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The Pandemic and the Future of Arts and Humanities Research

Blakeney Clark is a final year English Literature undergraduate at Exeter University. She has been working as a student intern on the Pandemic & Beyond project media team, specialising in social media engagement. In this blog, she offers her perspective on the future of arts and humanities research as one of the ‘next generation’ emerging from degrees undertaken during the pandemic and shares what she has learned about research impact from her experience on Pandemic & Beyond.

Blakeney Clark in conversation with Professor Deirdre Heddon about her project Walking Publics/ Walking Arts as part of her social media internship on Pandemic & Beyond.

You never truly appreciate what you have until its gone. It’s a cliché that has surfaced again and again over the course of the pandemic as the jobs, industries, and services it was previously all too easy to take for granted disappeared amongst a haze of social-distancing rules. Theatres closed, libraries barred their doors, and in the meantime, more cuts and curriculum changes meant that the arts and humanities receded too from the field of education, even as teaching moved online. Wolverhampton, Goldsmiths, and Roehampton universities are the latest to face hundreds of redundancies as the government focuses on “developing programmes with practical skills and industry/employer engagements”. Therefore, as we come out of the worst phases of the pandemic and the threats to the arts and humanities become less visible, we must ask ourselves how we learn from the last few years of collective losses to ‘build back better’ and adapt our attribution of value in a post-pandemic world.

This issue is particularly prominent to me as a third year humanities undergraduate, heading into an unknown wilderness, otherwise known as the world of work. I guess I am part of the ‘next generation’ (often referred to with the cheery adjunct ‘ill-fated’ in the news) having undertaken my degree during the pandemic and also in the context of huge disruption and fraught politics within arts and humanities courses. With each year, the future of the path I have taken feels all the more uncertain as the cultural and creative sectors seems to be increasingly side-lined and devalued, their vulnerability highlighted by the hit that these sectors took during the pandemic. Don’t get it twisted. I’ve loved every minute of my degree and I don’t regret taking the course I did. But it is frustrating and demoralising to hear endless jokes about the lack of ‘real world value’ of my degree; comments that can only really be responded to with a self-depreciating joke through gritted teeth about the self-indulgence of my life choices and future of unpaid student debts. Furthermore, this depreciation is supported and perpetuated by policies and funding cuts like those affecting Wolverhampton and Goldsmiths. Crazy as it seems, working with the Pandemic and Beyond team this year, I have come to recognise that the creative and cultural industries are not only being undervalued but are actively being threatened with collapse.

Yet this is completely incongruous with everything that the Pandemic and Beyond project has demonstrated about the power of the arts and humanities during the global health crisis. For context, this project brings together humanities research on the impact of the Covid and its associated lockdown measures in different areas of life across the UK. The research covers a huge breadth of inquiry and encompasses groups often overlooked by policy makers such as children, people in care homes, migrant communities in London, actors, dancers, and people with learning disabilities. Many of the projects involved providing schemes and resources to immediately benefit their target groups. By collating the research together, the project ensures that resources and knowledge can be shared, thematic links can be identified, and that findings can be better communicated to the public. The work has so many implications for routes of change and recovery post-pandemic and the research continually demonstrated that this starts with the arts which supported and sustained people during the pandemic.

As part of the project’s media campaign, I was helping to break down the projects’ research outputs to translate them to a larger audience via social media. This involved interviewing some of the academics leading the projects to create short ‘clickable’ video content, as well as creating bite-sized podcast snippets to contribute to an ongoing effort of humanities researchers to get their voices heard and shift the valuation of their research. Through examining the projects and getting to talk to the people carrying them out, I was able to get a sense of the vast range of experiences of the pandemic, many of which I was totally unaware of before. Furthermore, the research highlighted the integral importance of cultural services and arts organisations within communities. It was these groups, places, facilities, and workshops which scraped people’s hopes together throughout the pandemic and helped them feel less alone. I spoke to Professor Heddon whose project Walking Publics, Walking Arts highlighted the loss and rediscovery of walking during the pandemic, helping people cope with lockdown measures in urban spaces. I spoke to Professor Reid who talked about the immense value of public libraries, which his research showed were essential to the people who relied upon them. I spoke to Dr Edelman about the ways that religious ritual had changed in digital spaces and about the communities from diverse faith backgrounds who were brought together through this creative adaptation. Each of the Pandemic and Beyond projects brought to light the power of the arts and humanities within communities to adapt and overcome the challenges of the pandemic. When these cultural services were lacking or shut down, these losses were losses felt keenly by all.

Yet, it was striking to me while conducting the interviews that the very process of these projects’ investigation attested their own value. Cheesy as it may be, as a humanities student myself, it was truly empowering to hear from the researchers about the impact that their research was having; to witness their ability to step outside of their previous research areas (which may have looked theoretical before) and apply their knowledge in direct and effectual ways. The array of research outcomes in the Pandemic and Beyond portfolio are a testimony to the inter and cross-disciplinary potential of their work and the unique insights that humanities can bring to understanding and overcoming problems posed by the pandemic in a way that felt uniquely ‘human centred’.

Hearing from these academics about their research on the ground level left me with a real sense of responsibility to see these voices listened to – even if I was just running the Twitter feed. I want to graduate into a world which takes account of the unmeasurable human benefits brought by the arts that humanities research has highlighted, even if their economic benefits are not easily quantifiable. Of the people Professor Reid observed crowding outside the doors of public libraries to access the free Wi-Fi when the libraries shut down; of the children who were given a voice through political cartooning workshops carried out by Professor Louwagie; of the many hundreds of online arts festivals, performances, and arts projects which brightened millions of households during the waves of debilitating lockdowns. This research isn’t just observational. The projects in the Pandemic and Beyond portfolio demonstrate a shift towards more action-oriented outputs and interventions, such as policy briefs and webinars, which show the ability of this research to translate what they have observed during the Pandemic into actionable solutions. The breadth of the project outcomes, as well as the flexibility of their methods, gives me real hope for the future of the arts and of the arts research to endure and gain the recognition that it needs. What needs to change now is the public and political valuation of this sector – and just maybe our collective experiences of the arts during the pandemic will give us the hindsight to do so.

As we emerge from the devastating impact of Covid-19, we must decide what kind of world we want to live in in its aftermath. The value of arts interventions over the lockdowns has been observed, investigated and empirically proven. Policy implications and recommendations have emerged which have the potential to benefit the wellbeing of society and to make the post-pandemic world a more fair and creative one. It is truly amazing what collective wisdom the Pandemic and Beyond project has encompassed and of the power and potential of the arts in times of crisis. But we cannot learn the lessons of the Pandemic whilst simultaneously undervaluing and underfunding the contributions of the arts and humanities that has presented this research in the first place. We need arts and humanities research now more than ever and it is time that we stop taking its contributions to the culture, society and economy of the UK for granted.

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