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Working with a partner - 'A Lightbulb Idea'

By Dr Alicia Barnes, Research Officer, Queen Mary University of London

Alicia tells us how she brought together a series of family-friendly activities at the Black Cultural Archives that connected with local audiences.

Can you tell us a little bit about your activities?

Lewis Latimer was an African American inventor who helped perfect the electric lightbulb and spent time in London developing electric street lighting. We wanted to promote awareness of Latimer and to highlight Brixton and South London in the history of the electric lightbulb, including the history behind the naming of the infamous Electric Avenue (one of the first streets in Britain to be lit by electric lights). We produced an exhibition at the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) that walked visitors through Latimer’s early life to his time spent in London and work with Thomas Edison, and that also displayed archival research on local reactions to Latimer’s improvements to electric lighting. We also hosted a performance and workshop for families. An actor playing Latimer told audiences about his life and works, engaging them with the science behind the lightbulb, before leading them in experiments where they made a ‘home-made’ lightbulb. Following the performance and science experiments there was a poetry masterclass with RagzCV from local charity Poetic Unity.

A man dressed up as Lewis Latimer doing a DIY electrical experiment with a lightbulb filament in a jar
An actor playing African American inventor Lewis Latimer conducts some lightbulb experiments

You held a variety of different activities for Being Human 2022. How did you bring them all together to create a coherent series of activities?

The exhibition displayed the underlying research that informed the performance. The two worked together, with one offering further contextual details and archival material, and the other offering a more directly engaging experience for visitors to the BCA. The workshop was a family-friendly event that attracted audience members from ages 5-75. Having ‘Latimer’ there in person to guide participants through the history we were trying to tell, really brought the archival research to life. The activity, performance and workshop elements were repeated on both Saturdays during the festival, with the exhibition also running throughout the week in-between.

How did you go about establishing and fostering a strong partnership between your two organisations (University of Surrey and the BCA)?

I became involved with the BCA Youth Forum after attending a workshop series on Black British History in February 2022. I was working on my PhD thesis at the time and had recently moved to South London. From September 2022, the BCA were running a Black Futures season, which included an exhibition on ‘Transforming Legacies’. Seeing the Being Human Festival’s theme of ‘Breakthroughs’, I thought this was an excellent opportunity to collaborate on the connecting themes. Dr Ayshah Johnston (Learning and Engagement Manager at the BCA), the Youth Forum and I worked together to propose Lewis Latimer as a case study for both a breakthrough and a legacy that directly impacted the BCA’s local community. Ayshah was so generous in her guidance as I gathered archival material for the exhibition, and she supported the entire programme and delivery. Members of the youth forum also volunteered to help run the workshops on the day. This was an event that we all wanted to succeed and we had a great time working together to put it on.

Two photos of activities at the Black Cultural Archives - people sitting around a table listening to a man talking and a man wearing a cap tries a science experiment.
Activities at the Black Cultural Archives

What do you feel both organisations brought to the partnership?

The BCA not only hosted the event, but also mentored me as I stepped away from my PhD research to research a topic not usually within my expertise. Ayshah, as Learning and Engagement Manager, also had the expertise to design and host public engagement activities. I was able to fit research for the exhibition and performance alongside my doctoral work, and so gathered the archival material necessary, and drafted the copy for the exhibition banners. I was able to enjoy an experience of research and public engagement in a setting removed from my University, while I offered my labour to the BCA who now have exhibition banners that will be used in future for their Black Victorians workshop.

How did you make sure you engaged your target audience?

Our activities were aimed at families and young people aged 4-16 in the local area of Brixton, South London. The BCA has a strong presence in Brixton, and so posters advertising the event locally drew the attention of passers-by who trusted the reputation of BCA as an organisation that hosts exciting and high-quality events relevant to said community. Their mailing list was also an invaluable asset, promoting the event to those already engaged with the BCA. In addition to this we worked with Poetic Unity on this event, a charity that has strong ties to the BCA. Their social media presence then further engaged an audience interested in creative responses to Black local history. Some audience members stumbled upon the event on Eventbrite as well, and travelled from across London to participate.

Do you have any top tips or lessons learned for future event organisers?

  • Have regular meetings with your partners to keep each other up-to-date on what’s going on.
  • Discuss who your audience is and how you want to engage them from the start.
  • Have a practice run to make sure any experiments/activities go according to plan – and what you would do if they didn’t!

‘A Lightbulb Idea: Lewis Latimer’s Scientific Breakthroughs’ took place as part of Being Human Festival 2022 and was funded by a Being Human Small Award. It was led by Dr Alicia Barnes (formerly of the University of Surrey) and Dr Ayshah Johnston (Black Cultural Archives).

Working with a partner

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