Reflecting on the ARCadia Festival: Researchers’ Perspectives

By Ken Skeldon, University Research Engagement Manager, with Zara Gladman Public and Community Engagement Advisor (and ARCadia Festival Manager) and Casi Dylan, Advanced Research Centre Events and Engagement Manager.

Why ARCadia?

The University of Glasgow’s ARCadia Festival held over the last two weeks of September marked a milestone in the journey of our new Advanced Research Centre (ARC) which officially opened in June. ARCadia was conceived as the public opening of the ARC, all about connecting with local communities and creating exciting opportunities for our research community to engage with a public and schools audience.

ARCadia certainly came with a somewhat eventful approach journey, not least due to the challenges of a brand-new venue still surrounded by ongoing building works!  However, we were amazed by the public response – welcoming almost 7,000 visitors over the ARCadia fortnight. Just as important was the fantastic response from all our event providers, with over 700 activity providers, speakers, performers and crew supporting a diverse programme of over 65 events. This included a massive show of support from our University community, with 326 University staff and 147 students directly involved in proposing and developing events. Public and schools’ feedback has been hugely positive while for the many teams involved in delivering the festival it provided a huge learning experience invaluable for future programmes.

Our ‘call for ideas’, with associated funding, enabled involvement by a diverse range of partners including: Roma Stars, The Children’s Wood, Creative Stirling Community Kitchen, Black Scottish Adventurers and Maryhill Integration Network

Given the underlying theme of the festival – connecting people with research at Glasgow – we dedicated a lot of time in working with our research community, and then hearing what they had to say about their ARCadia experience. So, what did people think? What worked well and what we might we do differently?

Bumps and bounces – building up to ARCadia

ARCadia had its fair set of challenges, not least featuring a single location for events which wasn’t yet fully on the map! The relationship between the building and wider University community was evolving in tandem with the festival’s own communications, which was important as we wanted to position the festival as a vehicle to celebrate all research across the University.Getting these messages right would influence how researchers responded to our invitation to take part.

While there are some things we might have done differently, overall we were delighted with the response to the ARCadia concept. A ‘call for ideas’ launched in May attracted over 100 proposals from right across the spectrum of disciplines at the University. Around two thirds of all ideas came from staff and students not resident in the ARC itself, suggesting that our messaging around the wider purpose of ARCadia was landing. Our competitive funding further incentivised participation, giving a particularly valuable development opportunity for postgraduate researchers to lead their own grant application. All in all, 80% of event leads and presenters mentioned the ‘call for ideas’ as their entry point to the festival.

To support colleagues proposing activities to develop them into reality, a programme of information, exchange and surgery sessions were scheduled.

“I thought this was a really pragmatic way to approach planning and gave me an opportunity to iron out any glitches in our programme and timing – it also helped me to prepare mentally for what to expect, and meant that when I did start producing the live events I did so with the confidence that I knew what I was doing and where to go if I needed any help”  Researcher attending practice workshop

Rehearsal and feedback session gave presenters the chance to ‘test drive’ activities ahead of the festival

A rehearsal and practice workshop was particularly well received in helping to refine content and gain feedback from colleagues, while our one-to-one surgeries helped less fully formed ideas to converge with particular audiences in mind.  

“It was very helpful to be able to collaborate and discuss to shape the events. Lovely to experience such enthusiasm too” Researcher comment from one-to-one surgeries

Pivotal to the successful delivery of ARCadia was our community of volunteers and student interns, all bringing vital capacity and skills while benefiting from experiential development in event planning and management, audience interaction and evaluation. Interestingly, the role of the festival in connecting people after the pandemic was noted in the feedback from this group. Although easy to overlook, ARCadia was for many the first major in-person event since coronavirus restrictions were lifted.

“I really enjoyed doing this event. I hadn’t been on campus since March ’20 and the ARC building was nowhere to be seen. Being a bit nervous about coming back after the pandemic this event was great for me to get familiar with the campus again, meet up with members of staff and also see the wonderful ARC building.”  ARCadia volunteer

Festival frenzy – delivering ARCadia

One of the most surprising but rewarding aspects of ARCadia was how many more staff and students took part compared to what we had expected from the planning stages – around a three-fold increase, most likely down to event leads sharing and advocating for involvement of their wider teams right up to the last minute.

Two-thirds of those who led an event reported that they felt more confident in engaging the public in the future. There was a real value in working with external partners through ARCadia, and almost two-thirds of events involved collaboration outside of the University. In all, 54 non-academic partners were associated with events.

Perhaps less surprising, given historical trends in public engagement was the gender split of those participating. Event development and delivery was largely led by women, the proportions being 61% and 59% for staff and student respectively.

Our researchers also played a key role in capturing the festival as it happened. A bespoke media training programme – ARCadia on Film – gave 12 postgraduate students intensive one-day training, followed by two days ‘in the field’ covering activities and events. A conscious effort was made to recruit PGRs equally from the four colleges and to mix them into multi-disciplinary groups.

“I greatly enjoyed this programme, and feel like it connected me with other researchers I never would have met otherwise. I felt more connected to the ARCadia event as a result, and like a valued member of the university.” Arcadia on Film Media trainee

Much of the video content shared widely on social media came from these PGRs and we have already received one request from a participant keen to apply her new video skills to future projects.

“I really enjoyed working with one of the event deliverers, gaining an insight into a current lecturer’s work and practice. This coincidentally came in handy as last week I was teaching a seminar which focused on said lecturer’s work, so I was actually able to use one of the films produced as teaching material.” ARCadia on Film PGR trainee

What next?

In terms of ARCadia’s legacy, we’re taking on board all the feedback from participants, audiences, different teams and partners to plot a path. ARCadia as a public opening of the ARC is clearly a one-off, but the wider value of the festival – to connect communities and partners with the entire breadth of research across the University – has much potential.

In all, ARCadia certainly encouraged a significant number of staff and students to engage their research with new audiences. It also raised the visibility of the ARC itself and provided a stretch test of multiple processes and systems, for example co-working across teams and the novel use of spaces. In terms of testing the appetite for a research-led festival, the feedback suggests a resounding ‘yes’ and we’re determined to build on the momentum! To find out more information generally about the ARC and/or enquire over the use of the engagement spaces, please email ARCEngage@glasgow.ac.uk.  To keep informed of the ARC’s future public events, join the mailing list. You can also relive ARCadia via the vibrant #UofGARCadia thread of comments, photos and videos from the festival!

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