Emma Winch and Alex Brown, from Hackney Museum, give us an insight into the development of their Antiuniversity Now Project, exploring alternative education through new ways of sharing knowledge and collaborative learning.
The idea behind the Antiuniversity Now project is simple. We invite people to teach and learn any subject, in any form, anywhere. A small team of four organisers, with a range of skills and backgrounds, support them to do this and no money changes hands, everything is free.
The project started as an experiment in community engagement at Hackney Museum in 2015. We received a small grant from a UCL/AHRC Collaborative Learning in the Arts, Society and Humanities fund (CLASH) designed to partner researchers with heritage organisations and open up academic research to the wider public. We were partnered with Dr Oisin Wall, whose thesis had a local interest to us, focusing on the people and activities of the 1968 Antiuniversity of London, a few miles down the road in Shoreditch.
Oisin and the Museum Learning Manager organised a community forum and an Anti-symposium to introduce people to his research and the oral histories he had been collecting. What attracted people to these events was the challenge to academic hierarchy the AU provided in 1968, something that is clearly a very topical issue today. Over 100 people participated in those early conversations and the overwhelming feeling was that people were worried and angry about rocketing tuition fees, privatisation and inequality, but excited about channeling that energy into a new ways of organising adult education. During these early forums people were meeting and having ideas, sparking off each other, coming up with alternatives, thinking about what they would teach or learn if there were no cost barrier.
So the Antiuniversity Now project was born. We are just about to launch our second festival with twice as many events as last year. The way that our principle of non-hierarchical learning plays out in sessions means that you don’t need to be an expert to be part of the festival, you need to be able to introduce a topic and then steer a discussion. The sharing of knowledge between participants can be a powerful thing without looking up to an expert. It’s not curated and a completely open submission process, as long as events align with our principles, so there are lots of people who attended last year’s festival as participants who have come back as hosts for this year. Expert or no expert, we feel they should be allowed that opportunity. It might sound clichéd but learning is everywhere, no-one has a monopoly on knowledge and how to use it.
A year on and we’ve seen the way that this can have a direct impact on those who never would have dreamed of running their own event and the freedom that it allows them in doing so; it’s a space for experimentation, to try new things out. At the beginning we were looking at the Antiuniversity of London for our inspiration, and that’s still the case, but we have grown and changed; Antiuniversity Now has more of a status of its own. The democratic style of learning is really important to our cause and will always set us apart from the mainstream, but even if you don’t pay for it, that doesn’t always make learning ‘free’ in every sense of the word. Antiuniversity of ’68 was experimental in many ways and offered all kinds of different courses that weren’t available in mainstream universities; Black power, feminism, anti-psychiatry and radical politics to name a few. As you can now study these in higher education, where is there to go? Much of this has to do with attitudes to where someone learns and how they approach the experience of learning. We have events happening that universities couldn’t even dream of, held in public spaces like Hackney Museum and Archives and in cafés, parks, pubs, libraries and artist spaces. And because the festival isn’t curated a festival goer could go from attending a practical workshop on Black Power to a discussion in a mobile sauna, from a DJing workshop with the kids to a piece of forum theatre about the housing crisis, from a game of three-sided football to an occupation of an archive.
Four of us coordinate the festival – from organising and updating the website and social media to arranging facilitation skills workshops to support our less experienced hosts, to finding venues and putting people in touch with each other to conjure up exciting projects and collaborations. None of us are paid either, we all have full time jobs and/or families so we do it in our spare time, mainly organising by Facebook messenger in the small hours of the morning!
The role of the museum has changed and it now plays a less official role in organising, but the Museum Learning Manager is still one of the Antiuniversity Now core team and the museum ethos, which is founded on collaboration, resourcefulness, inclusion, and engagement continues to guide and inform our decision making.
It’s been a tough few years to be working in a local authority museum and archive, but being part of this unwieldy, risky, exciting venture has been a fantastic opportunity for the museum. We’ve tested new ways of working with reduced budgets, built new bridges with artistic communities and spaces in Hackney, expanded our networks, provided an open and inclusive platform for people to teach and learn where fees and academic hierarchy might previously have been a barrier, and challenged preconceptions about the role and potential of small community museums as we grow more innovative, risk taking and radical in our approach to organising.
Antiuniversity Now takes place across the UK from 9-12 June 2016.