by Deborah Withers
The amazing thing about the Music & Liberation exhibition is its versatility. Its display at the FWSA conference has been its fifth public outing, with previous showings in a people’s history museum in Cardiff, an empty corporate unit in Manchester, a women’s library in Glasgow, a queer-feminist art gallery in London and now a Feminist and Women’s Studies academic conference.
It’s a bit of cliché, but the context in which you exhibit things can change or influence the meaning of its content. And I would say that this is true of the current space where the Music & Liberation exhibition is displayed: the engineering and life sciences building at the University of Nottingham. The walls of the building are adorned with corporate statements about how the ‘essence’ of the university is ‘impact’ – a word that no doubt makes academics shudder with the upcoming REF exercise that will effectively measure how much use your research is to sustaining the neoliberal, market driven innovation-economy. Well I thought that the ‘essence’ of universities was learning, discussion, research and teaching, but maybe I am wrong….
I wanted to point out the importance of space primarily because I do not want the exhibition to be simply misread as an ‘exercise in impact’ that ‘engages the public’ in academic research. Of course, this is one of the effects of creating the opportunities for non-academic audiences to interact with research (and not necessarily a bad thing), but this exhibition cannot be reduced to the cynical instrumentalisation of activist work under the auspices of research assessment.
Music & Liberation was, and always will be, a public history project. The Heritage Lottery Fund funded it and, like so many talented ‘early career’ researchers in the current economic climate, its curator does not have a full time academic position. The primary aim in creating the exhibition was to reinvigorate channels of feminist cultural memory that have been dormant and inaccessible because of the weird ways information flows within feminist communities – from the grassroots to the academic.
It is important to remember there can be strategies and communicative acts that endure beyond the narrow confines of the impact agenda. There is a point to creating ‘public-facing’ exhibitions not because you can put it on your CV but because it can change things.
Exhibitions are a fantastic pedagogical tool. They don’t have to be superficial or reductionist. They can create public research environments that are in-depth, complex and non-didactic. They can be suggestive and invite independent interpretations rather than enforcing totalising narratives.
In a world where education is becoming ever more elitist there is a real need to create spaces for people to wander among things and get lost in ideas and knowledge so they can be transformed.
I hope that people who saw the exhibition at the FWSA conference glimpsed some of that possibility – and thanks so much to the organisers for inviting me to display it here.