Getting people talking

Islam and Medicine dialogue event at Wellcome Collection

Islam and Medicine dialogue event at Wellcome Collection

How does Wellcome Collection put its varied programme together? In the first of a series going behind the scenes with the events team, Rosie Tooby explains what goes into a ‘dialogue event’.

I work on Wellcome Collection’s events programme. It’s my job to develop the content of events, work out who needs to be involved, pin down the logistics and make sure the event runs smoothly on the day. While some subjects lend themselves to being displayed in an exhibition context other subjects are better tackled in a live format like a talk or a performance, which is why Wellcome Collection has events as well as exhibitions.

When a new exhibition is being developed I work alongside the curators to programme events to accompany the exhibition. Several of us work on the programme: more heads means more ideas. We usually start working on a series of events about a year before it takes place. Starting with a very broad subject it is our job to try and work out the most interesting ideas to tackle and if it’s best to run performances, discussions, workshops or any other events that we can think of.

Before pinning down the events, we do lots of research. It’s excellent to talk to the curators about the content as they have been researching the subject for at least 6 months or a year before us so they can give us a great insight into the subject. I also do lots of reading to try and get my head around the new area. I do this at my desk and also in the Wellcome Library. I search newspaper databases, academic journals, talk to experts in the Wellcome Trust and elsewhere to try and find the most interesting areas to hone in on for our audience. While I’m researching I also think about the different formats of events that will be best suited to interrogate the subject.

One of the most common formats we use is called a ‘dialogue event’. This brings together three different experts to tackle a single subject and get people talking. If we decide to programme a dialogue event, I usually interview at least 20 different experts over the phone before I work out who it is best to invite to participate. These might be historians, doctors, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, clinicians or anyone who has something interesting to say on the subject… It’s really important that the invited experts are talking from different perspectives and have personal, professional or academic expertise in the subject.

We ask the three different experts to talk for just 10 minutes and those presentations are followed by a couple of questions from the facilitator and then lots of questions from the audience. The questions are the most important part for me, and often the most exciting part of the evening. Experts are often surprised and challenged by the issues that our audience raise, it’s good to keep them on their toes.

An example of a dialogue event coming up is Tattoos: Marks of meaning. I’m afraid this is fully booked as it was so popular. But we always run a waiting list on the night of events from 90 minutes before the event start time: it’s always worth giving that a try. And we’ll be programming more dialogue events in the autumn: check our events pages for details.

Rosie Tooby is Events Officer at Wellcome Collection.

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