Southern Voices at the symposium: A Silk Road of Knowledge?

Image of a pair of glasses on a book

The Roving Reader Files

Did you know that once the historic centre of Salford boasted one end of the longest railway platform in the world? Were you aware that we could all have been sauntering along an elevated walkway stretching from the University of Manchester right down Oxford Road to the heart of the city? Or even that our universities are part of what might be called a ‘Silk Road of Knowledge’?

No, neither was I… Not until a few weeks ago, when I spent a day at the University of Manchester, riveted to every word uttered by several enthusiastic academics chewing over Mapping the Historical Geographies of Higher Education in Greater Manchester. Yes, I do sometimes break out from among the Centre’s bookshelves, and on this occasion I was listening to talk after talk, as well as enjoying numerous question and answer sessions. You’ve guessed it, I was attending a symposium!

Symposium flyer. Click for a larger view

Symposium flyer. Click for a larger view

You might have gathered by now I’m a sucker for maps and history, so you won’t be surprised I was off like a shot when I heard about this event.  What I discovered!  Tales of hidden rivers and forgotten tunnels under the streets of central Manchester, medical schools popping up here and there all over the city, flickering silent films from decades ago with lecturers and students frolicking around the Manchester School of Art at All Saints…
Sound engaging?

With my race relations hat on, I was particularly fascinated by the idea of that Silk Road of Knowledge. What could it be?

As I listened, I discovered Manchester had played host to the pioneering efforts of a voluntary group called Southern Voices. This group strove to enable international students from the ‘Global South’ to raise their voices in a mutual exchange of ideas and insights between the peoples of the different regions of the world…

We’ve heard of Southern Voices before on this blog.  As we learnt then, the Centre has boxes of their letters and papers stashed away in the vault. Now, however, before my very eyes was conjured a picture of how centuries ago the Silk Road of old had facilitated the mutual exchange of precious goods and ideas across the then known world. And of how, in the 1990s, Southern Voices was helping to construct a Silk Road of Knowledge, facilitating the exchange of ideas and insights between the ‘Global South’ and ‘Global North’ right here in Manchester’s communities.

Courtesy Southern Voices

Courtesy Southern Voices

Our universities in Greater Manchester were then, and remain today, important stopping off points for thousands of international student ‘ambassadors’, poised to engage in insightful conversations that can enlighten us all  –  provided we understand their value, and help rather than hinder their progress.

From what I heard at the symposium, it’s not so easy to establish a Silk Road of Knowledge. Southern Voices had a hard time even establishing an office on the University of Manchester campus. They needed to be there in order to be close to the international students with whom they’d be working.

Despite the difficulties, by 2004 Southern Voices had come a long way. They were represented on the new Community Advisory Panel created by The Manchester Museum (a University of Manchester cultural institution), helping put together a policy for reaching out to new audiences in the diverse communities dotted around the city. Southern Voices volunteers and workers were even producing workshops and exhibits using objects from the Museum’s Living Cultures Gallery, including Rekindle with video artist Kooj Chuhan.

I went to an eye-opening exhibition produced by Southern Voices last summer, held at The People’s History Museum here in Manchester. Southern Voices is still cooperating with other institutions to help educate us all. Collaborating with (amongst others) the Imperial War Museum North and our own Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust, they had received Heritage Lottery funding to put together From the Shadows of War and Empire: Perspectives of Colonised Peoples on World War One.

We think we know all that is necessary about many things, but maybe we need reminding that we don’t. I’d like to think that by breathing the air of Manchester I also breathe the air wafting along that Silk Road of Knowledge… If our universities really are stopping off points on such a road I’m all for it. Let me know when the next get together is and I’ll be in there quick as a flash.

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