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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


How not to do public engagement

By Rachael Sparks, on 22 December 2012

A few weeks ago, I found myself standing in the artefact store, staring down the barrel of a film camera while the cameraman and director stared expectantly back at me. I was supposed to say something bright, pithy, and appealing about our collections, and I was supposed to say it now.

Pointing at old stuff for dramatic effect

Pointing at old stuff for dramatic effect

As in all such situations, this is the moment that your mind empties of everything you ever thought you knew, and goes completely, frustratingly blank. Except perhaps, for the plaintive thought: I bet this never happens to Alice Roberts/Neil Oliver/Mary Beard/famous TV pundit of your choice.

This wasn’t what I had in mind when I woke up that morning. To be honest, ‘woke up’ is perhaps the wrong turn of phrase, as only a few hours earlier I’d been sitting on a plane, flying through the night from a conference in Chicago, and contemplating whether it was worth trying to doze again, or if I should give up and watch yet another episode of the Big Bang Theory.

That also wasn’t what I had intended when I’d agreed some months earlier to give a paper at that conference on the work I’ve been doing with the Petrie Palestinian archive. When I promised to give the paper, it seemed like such a good idea. Four day conference in the States. Haven’t been there for a while. Meet some useful people, get updated on developments in Near Eastern archaeology, spread the word on Petrie. Brilliant. Trouble is, when I booked my ticket, I hadn’t factored in the time difference between them and us. When I realised this meant an overnight return flight of nearly 8 hours, followed by a trip from the airport straight to the office on a Monday morning, well, I was not in the best of moods.

Perhaps I also shouldn’t have chosen that day to start training six new volunteers.

So here am I, Monday morning, first group of volunteers standing around the work table, eagerly waiting for me to tell them what their fabulous new collections project is going to be. Buffered by their obvious enthusiasm, I try and focus my blurry eyes and begin setting them up for their very first ever task.

That’s when I get the call to tell me that a film crew was about to descend on the stores.

Now, we have procedures for this sort of thing. People contact our Collections Manager. He organizes the visit, makes sure they don’t drop the camera on any antiquities, and does a nice PR job. Only trouble is, he wasn’t at work yet. And the visit, while mentioned in dispatches, had not actually been booked. Did any of that matter? Of course not. They turned up anyway.

So that is how I got here; like a rabbit caught in the headlights. I have no brain – it got left behind me, somewhere over the Atlantic. I have a room full of volunteers next door that I’ve been forced to abandon, and should be keeping an eye on. And now somebody wants me to say something intelligent.

Let’s draw a veil over the next few minutes. Whatever I said – and I honestly have no recollection of it – has now been immortalised in some UCL promotional video, along with that desperate look in my eyes. If I am very, very lucky, I will never have to see it, although the fear will always be there that my incoherency will one day come back to haunt me.

My volunteers, bless them, were very understanding, and in fact agreed to be roped into doing exciting things such as opening cupboards and pointing at objects. Promotional shots in archaeology always involve a lot of pointing, I’ve found, a job not dissimilar to being a magician’s assistant. Did I pull a rabbit out of the hat that horrible Monday? Sadly not, although I did manage to follow a long line of successful stage contortionists, and put my foot in my mouth a few times. Welcome to the glories of public engagement.

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