Liberal Arts and Sciences Year 2 Trip to Brussels by Dr Shelley Budgeon

 

June 5-8, 2016

Cityscape

This year I had the pleasure of accompanying the second year on a trip to Brussels – a timely location indeed. The referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU was in the forefront of our minds as we headed out of the north gate car park on our way to the Eurostar terminal at St. Pancras station. Questions surrounding governance, democracy, multiculturalism, migration, and identity had been circulating in the media for many months prior to our trip. The theme of the trip, “Borders and Belonging: Diversity and Community in Europe”, drew from across a range of social, economic, political and cultural issues central to debates about Britain’s relationship to the rest of Europe. Brussels, as the seat key political institutions governing the EU, and a diverse and rich cultural city provided an ideal setting for thinking about these matters and the debates being so passionately engaged with by the British public.

Some of the ‘big questions’ which framed our visit included: What does it mean to have a European identity and belong to a European community? What is the role of the EU in making societies stronger? Is this project a ‘failure’; a ‘success’; or one in need of ‘reform’? What effect do decision making bodies of the EU have on creating a European identity or community?

We were given plenty of opportunities to consider these complex questions and the range of perspectives which necessarily inform available answers.

Day 1

Eu flags

We first visited the European Commission where we learned about a range of responsibilities the Commission is tasked with including proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the EU treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the EU. This was followed by a general presentation on the EU foreign and security policy. From these presentations we began to gain some insights into the complex and multifaceted nature of EU institutions and decision making processes. As a starting point for our exploration of the EU the visit provided us with a lot to consider.

Students on bank

Since the sun was shining we enjoyed a moment of relaxation (with ice cream for some) in the beautiful Parc du Cinquantenaire before heading to the Grand Mosque, Islamic and Cultural Centre. Given it was the first day of Ramadan the Mosque was bustling with preparations for the meal that would take place that evening at sunset. As a key religious institution in Brussels the Mosque represents an important site of everyday life for the citizens of Brussel and our visit, again, helped us to understand the complexity of cultural identity in a European community that is multicultural and diverse.

 

 

 

Day 2

On the second day our activities focused on getting to grips with key EU institutions despite their inherent complexity! We first called on the European Economic and Social Committee and enjoyed a very lively and engaging presentation on the role the EESC plays in strengthening the democratic legitimacy and effectiveness of the European Union by enabling civil society organisations from the Member States to express their views at European level. This was followed by a thought provoking discussion on Britain’s decision to leave or remain in the EU and the role the younger generation must play in making this decision about the future. Again, we were reminded of the challenging issues constituting the theme of our trip and in particular, what it means to practice active citizenship in a globalised world. Following the presentation we were invited to enjoy the views of the Parliament from the terrace.

Student group

In the afternoon we accepted the challenge of playing the role an MEP in the EU Parlamentarium simulation – a scenario in which we were invited to ‘become a “near-perfect” politician’. At times a bit frantic and stressful, the role-play helped us to understand the pressures involved in making policy decisions when reaching consensus is an imperative. At the conclusion we were pleased to have reached agreement despite our differences resulting in the creation of some sound policies in response to a ‘water solidarity directive’ and the ‘personal identification directive’! From participating in this scenario we appreciated the range of skills MEPS must exercise in order to collectively tackle common problems faced by the member states.

Parlementarium flag

In between the rigors of learning about the role of the EU and reflecting on Britain’s future we took advantage of all that Brussels has to offer culturally including the wide range of museums and cultural institutions; opportunities to sample the cuisine (think Belgian chocolate/frites/beer) and free time to explore the city’s many attractions. The final night was celebrated by a wonderful meal at Chez Leon where mussels and frites were consumed enthusiastically while the conversations flowed!

Heading back home we reflected on what had been achieved: a greater awareness of debates surrounding culture and identity; an enhanced understanding of governance structures and policy making; and the opportunity to strengthen the friendships which are at the heart of the University of Birmingham Liberal Arts and Sciences community.

Liberal Arts and Sciences Brussels Trip: A student perspective by Thomas Belcourt-Weir

Monday 6th June 2016

After arriving in Brussels and briefly orientating ourselves in the city centre on the Sunday, on Monday morning we visited the EU commission. As soon as you arrive at the building there are clear efforts to display who is the head of the commission and try to gain support. On the outside of the building there is a large #TeamJuncker and on the walls of the foyer is a large display of the roles Jean-Claude Juncker and the other commissioners have. We were given a talk on the general role that the EU Commission plays as an institution, learning about how it proposes laws, enforces laws, manages budget and represents the EU outside of Europe. Interestingly, the speaker didn’t touch much upon the unelected nature of the 28 Commissioners, something which is a key argument within the Brexit debate.

We also had a talk about the European External Action Service, which serves as the EU’s foreign ministry and diplomatic corps, essentially representing the EU and its foreign policy outside of Europe. The main insight I took from the talk was how the EU Commission’s overall mission is to try to represent Europe’s interest as a whole, as if it were one nation, and the difficulties that come with this; staying supra-national and neutral, when the ‘interests of Europe’ are really just made up of the interests of all the constituent countries. It has to be said that the talk was a little lacking in useful and interesting information relative to only the common knowledge we had as a group about the EU. However, it was valuable to get the general gist of who the commissioners are and what they do, and just being in and around the building brought to life what you normally hear on the news as “over in Brussels”.

After this, a visit to Brussels largest mosque was made quite brief by the impending preparations for Ramadan, but nonetheless it was a good representation of the diverse ethnicities in Brussels as the political centre of an ethnically diverse Europe.

Tuesday 7th June 2016

On Tuesday morning we began with a great talk at the European Economic and Social Committee. The speaker was bright, fun and engaging, and she gave us a clear overview of the work the EESC does as a consultative body to the EU. Essentially the EESC is made of members who represent either Employers, Workers, or Interest Groups, aiming to strengthen European integration, ensure EU policies tie in better with economic, social and civic circumstances on the ground, and promote the development of a more participatory EU which is more in touch with popular opinion. The EESC works by creating formal platforms for groups across civic society to express their views, and by creating official “Opinion” documents which advise the three main bodies of the EU (Commission, Parliament and Courts). They work across several sections, from agriculture and environment to economics and employment. It was really interesting to see how the EU attempts to stay in touch with everyday people and initiate participatory democracy – even though the EESC is only advisory and what they advise doesn’t necessarily have to be used.

After this we had a nice break and a group photo on the terrace overlooking the EU Parliament building – it’s huge!

After lunch we took part in a role-play activity at the EU Parlamentarium. This was another really great exercise which I personally got a lot out of as I’m sure the rest of the group did. We were given the role of MEP’s (Members of European Parliament) and the activity gave us a flavour of what their daily job is like. We were split into four political parties with differing agendas and went through the steps of discussing our position as a party, consulting experts and the public, and then negotiating between parties to try and reach an agreement on the issue of water management and bio-chips. After this we then had to try and also reach a compromise with the EU Council. At times it was frantic and difficult to find an agreement between the Parliament and the Council – probably a very accurate role-play of real life!

The afternoons and evenings were free time spent exploring Brussels. The EU quarter was sleek and modern, which contrasted with the artistic and historic centre of the city. The countless cafes and bars gave the cobbled streets and squares a great vibe. There were also quality museums such as the museum of musical instruments and the comic book museum. Of course the waffles, chocolate and frites were delicious and were sure to be a highlight. Of particular note was the fine Belgian beer, but unfortunately we didn’t have time to try all 3,000 types at Delirium Café…

Overall a great trip of interesting insights into the workings of the EU just weeks before we go to vote on the EU Referendum, and fantastic cultural experiences of a buzzing European capital city – all topped off by a group dinner on the Tuesday evening! Thanks to Ruth and Shelley for a fine trip.

LANS extracurricular programme

I am coming to the end of my first week in my new role as the Liberal Arts and Sciences Intern.  I am working in the office to develop the extracurricular programme that LAS runs alongside the academic side of this degree.  My job is to explore what all the students want to get out of the extracurricular programme, and how we can make it even better for next year.

 

The department provides us with tickets for cultural events that are going on in and around Birmingham.  We get free tickets to things pretty much every week.  The idea is that we’ll all become well-rounded students with knowledge of things outside university life.

 

We started last year with a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to see Shakespeare’s Hecuba, complete with an exploration of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s dressing-up box.

 

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Other theatre highlights from the year include Orpheus, Strictly Balti and Iphigenia in Splott – all amazing and unusual pieces of theatre which we would never otherwise have thought to go to.

FotorCreated

Images clockwise: Orpheus, Iphigenia in Splott, Strictly Balti.  Photo credit clockwise: John Hunter at RULER, Mark Douet for the Sherman Theatre and Farrows Creative/Travelling Light Theatre.

 

We saw the ballet Sleeping Beauty in February, and the opera The Marriage of Figaro in March.  What other students get to go to the opera? Despite my reservations about the highly-dramatic warbling that I thought made up opera, it was hilarious and I was thoroughly proven wrong.

 

My personal highlight of the year was Broken, a contemporary dance performance we saw in Warwick Arts Centre.  I have never seen anything so amazing or relentlessly jaw-dropping!  The strength of the dancers, their interaction with their set and the innovation of their moves made for a phenomenal show that I will never forget.

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B4tuIdK9rqQ

 

This is the Motionhouse Dance Theatre Company – if you ever get the chance to see them, please do not hesitate!

 

So, I have filled this rainy week with chatting to lots of lovely Liberal Arts people and collecting their feedback from the programme this year.  I am starting to get a very clear picture of what everyone liked most about the events.  Those that stood out were new experiences, things we would never have got to do otherwise and stuff to make us think.

 

My week has given me a good idea about what people want to get out of the extracurricular aspect of Liberal Arts.  I am very excited to explore the possibilities for next year.  I’ve had loads of amazing suggestions already – please keep them coming!

Cassidy Locke, June 2016

Ovid’s Garden Project: Winterbourne House & Gardens

Garden 1Winterbourne Master

As part of my PhD exploring the invocation of classical mythographer Ovid in Italian Renaissance gardens, I have been working in partnership with Winterbourne House & Gardens to recreate an Italian Renaissance garden based upon plantings inspired by Ovid’s botany, designed by acclaimed landscape designer Kathryn Aalto. The purpose of this garden is to recreate the plantings of the past, enabling me to explore how Italian Renaissance gardens were designed to impart narrative, retelling ancient mythology through botany and its inherent symbolism. Each plant in the garden has been chosen for its significance in Ovid’s narrative and the Italian Renaissance garden, whether it had a practical or symbolic function.

Ovid’s Garden is contributing to the preservation and enhancement of a unique Grade II listed heritage site that attracts over 65,000 visitors a year. The garden is accessible to all visitors to Winterbourne and will function as living museum, bringing the past to life and enabling the local community to engage with university research, experiencing elements of ancient and Renaissance Italian gardens for themselves.

This semester, four Liberal Arts students, Alexandra Klein, Tayler Meredith, Eve Thomas and Zoe Emery, had the opportunity to get their hands dirty working with me on the garden project   under the direction of professional horticulturists at Winterbourne. I ran teaching sessions on the influence of classical antiquity in Italian Renaissance gardens to give them an understanding of the project’s research context and impact. The students also learnt specialist horticultural skills through hands-on experience of design implementation and planting at a critical stage in the garden’s development. Whilst the hard landscaping had been completed, the site was empty and extensive planting needed to be undertaken for it to come to life in the spring.

HyacinthLily bulb

Work began by lining the beds with box hedging, instantly transforming the empty, muddy plots into a structured garden. Box is an evergreen so it will retain its colour even in the dull winter months when most plants have died back, and as such, it was an important element of Italian Renaissance planting schemes. The structure was further enhanced by the addition of lavender along the front border and cypresses flanking the main entrance, both of which are evergreens. These plants add an important sensory element to the garden: the silvery lavender will yield spikes of aromatic violet flowers in the summer whilst the slender cypresses exude a spicy, pine scent, and the combination of the two will create a welcoming wall of perfume for visitors to walk through as they enter the garden. Cypresses have highly symbolic associations with death and mourning from ancient times, originating from the myth of Cyparissus who Ovid recounts became a symbol of mourning after being transformed by grief into the evergreen tree.

Two cornelian cherry trees have also been planted in the beds either side of the garden, which in late summer will bear glossy, ruby-red berries and in winter will be covered with clusters of brilliant yellow, star-shaped flowers, some of which still clung to the branches of the trees we planted.

Cornelian CherryBox

Within the ornamental flowers beds we have planted damask and cabbage roses, which will fill the air with their sweet, musky scent when they burst into bloom in summer. Both are ancient cultivars, valued since antiquity and the Renaissance for the strong fragrance of their abundant petals. Bulbs and rhizomes have been planted also, which are beginning to emerge now that spring has arrived: hyacinths, poet’s narcissus, Madonna lilies and crown anemones will fill the garden with purple, yellow, orange and red hues when they begin to flower as the weather gets warmer. These flowers have been selected for their symbolic significance, representing young men from classical mythology, Hyacinthus, Narcissus and Adonis, who died premature deaths and were metamorphosed into flowers.

Much remains to be planted, spring seeds that will flower in the summer to enliven the garden with vibrant colours and fragrant aromas, as well as evoking stories, as they once did in ancient and Renaissance gardens. Violets, poppies, marigolds and saffron crocuses for the ornamental flowers beds; thyme, rosemary, marjoram, sage and borage for the herb beds, as well as lollipop bays and olives in teracotta pots lining the front path.

Work will continue on Ovid’s Garden throughout the spring, with an official launch event planned for summer 2016 to give the garden time to mature – dates and details will be advertised nearer the time.

Garden 2

Winterbourne is open every day of the week, entrance is free for students and it is only a 5 minute walk from the university’s main entrance, so why not go and see Ovid’s Garden for yourself?

For more information on Ovid’s Garden please visit the blog.

Research profile: http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/historycultures/departments/caha/research/postgraduateresearch/profiles/bay-miriam.aspx