A vision for the University’s cultural life

  1. Introduction
  2. Background
  3. Aims
  4. Objectives
  5. Conclusion


  1. Culture is generally felt to be about nurturing the spirit, creativity and interpreting the world in fresh and challenging ways that improve the quality of life. It involves creative interaction between people, and between people and their environment. Culture is often said to encompass not only the performing and visual arts but also other areas of the humanities, as well as aspects of heritage, the sciences and sport.
  2. The University’s cultural life is one source of what the Vice-Chancellor has described as the institution’s ‘transformational power’. He has said that the University helps to transform
    • people, through their experience as students and members of staff;
    • knowledge, through scholarship and research; and
    • society, through the communication and application of knowledge and through the University’s wider role in the community.
  3. The wellbeing, and hence the recruitment and retention, of students and staff is influenced by the quality of the University’s cultural life. Perhaps less obviously, education and research at the University can also be enriched through cultural activity: to give one example, dialogue with the public at purpose-designed events can help academics explore different teaching methods and can bring new perspectives to research issues.
  4. Cultural activity is one of the currencies of the University’s close and vital relationship with its locality. Bristol, which has been designated both as one of the UK’s five Centres of Cultural Excellence and as a Science City, is an exceptionally creative place, with particular strengths in music, theatre, the visual arts, festivals, science engagement and new media. The University is both a contributor to and a beneficiary of Bristol’s cultural diversity and dynamism. It has made a commitment through its vision statement (which refers to the University as ‘an acknowledged contributor economically, socially and culturally to the city and region’) and through its Engaged University Strategy to maintaining a strong partnership with the place from which it grew. This reflects a desire to be an active and responsible member of the Bristol community. It is also a form of enlightened self-interest: one reason for the University’s extraordinary popularity is its location in an attractive and vibrant city. In adding to Bristol’s cultural richness, the University is also strengthening its own position.
  5. The University’s status in the South West, the UK and internationally is also sustained in part by cultural activities. Its involvement in major projects with a cultural dimension, and often with a high media profile (especially those concerning heritage, the arts and science), helps to bolster its reputation as an organisation that is imaginative, outward looking and engaged with the life of the nation beyond the confines of traditional research and teaching.
  6. Aspects of the University’s built environment and historic landscapes, together with its special collections, are highly significant cultural assets for the city and the wider world, as well as for the University community itself. Such assets create opportunities for and place obligations upon the University, and should feature prominently in its cultural vision.
  7. This paper gives a brief overview of the University’s existing cultural life. It also sets out some aims and objectives to guide future cultural activities and developments. The document is a way of recognising, promoting and helping to sustain and broaden an aspect of the University’s life that is complementary to (some would say part of) its core business. Like the Research Strategy and the Education Strategy, the Positive Working Environment agenda and the Engaged University initiative, this vision for the University’s cultural life contributes to the organisation’s uniqueness and competitiveness. The paper cannot, of course, ‘create’ culture, but it may help to establish the conditions in which cultural activity can flourish.
  8. The paper does not discuss culture in the sense of the University’s working or organisational culture – that is primarily a matter for the Positive Working Environment initiative – but it is clear that the one impacts upon the other. A dynamic cultural life can be both a cause and an effect of an organisational ethos that is creative and stimulating.
  9. Background

  10. An astonishing array of cultural activity already takes place at the University. It exists in departments, as part of the academic enterprise or otherwise; in student clubs and societies; in building projects and improvements to the estate and its assets and facilities; and in links with Bristol’s communities, cultural organisations and projects. An audit conducted by the Provost of the Institute for Advanced Studies, together with other surveys, highlighted these and numerous other examples and aspects of the University’s cultural life:
    • the Division of Primary Health Care’s active interest in the role of the arts in medicine
    • the artists who have spent periods in residence in Mathematics, in Physics and at Goldney Hall
    • the close involvement of the faculties of Engineering and Arts in the Brunel 200 celebrations in 2006
    • many science engagement and research communication projects, located both at the University and in external locations including the Broadmead Shopping Centre and in schools
    • public performances at the Wickham Theatre, the Victoria Rooms and the Anson Rooms
    • the contribution of the University’s built environment and historic landscapes to the institution’s uniqueness and appeal for students, staff and visitors, as well as to the quality of the city
    • the international cultural programmes run by students from south-east Asia and by language departments including Hispanic, Portuguese and Latin American Studies
    • the Graduate School of Education’s use of music and creative writing in its research activities in schools
    • the community sports events and partnership opportunities promoted by the Centre for Sport, Exercise and Health
    • collaborations between academic departments and At-Bristol, Arnolfini, the Royal West of England Academy, the BBC, the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, Bristol Cultural Development Partnership and UWE
    • activities arranged by the Centre for Public Engagement, including tours of the University’s historic buildings and gardens and public dialogue events
    • the Library’s Special Collections and the Theatre Collection
    • partnerships, sponsorship arrangements and, in some cases, board-level involvement with the Encounters international film festival, Bristol Old Vic, Wildscreen and the Festival of Nature
    • public art initiatives at the Dorothy Hodgkin Building and the Centre for Sport, Exercise and Health.
  11. The list could be extended indefinitely, but this paper is not about enumeration and categorisation. It is, rather, about recognition and support, and about helping to establish an overall direction that acknowledges and builds on the remarkable work that is already done.
  12. Aims

  13. The aims underpinning this vision are to help
    1. support and safeguard the University’s cultural strengths and assets
    2. develop the University’s brand
    3. improve the University’s working, research and learning environment
    4. enhance the University’s external relationships.
  14. Objectives

  15. Six interrelated objectives flow from these aims. Each of them is explored in general terms below.

    1. To establish a broad policy and development framework within which cultural activities and assets are formally acknowledged as significant contributors to the University’s success and supported accordingly

      The diversity of cultural activity at the University is a great strength, and attempts to impose uniformity or corporate constraints should be avoided. At the same time, the importance of culture to the institution’s life and future suggests that it should be integrated into the University’s planning and decision-making machinery. The process of interpreting, developing and implementing the vision should be guided by a Pro Vice-Chancellor who would oversee a review at least biennially in liaison with other PVCs with a professional interest in this agenda. Links between this document, other strategic papers and particular projects should be the subject of ongoing discussion. The vision should also be shared externally, with a view to ensuring that it complements, as far as possible, the city’s and the region’s plans for cultural development. Arts Council England, South West, Great Western Research, Bristol Cultural Development Partnership, Bristol City Council and organisations including Watershed, Arnolfini, the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, the Royal West of England Academy, Bristol Old Vic, Spike Island and the Tobacco Factory should be viewed as potential partners with whom the University can share ideas, aspirations and projects.

      There is scope to devise or clarify standards against which some aspects of the University’s cultural development can usefully be measured. For example, the architectural quality and public-art content of new buildings in the precinct and the enhancement of its open spaces are important aspects of the University’s cultural life. Buildings must, of course, be practical and flexible, but their appearance is a significant influence on the satisfaction levels of students and staff and has a major impact on the University’s reputation locally and further afield. The opportunity exists to create buildings and open spaces that are held up as examples of what can be achieved. A clear set of principles and expectations could help to ensure that this opportunity is exploited to the full. Consideration of cultural issues, based on such principles, should be built into the planning of projects from the outset.

      A further example of the need for policies and standards relates to historic buildings and landscapes rather than new ones, and to the University’s distinguished collections of documents, objects and artefacts. Obvious examples include the 18th century Royal Fort House and Goldney House, together with their respective gardens, Clifton Hill House, the Wills Memorial Building, Old Baptist College, The Holmes, the Library Special Collections and the Theatre Collection. The first step might be to ensure that a proper inventory and evaluation exists of all such heritage assets. Where they are not already available, policies should be devised for the care, conservation, interpretation and accessibility of important buildings, landscapes and collections, with a view to reaching or maintaining nationally agreed standards. Potentially, this is a major area of work that should be treated as a formal project under the Prince 2 methodology so that the planning, leadership, management and resource issues are considered in a structured manner.

    2. To help existing and proposed cultural enterprises succeed and to safeguard and promote cultural assets

      There are other specific issues facing existing and proposed cultural enterprises that should be addressed as part of, or in conjunction with, the vision. These are reflected in the following interrelated questions:

      • What is the cultural potential of the Victoria Rooms?
      • What are the needs and aspirations of the departments of Drama and Music in the context of this vision?
      • How should the Students’ Union’s cultural activities be accommodated?
      • What cultural facilities should be included in the Nucleus programme?
      • How should Special Collections be accommodated?
      • How should the Theatre Collection be accommodated?
      • Is there scope to do more with the Earth Sciences and other collections?
      • How should the University’s provision for sport be developed to meet the needs of students and staff and build stronger links with the community?
      • How should cultural activities feature in or complement the Engaged University agenda?

      Discussions in the Victoria Rooms Project Group and the Nuceus Culture Sub-Group point to a number of tentative conclusions on many of these issues, as summarised below:

      • The Victoria Rooms is already an important cultural asset to the University and the wider community, thanks in the main to the activities of the Department of Music. The department is generally happy with the Victoria Rooms as a venue, and a rebuilt stage would make it close to ideal. There is no functional need to look for other premises for the department or for other uses for the building.
      • The Students’ Union will continue to need flexible performance spaces, a media suite, an editing suite and other facilities identified in its document ‘Culture in the University of Bristol Union’ (2005).
      • The Department of Drama has a strategic plan for development at its Cantocks Close site. There would be no mileage in considering the development of the Victoria Rooms as a facility for joint use with Drama, or in trying to design a joint facility for Drama and the Students’ Union within the Nucleus programme. The requirements of each are complex, extensive, and on most working days of term mutually exclusive.
      • Many events organised by the Students’ Union are open to the public. Thus the new building accommodating the Union will automatically bring more cultural life and community engagement to the precinct. The most appropriate other cultural uses for the buildings developed through the Nucleus programme (library and centre for learning; Students’ Union) might be as follows:
        • as venues for public lectures and discussions, offering flexibility and state-of-the-art technical facilities to the University and external users. Streaming such occasions onto the web and building up an archive of online material for future use by schoolchildren, students, the public, etc. should be part of the normal routine;
        • as locations for ‘café scientifique’-style activities at which staff, students and the public could share information and views on contemporary issues in a comfortable setting;
        • as bases for multi-screen video conferencing (an ‘Access Grid Node’), promoting research collaborations with colleagues across the world;
        • as high quality locations for permanent and temporary public exhibitions (see below), with the environmental controls, security and other safeguards necessary to meet nationally defined standards and potentially to qualify for external funding;
        • as places for informal networking for students, staff and the public in modern, stylish café facilities.
      • With the Nucleus programme, there will be new opportunities to draw in local people on the strength of the buildings’ comfortable, welcoming character and high quality activities. In tune with the Engaged University agenda, many of the public events could be interactive – ‘dialogues’ rather than lectures – focusing on topics related to the University’s research themes but also known to be of interest to local communities. (It is important, however, to avoid exaggerating the extent to which Nucleus will provide public facilities, as factors such as car parking will impose practical limitations and buildings’ principal role will be to cater for the needs of the University community.)
      • Special Collections, the Theatre Collection, the Earth Sciences collection and other collections need to be collocated with the relevant Support Services or academic departments. Thus buildings created through Nucleus could not provide central locations for all the collections. However, public areas could be ideal for temporary or permanent exhibitions related to the collections, as well as for artworks, provided that the necessary environmental and security conditions were met.

      There are related issues associated with other ways in which the Engaged University Strategy can support and be supported by this vision; how best to maintain or extend the varied cultural activities of academic departments other than Music and Drama; and the future of the relocated Botanic Garden as a cultural asset. It is suggested that these are for the Engaged University Steering Group, faculty boards and the Botanic Garden management to consider. Provision for sport is already under the leadership of the Director of Sport, Exercise and Health, but its development should be viewed as an essential dimension of the strategy.

    3. To help faculties, departments, divisions and student groups identify and pursue new cultural opportunities

      The existence of a vision for the University’s cultural life and the development of new spaces through Nucleus should help academics, support staff and students pursue some of their own cultural ambitions. The Institute for Advanced Studies, with its interest in interdisciplinary dialogue and engagement with academic and other communities beyond the University, and the Centre for Public Engagement, are likely to be among those who will wish to make use of the venue. However, there are two highly desirable or essential factors that should be considered if the cultural potential of Nucleus and of the University as a whole is to be realised:

      • a fund to which departments can bid in order to get initiatives off the ground and ensure that the University is in a position to draw down matching funding;
      • one or more members of staff to help departments develop new projects. The person or people concerned could also be responsible, under a Pro Vice-Chancellor, for the overall development, implementation and monitoring of the vision for culture, for progressing new ventures with external partners and for communicating inside and outside the University about its cultural life. They could be based at one of the buildings created through Nucleus as part of a facilities management team, and play a pivotal role, alongside the Students’ Union, in the programming of event spaces.

      It is difficult to see how the full implementation of the cultural vision can be much more than wishful thinking if it is not supported by some financial and human resources.

    4. To achieve greater internal and external recognition of the University’s cultural strengths

      The University’s existing and potential cultural strengths are not well understood or appreciated at present, either inside or outside the organisation. There is an important job to be done in raising awareness of this aspect of the University’s life and so capitalising on it. In an increasingly competitive higher education environment, it is becoming essential for universities to differentiate themselves in the market and to make the most of their advantages. A more dynamic cultural life would, of course, be valuable in its own right, but it would also have implications for the University’s identity and reputation. Again, having a member of staff whose remit covered the cultural agenda (see iii) would be helpful if not essential in this regard.

    5. To integrate cultural activity more fully into the Positive Working Environment agenda and the Education Strategy

      There is scope to revisit the University’s Positive Working Environment commitments (published June 2005) with a view to exploring how culture could be employed more effectively as a means of enhancing the working lives of University staff (and, indeed, students). As they stand, the commitments make reference to the importance of sport and fitness but not to other aspects of culture.

      At the same time, the Education Strategy states that one of the measures of a rewarding student experience is ‘Numerous opportunities to take part in social, sporting and cultural activities’. The cultural vision should contribute to the development of such opportunities, and the next iteration of the Education Strategy could include reference to this in its objectives and actions.

    6. To increase the University’s engagement with cultural projects taking place in Bristol and the city-region

      As mentioned earlier, Bristol is a culturally dynamic city. There are always interesting and ambitious projects on the horizon, and it makes sense for the University to engage with them readily in order to reap benefits and contribute more to the life of the city.

      2006 sees the 200th anniversary of the birth of Brunel and the University is heavily involved in the very extensive celebrations that will be taking place in Bristol and elsewhere, but there will be many other opportunities to be part of new initiatives in the city. The Bristol Festival of Nature is one. Another is the 2007 bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade. This will be marked locally and nationally, and is an occasion to which the University could no doubt contribute a great deal in ways that are consistent with its academic enterprise and with issues that are of perennial concern to Bristol people. It is in projects of this kind that the Cultural Strategy and the Engaged University agenda can come together.

      Many academic departments already have a close relationship with cultural organisations and projects in Bristol and further afield. The vision should help to encourage this and ensure it is recognised and valued.


  16. The University has an opportunity, occasioned in part by the Nucleus programme, to consolidate and take forward its cultural activity. This would be an inherently positive move, and would also bring significant benefits in terms of the quality of life for students and staff, the identity and reputation of the University and the nature of its relationship with the city-region. The vision outlined in this paper indicates what would be required to make this a practical proposition rather than a pipe dream.
  17. It is recommended that this paper be formally adopted, taken forward by the appropriate Pro Vice-Chancellor, used as a working document by relevant project sponsors and leaders and reviewed in a maximum of three years’ time.

Approved by Senate February 2006