October, 2018. Oxford’s streets are even busier than usual thanks to the city’s annual Science and Ideas Festival. Amid the hubbub, one initiative captures the imagination – the ‘Uncomfortable Oxford Tour’. By the end of the 11-day festival, more than 300 people had embraced a deep dive into Oxford’s less than cosy past, taking the daily two-hour Uncomfortable Tour of the city.
What, though, is an Uncomfortable Tour? And why go on one?
The tour’s founders, Olivia Durand and Paula Larsson, have eloquent answers at their fingertips – as you’d expect from two Doctor of Philosophy candidates in the university’s Faculty of History.
A place of knowledge and power
“We wanted to highlight challenging but vital aspects of Oxford’s history,” explains Olivia, who met Paula during the 2018 TORCH-led Public Engagement with Research summer school. “Tourists take walking tours through the city but rarely engage with more problematic issues in Oxford’s past.”
Paula, who completed a Masters in Medical Anthropology at Oxford in 2016, agrees. “The tour’s premise was ‘Oxford is a place of knowledge, and therefore it is a place of power’,” she says. “Power is often accompanied by violence and exploitation, and the global notoriety of Oxford, as a city and university, raises questions about how that violence may have been conceptualised, even tacitly integrated into the fabric of the city.”
Confrontation with Oxford’s difficult history came to prominence when the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, originally directed against a statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, in 2015, reached the city. Campaigners targeted Oriel College’s commemoration of Rhodes, and many similar campaigns around the world have called upon academic and public institutions to signify a clean break from colonial or racist pasts. But Paula and Olivia, with their Original Uncomfortable Tour, took a different approach.
Looking to the public
“Oxford is a public space involving far more than just the university,” they say. “This is often overlooked in discussions about its past, so we looked to the public, not the university. By running the making the tour open to all, we got engagement from locals, tourists, and university members. The tour developed into a powerfully engaging discussion about our shared history.”
Uncomfortable it may have been, but the tour, with its blend of archival research and encouragement of debate among participants, was a hit. Olivia and Paula knew they were onto something, and, in February 2019, began running the tour more regularly. Oxford’s well-known sights – Cecil Rhodes’ statue, the Codrington library, the Rhodes House – were featured, but it also included stops at Bonn Square, the Indian Institute, the Natural History Museum and the Weston library. “By alternating explanation, questions, and open discussion, participants feel involved throughout,” says Olivia.
And by spring 2019, it was clear that the tour could sustain itself as a social enterprise. “We were initially helped by a graduate project grant from TORCH, and then received a social enterprise award from the Oxford Hub,” says Paula. “The university’s help was invaluable.”
Today, Uncomfortable Oxford consists of some 30 students, with almost 20 fully trained guides. It runs public tours five times a week, and has also begun collaborating with other institutions across the city: the Ashmolean, Natural History and Pitt Rivers Museums, Wadham College, Project SOUP, Branch Up [Oxford Hub], the Oxford Climate Justice Campaign, Experience Oxfordshire, the Bodleian Libraries, the Department of Geography, and the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities.
They have additionally researched and designed a number of specialised tours, delving into financial donations to Oxford, the uncomfortable literature of the city, and various museum-focussed tours.
No surprise, then, that, in June 2019, the directors of Uncomfortable Oxford, Olivia and Paula, were Highly Commended for the Vice Chancellor’s Social Impact Awards for their work. Their goal was to start a conversation, and they have more than met it.