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Culture in the age of Covid-19: why universities must take centre stage

Professor Dinah Birch

Professor Dinah Birch CBE

Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Cultural Engagement
University of Liverpool
The Royal Liver Building on the Mersey River
​The nation's universities are fortunate to possess a diverse array of cultural resources, which often have the power to unite communities through shared experiences and learning. 

As with all services and opportunities that universities provide, the months of lockdown have resulted in many of these resources being made available online, and in some instances acquiring an international reach.

This newly found and heightened accessibility of culture has the potential to benefit many different audiences, and in turn will allow universities to enhance their civic engagement and better serve the communities in which they are based. This has been very much at the forefront of the University of Liverpool's response to the pandemic.

The city's economy is largely built on culture, and so maintaining its cultural and creative sector in the face of social distancing regulations will be vital for its social and economic recovery. The University has therefore launched Culture at Home, an online hub designed to support and guide virtual visitors to the many cultural assets owned by the university.

The resources give the public an opportunity for a closer look at the university's diverse collections and events, including ancient artefacts from the Garstang Museum and lunchtime concerts.

Also on offer are a wide range of teaching and learning resources, targeted at both adults and teachers, which the university hopes to extend further to support the skills development and employment prospects of many in the local community.

A range of partnerships have supported the development of these webpages. We have worked closely with Liverpool City Council, and our 'Culture at Home' hub provides a link with the cultural activities provided by the Council's 'Culture Liverpool' site. We also work alongside the City Region's Combined Authority, and existing partnerships with National Museums Liverpool, Tate Liverpool, and other cultural organisations have further enriched our relations with the city and region. Activities include our support for the annual 'Borough of Culture' programme, a title held on a rotating basis by all of the Combined Authority's constituent local authorities, which is helping the university to extend its work beyond the city; or our participation in Tate Exchange, a scheme inviting artists, visitors and academics to respond to an annual theme, and to the question, 'what happens when art and society meet?'; or the close relation between our Centre for the Study of International Slavery and Liverpool's International Slavery Museum, who are working together to mark this year's International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition on 23 August. Here too, connectivity is key. Cultural activity is at its strongest when we learn from colleagues, and from audiences.

The further development of this work offers both opportunities and challenges. 

We must ensure that our cultural programmes actively engage with diverse audiences – young and old, male and female, from ethnically diverse communities, and with widely varying levels of educational attainment. 

And we must also make sure that we reach those without reliable access to a good broadband connection, or those who do not have the right equipment to benefit from sophisticated interactive resources.

As the mass of online cultural material proliferates, we also need to ensure our potential audiences can access the content they want. And above all, we must reach out to those people whose natural assumption is that no university is able to address their needs and interests, regardless of whether they intend to study at one or not. 

Once we are able to attend events, exhibitions and performances in person again it will be tempting to set the lessons of lockdown aside. That would be a mistake. Universities need to fuse the range and reach of a virtual cultural offer with the immediacy of face-to-face activities, serving communities in innovative ways, learning from what they have to tell us and working with them to support cultural renewal. Culture is key to our shared future.

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