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History at a science festival

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Bottles of local Bristol river water.

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The Hidden River History stand at the Festival of Nature gets eyed up by members of the public.

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Marianna Dudley (right) and team at the Festival of Nature.

20 July 2015

At the Festival of Nature 2015, a history project ran its first ever stand at the Bristol’s annual celebration of the natural world. It was a first for the School of Humanities too, as it was the first time a non-science subject had been included in the University of Bristol tent at a traditionally science-focused festival.

‘The Power and the Water’ project is a three-strand project with researchers from Bristol, Nottingham and Cambridge exploring the environmental history of rivers and energy infrastructure. Going by the name of ‘Hidden River Histories’, Dr Marianna Dudley from the Department of Historical Studies took the research of the Bristol-based team members and created an interactive display that introduced environmental history to a diverse audience.  

Conscious of competing with the science stands, during a three month period they created an interactive hands-on experience involving natural and unnatural items found in rivers. By shaking up bottles of local river water, seeing old photos of salmon fishing and a beached whale in the estuary (in 1885), the group were able to talk about how ‘brown’ river water is not always ‘bad’, and how, from a salmon’s perspective, a nicely tidal, turbid (unbarraged!) River Severn is exactly where you’d want to be. They found these activities worked really well with school children and families. 

The group also highlighted other public engagement and knowledge-exchange initiatives that they had been working on. Artist Eloise Govier had collaborated with researcher Dr Jill Payne on installations that encourage people to think about energy. Her high-vis block of polystyrene – found on a forage along the river Avon – was a great talking point, likened to cheese, Spongebob Squarepants, fatbergs and a meteorite!

Marianna Dudley said of her public engagement work “Was it worth the effort? Unreservedly, yes. In terms of disseminating our project research, Festival of Nature allowed us to communicate our work – and raise awareness of the vitality of environmental history at Bristol – to a huge number of interested citizens”.

Marianna and her team also found the process of planning the stand to be productive and helped them to identify the themes in their work that hold interest and are useful for telling histories, in and beyond academia. Marianna added “The photo of the 69ft whale beached at Littleton-on-Severn was a side-story to my research, but people were fascinated by why and how this creature came to Bristol. A trip to Bristol City Museum to track down the bones is being arranged, and the animal inhabitants of the river will be more visible in my work as a result”.

The public were generous with their own knowledge of Bristol’s rivers, alerting the team to various community clean-up projects, for example. Plastic waste is an emotive issue, and the team were also asked why they weren’t being more proactive (a clean-up was organized as part of Festival of Nature preparations). It prompted them to reflect on their project aims, and the role of academics in communities where sometimes actions speak louder than words. The goal of producing rigorous, accessible research from which people can become informed and motivated was, as a result, clearer than ever. 

Further information

Read more about Marianna’s activity at the Festival of Nature on The Power and the Water blog.

Read about ‘The Power and the Water’ project.

Read more about Marianna Dudley and her research.