kNOw One Place Reflections: Space: (physical & conversational)

kNOw One Place Reflections: Space: (physical & conversational)

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Dr Emma Coffield – Lecturer in Museum, Gallery & Heritage Studies – Newcastle University

As one of the kNOw One Place forum Provocateurs, I’ve been asked to offer some reflections. 

I’m an academic, so my initial response to this kind of task is to try and distil a few key points or ‘findings’. It’s what I’ve been trained to do, in a way. It’s what I tried to do, alongside my colleague Vee Pollock, on the day of the forum. But what I’d like to do here is a little different. I’d like to think about the effort and time that goes into creative place-making, and events like the kNOw One Place forum.

This is perhaps because I really struggle with time. I don’t ever have enough of it to do all the things I want to do, and that often means (because I am bad at saying “no”) that I do things in a way that is much more rushed than I would like. 

I think that struggle is probably a common one right now. There is a real sense of fatigue in the cultural sector. And partnership work of any kind takes such an enormous truckload of time – most of which is hidden behind-the-scenes. I’m thinking of the time it takes to source the ‘right’ venue for a conversation, all the chats that happen beforehand, the time needed to think about every activity, questions or agenda item, to source catering, to get the printing done, sort tech and equipment, to set up, check everyone in, make sure people feel welcome, to clean up. The paperwork and chats that come afterwards. The caring and thinking that goes into all of that.

So, the first thing I would like to say is “thank-you” to everyone who was involved in the forum. A huge “thank you” to everyone involved in running the events, and another to those who made time to participate (either in person or online). Thank you. 

Because I think in the rush to locate those ‘key findings” we can forget the process. And the process – for me – is the work. It’s the way that we see and value all those who take part. So, it’s vital that we acknowledge just how much effort such events take. 

To think about it from another angle: everyone who came to the forum made space and time to be involved. They cleared their diary for a whole day, maybe two – probably by moving that work to other days rather than reallocating it. People organised and paid for childcare and transport. They stayed late, or got up early. And while for some people contributing to discussions is easy, for others it takes tremendous courage. I’m thinking here of all the times I have seen someone raise a hand and say “no”, “that won’t work”, “I don’t understand” or “it isn’t like that for me”. 

Dr Emma Coffield at kNOw One Place

Over the past year, I’ve come to see those moments – when someone finally says “no” – as some of the most important contributions that can be made. I’ve seen whole rooms shift, almost instantly, and become more generous and supportive spaces where people understand more, and can do better. 

But of course, it can also be hard to listen, to hear that things have gone wrong. It can be hard to hear “no” as a suggestion offered in the spirit of doing better. There is a temptation here to retreat back to the comfort of our ‘key findings’; to the lists of things achieved. To the people we already know will agree with us. I know I’ve felt that temptation this year. 

So that, perhaps, is why I wanted to shy away from any findings here, and to talk instead about the effort, the work, the conversations. The emotional toll they can take. The pressure to resist the systems that demand ‘key findings’ and aren’t interested in someone speaking out. 

I wanted to say that I saw that effort. That I saw people doing the difficult, often invisible and unrewarded, work that creative place-making relies upon. I saw people speaking up – and, just as importantly – listening. And I think it is only in creating these spaces of care for each other, that we will be able to keep going. 

So, again: thank you. 

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