LAHRI postdoctoral researchers Arththi Sathananthar, Vic Clarke and Kevin Jones write about their research:

We recently conducted exploratory research for a community engagement collaboration between the British Library and the University of Leeds to inform a bid for funding from Towards A National Collection (TaNC). Our work to identify suitable materials for public engagement and strategies for successfully engaging a variety of communities will be used for similar projects in future.

Our project seeks to collaborate with local faith, refugee and arts organisations to hold events that make use of the Brotherton’s holdings of illustrated medieval manuscripts. The project looks to design workshops to help draw parallels between present-day individuals’ experiences of identity, movement and daily life and how these are depicted in the medieval and early modern illustrations. We reached out to community groups to evaluate possibilities for co-planning and organising events based upon the holdings of the University of Leeds’s Special Collections. We scoped the possibilities to realise TaNC’s aim to establish partnerships between the university and local communities with collaborations which will survive in the long-term.

Kevin carried out an assessment of the illuminated manuscripts held by the University of Leeds, and assessed previous engagement work conducted by the Brotherton to understand how the manuscripts could be used in community events. Utilising approaches to engaging wider audiences with archival holdings developed during his historical research in science, technology and medicine, he worked with colleagues in Special Collections to identify suitable material for poetry workshops and storytelling events. Together they identified three broad themes in the illustrations: environment and the natural world; migration and global identity, and daily and social life. Kevin discussed workshop formats with colleagues from the University of Leeds Poetry Centre, drawing upon their experience of holding community engagement workshops focused on story-telling and creative expression. He worked with Vic and Arththi to identify different groups that might be interested in collaborating on the project, and audiences with different levels of existing engagement with the cultural sector.

Book of Hours, c. 1420, p. 55 [BC MS 1]. The page is decorated with illustrations of golden coloured vines, and blue and red flowers. The human figure closer to the bottom of the page seems to be cutting down a tree, or involved in some kind of farm work; while the other looks to be walking off the page, perhaps migrating elsewhere. Image credit Leeds University Library.

Vic turned her attention to the possibilities for cross-regional collaborations across the north of England. While the British Library are connected to a variety of local library groups across England, Scotland, and Wales, there was no evidence of smaller, regional connections between these groups. In discussion with researchers from the School of Advanced Study (London), and the John Rylands Research Institute (Manchester), Vic worked with the themes identified by Kevin and the Leeds Special Collections teams to design activities and events that would bring people across Yorkshire, Greater Manchester, and Lancashire together. While we typically think of migration as crossing oceans, Vic’s explorations focussed on smaller patterns of migration between regions of the north of England, based on her previous research on historical friendly rivalries and industrial identities. She designed activities for simultaneous events to bring different local communities together around the themes of the manuscript illustrations. The creative activities she proposed, based on her experiences working with heritage organisations, will be flexible enough to be adapted for different language and mobility needs.

Manuscript of the Gulistan and Bostan of Sadi written at Lucknow. Arabic, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies Manuscript Collection. This manuscript by the celebrated medieval poet Sheikh Saadi Shirazi dates to around the 13th century and is written in Persian. The text surrounds the image which depicts an official meeting, as the figure third from the right is on a throne. Image credit Leeds University Library.

While the primary aim of the project is to work with disengaged communities who might not have access to the materials found in the Leeds Special Collections, Arththi sought to develop collaborative partnerships with local grassroots organizations across Leeds. Due to the thematic focus of ‘Migration and Global Identity’, it is imperative that this project works closely with local organizations who centre the voices of various migrant communities who themselves are hybrid citizens, thus speaking to the core theme of this project. Leeds is a historic hub for a range of diverse communities, thus solidifying its position as a multicultural city, as well establishing links to the diverse range of materials in the Brotherton Library.

Based on discussions with local community groups such as Mafwa Theatre, Bradford Grand Mosque, SOLACE (refugee and asylum seeker support), and Hamara Healthy Living Centre, she found that many ethnic minority groups in Leeds are not aware that the rich holdings within the Brotherton Library and the city’s museums and galleries are widely available to the public, and largely free to access. The scoping work Arththi carried out draws upon her own research on migration, diaspora and transnationalism, and the activities she proposed, such as reading as therapy and cross-cultural multi-faith dialogues, build off these organizations’ established outreach work to create sustainable impact by bridging the gap between academia and local activism.

These illustrated manuscripts are hidden treasures and provide an educational opportunity for disenfranchised groups to engage with these materials in enriching ways. This demonstrates how we can view the illustrations in these manuscripts to tell stories that connect to contemporary communities, but, most importantly, make academic materials accessible to non-specialist audiences.