'Open for Discussion’ is an annual series of conversations convened by experts at the School of Advanced Study at the University of London that brings multidisciplinary humanities perspectives to bear on critical social issues -- issues with human dimensions frequently overlooked in current policy debates.

Each conversation features thought-leaders and humanities researchers in wide-ranging discussions that present questions of policy, practice, and opportunity. In the tradition of the School’s approach to humanities research, the series experiments with new ideas and formats. Each conversation generates a range of provocations, interventions, and/or policy papers to spur further discussion.

2021-22 | Speaking Freely

The 2021-22 series focused on how freedom of Speech and academic freedoms have attracted renewed public and political interest. Debates often emphasise the importance of freedom of speech to democracy and democratic freedoms, while international organisations continue to monitor censorship and the free press across the world. Key questions continue to exercise scholars, politicians, the press and the public: should there be limits to freedom of speech? How should freedom of speech be recognised in the law? What are the implications for freedom of speech posed by new technologies and digital platforms? What are the barriers to having multiple voices heard, respected and acknowledged, now and in the past? How do we have open debates in polemical times?  

Speaking Freely explored the legal, cultural and historical dimensions of these questions, both within the UK and internationally. The series brings together experts from across the world and from different sectors to debate and discuss these critical issues.

Session 1 | Speaking Freely: Finding Words



19 January 2022

This session was collaboratively chaired by Katherine Harloe, Director of the Institute of Classical Studies and Claire Langhamer, Director of the Institute of Historical Research. Audience questions and comments will be particularly welcome.

This online panel conversation will examine the importance of opportunities to speak freely and be heard across time. It will consider the human and social capacities that underpin such freedom, as well as the material conditions that can hinder or enable its exercise. It takes both a historical and a contemporary perspective, exploring the role of archives in facilitating expression across time, and showcasing contemporary arts and humanities projects that empower individuals and groups to find words. The event will pay particular attention to marginalized groups who may find it difficult to speak, or whose voices may not be recognized, valued or recorded, such as refugees, children and prisoners. We will address the importance of finding words for individuals and for society and think critically about who gets to speak and who doesn't.

The participants included:

  • Dave Carey, Michael Bossisse and Paul Fricker from the pioneering theatre company, Chickenshed, who will explain how they bring together people of all ages and from all backgrounds to produce theatre that celebrates diversity and inspires positive change through expression.
  • Arlene Holmes-Henderson and Tom Wright of the multi-disciplinary Speaking Citizens project which brings together educators and researchers to promote citizenship and education through talk. They will focus particularly on the role of oracy in schools.
  • Suzanne Rose, education and outreach officer at the Mass Observation Archive who will talk about the Beyond Boxes Project - a partnership with Blind Veterans UK, the Brighton Housing Trust and HMP Lewes, which has developed new ways for participants to share their life experiences. It has also addressed the barriers that prevent people from engaging with, and contributing to, archives of everyday life.

Session 2 | Freedom of Expression and Human Rights



16 February 2022

Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nevertheless, in today’s world there are many governments and those wielding power who find many ways to obstruct and curtail it. This session will explore the application of international human rights law to the regulation of freedom of speech online and the impact of forthcoming UK law reforms on freedom of speech online and in the context of environmental protests.  

Keynote Speaker: Dr Sejal Parmar

Session 3| Writing Freely



16 March 2022

Drawing on expertise and experiences from around the world, this roundtable discussion explores the power of literary writing to contribute to and lead oppositional movements and initiatives against political oppression. In movements as diverse as the Arab Spring and resistance against authoritarianism in Nicaragua, examples of literary writing have managed to avoid censorship, expressed resistance in subtle but powerful ways and acted as a coalescing force to galvanise revolt. For refugees from oppressive regimes, too, writing has become a means to continue oppositional activities and to gather forces of resistance. In many cases, this has led to unexpected alliances, strengthening the lateral networks of resistance across national and geographical borders.

Addressing these issues in an exchange of experiences over a wide geographical range, this event allows us to draw out a transnational and cross-cultural understanding of what ‘writing freely’ means.

Confirmed speakers:

  • Malu Halasa (co-editor of Syria Speaks)  
    Malu Halasa is an author, editor and exhibition curator specializing in the Middle East. She is co-editor of a number of anthologies, including Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline (2014). Her novel, Mother of All Pigs (2017), depicts life in Jordan; and her exhibitions include Culture In Defiance, on the art of the Syrian uprising (for the Prince Claus Fund Gallery, Amsterdam).
  • Anna-Louise Milne (academic, University of London’s Institute in Paris ) 
    Anna-Louise Milne is a Professor at the University of London Institute in Paris. Her research focuses on comparative literature, cultural translation and contemporary migration studies. She is one of the co-founders of the Paris Centre for Migrant Writing and Expression.
  • Sergio Ramírez (author, Nicaragua) 
    Sergio Ramírez is an acclaimed Nicaraguan author who received the Premio Cervantes in 2017. He is the founder of the literary festival Centroamérica Cuenta. Sergio was part of the junta that led Nicaragua after the Sandinista Revolution and Vice-President of Nicaragua between 1984 and 1990. In 2021, censorship of his latest novel and charges against him by Nicaraguan authorities led him into exile.

The panel will be chaired by Daniel Gorman​, Director of English PEN. Before taking up this post in 2019, he was Executive Director of Shubbak , Europe’s largest festival of contemporary Arab culture. Daniel is also a co-founder of Highlight Arts, who have organised UK-based international arts festivals and events since 2007 including projects working with writers in Pakistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

Session 4 | Museums, Libraries and Soft Power



18 May 2022

Published in March 2021, the UK government’s Integrated Review, Global Britain in a competitive age, claims that the UK is a ‘soft power superpower’. The review highlights the country’s cultural and academic institutions as one of its soft power strengths. It also identifies shifts in the soft power landscape, indicating that ‘the UK’s soft power cannot be taken for granted.’  Other commentary suggests that the UK’s soft power is in fact waning, undermined by Brexit and other factors: for example, in a British Council survey of 2020 over young people in 19 member states of the G20 group, perceptions of the UK in Europe had ‘declined sharply in the last two years’. 
Cultural and academic institutions have traditionally been seen as trusted, impartial voices at home and abroad even when the government’s actions are seen as unwise or inconsistent. This is echoed in the 2021 review: 
The source of much of the UK’s soft power lies beyond the ownership of government - an independence from state direction that is essential to its influence.
This panel asks whether government policy, spending priorities, long-term planning, and recent actions threaten to weaken the UK’s soft power, or have already done so? In particular, whether some of the recent appointments to the boards and executive positions of cultural institutions, seen by many commentators as attempts to undermine their independence from government, also undermine their ability to speak out boldly in defence of the role of cultural and creative industries in an open, democratic society?


Ruth Ur, the Berlin-based founder of urKultur and Director of the German Friends of Yad Vashem. Ruth has over 20 years' international experience initiating and running flagship cultural projects. She held a number of senior leadership positions at the British Council, including postings to Israel (2003-06) and Turkey (2007-10) and, as Director of the UK/India Year of Culture in 2017, Ruth curated the first-ever artwork to cover the entire façade of Buckingham Palace. Ruth has worked in some of the world's most politically challenging environments, including North Africa during the Arab Spring and South Sudan.

Jonathan McClory, Partner at Sanctuary Counsel, an advisory firm in London, and a globally recognized expert on soft power, public diplomacy and place branding. Before joining Sanctuary Counsel, Jonathan was General Manager for Asia at Portland, where he built up and oversaw the company’s work across Asia Pacific from Singapore. Before working in the private sector, Jonathan was based at the Institute for Government, where he developed the world's first composite index for measuring the soft power of countries. This earlier work informed his development of The Soft Power 30, an annual study that has been widely used as a benchmark by foreign ministries across the globe.

Professor Margot Finn, FBA, Professor of Modern History at UCL. Margot’s research ranges from Victorian popular politics to British colonial and imperial relations, with an emphasis on the family, material culture and transnational encounters. Margot served as President of the Royal Historical Society from 2016-20, where she co-authored reports on race/ethnicity, gender, and LGBT+ equality. She also served on the Board of Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum from 2012 to 2018.

This session will be chaired by Clare Lees, Director of the Institute of English Studies, Catriona Cannon, Senate House Librarian and Programme Director, and Bill Sherman, Director of The Warburg Institute.

2020-21 | What the COVID-19 Pandemic Has Revealed about Us

The 2020-21 series focused on things that the COVID-19 pandemic has made visible, or rather what it has forced us to see more clearly: Black Lives Matter, digital poverty, privacy rights, the importance of communication, the value of the arts and heritage sectors, and the types of knowledge needed to confront global challenges.

Session 1 | On the Outside Looking In: Do We Need a SAGE for the Humanities?



14 December 2020

This session was convened by Professor Barry Smith, Director of the Institute of Philosophy, School of Advanced Study, University of London. 

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the Government has been closely advised by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies including experts across a range of scientific and medical disciplines. In Germany, this type of advisory group included experts from the humanities. Should it do so here, or do we need a separate, humanities-led SAGE acting like Independent SAGE to provide other perspectives and inform decision making? As we learn how to live with the virus and trace out its effects on our lives, can anthropologists, historians, philosophers, political theorists, lawyers, literary scholars along with those from the creative and cultural sectors play a useful role in helping to shape our new future?

  • Political decision making, ethics of risk and reliable reasoning – Prof Jo Wolff (Oxford)
  • Law and society - Prof Philippe Sands (UCL)
  • Arts and Humanities – Prof Lyndsey Stonebridge (Birmingham)
  • Inclusion and Cultural Heritage – Ms Subhadra Das (UCL)
  • Independent SAGE - Prof Anthony Costello (UCL)

The panel members each set out their thinking on the question of whether we need thinkers for the humanities in SAGE. There will be cross-questioning and then a discussion under the following three headings:

  • Looking back, was there information missing from the advice offered by SAGE?
  • What precisely could the humanities contribute to these discussions that could usefully inform decision making?
  • How difficult is it to align contributions from different disciplines? into an overall picture of what is needed and what should be done? What challenges would the difference in scope and timescales of the different disciplines create in arriving an overall picture of what is needed and what should be done in the face of a pandemic?

Session 2 | Digital Access, Inclusion, and the Humanities



23 February 2021

Convened by Dr Naomi Wells, Early Career Researcher in Italian and Spanish, Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study, University of London, and Professor Jane Winters, Professor of Digital Humanities, School of Advanced Study, University of London.

Hosted by Michael Hayman, Honorary Professor of the Purpose Economy at the School of Advanced Study.


  • Roopika Risam (Associate Professor of Secondary and Higher Education and English, Salem State University)
  • Gabriela Baeza Ventura (Associate Professor of Spanish, University of Houston)
  • Bethany Nowviskie (Dean of Libraries and Professor of English, James Madison University)
  • Anasuya Sengupta (Co-founder and Co-director, Whose Knowledge) 

Gabriela Baeza Ventura answers The digital divide: what does it mean in terms of access?
Who are disadvantaged because they do not have access to a reliable internet connection? How many students learning and teaching from home are unable to consult materials as needed?.

Anasuya Sengupta answers: The digital divide: what does it mean in terms of access?
When we talk about access to digital infrastructure, to the internet, What do we mean by access? Access means different things to different people. It's not as simple on and off button. At the same time, access is much more than an on and off button. And it's much more than the technical infrastructures that allow us to be online. For us at Whose Knowledge the questions that we ask, are predominantly about; What do we find once we're online? Whose knowledge is it online? 

Bethany Nowviskie answers: The digital divide: what does it mean in terms of access?
How can we best support the continuity of teaching, learning and research for our faculty, our students and our staff? How do we meet them, where they are in terms of the hardware and bandwidth challenges that they may be experiencing? How do we anticipate their needs for born digital and digitized content? And how do we support rich, interactive, inclusive instruction?

Across the world in 2020, the Covid-19 crisis led to the closure of the physical spaces where people engage in and with humanities research. University buildings, libraries, museums, and archives were shuttered for more than a third of the year in the UK and have only gradually been able to welcome back staff, students, and visitors. Even twenty years ago, the impact of the pandemic on our ability to conduct research, to collaborate, to access cultural heritage and to share knowledge would have been devastating.Today, we have the web, social media, digitised collections of documents and objects, video and audio conferencing, online classrooms, and MOOCs. All of these tools and more have been deployed to allow people to access from home the best that the humanities have to offer.  

But how equal is this access? How many children have been disadvantaged because they do not have their own computer or a reliable internet connection? How many of the university students learning and researching from home or in halls of residence have been able to consult the digitised collections that they need? Who has decided what does and does not warrant digitisation, and how much access to digitised material will cost? What is the impact of copyright, IPR and legal deposit legislation on people’s ability to work with digital sources? How evenly are the disadvantages and opportunities spread across different groups in society, and between different nations?

This conversation will explore the enormous value of digital tools and platforms in enabling, promoting and developing the humanities at a time of crisis, but it will also consider how the humanities can help us to examine the challenges and pitfalls of the digital.

Session 3 | Unlocking Collections



18 March 2021

Convenors: Professor Clare Lees, Director of the Institute of English Studies, School of Advanced Study, and Professor Bill Sherman, Director of the Warburg Institute, School of Advanced Study

As museums, archives, and libraries adapt to a series of lockdowns, we have a stronger sense than ever of the challenges involved in providing access to the objects that carry our collective memories. While one-way routes and Perspex shields may be new, the complexities around acquiring, preserving, finding, and using collections are not:

  • How can we give access to the vast number of objects in storage?
  • How are institutions showing the hidden histories of their collections (attending to marginalised communities, scientific mysteries, and so on)?
  • How can similar objects in different collections be brought together?
  • What new tools are emerging for recording and sharing cultural heritage?
  • How are researchers engaging with and making innovative use of collections?


Rebecca Bailey (Head of Exhibitions and Outreach for Historic Environment Scotland and Programme Director for ‘Towards a National Collection’)
Rebecca has long been a leading voice in collections-based research and public engagement for Scotland’s national heritage. For the next five years she is leading the AHRC’s £18.9m programme devoted to dissolving barriers between institutions and opening UK heritage to the world.

Catherine Ince (Chief Curator, V& A East) 
Catherine Ince is Chief Curator of V&A East, the Victoria and Albert Museum’s new museum and collection centre on the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in East London. She joined the V&A after 5 years at the Barbican and 4 at the British Council (where she was Curator and Acting Director of the Architecture, Design and Fashion Department). She is a trustee of the Architecture Foundation and Chair of Kingston University’s Stanley Picker Gallery and Dorich House Museum.

Adam Lowe (Founder, Factum Foundation)
Adam is an artist and inventor who is widely considered the world’s leading figure in the fields of fabrication and reproduction, devoted both to the making of new things and the preservation of old things. In collaboration with EPFL and Fondazione Cini, he has recently launched a centre called ARCHiVe (Analysis and Recording of Cultural Heritage in Venice).

Catriona Cannon (Deputy Librarian and Keeper of Collections, Bodleian Libraries)
Catriona has leadership and management accountability for Bodleian libraries and learning spaces, special collections, the Libraries' research unit for heritage science, the public engagement programme, information skills training and liaison with the academic community. She is Co-Investigator of Opening the Edgeworth Papers and was Principal Investigator for the Centre for Digital Scholarship research project. She is GLAM Liaison Fellow for Parks College. She has published and presented on resource discovery, collection management, open access to scholarly publications and legal deposit, and curated a display on the 20th-century novelist Barbara Pym.

Maria Fusco (Professor of Fine Art, Dundee)
Maria is a Belfast-born interdisciplinary writer working across art writing, fiction, performance and theory. Her practice-led research is award-winning, has been translated into twelve languages and is commissioned by leading international bodies and publishers including: Artangel, Art Metropole (Toronto), BBC Radio 4, Book Works, Creative Time (NY), National Theatre Wales, Routledge and funded by bodies such as the AHRC, Arts Council England, Art Fund, The Carnegie Trust, Creative Scotland and The Wellcome Trust.

Session 4 | Covid-19, International Perspectives and Transnational Collaboration



22 April 2021

Convened by the Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study
Charles BurdettDirector; Joseph Ford, Lecturer in French; and Godela Weiss-Sussex, Reader in Modern German Literature

During a ‘global’ pandemic, the capacity to learn from the experience of others and share knowledge across borders is essential. Responses to Covid-19 have varied markedly across the globe. The differences in the approaches taken are due to systemic political and economic conditions, but also to cultural and historical factors. One lesson that has emerged clearly is that only a joint transnational effort will enable us to respond efficiently and decisively to the threat of an illness that knows no borders. In this panel discussion, Humanities scholars of languages and cultures will reflect on the handling of the pandemic in their cultural/geographic area of expertise – and suggest lessons to be learned from other nations. They will then go on to explore the place of creative and cultural production in building a more transnationally interlinked post-Covid world – as well as the contributions to be made by research in the Humanities, and specifically Modern Languages.

Charles Burdett / Godela Weiss-Sussex (IMLR), Chairs

  • Astrid Erll (Frankfurt)- Watch a short video by Astrid on this topic- available on the SAS YouTube channel
  • Charles Forsdick (Liverpool)- Watch a short video by Charles on this topic available on the SAS YouTube channel
  • Ignacio Peyró (Director Instituto Cervantes London and UK Coordinator. Author)- Watch a short video by Ignacio on this topic- available on the SAS YouTube channel
  • Alejandro Arenas-Pinto (UCL)- Watch a short video by Alejandro on this topic- available on the SAS YouTube channel
  • Nelson Mlambo (University of Namibia)- Watch a short video by Nelson on this topic- available on the SAS YouTube channel
  • Leon Rocha (Lincoln)- Watch a short video by Leon on this topic- available on the SAS YouTube channel

Respondent: Steven Wilson (Queens University Belfast)

Session 5 | Languages and the Pandemic: Public Health Engagement with Multilingual Communities in the UK



27 April 2021

Convened by the Institute of Modern Languages Research, School of Advanced Study
Charles Burdett (Director), Joseph Ford (Lecturer in French) and Godela Weiss-Sussex (Reader in Modern German Literature)

During a ‘global’ pandemic, the capacity to learn from the experience of others and share knowledge across borders is essential, as is the need to recognise that linguistic and cultural marginalization in the UK risks further alienating communities at a time of public health emergency. Covid-19 has at once revealed and exacerbated pre-existing inequalities across the UK. The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on Black, Asian and minority ethnic people has been documented in reports by the director of Public Health London, Professor Kevin Fenton. In one of these reports, he identifies the need for culturally appropriate and cross-language communications for minoritized communities in the UK. 

Drawing on the expertise of those working with multilingual communities in the UK, this discussion probes to what extent national and local communications and responses to COVID-19 can more effectively address the complex needs of multilingual communities in the UK, resulting in more inclusive, socially egalitarian and effective public health engagement. 

Joseph Ford / Naomi Wells (IMLR), Chairs

  • Li Wei (UCL) 
  • Emma Whitby (Chief Executive of Healthwatch Islington) 
  • Yaron Matras (Manchester)
  • Claudia Lopez-Prieto (Citizens UK)
  • Lucía Vinzón (Coalition of Latin Americans in the UK)
  • Soledad Montanez (Manchester / IMLR) 

Session 6 | How Can History Strengthen Democracy?



19 May 2021

Convened by Prof Sarah Churchwell, Chair of Public Understanding of the Humanities at the School of Advanced Study, University of London

How can history strengthen democracy? Increasingly the social and political conditions that foster liberal democracy are under challenge across the globe, including pluralism, civil liberties, respect for minority and migrant communities, and a social order predicated on commitment to the rule of law. These challenges have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has created a premise for (further) authoritarian interventions from regimes seeking to consolidate their power. At the same time, history has itself become a subject of intense and widespread political debate. 

This panel asks what lessons, if any, can be drawn from a wide array of global histories to help strengthen civic education and recommit citizens to the democratic project around the world. 

  • Prof Peter Frankopan, Professor of Global History, Director of the Oxford Centre for Byzantine Research and Senior Research Fellow at Worcester College, author of The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (Bloomsbury, 2015) 
  • Prof Sunny Singh, Professor of Creative Writing and Inclusion in the Arts, London Metropolitan University 
  • Dr Keri Leigh Merritt, Independent Scholar, author of Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South, (Cambridge University Press, 2017) 
  • Dr Zoé Samudzi, PhD candidate at the University of California, San Francisco researching German colonization, European biosciences, and how the genocide against Herero and Nama and San peoples in Namibia (1904-08) produced a Black indigenous identity.