Thank you very much for the award, I am deeply humbled and honoured. I am very sorry that I cannot speak to you directly today, as I have to attend a family bereavement.
I would first like to thank my co-creator Jan Peter Voss, with whom I worked for the last two years on this project. I would like to dedicate this award to our collaborator Nora Rigamonti and the assistants Aline Haulsen and Max Söding. They were absolutely brilliant and made this project possible under incredibly challenging circumstances.
Let me begin with some words about public engagement. As we know from specialists, times of crisis lead to a confusion of central terms of discourse. Words become increasingly “plastic words”, losing their precision, to speak with Pörksen. The words “public engagement”, along with other words such as “activism” “inclusion” and “radical transparency”, no doubt belong to this category. They radiate vague promises of doing good without having to prove what they promise.
If we receive this award, then I assume we do so for having taken the notion of public engagement seriously: The exhibition “Taste!” is unusual and challenging because it does not attempt to simply tell visitors what we, as researchers, have found out. It is not mere popularization of research. Rather it is based on first researching together with a group of citizens what taste could be. Second, it then turns this knowledge into a series of experiments that allows the visitors to explore taste in new ways, and understand how taste experiences can teach us how we can create new dishes, promises of a unique new world of taste.
Other fabulous colleagues today receive public engagement awards for similar explorations of what public engagement can be and how we can take the notion of the public and the notion of engagement seriously. We can be truly proud of Goldsmiths as a place where such explorations of engagement are fostered and honoured.
Such exploration contrasts sharply with a world in which public engagement has become indistinguishable from PR and corporate communication. We encounter for example engagement timelines, which consist of lists of emails that are sent to members of an organisation and meetings in which members are being talked to. Or we encounter computer platforms such as Citizen Hub, that merely administer questionnaires.
For us as academics, the conflation of engagement with corporate communication and PR is troublesome. This is not so much because we cannot see behind this conflation, but because by the very act of conflation, it devalues our own work for which we are given awards. Further, the conflation also obscures that public engagement as corporate communication empirically very often fails to achieve its stated goals. Goldsmiths itself is proof of this empirical failure.
At the last open meeting, the Warden was being asked why she thinks that 87% of voters, and therefore an absolute majority of all members of academic departments have voted no confidence in SMT. She replied that this is because SMT was not always very good at communicating what brilliant ideas SMT have. Similar thoughts were conveyed to us by David Oswell at a recent meeting with our department. When I listen to colleagues, I would suggest that they very well understand what SMT says, but disagree with policies and decisions by SMT.
But at least we agree on the point of this empirical failure. It would thus be a first step to resolve the current situation to contribute to an improvement of what engagement could mean for our own organisation.
I am incredibly thankful not just for the honour, but also for the award of 500 GBP, which can be spent on further engagement activities. I am however also aware that the Goldsmiths is in a difficult financial position.
I would therefore like to offer a voucher for a free 2-hour course in advanced public engagement to the whole of SMT and the management team of communication, and forfeit my prize money. I am happy to waive my salary for this course, and thereby my prize money. I am also inviting the other winners, and also previous winners, to co-teach the course. I am sure our collective and shared wisdom and skills in public engagement would create an unforgettable experience. The voucher for the course will be valid throughout 2021, but given the severity of the crisis, I hope SMT can suggest some dates early in the year.
If the course proves to be successful, I would be happy to offer a more in-depth public engagement suite to SMT and the whole university. This may cost up to 800 000 GBP, but since SMT has the full confidence of the Council, I am hopeful that the Council would be able to give the green light.
Pending legal advice, ideally this could be done without consulting the Academic Board, to ensure swift delivery.
This speech was prepared for the Warden’s Public Engagement Awards 2020 by Michael Guggenheim, who won the Special Award for Socially Distanced Public Engagement for the exhibition, Taste! Experiments for the Senses. It was read at the awards ceremony by Sevasti-Melissa Nolas.