Conference: The British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS) 2019
Dates: 28–30 August 2019
Venue: Dalhousie, University of Dundee and various locations such as City Chambers, Verdant Works, The McManus and Chamber East
Attendance: 272 from 14 countries, contributing over £332,446.00 to the local economy over 3 days
Dr Daniel Cook
Prof Kirstie Blair
Conference website: https://www.conventiondundeeandangus.co.uk/attending/conferences/bavs2019
Images: CLICK HERE
Dundee delivers a distinctive blend for Victorian historians
People, place and history came together when the British Association for Victorian Studies (BAVS) welcomed over 270 academics from 14 different countries to Dundee.
A collaboration between the University of Dundee and the Scottish Centre for Victorian and Neo-Victorian Studies resulted in the BAVS conference coming to Scotland for only the second time in its history.
Dundee’s own Victorian heritage was interwoven into the syllabus, through the choice of topics, panels and venues that related to the conference theme, Victorian Renewals.
There was a strong feeling that meaningful connections with Dundee’s Victorian past made a positive impact on the overall experience.
The Verdant Works which tells the stories of Dundee’s industrial textile heritage within the atmospheric setting of a refurbished mill was lauded as a choice location for a plenary session and drinks reception. The McManus art gallery and museum - a Victorian gothic building that has been at the heart of culture for Dundee since 1867 – was another favourite choice, with delegates gathering there for a private viewing and reception.
In a city famous for its journalistic heritage, it was hardly surprising that literature and print featured. The world’s longest running women’s weekly magazine, The People’s Friend, which celebrated its 150th birthday last year, was the theme of a panel discussion, with other aspects of Victorian Dundee, included Tay Bridge Disaster, Dickens and Dundee and the political temperature of the city also scrutinised.
Much of the content demonstrated that the themes of Victorian studies remain relevant in the 21st Century, like a sweet eating nation, sex and gender, women’s bodies, and cocaine nations.
Content was described as “relevant to research”, with “high quality papers and panels”, generating “fruitful discussions”, “compelling evidence” on “brilliant” and “relevant” themes by attendees.
Joint conference chair Professor Kirstie Blair said: “Dundee was selected for the conference because of the combination of new and exciting developments going on there, such as the V&A, and its important Victorian heritage.
“We knew that delegates would enjoy experiencing places like Verdant Works and the McManus and that the conference would tie in well with Dundee’s history. Dundee is also easily walkable and has the advantage of a centrally located university campus. The conference has only been held in Scotland once before, in 2010, when it was at the University of Glasgow.
“A lot of delegates commented that conference panels did tie in with Dundee and Scotland and that this was the most ‘Scottish’ BAVS conference, which was true and deliberately planned.
“The conference enabled further links between Victorian studies and Scottish studies by involving people who would define themselves as working in one or the other of these areas, and there are many parallels with present day concerns.”
Feedback in statistics...
95% said the conference programme, and the overall organisation, was very good or good.
94% would recommend Dundee to colleagues as conference destination and 94% rated the region as good or very good.
41% extended their stay beyond the conference and 83% said would return to Dundee for a future leisure visit.
...and in comments
One respondent said: “Dundee is easy to get to, everything within the city limits is close and easily accessible, the buildings are spacious, facilities are great.”
Another commented: “Was glad to get a sense of Dundee and its industrial and print histories. Also, I was very impressed by the careful organisation of this complex conference on the day, and the helpfulness of volunteers and staff. Lovely environment.”
Location plays a positive part in the experience, as one respondent noted: “I thought that the firm location of the conference, in Scotland and in Dundee, is the way to go. Its Scottishness, and the way it permeated the conference was distinctive, and helped make it fresh and memorable. Regional history is often ignored, as conferences are parachuted in, and out...”
Another added: “Connecting with Victorian and present-day Dundee was very interesting.”
One summed up the experience commenting: “Many thanks once again to everyone involved in the organisation - it was such a well-organised, welcoming and inclusive conference.”
While another respondent said: “One of the best organised conferences I have attended. Lovely touches and attention to detail.”
One who commented on the smooth running of the conference said: “I was extremely impressed with every aspect of organisation. I'd particularly like to thank the lovely student volunteers. It was also great in general that the organisation of the conference was so unfussy and always felt relaxed and cheerful.”
There were some suggestions for future consideration, like trying to minimise the running of too many panels simultaneously and looking at ways to promote wider networking opportunities.
Beyond the conference
About half of the delegates were either PhD students or early career post-doctorates, ie people not in permanent academic positions.
Since the conference, there have been various requests from scholars wishing to make follow-up research trips to the city, mainly to use the university or city archives.
The conference, and Professor Blair’s own research, generated particular interest in working-class poetry. Prof Blair has been shortlisted for the Saltire Research Book of the Year award for a monograph on this topic.
Dundee was this year's Scottish hub for the Being Human Festival of the Humanities (14-23 November) and the theme “The Aquatic City" included substantial Victorian materials and themes, thanks to demand and interest.
Conference organisers are now developing plans to promote Victorian figures associated with Dundee, such as Frances Wright and Thomas Hood. This could give rise to funding PhD places, and creative writing competitions.
Professor Blair added: “Many had never visited the University of Dundee so might not have been aware of its research specialisms. Engaging with staff and students and visiting the university campus will encourage them to recommend Dundee, to prospective Masters or PhD students.
“In addition, many delegates will not have been previously aware of Dundee’s Victorian art collections, archives, and museums. The conference may encourage them to work further on these holdings or discuss them in their own research projects.
“Now that they have visited the city, they have an incentive to return, and perhaps recommend it to friends and family.”