On evidence and anecdotes

Maria Ryan joined Culture at King’s College London in May 2014 and completed her MMus at King’s in September 2015. In August 2015 she will begin a PhD in Musicology at the University of Pennsylvania. Here she reflects on how her time at Culture at King’s has radically altered the way she thinks about arts participation.


The cast of Turandot © ROH/Tristram Kenton, 2013

When I was 14 I participated in a week-long course run jointly by King’s College London’s Arts & Humanities faculty and the Royal Opera House. The course, for year-10 students at comprehensive schools in Hammersmith and Fulham, was an immersive introduction to opera and studying the humanities, culminating in us twelve participants watching Turandot from the orchestra stalls – the first time any of us had seen an opera. For me, the course was transformative. The opera house seemed to be a jewelled box, full of hundreds of people –musicians, dramaturges, librarians, dancers, pattern cutters, archivists– an army of workers all dedicated to the same beautiful and mysterious aim. This unbelievably real place was just a few miles from our schools and yet was another world. And yet, it was real, and to prove it here were real people telling us about opera, and that we were free not only to attend performances, but could also make a career in the arts, and attempt to understand dramatic forms through study. I cannot speak for the other participants, but for me, this course marked the beginning of a life-long love of, and fascination with, opera.

10 years and two music degrees later, I found myself back at King’s, working as Executive Assistant to Deborah Bull, who had been Creative Director at the Royal Opera House during the time my 14-year-old self visited and was so amazed. Although it would be tempting to construct a grand narrative around these incidences and coincidences in order to evangelise about the transformative effects of the arts, my work here at King’s has taught me to resist extrapolating from my own experiences, and instead to seek out evidence. This isn’t always easy; there is something essentially un-romantic about evidence. Data anonymises, figures lack subtlety, and reports can be reductive, whereas personal stories have vitality and hold their own truths.  However, at a time when economic and social barriers to arts and culture are growing, it is vital that we go beyond an intrinsic belief based on personal experience – that access to arts and culture is somehow ‘good’ – towards a fully evidenced explanation of their benefits.

The evidence will not always be easy reading and will require even the most ardent culture lover to question their assumptions. We must explore the relationship between access to classical music and class, find out whether free museum access really does encourage new audiences, and confront the huge lack of diversity in the arts sector. However, armed with evidence, it will be possible to work towards a society in which access to the arts and culture is the norm for all, rather than a chance encounter or optional extra.

I now realise that the week I had encountering opera and the humanities ten years ago would not have been possible without the support of King’s, the Royal Opera House, the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham and our schools and parents. Today, there is increasing pressure on local authorities and arts organisations to do more with less. My week at King’s and the Royal Opera House will always be an important and formative memory to me. However, in order for future generations to enjoy similar experiences my anecdote must be transformed into evidence that organisations can use to justify their widening engagement projects. A move towards evidence doesn’t devalue people’s personal relationships with culture, nor does it remove the simple intrinsic enjoyment of an artistic encounter. We must see evidence as a necessary enabler, through which we can create a new normal, where creativity is nurtured and people of all backgrounds, not a select few, have the opportunity to create their own relationship with art and culture.