article 6 of the 1864 Convention stated that wounded or sick combatants would be collected and cared for regardless of nationality.

As late as the 1920s, Edmond Boissier, an ICRC Vice President, could still speak of ’universal charity’ as a defining characteristic of the Red Cross. Reference to this quality invoked an earlier age when philanthropy, charity and humanity were synonymous and intertwined with the life of the churches.

The privileged role of the ICRC in safeguarding, maintaining and disseminating the principles was highlighted in 1915 when the ICRC drew up its Statutes, in 1921 at the 10th International Conference in Geneva, and again in 1928 when new Statutes were adopted at the 13th Conference in The Hague. None of these statements specified what would happen if a national society departed from the principles. This omission was made all too apparent during the wars of decolonisation when relations between the national societies of Europe’s colonial powers and the ICRC were often fraught.

The thirteen ’Oxford Principles’, were framed after the Second World War and reaffirmed at the 18th International Conference in Toronto in 1952. ’Neutrality’ did not explicitly feature but promoting peace and the fight against epidemics were explicit objectives. There was also considerable emphasis on national societies being representative and democratically organised, which proved particularly problematic for the newly independent societies in Africa and Asia as they negotiated the end of empire.

A decade later Jean Pictet published his seminal study, Red Cross Principles (1956). Pictet’s seven Fundamental Principles included humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence and universality, but interestingly not today’s ’voluntary service’ or ’unity’ ‒ instead referring to ’equality’ and ’due proportion’. He also paired the Fundamental Principles with a wider set of ’Organic Principles’ which, in a gesture to Moynier, included both ’solidarity’ and ’foresight’.

How do the principles work in practice?

The principles have framed key debates about humanitarian aid for many of history’s most major and memorable conflicts. Looking back at the wars of decolonisation, such as Algeria and Kenya, did racial prejudice fuel the selective application of standards of humanity? In Biafra: in the face of mass starvation and great suffering, is neutrality tantamount to passivity; can it be morally justified? In Bosnia and Srebrenica, faced with forced displacement and the creation of UN safe-havens offering little real protection, did ostensibly independent aid agencies become passive participants in acts of ethnic cleansing? And finally, coming to the present day, has the integration of aid into military and security strategies – in Iraq and Afghanistan – made any claim to independent humanitarian action a myth?

As today’s ICRC President, Peter Maurer, recently argued, history is much more than a record of what happened in the past. It is a rich repository of experience for the humanitarian sector to draw on in the here-and-now, as they tackle crises in Syria, CAR and South Sudan. History also serves as a vantage point from which humanitarians can reflect on current challenges facing the principles – whether in Syria, South Sudan or the Central African Republic − and anticipate those that may emerge in the future.

When we delve back into a century and a half of the history of the international Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, four salient features stand out:

  1. While individual principles have assumed a sharper and more settled definition, this is less true of the principles’ relation to each other. Some distinguish between the principle of humanity – as the ultimate humanitarian objective – and impartiality, neutrality and independence, as means to reach that objective. Others present humanity and impartiality as “substantive principles” and neutrality and independence as “field tested tools”. This is not mere semantics. The internal logic of the principles and how they’re prioritised is profoundly relevant to decision-making in the field.
  2. There is an unresolved – and perhaps unresolvable − tension between the universalism of the principles and the need to work within national frameworks of governments, donors and supporters. Although a challenge for the humanitarian sector in general, it is a particularly salient issue for the international Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. Although a lasting arrangement may never be reached, in order to protect the principles, the absolute independence of the ICRC must be creatively and proactively balanced against the relative independence of the national societies, which act as “auxiliaries” of their respective governments.
  3. If history demonstrates nothing else it is the necessity of developing a fuller and more nuanced understanding of the political frameworks and processes into which humanitarians insert themselves. This is vital to how the ICRC and national societies relate to the communities in which they work and how the principles are operationalised. Without such understanding, humanitarian principles are much more easily side-lined or subverted, notwithstanding the best intentions of those who cherish and champion them.
  4. The Principles are an expression of the unity of the Movement, yet there is a necessary pragmatism to their implementation. The biggest challenge of all therefore may not be to preserve the Principles in a state of perfect purity, but to know when to compromise, how far to compromise, and what the effects of such compromises are. There is no denying that Fundamental Principles lend political legitimacy and moral authority to humanitarian action. But if the Principles are to be passed on to future generations, humanitarians must walk the tightrope between necessary compromise and co-operation with state and non-state armed groups – and becoming complicit with their agendas.

Andrew Thompson is Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter. He is currently organising a conference with the International Committee of the Red Cross, “Connecting with the Past – the Fundamental Principles in Critical Historical Perspective”, to be held at the ICRC Humanitarium in Geneva on 16-17 September 2015.

Earth in Vision

 Joe Smith (PI), Kim Hammond, and George Revill, The Open University

from left to right: Zdenek Zdrahal (Knowledge Media Institute), Kim Hammond, Joe Smith and George Revill (Geography Department), all at The Open University, Milton Keynes

from left to right: Zdenek Zdrahal (Knowledge Media Institute), Kim Hammond, Joe Smith and George Revill (Geography Department), all at The Open University, Milton Keynes

If you can tell a good story you can change the world. That thought has motivated programme makers concerned with environment and conservation issues for decades. The Earth in Vision  project aims to tell the story of the role of broadcasting, specifically of the BBC, in the emergence of a global environmental imagination. A second aim is to explore the potential for, and implications of, large scale release of digital broadcast archives.

Earth in Vision draws on the archive of environmental programming collected by the BBC since 1957: the start of International Geophysical Year, and a key date in the emergence of a global environmental imagination. The project is informed by a pilot study, which selected, annotated and cleared limited use rights for around 100 programmes; 50 hours of programming organised across 7 themes. The sample we are working with includes a mix of media and channels, and programme genres. Categories include pollution, population, climate change, resources and more.

Smith - Earth in Vision logo (2)For those of us on the team who have worked on environmental history and politics for a while there is a great thrill in being able to knit together broadcasts, the related paper archive and, where possible, interviews with producers. In some cases we are probably the first people to watch these programmes since they were made, yet they have helped to shape the way many people think about these issues. The project will see us working to relate the original broadcasts to other material related to the productions, including paper archive files and interviews. We have filmed twenty interviews with people who contribute throughout the production process, from top producers and camera crew to film archivists and presenters. There are more interviews planned, and all of the interview material and transcripts will be made publicly accessible on the OU’s Creative Climate site.

Our approach to the second strand of the work builds on principles of co-production and social learning, and aims to support more plural and dynamic accounts of environmental change. We want to think through who would use digital broadcast archives (DBAs), how they might want to use them and what tools they sense they might need. There are enormous practical obstacles to large-scale release of content produced by the BBC, above all rights and financing. But the potential is huge, and hence we are trying to think beyond the obstacles.

Smith - CB004117

Letters from BBC Written Archives (Caversham) – used with permission. One way we’re linking paper archives and broadcasts. http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/attenborough/

We expect future users to include teachers and learners, media producers, IT professionals, academics, museum curators, NGOs and activists and other publics. We are inviting samples of all of these stakeholders to participate in the project. Through tailored workshops we give participants a chance to think through anticipated digital futures and how these are relevant to them personally or professionally; to play with some of the archive content, and to explore and reflect upon their own experiences in terms of how broadcasts have influenced their engagement with or understanding of environmental issues.

Smith - CB004116

David Attenborough Zoo Quest – letters for the Quest for a Dragon series (1957). These letters show a written exchange between D H Rawcliffe and David Attenborough which reveal why a Komodo dragon was not brought back for the London Zoo collection.

To support our future-thinking work on DBAs we have held workshops with: our Advisory Board; film makers and other media people at the iDocs festival in Bristol; Press Fellows at Wolfson College, Cambridge; school pupils in Milton Keynes; colleagues at The Open University’s Knowledge Management Institute; Open University students at their annual festival (who, as the UK’s most demographically diverse student population, act as ‘proxy publics’ of potential future digital citizens) and with public participants in the Belfast social sciences festival.

Among these groups it is clear that there is a strong appetite to work with DBAs, and we are gaining a sense of the ways in which people want to work with these materials, and the likely required tools. Some participants have worked with story-telling exercises that draw on samples from the BBC DBA; these have been popular and illustrate the power and creative opportunities of re-using the broadcast materials.

The rights regime around broadcast archives stands out as a central concern for those institutions that will be expected to have responsibility for, or will work with, DBAs (schools; universities; museums; media organisations). Whilst institutions such as the BBC own their own archive, many of the programmes have significant underlying third party rights (e.g. scriptwriters, actors, music etc.) which require clearance for public/specific use and can be costly. For affordable full open public access to such DBAs, some speculate on the need for a change in legislation. Alternatively, crowd funding via small download payments may be a way forward.

A clear challenge for those institutions developing DBAs is the technical development of dynamic, contextualised and user-responsive online interfaces. One of our goals is to be able to feed in citizen/learner user ambitions before technical specifications for tools are locked down. Drawing on our partners and relevant networks, we are developing an industry oriented report which will identify what the elements of a gold standard for DBAs might be. This will be pursued according to principles of co-production, where participants will be invited to feedback on drafts of the e-book and also participate in the final conference in 2016.

All of this work thinking about users, tools, rights and the nature of digital archives feels like fresh territory. But it doesn’t really rate over our starting point for the project, which is our childish excitement at having the chance to work with the broadcasts themselves. It is a great privilege to have access to sixty years of broadcast content that has helped to shape the way so many of us think about the world.

Please get in touch if you want to know more about our work, or to tell us what you or others might want to do with digital broadcast archives. Do also share any items on your wish list in relation to this potent but as yet unformed new media space.

Earth in Vision is an Open University project funded by the AHRC for 3 years form October 2013

Contact: RA and project manager kim.hammond@open.ac.uk/ 01908 274066 @kimehammond or PI joe.smith@open.ac.uk @citizenjoesmith