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UCL Public Engagement Blog



Talking Taboo: Public engagement on sensitive topics

By ucwetca, on 15 November 2017

How to facilitate conversations around potentially sensitive, controversial or personal subjects is a common concern that the UCL Public Engagement Unit often encounters. Some of the most successful engagement comes from talking about topics that are difficult or have not yet been addressed – but doing it in an empathetic way needs planning and can be daunting.

The UCL Public Engagement Network exists to allow UCL staff and students to come together and share experiences, ask challenges questions and meet like minded people. What better place to explore the issues around sensitive conversations?

Human skull photo

Subhadra Das discussed the sensitivities around displaying human remains in an exhibition.

Georgia Pitts hosted the packed out Public Engagement Network session on October 25th, and I was lucky to get a seat for the fascinating and challenging session on dealing with taboo subjects in public engagement. The session began with an impressive set of presentations from a varied panel of speakers:

  • Subhadra Das (Curator, UCL Culture) spoke about the “What does it mean to be human? Curating Heads at UCL” exhibition, currently on in the Octagon Gallery, which deals with a variety of arguably contentious issues around ethics, death and the treatment of human remains.
  • Nick Draper (Director) took the group through the Legacies of British Slave Ownership project, and his experience of engaging affected communities with this work, and their approach to articulating difficult issues related to the project and the project team.
  • Ahad A. Rahim (Lecturer in Translational Neuroscience) spoke about his work to engage public and schools groups with issues around his work at the UCL School of Pharmacy. His experience of finding a common language for his audience, and his efforts to manage the expectations of hopeful patients highlighted further approaches to handling difficult conversations.
  • Finally, Patrick Glen (Postdoctoral Research Associate, UCL History) described his experiences with the “Cultural Memory and British Cinema-going of the 1960s” project, that unearthed stories of sexual abuse. This was an unexpected result of the project, and Patrick and his team attempted to help those involved while maintaining the aims of their research project.

The conversation following the talks really stood out to me as one of the more worthwhile and challenging that we’ve hosted in the Public Engagement Network. The group shared common issues and concerns when handling difficult topics and came to a consensus that involving a myriad of voices in these discussions is the best way to find a common ground. Public engagement came to the fore as an essential process in creating balanced approaches to tackling difficult topics. Listening is key, and we have a responsibility to create an environment where the experience of all groups is respected and heard.

All the speakers are happy to be contacted for advice, and our team can also provide support if you are struggling with these issues. You can also look at our resource on planning your public engagement project.

Further reading:

We need to talk about *******: Public engagement for “taboo” topics Kirtley, Olivia, University of Glasgow Institute of Health and Wellbeing Early Career Researchers’ Blog

Research, relevance and respect: Co-creating a guide about involving young people in social research Hopkins, Peter; Sinclair, Cath; Shawlands Academy Student Research Committee, Research for All, Volume 1, Number 1, January 2017, pp. 121-127(7)

California Institute for Local Government on handling difficult issues in their communities

Public engagement: a practical guide from Sense about Science

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