Three-D Issue 20: Great conference and lovely time in Derry

p3-0Máire Messenger Davies
University of Ulster

When, in 2011, we at the University of Ulster’s School of Media, Film and Journalism, decided to bid for the annual MeCCSA conference to take place on the University of Ulster’s Derry/Londonderry campus in 2013, a big plus point was that it would coincide with the beginning of Derry’s UK City of Culture year, 2013.

Student and volunteer helpers outside the Martha Magee Building at the start of the conference

Student and volunteer helpers outside the Martha Magee Building at the start of the conference

The bid to host the conference was submitted to the MeCCSA Executive in London in March 2011, along with six other bids, and it was discussed at length – people were a bit worried about the distance, the flights, the possible inconvenience, the likely weather.

But we convinced them: our bid was successful. So from that day on, we were planning to make our January 2013 conference, with the theme of ‘Spaces and Places of Culture’, not only a great academic meeting for scholars studying the media, but also a showcase for the city to many people who have never been here, and perhaps have only dimly heard of it as a place associated with trouble.

From L to R: Prof Máire Messenger Davies, conference organizer, University of Ulster: Dr. James Nesbitt, Chancellor University of Ulster; Prof Deirdre Heenan, Provost Magee Campus, University of Ulster; Prof Martin McLoone, conference organizer, University of Ulster

From L to R: Prof Máire Messenger Davies, conference organizer, University of Ulster: Dr. James Nesbitt, Chancellor University of Ulster; Prof Deirdre Heenan, Provost Magee Campus, University of Ulster; Prof Martin McLoone, conference organizer, University of Ulster

There were lots of pluses about this location for our conference – not least because of the help we got from the start from Aoife Thomas and her colleagues at the Derry Visitor and Convention Bureau and from City of Culture staff. Their hospitality and helpfulness in organizing a tour of the city for MeCCSA executive representatives in September 2011, with the support of the Irish Tourist Board, were tasters of all the helpfulness to come. As organisers, when we started to work out the practicalities, we were initially a little apprehensive about running such a big, complex event in a campus that wasn’t our own. (The School of Media, Film and Journalism is based on the Coleraine campus, 25 miles away.) In the event, we could not have been happier both with the beautiful environment of the Martha Magee building with its stunning views out across the Foyle, and with the excellent support we got from the Magee staff. They, too, were a credit to the city’s culture, and I’m sure enhanced the general impression of welcome, efficiency, warmth and vibrancy to our visitors. Our excellent student helpers completed the positive impression.

Visitor feedback

The email below, from one of our delegates at the ‘Spaces and Places of Culture’ conference is typical of most of the feedback we got from our visitors.

‘Just a brief note to say thank you very much for all the hospitality and warmth extended by you and your colleagues during the MeCCSA conference. I must say the conference was very well organised. I had a great conference and a lovely time in Derry.

Thanks again for everything.

Warmly, Saachi’

Seeing the city

Organisers streamed live video of the MeCCSA Conference to the internet. Pictured here are Alan Hook and Rowan Morrey.

Organisers streamed live video of the MeCCSA Conference to the internet. Pictured here are Alan Hook and Rowan Morrey.

Most conferences are busy affairs with very little time for delegates to get out and about to see the sights. Also, in January, on the North Coast of Ireland, there is no light by the end of the day, and from long experience, we were anxious about the weather – would it snow? Pour with rain? Be foggy and gloomy? Gale-swept? All of the above?

There’s never any way of knowing. So firstly we made sure, with the help of the University and the Provost of the Magee campus, Deirdre Heenan, that all the conference sessions would be in the same building, the newly-refurbished (with some funding help from the City) Martha Magee, so that people wouldn’t have to go outside unnecessarily; but we also made sure there was plenty of space in the programme for people to go on daytime tours in the city, organized with the help of the Derry Visitor and Convention Bureau. Thanks so much to them, and to the staff from the City of Culture team, particularly Claire McDermott who stood in for an ill Shona McCarthy at the last minute, at our opening Plenary session.

‘Derry is awesome’

Dr Beatriz Garcia, University of Liverpool delivers her presentation at the opening of the three day MeCCSA Conference.

Dr Beatriz Garcia, University of Liverpool delivers her presentation at the opening of the three day MeCCSA Conference.

The opening session dealt with the concept of ‘Cities of Culture’ and our keynote speaker, Beatriz Garcia from Liverpool University, spoke about her research on Liverpool’s year as European City of Culture in 2008. The city of culture idea inspired several comments among our delegates and some discussed a wish to pursue it in their own cities – for instance this from Dave Harte. First he tweeted:

‘Derry is awesome. #MeCCSA2013

He then wrote a blog about his hopes for Birmingham to follow in Derry’s footsteps:

‘Birmingham City of Culture 2017’, January 25, 2013

I was in Derry-Londonderry at the start of the year, the 2013 UK City of Culture. It was my first ever visit and I was immediately taken with the place. If you look at the words linked to Derry’s success then you’ll find nothing unexpected. They mention Creative Industries, ‘Digital’, they promised building/regeneration initiatives, they hinted at the potential for culture to “accelerate the pace of change and provide a new story for the city to tell to the world”.

That’s their way of saying “it’s complicated here but we’ll try.”

Has the discussion about whether Birmingham is planning to bid for UK City of Culture 2017 started yet? We should bid; I think we’d win.

Other delegates commented on the promotional video shown by Claire McDermott and her talk:

  • notanna1AnnaNotaro@notanna1
    Liked the way that#Derry presented itself as an identity *threshold* in the promo video for the UK City of Culture competition #MeCCSA2013
  • David McGillivray @dgmcgillivray
    interesting to see how #Derry is using its UK City of Culture status to reimagine its identity #MeCCSA2013. Promo video emphasises diversity

Touring the city

On the middle day of the conference, during a special two-hour lunch period, delegates, many of whom had never been to Derry before, were conducted round the walls by Martin McCrossan. An alternative ‘Herstory’ tour of the walls was also offered by our own Anne Crilly. Others chose to be shown round the museums by museum guides. Again, the messages below indicate how interesting and informative people found these tours. So, many thanks to all who helped with them. Here’s a few typical messages from delegates about the Derry venues:

  • jonhickman @jonhickman
    Only barely made it back to #meccsa2013 in time to eat and speak. Really enjoyed the walking tour thanks to the organisers for putting it on
  • Sarah Gilligan @idleponderings
    Thanks @cityhotelni, Derry Playhouse, Free Derry museum, Customs House & @ulsteruni for making us feel so welcome #Meccsa2013 @derry2013
  • DerryPlayhouse @PlayhouseDerry
    Delighted! #MeCCSA2013 #CMR fb.me/2oiz4ZZ77

The conference organisers were very grateful to the Playhouse staff for hosting a highly successful event on the first night of the conference, at which the University Chancellor, James Nesbitt, was a guest speaker.

We were grateful, too, to the City of Derry council for hosting a reception in the Playhouse foyer before the panel took place, and to the Mayor for attending and welcoming our delegates.

Thanks, too, to the Nerve Centre for hosting several screenings of films produced by delegates, including the fascinating films of Derry in the 1960s and 70s produced by Terence McDonald. These are a unique archival treasure.

The staff of the City Hotel, where a large number of delegates stayed, were also extremely helpful from the earliest stages of planning. All hotels offered special conference rates, and the City even gave us a prize draw: a free weekend, bed and breakfast, to one of the ‘Early Bird’ delegates to encourage early booking, chosen by lot.

Delegates from the Meccsa Conference, Spaces and Places of Culture, at the Custom House gala dinner. Picture by Rowan Morrey

Delegates from the Meccsa Conference, Spaces and Places of Culture, at the Custom House gala dinner. Picture by Rowan Morrey

Our conference dinner on Thursday 10th January, at the Custom House restaurant, followed by our annual MeCCSA Media Quiz, offered delicious food and friendly, patient service to 91 hungry people, in its comfortable, elegant surroundings – much enjoyed by delegates, such as those below:

  • notanna1AnnaNotaro @notanna1
    I’m at Custom House Restaurant in #Derry enjoying company of fellow #Meccsa2013 delegates, great way to end a day of intellectual stimulation
  • Anna Feigenbaum @drfigtree
    Excellent social movement panel, fantastic talk on storyful, free derry museum tour, 2 hour bogside interview&pub quiz to come! #MeCCSA2013

Enjoying the buzz

It was a great three days, with, as many people said, a very positive ‘buzz’ – and the city itself, certainly contributed to the buzz. This even included the weather, which was bright and clear and cold. Many delegates took their own photographs and videos – here’s Claire Wardle’s:

  • cward1e Claire Wardle
    Derry is pretty at night. #meccsa2013 pic.twitter.com/KWq8ZvEc
    MeCCSA2013 - 6

Some final comments from satisfied departing delegates:

  • Sarah Gilligan @idleponderings
    #Meccsa2013 & @derry2013 has been engaging, interesting, thought provoking, inspiring & great fun. I look forward to returning to Derry.
  • jonhickman @jonhickman
    Thank you Derry you were lovely. And #meccsa2013 went really well (@ City of Derry Airport (LDY)) 4sq.com/VXLft0
  • notanna1AnnaNotaro @notanna1
    How could I have missed so far the existence of such a thing as *Guinness bread* ? #IrishBreakfast #MeCCSA2013
Posted by Einar Thorsen