‘Public Engagement’ and Musicology: Interviews with Katherine Hambridge, Flora Willson and Alexandra Wilson

Giles Masters is a PhD Student at King’s College London, where his research focuses on the festivals organised by the International Society for Contemporary Music in the 1920s and 30s.  Twitter: @giles_masters


‘Public engagement’, ‘public musicology’: Why do it?  Why does it matter?  What does this field look like today and where is it heading in future?  And how can students who are interested gain experience?  To begin answering some of these questions, I interviewed three musicologists, all of whom have taken part in a wide range of public engagement projects: Katherine Hambridge (Lecturer in Music, Durham University), Flora Willson (British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow, King’s College London) and Alexandra Wilson (Reader in Music, Oxford Brookes).



Motivations and Benefits

The results of the first Research Excellence Framework (REF) were published in 2014.  This new method of evaluating the research output of universities caused controversy and promised to reshape research culture in its requirement that researchers demonstrate the ‘impact’ of their work beyond academia.  Given that the results are among the measures used to allocate research funding to universities, it has been suggested in some quarters that the REF may have encouraged a greater commitment to public engagement activities among UK-based academics.  Regardless of whether one subscribes to this narrative, the REF certainly seems to have precipitated a greater sense of introspection and self-consciousness about public engagement in recent years.

The basic argument that underpins the introduction of ‘impact’ – that publicly funded institutions should be able to demonstrate their positive public contributions – does find some support among the scholars interviewed here, even though there is discomfort about the potential consequences of this metric and its perceived failure to recognise adequately the ways in which research and teaching can benefit society in themselves.  For Flora Willson, ‘being an academic is an extraordinary privilege: being able to spend time thinking in considerable depth about complicated or sometimes arcane aspects of human existence and of our history. I think it’s extremely important that those of us who do have that sort of time share what we’re learning with the largest public possible.’

While this argument is predicated on an idea of moral or social responsibility, all three interviewees are also motivated by a sense of personal fulfilment and pleasure.  When Alexandra Wilson first started taking part in public engagement activities, she says, ‘it was something I wanted to do simply for the enjoyment.  For me, there are few things as rewarding as giving a talk to people who are trying opera for the first time’.  This statement also highlights the potential of public engagement as an opportunity to advocate for a particular kind of music or a certain repertoire.  ‘I discovered classical music for myself as a teenager’, explains Wilson, ‘and perhaps that’s why I’ve always been passionate about igniting that enthusiasm in others.  I think the elitism rhetoric that surrounds classical music is deeply problematic.’

Advocacy in this case, with its challenge to ‘elitism rhetoric’, involves intervening in public debates.  Challenging received views among the broader public also appeals to Katherine Hambridge.  ‘Because I do quite a lot of talks on music and politics’, she says, ‘I enjoy showing how “classical” music – still seen by many as apart from the everyday – was and is deeply implicated in political and social life.’  This desire to call widely held assumptions into question through public engagement projects can be seen quite clearly in Hambridge’s involvement in the online exhibition The Last Stand: Napoleon’s 100 Days in 100 Objects.  The team behind this project, she explains, ‘felt a strong urge to offer an alternative to the jingoistic celebrations of Wellington and Waterloo in 2015; to situate British participation within a pan-European and global context; above all, of course, to “complicate” the narrative – a familiar move, and one that was observably less popular than the many re-iterations of British triumph.’  As a musicologist, ‘it was also my job to make music part of the narrative, and to recruit musical exhibits: so often music gets neglected by cultural historians, and in this project it simply sits alongside other media.’

The idea of public engagement as advocacy can extend not only to a particular repertoire or field of research, but also to the discipline as a whole.  ‘Given the official rhetoric of STEM STEM STEM’, Hambridge points out, ‘we have to argue for the importance of the arts and humanities more urgently than ever.’  This gesture of making a claim in a public forum for the value of studying music is an inherently political one.  Indeed, all three academics hinted that there was, on however modest a scale, a broader political and cultural agenda driving their sense of the value of undertaking this kind of work.  Flora Willson was perhaps most explicit on this point.  ‘Musicology has not traditionally been a powerful driving force in policy’, she observes:

but actually at a time when it’s clear that music education in primary schools and in secondary schools is under threat to an extraordinary degree – insofar as it’s still there to be threatened – now is the moment for us as a discipline to actually step up and make really strong, well-articulated arguments for what music can do for people, for why music history matters, and for why music’s place in society is crucial to the way we think about who we are.

This viewpoint has led Willson to ‘feel increasingly strongly about our need to communicate with younger audiences’, something that Katherine Hambridge has taken up through workshops in schools.  Her sessions introducing 14–16 year-olds to early nineteenth-century melodrama have been ‘challenging’ in some respects, she admits; but breaking through some of the barriers of alien material and teenage embarrassment led to impressive creative responses and a new depth of understanding.  Not only that, she says, but additionally ‘these workshops were at points quite a useful playground for me, akin to performance-based research.’

This is just one example of the ways in which taking part in public engagement activities can lead scholars to develop their research in new and productive directions.  Opera Across the Waves , a documentary written and presented by Flora Willson, was recently aired on BBC Radio 3.  On the process of creating that documentary, Willson remarks:

The really extraordinary thing about working with an institution like the BBC is that they have access to figures who, generally speaking, it’s much harder for an individual academic to arrange an interview with.  I was lucky enough to go to New York for several days to interview a series of people who were involved at the Metropolitan Opera, including Peter Gelb, the General Manager.  There’s no way I could have got that interview on my own – perhaps I wouldn’t even have thought to try – but it was fascinating.  All of these experiences of talking to people as part of that documentary project have been gradually working away at the back of my mind since then and will, I think, end up being a part of my next big project after the book I’m currently working on.

Clearly, then, there are many potential benefits to taking part in public engagement activities: fulfilling a sense of social responsibility; promoting the status of a certain kind of music or field of study; intervening with expertise in a public debate; reflecting in new ways on your own research; or simply having fun.  In the context of REF and a highly competitive job market, there are also more pragmatic reasons for having this kind of experience on your CV.  ‘In the age of the impact agenda’, notes Alexandra Wilson, ‘a shrewd PhD student will add some public engagement activities to their CV’.  Even if such activities made no difference to a job search, she says, ‘public musicology might even lead to a rewarding alternative career: every wannabe academic needs a Plan B.’


Communication Skills and Flexibility

What skills does a musicologist need to develop in order to carry out effective public engagement work?  ‘First and foremost, you need enthusiasm’, says Alexandra Wilson, ‘but you also need confidence and good communication skills.’  Effective and flexible communication skills came up repeatedly in these interviews.  While these skills are particularly significant to public engagement, the ability to pitch content and tone is not so different from the day-to-day fare of academics, argues Katherine Hambridge:

Fundamentally I find this calculation very similar to the one I make when teaching, or even at conferences: assessments of appropriate register and vocabulary and assumptions about pre-existing knowledge are always necessary. For public engagement sessions, you generally get much less time to communicate what is interesting about a topic than a lecture course, so you may need a bold ‘hook’, and a slightly simplified narrative, and maybe less ambiguous examples. And you assume much less of a background framework than you would of a conference audience. But often these events are self-selecting, and I’m always amazed at the levels of expertise to which people’s interests as ‘mere’ amateurs lead them. This seems particularly true of classical music fans!

This last point is echoed by Flora Willson: ‘I think you have to be open-minded and careful not to patronise your audience’, she says.  On the other hand, the flexibility and compromises required for communicating something to a broader audience can lead to concerns about ‘academic integrity’.  Willson states:

There’s the constant fear of being accused of ‘dumbing down’ – or, to put it a different way, somehow misrepresenting either your own or other peoples’ work.  With the flexibility that I think is crucial to doing this kind of work comes a certain sense that what you’re working on isn’t totally fixed.  I personally think that’s very healthy, but you have to have considerable confidence in yourself and in your discipline.  I also think it involves being comfortable with the idea that perhaps it’s acceptable to do things slightly differently in public engagement scenarios.

Katherine Hambridge also grapples with these anxieties about ‘dumbing down’, suggesting that this is one reason she prefers taking part in live events, where she has full control over any editorial omissions and reshaping of narrative.  In any case, all three contributors are sufficiently confident and self-assured about the value of both their own work and their public engagement activities not to let any of these anxieties dampen their enthusiasm and commitment.  As Hambridge puts it, ‘the pleasures of communicating to an enthusiastic audience outweigh qualms about my academic integrity’.


Gaining Experience

For a graduate student or an early career researcher, what are the best ways to gain experience in this area?  The power of chance conversations and connections seems vital here; the fact that Flora Willson’s radio documentary resulted originally from a conversation in passing with a producer at the BBC demonstrates this point vividly.  All three scholars highlight the importance of building up a network of contacts over time in order to access such opportunities.  But how to begin?

‘Be bold’, says Flora Willson.  ‘Be willing to put yourself out there and risk receiving an email saying: thanks for getting in touch, but we’re not interested at the moment.  Take the risk.  If there’s a particular concert coming up, then write to their press office and say: do you have someone already lined up to write programme notes about this?  Be willing to take the first step, don’t wait for people to come to you.’  This bold approach also helped Alexandra Wilson early on.  ‘I can hardly believe this worked’, she says, ‘but I got my first broadcasting gig after simply finding out the name of the producer at Radio 3 who looked after opera and writing him a letter.  That led on, eventually, to presenting Proms concerts and live operas, amongst many other things.’

Schemes and competitions may offer a useful route into making new contacts and establishing a reputation.  For example, becoming shortlisted in an essay competition run by Opera magazine led to further opportunities to write for the same publication for Flora Willson.  For those who are interested in radio, the annual New Generation Thinkers scheme run jointly by the BBC and the AHRC offers an unparalleled opportunity.  As Willson points out:

the finalists get to work with BBC producers on producing a documentary and are given all kinds of exposure.  But even if you’re not one of those finalists, you’ll be invited to a workshop and have a chance to speak to BBC producers and to meet other people who are also in your position.  I actually applied to that scheme in the very first year it ran and got nowhere – but I would recommend it very highly!

Finally, an effective but easily overlooked means of gaining experience in public engagement is simply to speak to more senior academics and make sure they know that you are interested in this kind of opportunity.  Alexandra Wilson recalls that ‘I wrote my first programme for the Royal Opera House after my PhD supervisor was too busy and passed on my name.’  Similarly, Flora Willson’s first experience of giving a pre-performance talk arose because a more senior scholar was offered the opportunity first and passed on her name.  While it is still important to look further afield, both these anecdotes indicate the importance of appreciating the opportunities that may also be present within your home department.


Training Public Musicologists?

In addition to the routes that individuals might take to gain experience, we are also faced with the question of whether university music departments should attempt to offer teaching in this area to their postgraduate students.  Flora Willson and Katherine Hambridge are uncertain.  ‘In the sense that a PhD is a professional qualification’, suggests Hambridge, ‘it would be a good idea for postgraduates to prepare for public-facing work, just as it is for them to gain teaching experience’.  However, she also points out that building up a network of contacts is not something that can be taught per se and that the sheer diversity of forms of public engagement activities would present a sizable challenge to designing an exhaustive programme of training.

For Willson, the skills involved are vital, but not necessarily specific enough to require their own dedicated area of teaching: ‘I think it’s many of the same skills as being a good presenter at a conference or a good teacher.  I think it’s really important that we can communicate and basically this is about communication.’  On the other hand, Hambridge does argue for the value of presentation and media training.  ‘During my post-doc’, she recalls, ‘I had a session on audio-visual interview technique that made me much more aware of the signals that body language and eye contact sent to audiences, and of my own particular bad habits! These are techniques of effective communication that transfer to the academic environment too.’

Whereas Hambridge and Willson are hesitant, Alexandra Wilson is highly enthusiastic about the potential of offering targeted teaching in this area for graduate students.  Thanks to her impetus, ‘public engagement’ has become an important strand in the MA syllabus at Oxford Brookes.  In helping to redesign the course’s ‘research skills’ module recently, she states:

I decided to include a public musicology section – something that isn’t covered on many Music MAs in Britain as yet – with seminars on topics like broadcasting, journalism and social media.  We provide training in these areas based on our own media work and the students analyse how current academics have adapted their research to communicate with wider audiences.

The course also includes a ‘Professional Experience’ module that allows students to organise their own placements according to their interests and career ambitions, leading to collaborations with the Handel-Hendrix Museum in London, the music department at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Oxford Brookes’ own in-house research units.  As Wilson indicates, MA programmes and their equivalents offered elsewhere in Britain have tended to remain focused more exclusively on more traditional types of content and assessment.  It remains to be seen whether Oxford Brookes will remain an exception or become a trendsetter in this respect.


What next?

‘Public musicology’ becoming a standard part of MA syllabuses offers one angle on the potential future directions of this field.  How else might we envisage its future?  Alexandra Wilson is hopeful that this area will become more established over the coming years: ‘I’m frustrated that TV programmes about music are almost always fronted by celebrities rather than by experts in the field – there are, as yet, no public musicologists in the way that there are public historians.  I think we need more experts out there, who can communicate not only their enthusiasm but their knowledge.’

Some of this cautious optimism is shared by Katherine Hambridge, who notes that arts organisations and museums are increasingly aware of the onus on academics to demonstrate ‘impact’.  She believes that this could well lead to more opportunities for collaboration, but it is not necessarily an unequivocally positive development: ‘the flipside of this, I suspect, is sometimes the expectation that we are an unending resource for generating free content or providing expertise for free, because we are now obliged to prove impact. In that our impact obligations have been added to existing obligations, rather than replacing other elements of the job, I do worry about the increasing workload.’

The tendency towards an increasing openness to external academics from arts organisations and museums observed by Hambridge can be observed quite clearly in a project recently undertaken by Flora Willson: the design of the first ever MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) about opera, a collaborative project between King’s College London, the Royal Opera House and the Victoria and Albert Museum.  This online course is aimed at anyone who is new to opera and is intended, as Willson puts it, ‘to intervene in opera’s bad reputation’.  Like the online exhibition to which Hambridge contributed, this project is indicative of the extent to which digital technology is already dramatically expanding the possibilities of public engagement.  ‘I think what’s been exciting specifically about this for me’, says Willson:

has been using the possibilities of digital technologies, of new media, to make interventions on a much larger scale.  Using something like a MOOC platform, you can have some of the most exciting and senior researchers working in opera studies at the moment actually teaching the very basics of opera and opera history to thousands of people simultaneously.  That is an extraordinary opportunity.

In the context of the opportunities enabled by such technological developments and the pressures of the REF’s ‘impact’ culture, it seems almost inevitable that the expectations on academics to engage with the public at large will continue to grow in the coming years.  None of these three scholars, each of whom makes a compelling case for the value of these activities, seem inclined to view such change as a bad thing in itself.  What seems far less certain, however, is how we, as both individuals and institutions, should prepare and adjust for how this rapidly developing field might reshape the roles of ‘research student’ or ‘professional academic’.  For better or worse, the consequences of a public musicology will not be confined to its ‘public’ realm alone.



Dr Katherine Hambridge is a Lecturer in Musicology at Durham University. Her specialism in the Napoleonic period enabled her to capitalise on the Waterloo anniversary, leading to events including lectures and lecture concerts at the British Museum and the Cheltenham Music Festival, and the online exhibition ‘The Last Stand: Napoleon’s 100 Days in 100 Objects’. Most recently she has been involved in the exhibition ‘The Allure of Napoleon’ at the Bowes Museum, County Durham, contributing to the exhibition catalogue and running a lecture concert on Napoleonic music, in the process discovering the museum’s holdings of French theatre music!

Dr Flora Willson is a British Academy Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Music at King’s College London, where she works on late-nineteenth-century opera.  She has given numerous talks for opera companies in London and elsewhere, is a regular guest on Radio 3, and writes for The Guardian and Opera magazine. Over the past year she has been collaborating with the Royal Opera House and the Victoria and Albert Museum to produce the first ever opera MOOC, which will run in autumn 2017.

Dr Alexandra Wilson is Reader in Music at Oxford Brookes University, where she runs the MA programme.  She has presented numerous broadcasts for Radio 3 and regularly works on public engagement projects with the country’s leading opera companies. She has written about opera for The Times and The Guardian online and for Opera magazine.




If you or someone you know would like to write a post for the RMA Student Blog then we’d be happy to hear from you! Please get in touch with one of your student representatives.


  1. I think Dr Hambridge’s point about workload and the exploitation by external organisations of academics for little/no pay is particularly important, and deserves a more thorough discussion. It is a serious matter for part-time and hourly-paid academics, and indeed scholars with an “honorary”/no institutional post. I realise it is a vulgar topic, and competition law prevents most forms of “recommended rates”, but might the RMA consider enlisting advice from experienced public musicologists about the question of pay and contracts (the ISM does an admirable job in providing guidance for musicians generally, but it does not really cover the particular situation of academics)?

    1. Thank you for your comment on this indeed very important subject. I will pass on your comment for discussion.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *