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Oxford Arts Blog


Written by Mark Mann, Innovation Lead for Humanities and Social Sciences, and Gregg Bayes-Brown, Communications Manager, Oxford University Innovation. First published on the Oxford University Innovation blog.

Since its inception, tech transfer – or university innovation – has been a field dominated by the STEM sciences.

There are a number of good reasons for this. First and foremost is the level of support it requires for a physical or life sciences-based spinout company to go from incorporation to market. Compared with a regular startup company, which can take anywhere between a couple of months to three to five years before it's making money, the development cycle for a spinout can be up to ten years and beyond.

There's also patenting, which is typically focused on technological innovation – a core activity of a university innovation office such as Oxford University Innovation (OUI). While there's nothing set in stone about how to catalyse innovative ideas, the general rule of thumb will involve patenting the ideas OUI deals with first before developing them further. While this works fine for areas such as engineering or drug discovery, it's a different story for ideas from humanities and social sciences (SSH).

OUI has made some inroads to challenging this STEM bias and supporting the wider University, punctuated by the OUI Incubator. Since its inception in 2011, the OUI Incubator has helped incorporate nearly 30 startups, over half of which emerged from social sciences. And yet, for academics in SSH wishing to pursue spinouts, university innovation has been largely off limits.

Until now.

OUI is responding to increasing demand for innovation support from the SSH community and is developing a number of different products to support academics looking to create greater impact from their ideas.

First is the social enterprise, or social venture, model. Sitting in the overlap between a charity and a for-profit company, social enterprises come in a few different flavours. The general idea is that all profits from the company are considered 'evergreen' – that is, they are continually funnelled back into the company to create sustainable growth. While these companies do remain profit-making organisations, the focus isn't 'for-profit', but 'for-impact'.

We feel that the social ventures model is more in line with SSH's ethical, moral and impact-driven motivations for engaging with innovation. Consequently, OUI is conducting research into social enterprise programmes at peer institutions, it has taken on staff focused on SSH, and it is currently leading discussions with the wider university to design and deploy Oxford's social enterprise offer.

Most importantly, OUI is busy developing strategies and initiatives that ensure the successful launch, growth and sustainability of social enterprise. At present, OUI-backed spinouts have a survival rate (that is, they are still in business or have successfully sold after their initial three years) of 87%, compared with a national average of 54%. Bringing the same level of high-quality support our spinout body benefits from to social enterprise will be mission critical for OUI.

We're yet to formally roll out the social enterprise offer but already have over 20 projects in our pipeline from word of mouth alone. In fact, there's actually a race on between SSH and the Medical Sciences Division to see which will be our first, sOPHIa from SSH or LIFE (Life-saving Instructions For Emergencies) from tropical medicine.

LIFE is using mobile and virtual reality to medically train people in developing countries and was the first beneficiary of another key vehicle for SSH-related innovation at Oxford: OxReach. A crowdfunding platform developed by OUI in partnership with the University's Development Office, OxReach has now raised around £200,000 for four projects by harnessing Oxford's extensive network for support. The latest, Greater Change, is looking to rethink how we help the homeless. The Greater Change team successfully raised £33,000 in December and is currently using the funds to develop an app that facilitates secure, cashless donations to the homeless.

We've also been busy getting SSH ideas out into the wider world through what we know best: spinouts. We completed InkPath, a Humanities Division spinout offering career support for academics, in 2017, and we'll be announcing our first Social Sciences spinout in 15 years in the coming weeks.

This is just the beginning. The work innovators in SSH have done so far, and what we're hoping to achieve together with SSH in the future, will be the focus of our next Oxford Innovation Society meeting later this month. In the long term, we're hoping that our work with SSH will open up a new chapter in university innovation.

musical notes

On 27 February 1854, the acclaimed composer Robert Schumann attempted suicide by jumping off a bridge into the Rhine. Although he was rescued by boatmen and brought home, he afterwards insisted on being placed in an asylum for his own and his family's good. He would spend the last two years of his life there, before dying of pneumonia at the age of 46.

For several years beforehand, he had been plagued by auditory hallucinations, erratic moods and depressive episodes — which historians speculate might have been the result of anything from bipolar disorder to syphilis or mercury poisoning. Despite these symptoms, he still experienced fits of creative energy, producing several pieces in this time, including the Maria Stuart songs and Lenau Lieder. Because of their radically different style to his earlier works, these have often been taken as a symptom of a tragic creative decline, the work of a man whose judgement was fatally impaired by the ravages of his illness.

But according to Laura Tunbridge, Professor in Oxford's Faculty of Music and Henfrey Fellow and Tutor at St Catherine's College, there is no reason to assume that. She says we might have been overly influenced by the work of his first biographers, as well as of his wife Clara and his younger colleagues Johannes Brahms and Joseph Joachim, who edited and compiled his work after his death. All of them wanted to conceal what they felt was a shameful detail about the great man's life, and, as a result, some of the later pieces have tended to be erased from discussion of his life's work.

Professor Tunbridge says: 'In the mid-19th century, there was a huge social stigma about mental illness. And so his family and his friends and his colleagues didn't particularly want people to know. And you can see that in the way the first biographers write about him — they assume that mental illness is going to have a detrimental effect.'

In fact, you often see a new period of experimentation in other composers' late works. There are many reasons why a composer might change their style which have nothing to do with their mental state. Professor Tunbridge thinks that the necessity to write for a more popular audience, to support an ever-growing family, as well as the influence of a younger generation of composers represented by Joachim and Brahms, probably had just as much of an impact on Schumann’s new musical direction. People have also tended to underestimate these works simply because they are written in a simpler, less ostentatious style.

Professor Tunbridge adds: 'Some composers — say, Beethoven — at the end of their career write these late works and people think they're amazing and radical and new and experimental. But with Schumann there's a sort of idea that his creative powers fall off and that they're not so significant. So I'm trying to figure out whether that's really the case or whether that's because of all the assumptions people make.'

As part of a Knowledge Exchange Fellowship with TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities) last year, Professor Tunbridge worked with Oxford Lieder to produce a series of podcasts, Unlocking Late Schumann, exploring Schumann's later works in conversation with performers and critics, to prompt reassessment of his work.

The collaboration also organised performances of these works for the annual Oxford Lieder Festival. Professor Tunbridge says that having these works performed is a crucial component to rescuing them from their critical obscurity: 'You can be a historian and say all these things about how wonderful these works are, but unless someone's actually going to sing them, it doesn't make any difference.'

She has also been thinking about how recitals can present works in ways that engage the audience and involve them in interpreting the pieces they are hearing, rather than simply giving them a programme note telling them what the music is 'about'. This resulted in some exciting and innovative programming, including a recital where Schumann's work was performed alongside some experimental modern composers who have been inspired by him.

Alongside the podcast, which can reach a wider audience than the demographic who usually attend classical music festivals, this represents a new approach to interpreting and appreciating Schumann. Professor Tunbridge hopes this can encourage appreciation of the composer's work, without preconceived notions getting in the way: 'As academics, we do all this educational work to try and explain things. But actually do we need that much historical context or do we need to encourage people to listen in a fresh way, without preconceptions?'

Listen to the first episode of Unlocking Late Schumann here.

Ross Pollack

If you were asked to name a weapon used in World War I, you’d probably think of gas attacks, or artillery, or tanks.

But another unusual weapon was battering people across the world, and caused suffering long after the bell tolled on the 11th November 1918. It wasn’t a new invention: it was hunger.

Dr Mary Cox and Dr Clare Morelon, early career researchers in the History Faculty, and Principal Investigator Professor Sir Hew Strachan, are leading a groundbreaking international research project that is exploring how one of our most basic requirements—food—shaped World War I and its aftermath.

The Hunger Draws the Map project is revealing how the Great War, including a British and French blockade that prevented ships carrying food and weapons from getting to Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey until 1919, caused malnutrition and starvation across Europe and the Ottoman Empire - for years after the war ended.

“There was so much suffering in the world after the war was over,” says Dr Cox. “Yes, there’s the terrible stuff you hear about—injured soldiers, people who were maimed—but during and after the war, people were hungry.”

And debates have been raging for a hundred years about just how hungry people were. “We’re actually plugging into a debate that goes back a hundred years,” Dr. Cox says. “Some call it a myth; others say people were dying on the streets.”

By using innovative new methods and making thematic comparisons, Dr Cox and the team, working with an international group of researchers, are working on a book that will try to trace just how hungry populations were, and what effect this had on the post-war world.

The project is trying to understand hunger in lots of different ways. This involves looking at how much food was available and measuring the growth curves and weights of people at the time. But it also means thinking about hunger in other ways.

“How did states understand food security? What were the political responses to hunger? Who did everyone blame?” Dr Cox asks.

In Germany, farmers often got the blame. “People in the cities accused farmers of keeping their food for themselves, rather than giving it to people in towns and cities.”

And how did being hungry change the way people lived their lives? “The black market was huge, and people smuggled food when they could,” Dr Cox explains.

“But hunger also changed how people behaved. If you had an occupation where you physically needed to work a lot--swing a hammer, wash laundry, walk miles to get to a factory—that burned calories. People limited their physical activity in order to survive.”

And, with so little food, people had to resort to survival strategies. “People tried to grow gardens, or share what they had with their loved ones. In Germany, women sacrificed themselves for their children.”

Not many people know about how hunger was used as a weapon in this way, but Dr Cox says the impact was vast.

“This story really needs to be told and understood,” she says. “This war affected the rest of the twentieth century.

"Hunger is such a horrible, horrible thing to experience, people don’t forget very easily. People lost trust in their governments, sometimes their neighbours, and social divisions were often amplified.”

And, at root, this is a story about everyday people.

“Hunger is experienced on an individual level, so even though there were millions of people, we’re trying to put individual faces to their suffering,” Dr Cox says.

Together, the Hunger Draws the Map team are working on a thematic book that explores all of these issues from a comparative, international perspective, from Finland to the Netherlands to Bohemia. By doing so, they encourage us to remember, as we celebrate the centenary of the end of the war in 2018, how hunger drew the post-war map.


Even though nobody in her family had been to university before, Jaycie Carter dreamed of studying English at Oxford.

And, now that she’s here, she’s making sure that all students who study here feel comfortable regardless of their background.

Jaycie is part of a team, led by Oxford University Student Union (OUSU), that set up Class Act, a new campaign that aims to support working class, low income, state comprehensive and first-generation students.

“I’d been thinking a lot about class, and writing about it for my English degree, and I thought it would make such a difference for students like me to have a place where they could meet, talk, and discuss the issues that we face,” Jaycie says.

From a young age, Jaycie, who is from the West Midlands, enjoyed studying, using English and psychology to explore the history of ideas and society.

“I knew I wanted to go to university, cause I’ve always been quite academic and read a lot,” she says.

Jaycie hoped to go to Oxford, and now that she’s here, she’s relishing all the city offers.

“It was the dream, so it’s a bit weird actually being here now. Sometimes I have to remind myself—it’s really cool that I’m here!” she says.

Outside of her English degree, she’s also an active member of the LGBTQ community.

“I really like my course, and studying areas I’m interested in, like class and sexuality,” she says. “And the LGBTQ community is great, we have so many resources and events happening every week.”

Being part of the LGBTQ community made Jaycie think about how valuable it would be to have a similar community for students from working-class backgrounds.

“I saw how helpful it is to meet with other people who are similar to you,” she says. She wanted to foster the same sense of community for working-class and state-educated students who, like her, can face a unique set of challenges when they arrive at university.

“It can sometimes be alienating if you or your family don’t have much experience of higher education,” she says.

So, when she heard about a new campaign for working-class students that was in the pipeline, Jaycie got involved. The campaign launched in May 2017, and Jaycie was elected co-chair. Now, she’s excited to get started.

“It’s important to give people spaces to acknowledge the things they face. My aim is to create the things I needed when I got here,” she says.

The campaign has four strands: working class, state comp, low income, and first generation. Any student who identifies with any of the strands is welcome to get involved. “We want to make our campaign as broad and welcoming as we can. We’re not try to define what it means to be working class,” Jaycie says.

Since the launch, the campaign has held a social, and there are plenty more plans in place. This includes speaker events and a survey that will ask students what they’d like to see from the campaign.

With a team of reps—which represent the diverse experiences and identities of students in Oxford—the committee ran four social events last term, as well further events such as an LGBTQ meet up and a social for students from state comprehensives.

They’re also hoping to create an academic guide, which will give students access to information they might not have been made aware of before they arrive, and to run careers events, in which alumni from Class Act backgrounds will come and chat about their experiences and offer students the opportunity to network.

Jaycie is excited to be part of a committee that will complement all of the positive access work that Oxford does by creating support systems for students once they arrive.

And her efforts are already paying off. “The reception has been amazing. Lots of people have said it’s great that the problems they’ve faced are being acknowledged and discussed,” she says.

Find out more about the Class Act campaign here, follow them on Twitter, and check out their Facebook page to get involved.


Names, dates, bad jokes, life advice: we find graffiti almost everywhere in modern life.

But not many people realise that scrawling on walls isn’t anything new. At least three thousand years ago, in the dusty heat of Ancient Egyptian temples, people did the very same thing.

Dr. Elizabeth Frood, Associate Professor of Egyptology, has been painstakingly uncovering examples of such graffiti at the four-thousand-year-old Temple of Karnak.

Nestled alongside official images of the gods are the names and drawings of ordinary people. Some are carved into sandstone, while others have been carefully inked and painted.

“People write their names and titles—sort of like “I was here”,” Dr. Frood explains. “A lot of the graffiti is by temple staff. In one stairwell, we have a baker’s name and image—I imagine him as someone who made delicious cakes for the gods.”

Unlike some of the more unsavoury graffiti you might stumble across nowadays, however, our ancient contemporaries appear to have been quite inspired by religion.

“People always ask me, “Ooh, is there obscenity?” And I have to admit, “No, they’re really pious!”” Dr. Frood says.

But this doesn’t mean that the graffiti were always accepted. In some cases, Dr. Frood has discovered that it had been plastered over or even erased, although sometimes, just like today, this was simply to make room for more graffiti.

“You look at it, and you know there’s something different about it, a bit jarring. You can imagine priests or officials walking through, seeing it, and thinking, “Weird!””.

Dr. Frood first noticed the graffiti during her own doctorate, when she was researching formal temple displays.

“I remember walking through the temple, looking at all the formal inscriptions. And then, suddenly, it was like looking through a kaleidoscope—something shifted, and all of this graffiti popped out of the wall!”

The graffiti had been there all along. “I’d been a student pottering around in this temple, and I’d not noticed, and then suddenly my lens changed—and it was everywhere!”

Dr. Frood carried on with her doctorate, but she didn’t forget the graffiti. When the chance to work on it finally popped up, in 2010, she grabbed it.

Researching graffiti is hard work. In collaboration with the Centre Franco-Égyptien d’Études de Temples de Karnak, Dr. Frood and her doctoral student, Chiara Salvador, have been meticulously photographing, copying, and analysing the inscriptions. They then try to date it by examining the style of handwriting and the surrounding archaeology.

But such thorough work means that Dr. Frood has the opportunity to connect with people who lived thousands of years ago.

“When you’re recording a graffito, and tracing someone’s name, you’re following the hand of someone that was writing on the temple wall in, say, 1100 BC. And on an emotional level, that’s very powerful.”

And documenting this graffiti gives us an unusual peek into daily life of an ancient society.

“We’re accessing the day-to-day,” Dr. Frood says. “You can begin to imagine this busy, bustling temple environment—people doing building work, performing rituals, cleaning up.

“The moment you shift your lens, the temple becomes this cluttered, busy, bustling, human space. It’s often hard for us to imagine what these environments would’ve felt like, but the graffiti lets us do that. And that’s what makes them so special.”