Our Cultural Value project, involving an interdisciplinary team of researchers from the Faculty of Arts and Creative Technologies at Staffordshire University, is concerned with issues of empathy, compassion and understanding. It is rooted in a remarkable story about Stoke-on-Trent and the tiny village of Lidice in the Czech Republic, which was completely destroyed by the Nazis in June 1942. In Stoke-on-Trent, in response to this tragic event, local Doctor and Councillor Barnett Stross launched the ‘Lidice Shall Live’ campaign, rallying local working people to donate to a fund that ultimately contributed to the rebuilding of the village after the war. It was an amazing demonstration of empathy and compassion that ordinary miners and pottery workers donated in many cases up to a week’s wages to this campaign.
Significantly in terms of Cultural Value, the village of Lidice today expresses its story through arts and culture, including the largest rose garden in Europe, and a museum and art gallery that sit adjacent to the new village. A commemorative event takes place in Lidice each year on the anniversary of the tragedy, and in recent years, the links between Lidice and Stoke-on-Trent have been refreshed with cultural exchanges, involving a range of arts projects and events that celebrate the cultural ties between the two places. It is striking that in all of the civic engagement and partnership working recently developed between these places, we choose to explore, express and celebrate these ties almost exclusively through arts and culture.
Influenced by the story of Lidice and Stoke-on-Trent, our research focuses on storytelling approaches in exhibitions and in community and participatory arts projects. Our key aim is to improve our understanding of the potential of arts and culture to develop empathy, compassion and understanding across geographical divides. It is often an implicit, taken-for granted aspect of arts and culture that people’s emotions can be engaged in this way, but demonstrating the value of this is clearly a challenge. We have used new insights from our research to develop resources for the design and evaluation of arts activities.
One of the significant things about this project is the key importance of issues of empathy and compassion to society as a whole. We find discussions about such issues in many different contexts – for example, healthcare, journalism, politics, and education. They are at the very heart of our relationships with other people in the world, and developments such as the widespread use of social media constantly raise new questions about the extent to which we feel and express empathy, compassion and understanding.
Our project draws on insights and understandings from a wide range of academic disciplines, and also from diverse groups of artists and creative practitioners. We held focus groups and individual interviews (some of which were filmed), at Staffordshire University and in local arts venues. We have been delighted at the levels of interest in the project, and at the in-depth and thoughtful discussions that have taken place. Discussions included what empathy, compassion and understanding mean to people, and how they apply their understandings within their own work. We asked people to reflect on when they have been deeply moved by an arts or cultural experience, and to consider why this was so, any actions or changes that this led to, and how we might be able to capture this kind of information in evaluating arts activities. We have analysed a wealth of data that have been generated by these discussions, as well as completing a literature review that draws upon a wide range of disciplines.
Following on from the focus groups and interviews, we established a working group of university lecturers, artists and creative practitioners, to contribute to the development of new resources for the design and evaluation of arts exhibitions and projects. An important part of the design of our project was a research visit by some of the working group to Lidice (in June 2014) to attend the annual commemoration of the Tragedy, and to take part in the arts and cultural events that take place at this time. This was a deeply moving and unforgettable experience for the group, and it contributed significantly to the outcomes of the research project. The visit was an opportunity for our group to consider the emerging findings from the research in relation to our case study, to exchange ideas with creative practitioners in Prague and Lidice, and to begin to formulate ideas for a new project to be informed by the outcomes of this research project.
During the project, we worked with film makers Suzanne James and Darren Teale (Junction 15 Productions), who filmed a number of the individual and group interviews, as well as the visit to the Czech Republic. This resulted in a series of eleven short films, including four case studies of projects that have connected people across geographical divides. All of the films are shared on the project blog. The films are intended not only to share the findings of the project with a really wide audience, but also to be useful resources to artists and creative practitioners who are considering issues of empathy, compassion and understanding as part of their work.
We also drew upon our research findings to develop a set of ‘Caring Cards’ to support the design and evaluation of participatory arts activities. We commissioned artist Nicola Winstanley to design the cards, which highlight issues of cultural value and empathy, compassion and understanding from a range of perspectives, all informed by the research. They include participant quotes and some key themes, and are designed to be used as a tool for project management in community and participatory arts work. They address some of the implications of the research at each stage of the project cycle, and can be used to support conversations and planning by artists, and also as a tool for evaluation. All of the cards include original illustrations that have been developed in direct response to the themes that have emerged from the research. They are therefore visually interesting in a meaningful and engaging way and they contribute towards developing a ‘visual language’ to help explore the themes of empathy, compassion and understanding. As well as being available on the project blog, we obtained additional funding from the Institute for Applied Creative Thinking (I-ACT) at Staffordshire University to produce pilot printed versions of the cards. They were introduced during a presentation about the project at the Arts in Society Conference at Imperial College London in July 2015, and a range of international delegates agreed to pilot the cards. They will thus help to address the on-going international challenges of demonstrating cultural value across a range of contexts.
Our project blog, including full project reports, can be found here:
The Story of Lidice and Stoke-on-Trent: Towards Deeper Understandings of the Role of Arts and Culture, is a six-month project (February-July 2014). The project team (from Staffordshire University) includes:
Principal Investigator: Dr Jackie Reynolds (now at Keele University)
Co-Investigator: Janet Hetherington
Postdoctoral Researchers: Dr Ann O’Sullivan and Dr Kelvin Clayton.
John Holmes (Visiting Research Fellow, Staffordshire University)
The Research Team is grateful to the Arts and Humanities Research Council for the funding that supported our project. We would also like to thank participants in the UK and the Czech Republic who generously contributed their time, knowledge and expertise to this project.