Dr Cynthia Johnston from the Institute of English Studies, reflects on her event ‘Finding Mr Hart’.
Cynthia explains how colleague (and Institute Manager) Christopher Adams wrote a play which creatively presented her research into the Edwardian collector. Along with partners Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery, the Institute of Historical Research and Senate House Library they brought the story of Mr Hart to life for audiences.
Tell us a bit about your event. What subject areas did you cover and what did you want to achieve?
Finding Mr Hart was a new play written by Christopher Adams based on my research and performed at Senate House, London, and the Blackburn Cotton Exchange, a disused Victorian building currently undergoing restoration in Blackburn town centre. Oral histories, archival evidence in the form of letters, company records and family photographs were used to construct a narrative about the life of the Edwardian collector, R E Hart (1878-1946), who assembled one of the finest collections of rare books and coins in the UK in Blackburn, Lancashire. His fortune was derived from rope-making which was integral to the cotton industry. Upon his death in 1946, Hart bequeathed these collections to ‘the people of the town’. They are currently held by the Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery.
I wanted to take my research findings out into the community of Blackburn. Connection with this community was the original intention of R E Hart’s magnificent gift.
Chris’ skill as a playwright transformed my academic research into an emotive piece that brought the collector and his world to life
How did you make your event appeal to your target audience?
The Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery is visited most often by an older audience. We wanted to expand the age range of those engaging with the Hart Collection by presenting the collection’s history as a dramatic narrative, as opposed to a static tour of the material, guided by information labels. The venue was a great choice with attendees feeding back that ‘It was about a local person in an easily accessible venue, in the middle of town.’
We marketed the events through the Institute of English Studies’ listings and tweets. Chris appeared on Radio 3’s Free Thinking programme and I had slot on BBC Radio Lancashire’s Morning programme in the Blackburn studio. We set up a dedicated Twitter account for the project which was really not incredibly effective. The museum marketed the show through their Friends contacts and through their local arts networks. We approached local arts groups and schools as well.
How did you manage to put on such a successful event on a tight budget?
Working with companies we already had contact with was very useful. The Institute of English Studies has an academic partnership with the museum, and I have been researching Hart and his collections for the past five years. The Blackburn venue of the old Cotton Exchange was suggested by the Museum’s manager, Rebecca Johnson. Essentially the venue was lent free of charge by Re: Source, the current owners. Blackburn Museum also provided space for the reception afterwards.
The professional cast were sourced by Christopher’s London theatre contacts, and the play’s director, Will Maynard, sourced costumes and a lighting designer. The props and lighting for the Blackburn show were kindly lent by a local Blackburn second hand shop, Rummage Rescuers, and the lighting lent by a local firm, HSL.
What worked particularly well in the planning, design and delivery of your event? Did you face any challenges?
Chris produced an outstanding piece of theatre that the director and cast immediately engaged with. Our challenge was largely a sense of uncertainty. The London show sold out quite early on in the marketing process, while the Blackburn event, which also ultimately sold out on night, did not have attendees buying much in advance of the programme, and many just turned up on the night. We spent lots and lots of time on marketing but we were unsure of the result until the very night itself. This was quite stressful.
I also found it fairly challenging to manage my day to day responsibilities along with the pressures of the performances.
How have you found being part of the Being Human festival? What have you taken away from the experience?
It succeeded in reaching our goals, and I could not have been more pleased with the result. I consider the Blackburn performance to be one of the highlights of my career. To see the disused Cotton Exchange filled with people and light for one night only, and to see the audience moved by the story of Mr Hart, the subject of my research for many years, was truly memorable. It showed that research has a life outside of academia.
Do you have any top tips or lessons learned for future Being Human event organisers?
1 Allow plenty of time for marketing
2 Engage with a community where you have some local contacts already
3 Live performance is an extremely effective way to communicate research to non-academic audiences