It all started at IF 2018. The Uncomfortable Oxford Project began with the humble plan of running a walking tour in Oxford that engaged with imperialism, colonialism, and inequality within the city. Paula and Olivia met in the summer of 2018, at the TORCH-run Public Engagement with Research summer school. They both studied history and were keenly interested in aspects of empire and its modern legacies. It seemed like the perfect idea – two history students could run walking tours about empire within a city that has long held a prominent position in the perpetuation of colonialism across the globe.
The plan soon developed. By September the two eager students had written a 2-hour walking tour that would transverse the old town of Oxford, walking participants through time from its very foundation as a city, the arrival of the university, the turmoil of the Reformation, the introduction of diverse nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, and women to Oxford, and to the modern built environment. The tour was aimed at everyone – academic and non-academic alike.
As part of the plan to ensure the tour would be focused on engagement, there were many discussion points included that would allow for the development of discourse among participants and for productive, thought-provoking conversations to occur.
The tour was accepted into the Science and Ideas Festival (IF Oxford) and ran everyday from October 12-22, 2018. Paula and Olivia were unsure of what to expect – although the concept seemed appealing and engaging, both students worried that the turnout would be small and primarily composed of other members of the University of Oxford. It is very disheartening to run public engagement activity which lacks the ‘public’, and after all, Oxford’s history is far more than simply the history of the University, the town is an essential part of this story.
They needn’t have worried – the turnout was better than either could have imagined! The first few tours ran with 15-20 sign-ups, but quickly started bringing in 30-40 curious participants daily. On the Sunday of the final weekend, over 80 people showed up to join the tour.
The response was utterly inspiring. The audience maintained a healthy balance of academics from all universities in the city, local residents, and visiting tourists. The discussions were lively and stimulating. Many participants stayed behind after the tour to ask further questions and to offer more opinions on the topics discussed. Notably, almost every comment mentioned the need for the tour to be a permanent feature of the Oxford landscape.
Thus the Uncomfortable Oxford Project was born! An initiative to continue the tours across Oxford, develop more tours around other subjects, bring together the different groups in the city who want to help decolonise the public space, and run programs that can keep the conversation going. It has been a great start and we can’t wait to see how far it goes!