‘Performing public engagement’: the challenges and benefits

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Engaging with these projects as a researcher has thrown up a range of issues from the precarity of arts funding to the politics of representation. However, all of these have been overshadowed by a shift in cultural policy whereby to justify the investment of public money both academia and the arts increasingly have to produce evidence of their projects’ demonstrable “impact” on society at large. In my experience academics, arts organisations and community groups can find themselves strategically “performing” collaborative work and a range of issues emerge. My own research is rooted in a political climate that has seen both universities and cultural institutions increasingly required to legitimise their entitlement to public funds with quantifiable outputs, the so-called “impact agenda”. The irony that I am being funded by an initiative to improve economic output in the creative industries, while simultaneously critiquing the creative economy is not lost on me. In this article, I am reflecting on the economic, ethical and methodological challenges my collaborators and I faced while performing community engagement during the centenary of the First World War. The complexity of these issues, combined with the fact that my research is still ongoing, means that I have posed more questions than I can as yet answer, but I hope these observations stimulate further discussions around collaborative work in the future. Despite all my critiques I do not mean to suggest that community engagement work is not worthwhile. Therefore, I conclude my reflections with a short case study which gives voice to some of my collaborators and explores the social, political, and educational potential of community heritage collaborations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)30-
JournalWomen's History: The Journal of the Women’s History Network
Issue number17
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • cultural policy
  • Public engagement
  • First World War
  • impact
  • performance
  • participation
  • class
  • gender


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