In their Frascati Manual (2002) the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) suggest research is “creative work undertaken on a systematic basis to increase the stock of knowledge, including knowledge of humans, culture and society, and the use of this stock of knowledge to devise new applications.”
I would argue that the prominent culture of research output exclusively taking the form of journal articles, essays and books doesn’t create favourable conditions for this to take place. There are lessons to be learned from the wider cultural landscape in terms of engagement, visibility, aesthetic quality and the presentation of findings, concepts and ideas to diverse, contemporary audiences. In other words how does one “…get a bunch of variables in to a human head more efficiently”? (Pinker, 2018)
Noble (2000) and Murray (1997) wrestle with the word ‘accessibility’ because in some circles this is seen as an exercise in dumbing-down the original work, or in some cases limiting the creator so as to appeal to the lowest common denominator. This concern was echoed by the founder of the BBC, “He who prides himself on giving what he thinks the public wants is often creating a fictitious demand for lower standards, which he will then satisfy.” (Reith, quoted in Lawson, 2008).
Sir Mark Elder’s brief and insightful spoken introductions to The Halle performances (Brave New World, 2016) do not downplay the culture, its weight or depth, they provide means with which to see it from a new perspective. Classical music, art galleries, museums and research institutions were born and sustained because of their appeal to specific parts of society. But with social inclusion and mobility rightly high on the agenda, many are looking for ways to broaden their appeal without losing their identity, alienating existing audiences or moving too far away from their core business.
The curator of research thinks of accessibility as removing barriers to engagement, providing a productive frame or entry point to research projects so that the viewer stands a chance of understanding and seeing their potential in life itself. Barriers may be hard to identify unless you are open to the experiences of others. One of the most challenging to overcome is the widespread, internal idea that ‘this is not for me’, which is held in the minds of the audience themselves. This notion, a kind of self-exclusion, continues to hold people back from experiences they could find transformative (McMaster, 2008).
The impact of art is often not what it should be because the frame is quite often wrong. People aren’t actively encouraged to bring themselves to it, or see themselves in it (The School of Life, 2013). As a young man in the Rothko room(s) at Tate Modern in London, Alain de Botton noticed the captions alongside the paintings told him what they were made of, what it was worth and described affiliations to galleries and collectors – but it didn’t help him understand the work. Years later he heard an interview with Rothko in which he said, “You’ve got sadness in you, I’ve got sadness in me, my works of art are places where the two sadnesses can meet, and therefore both of us can feel less sad.” De Botton suggests this quote would have made a far more appropriate caption because it provided a way to enter a relationship with those artworks.
Research deserves a productive frame too, so audiences can enter in to similar relationships. This blog post is a small section of an academic text, but in the future you may see further translations or reincarnations on a billboard in a town centre, on a train station platform, via a podcast, on television or scrawled across a wall in spray-paint.