Alex Loktionov: A Public Engagement Lighthouse

Ensuring the future of a discipline building upon everything the Cambridge world offers

From fortune-telling in an Assyrian-inspired fish costume at the Festival of Ideas when an undergrad, Alex is now a go-to person for outreach events on Egyptology in the Department of Archaeology and across many colleges and University projects. Shining a light on the ancient world in school visits, festivals and even online, he strives to be a navigational aid for future Egyptologists.

A still from Alex and Skye's Creative Encounters film about the Ancient Egyptian justice system. Credit: University of Cambridge

A still from Alex and Skye's Creative Encounters film about the Ancient Egyptian justice system. Credit: University of Cambridge

Already as an undergraduate student, Alex had a sense that more had to be done to get people talking about ancient history.

As lighthouses mark dangerous coastlines, Alex committed to public engagement to warn us that five or six students per year undertaking Egyptology might not be enough to ensure its successful future. 

Alerting is not the only service a lighthouse does, and Alex too aims to ensure that future Egyptologists as well as funders find their ‘harbour’. As an undergrad he visited the Festival of Ideas and thought that it might be a way to engage with a wide local audience and share something about his studies.

He joined the Rising Stars training programme  which guides researchers through the process of planning and delivering an activity, including all the health and safety and bureaucratic aspects of working with the public. Alex found this program ideal both because ‘the first time you do something you need a lot of help’ and because ‘if you participate in this training you will automatically have a slot at the following Festival’. 

Indeed, he had his first stall at the 2013 Festival of Ideas and he took part every year since then. ‘No two Festival of Ideas are the same’ and Alex enjoyed introducing the ancient history to five-year old children. 

Headshot of Alex Loktionov

Credit: Alexandre Loktionov

Credit: Alexandre Loktionov

“Structured programmes, such as Rising Stars or Creative Encounters, are great if you are new to Cambridge or to public engagement: they will guide you to create an activity or engagement output and they will provide you with an avenue to deliver it.”

Alex Loktionov

In-person engagement is key for a hands-on discipline like archaeology which learns a lot from material culture: Alex shared how to write in hieroglyphs and cuneiform also during Prehistory Day outreach events held by the Department of Archaeology during the October half term.

If Prehistory Day built upon the public engagement expertise of his colleagues, Department funds for purchasing materials and the Outreach and Communications Co-ordinator’ overseeing the event, some of Alex’s festival activities were uniquely his own work. 

Alex wearing an Assyrian-inspired fish costume is predicting the future of a visitor in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology during the Festival of Ideas.

Alex wearing an Assyrian-inspired fish costume is predicting the future of a visitor in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology during the Festival of Ideas.

Alex generates the concept for the activity straight from his research, and develops it looking at the actual material culture he is studying.

For instance, if you visited his first stall at the Festival you would have met him in a fish costume predicting your future with an Assyrian oil divination ritual. The costume was inspired by admiring the outfits of Assyrian priests on reliefs displayed at The British Museum

People are usually more positive and receptive to new ideas than you might think they are.”

Alex Loktionov

Before delivery, Alex usually fine tunes the activity entertaining his friends and family. He finds this feedback from people outside his professional world very useful to be more confident that an activity will be well received by the public. 

If when he was fortune-telling he collected only oral feedback from the festival visitors, he is no more an engagement rookie!

Feedback on paper helped later in funding applications and when making the case for more public engagement on a certain topic.

His latest takeaway from participating in the 2021 Cambridge Festival is that an activity can also benefit from an online presence. While he believes that the individual interaction, the possibility of letting people handle objects, and the overall sense of humanity and community of the in-person festival cannot be substituted with an online event, an online add-on is very beneficial. 

Alex sitting at a table is interacting with a family visiting the Archaeology Department Prehistory Day.

Alex sitting at a table is interacting with a family visiting the Archaeology Department Prehistory Day.

Online resources can be experienced multiple times and in a series, and also by people who cannot physically attend the event.

Attendance to live streamed events is automatically recorded and you can measure the geographic reach of your project. Alex warns us though that while people may attend your online event or use your online resources they do not seem to be keen on filling online anonymous feedback forms.

He also believes that you need to encourage the use of anything you make available online, and he is looking for avenues to invite schools to enjoy the resources he created about the Ancient Egyptian language and justice system. 

The years delivering activities at the Festival and during Prehistory Days made Alex able, like lighthouses, to face the impact of powerful winds...

He became a Festival Event Coordinator for his Department helping people new to public engagement to plan their activities and to carry out the associated risk assessments.

In a year when a strong gale led to the impossibility to deliver some events, he and his colleagues placed all their experience and improvisation skills into action to create a new offering last minute.

Alex’s mission of encouraging interest in studying Egyptology prompted him to move from his lookout…how can you be sure that the future big Egyptologist lives in Cambridge and attends the Festival?

Alex literally ‘got on a bus’ many times. Having been affiliated with four different colleges in Cambridge he is well aware of the efforts that they all place in widening access to the University.

He liaised with the Access and Outreach team of his college during his master and joined the group of researchers that travelled to deliver outreach talks in schools in areas of the country with low representation in higher education. 

"Wherever in the country or world you are from, if you go on these buses often enough, you will visit places you have never been and you will have dialogue with people with lifestyles which are very different from yours".

Alex Loktionov

The intensity of delivering four or five talks per day in schools very different from each other was invaluable to learn on the job about public speaking and public engagement.

All colleges have outreach and access officers and admissions tutors and some form of program to attract new students. If you are in one of the wealthier colleges you can even get paid to do something meaningful, but even the less wealthy colleges can give you the experience to deliver outreach talks, if not in-person, at least online.

Alex has also given talks to colleges’ alumni, another way to engage people with your work, inspire them to care about your subject, and potentially even attract donations towards your discipline.

“Joining your Cambridge College on Access visits to schools in other areas of the country increases a lot your ability to talk to people, as you give talks to students from different communities multiple times a day.”

Alex Loktionov

Since his PhD, Alex’s journey in public engagement is more and more focusing on ensuring that his message and language resonate with the generation applying to University, as well as on increasing the two-way character of his engagement. 

That is why he applied to another structured programme from the University Public Engagement team: Creative Encounters Partnerships.

This project pairs a researcher with a media student from Long Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge to create something that helps communicate their work to new audiences. Alex was fascinated by the idea of having the chance to work with someone who is going through education now and hear what they think directly. 

“I always recommend researchers new to public engagement to open the dialogue and collaborate with the people they are trying to reach as soon as possible. Alex got immediately involved with public engagement by hosting hands-on activities for school-aged children, engaging prospective undergraduate students through lectures and workshops, and frequently responding to press enquiries (including for children's magazines) around ancient Egypt. I would always contact him with new opportunities as he has a genuine enthusiasm for sharing his subject and always does so in an approachable way.”

Alex Loktionov

He joined the programme hoping his match would create a video game where players could play the role of Egyptian judges or criminals and make decisions in different historically accurate scenarios.

As he was paired with Skye, a student focusing on animations and movies, he put the idea of a game aside to make the most of Skye’s skills. They produced an animated video with Skye’s voice-over, which Alex hopes will make the topic of the evolution of the ancient Egyptian justice system more relatable to students as it is delivered by someone their age. 

Watch Creative Encounters Partnerships conversation with Alex and Skye as well as the film they created. Credit: University of Cambridge

Having a video had the benefit that Alex could include it among the resources he was invited to prepare for the HE+ website. Invited Cambridge students and academics create resources for school-aged students that aim to broaden the school curriculum to help students discover their passion for a subject.

How to get invited? Do a lot of good outreach and public engagement and when someone looks for something about your subject they will come find you! 

“If you allow the creative to choose the media and the output to deliver freely, you will be presented with something that might be different from what you envisaged, but very exciting.”

Alex Loktionov

Alex has been contacted  to write for The Guardian newspaper and to speak on international radios over the years. 

The few drawbacks of involvement with media and social media, such as the occasional trolling, are indications that people respond not only intellectually, but also emotionally to what you share, and have not discouraged him so far.

Alex has always enjoyed the coffee room of the McDonald Institute, college dinners and tea in the parlour as spaces for creativity. For instance, he found that the Cambridge Mesopotamian Community, an informal group of people interested in things Mesopotamian both within and outside the University has been a great inspiration. The Community made a board game for schools and even a movie in Akkadian language featuring students as actors. 

Alex has now funds to create his own research project website, as he was awarded a grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Like many research funds from the government, the grant has a dedicated public engagement component and budget. Alex looks forward to returning to bouncing public engagement ideas in-person off his colleagues. 

To the game developers out there…do not hesitate to reach out: the Ancient Egypt justice game is still on Alex’s horizon…by the way, the first lighthouse in the world was in Ancient Egypt (Pharos of Alexandria), check it out!

Follow Alex on Twitter and find out more about his research here.

If you are thinking about it, you need to be doing it. You will surprise yourself: if you start with a structured program, like Rising Stars or Creative Encounters, and build a good relationship with your departmental outreach coordinator you will soon be invited to take part in other projects. It is truly a snowball”

Alex Loktionov

Public Engagement Project Credits

PEOPLE: Malavika Anderson, Laure Bonner, Megan Goldman-Roberts, Sarah-Jane Harknett, Eleanor Robson, Christoph Schmidhuber, Martin Worthington

INSTITUTIONS: Arts and Humanities Research Council, Cambridge Language Sciences, Christ’s College (Cambridge), Department of Archaeology (University of Cambridge), History and Policy, Library of Congress (Washington DC), McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research (University of Cambridge), Robinson College (Cambridge), Selwyn College (Cambridge), St. John’s College (Cambridge)

Thinking about becoming a public engagement lighthouse?

Volunteer at the Festival
Attend the Engaged Researcher training courses
Work with a creative
Apply for University funding

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