Provost's Award Spotlight: 200 Years of Methodism in Stoke Newington
One of the highlights in the UCL public engagement year is the Provost's Awards for Public Engagement. This takes place every year in the spring and recognises the fantastic work that UCL's staff and students do to open up research and teaching at UCL to the wider world by engaging with communities.
There were seven winners earlier in the year – which you can read about here – but we had over fifty nominations from across UCL. With such a wealth of projects, we didn’t want to miss an opportunity to shout about this work – which is all amazing. So we decided to run this new news feature - the Provost Awards Spotlight. This feature will run throughout the rest of the year in the run up to the next Awards, and will tell the stories of these individuals using their platform at UCL to mobilise, inspire and amplify.
This month we’re featuring Ruth Slatter, who has just completed her PhD in the UCL Department of Geography. Her research focuses on the material design of Methodist practices in London from 1851 to 1932 and the everyday experiences of their congregations.
Ruth’s project, 200 Years of Methodism in Stoke Newington celebrated the anniversary of the first Methodist church built in Stoke Newington, and the opening of a brand new church on the original site. She told us, “The project aimed to engage both the church’s congregation and the local community in the history of Methodism in Stoke Newington and introduce them to the new church building, which was specifically designed to be a flexible space for community use”.
Ruth helped the church's launch by working with members of the church's community, local historians and a photographer to run events, produce a podcast, and host an exhibition of the area's historical geography.
Julian Cowie, architect of the new development said of the church's opening ceremony, “the youngest member of the church unveiled the foundation stone which has been laid in the entrance foyer space and is inscribed with an excerpt from scripture that is important to the ethos of the church. The service was a joyous occasion filled with music and blessings for the new church and the Methodist community in Stoke Newington.”
The words committed to stone like this seemed an appropriate symbol for the wider context of Ruth’s research. The idea of personal reflection being built into the fabric of the building is an interesting parallel to some of the questions Ruth was asking the congregation.
“Part of my research is interested in exploring how the physical design of church buildings affects how people engage with their religious practices. For example, I ask questions like how does the arrangement of the seats affect what congregation members can see, how does the position of the windows and the light conditions influence the mood of the space?”
Ruth commissioned photographer Susanne Hakuba to capture members of the congregation in the new church, in poses reflective of their faith. She displayed the photos with short testimonies - an idea we loved.
“The portraits are much more than representations of congregation members in physical spaces and they begin to reveal how church spaces are 'metaphysical' spaces, spaces created by individuals' lived experience in, and memories of, these places. When these portraits were taken each congregation member was asked to stand in a pose that reflected their approach to worship and in the exhibition these portraits were accompanied by a short biography. These biographies included quotes from each congregation member about their experience of church, religion and faith".
One congregation member said,
"I like the Methodist Church, which is like a second home to me. If I don't come to church I feel very unhappy. I look forward to coming to church. I look forward to meeting people. I look forward to worshiping. I like the Methodist Church and their style of worshiping and I like their method of Christianity. The method is: 'All are welcome".
Ruth’s inquisitive approach to public engagement has had a lasting impact on the church and its visitors. She told us, “The exhibition and events arranged to celebrate the church’s opening encouraged members of the local community to come into the church and they now host a community activity on nearly every day of the week!”
Her work also leaves us with some really interesting questions to ponder, whether we are religious or not. How do the spaces you use each day affect your mentality? Do you have favourite places to go and think? How can we use spaces more effectively to create community?
We’d love to hear your thoughts as we continue the conversation on Twitter @UCLCulture.