Exeter Centre for Literatures of Identity, Place, and Sustainability: Informing and Influencing Public Debates on Regional and National Identity
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of Exeter
Unit of AssessmentEnglish Language and Literature
Summary Impact TypeSocietal
Research Subject Area(s)
Language, Communication and Culture: Cultural Studies, Literary Studies
History and Archaeology: Historical Studies
Summary of the impact
As long-running debates on what it means to be British, English, Scottish
or Cornish grow more urgent, researchers at the University of Exeter have
engaged different publics in new perspectives on identity and citizenship,
encouraging them to reconsider their own identities in the context of
regional and national cultural heritage. This research has influenced
media narratives, public policy debate, and a diverse range of discussions
relating to regional or national identity. Its main impacts have been to:
- inform and influence policy debate and practice
- inform the content of associations between people and groups to
illuminate and challenge cultural values
- extend the range of evidence to enhance public understanding of major
The environmental humanities are a key research theme for Exeter English,
building on the interdisciplinary strengths of its second campus in
Penryn: an Environment and Sustainability Institute has recently been
opened at Penryn, part-funded by £23m from the European Regional
Development Fund, and a Centre for Environmental Arts and Humanities
(CEAH) has been established in tandem. English's work in the area of
Environmental Humanities is channelled through Exeter Centre for
Literatures of Identity, Place, and Sustainability (ECLIPSE), which was
founded in 2008 and is directed by Groom. With a mission to work
with CEAH in contributing to a new public discourse of `cultural
environmentalism', one main strand of ECLIPSE's research has been the
relationship of narrative and symbolic discourses of myth, memory, and
history to particular environments, and how those discourses represent
notions of identity and place in different ways. This latter strand of the
Centre's research has been led by Nick Groom and Marion Gibson.
Groom, the Director of ECLIPSE since its foundation, was Lecturer
in English at Exeter from 1992-2000 and then returned as Professor of
English based at the Penryn campus in 2007. His extensive, well-known work
on authenticity and forgery in Romantic and later literature, which was
supported by the Leverhulme Trust, evolved into an interest in the
repeated reinventions of English and British identities in literary and
historical forgeries (3.1; 3.7). He continues to pursue the
relationship between Romantic writers and regional identity in on-going
research (3.2). His wider interest in questions of identity and
place in the British Isles led to a 2006 monograph on the Union Jack and
subsequent work which offers more general theoretical reflection on the
relationship between flags and nationhood (3.3). Groom used the
example of flags, in particular the Union Jack, to explore how the
cultural heritage of a symbol determines ideas of national identity,
controversially arguing in the case of the Union Jack that a flag has
wrongly been allowed to become a sign of conflict rather than of cohesion.
Within ECLIPSE sits the Atlantic Archipelagos Research Project, a
partnership led by Groom with the National University of Ireland's Moore
Institute and also involving the Solway Centre for Environment and
Culture, University of Glasgow, and the Willson Center, University of
Georgia, USA. The Project has organized, with British Academy support,
academic and public events in England and Ireland exploring how old ideas
of the British Isles relate to regional identities after devolution, using
Ireland's own experience of partition and self-rule as a comparison (3.8).
Groom has subsequently developed a further environmental perspective on
questions of British regional identities by exploring their relationship
with climate in his new monograph The Seasons (3.4).
Gibson, appointed as Lecturer in English at the University of
Exeter in 1999 and currently Associate Professor at the Penryn campus and
deputy Director of ECLIPSE, has published a series of books exploring how
stories of supernatural events, specifically witchcraft, are shaped by
local, regional and national contexts. This research developed into a
specific interest in literary and oral narratives of Cornish identity as
they have been influenced by `Celtic' ideas of myth and mysticism. With a
colleague in the Institute of Cornish Studies at Penryn, Gibson was
awarded in 2008 a major AHRC grant for a three-year project investigating
how Cornwall's mythologized past influences perceptions of Cornish
identity as `Celtic' and `un-English' (3.9). Such perceptions are
accentuated both to attract tourists and to fuel nationalistic sentiment.
The project has resulted in a collection of fifteen essays on the cultural
heritage of Celtic identity and Gibson's monograph on representations of
the pagan past in literature, film, and popular culture (3.5; 3.6).
References to the research
Evidence of the quality of the research: peer-reviewed collections of
essays and monographs with major publishers, essays in influential
collections with major publishers, and peer-reviewed grant awards from
major external funding bodies.
1. Groom, The Making of Percy's `Reliques' (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 1999).
2. Groom, `"Al Under the Wyllowe Tree": Chatterton and the
Ecology of the West Country', in Romanticism and the West Country,
ed. Nicholas Roe (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2010), pp. 37-61.
3. Groom, `Union Jacks and Union Jills', in Flag, Nation and
Symbolism in Europe and America, ed. Thomas Hylland Eriksen and
Richard Jenkins (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), 68-87.
4. Groom, The Seasons: An Elegy for the Passing of the Year
(London: Atlantic Books, 2013).
5. Gibson, GH Tregidga, SJ Trower (eds.), Mysticism, Myth and
Celtic Identity (London: Routledge, 2012).
6. Gibson, Imagining the Pagan Past (London: Routledge,
7. Groom, Leverhulme Fellowship (10.5K), 1998-9, to work on the
cultural history of authenticity.
8. Groom, British Academy conference grant (£7.5k), 2011, for
`Atlantic Archipelagos Research Project case study: Perspectives on Tim
9. Gibson, with G. Tregidga (CI), AHRC research grant (£252k),
2008-11, for `Mysticism, Myth, and "Celtic" Nationalism: A Case Study of
Details of the impact
Increased immigration, the rising influence of far-right groups, the
success of UKIP in local elections, Cornish nationalism, and the
forthcoming Scottish Independence Referendum have thrust questions about
Britishness to the forefront of public discourse. Research at ECLIPSE has
engaged different publics in the cultural and historical contexts of these
highly charged social and political debates.
Informing and influencing policy debate and practice
Groom's research on the symbolism of flags has informed
discussions about national identity in the British media and the work of
political pressure groups. His published papers led to an invitation to
speak at a Fabian Society seminar on citizenship at the 2008 Labour Party
Conference and the TUC's Equality Summit in the same year. The
significance of Groom's work is evident in its citation in the successful
campaign to allow the permanent flying of the Union Jack over the Houses
of Parliament on the grounds that the flag was a vital component of
British cultural heritage. The 2010 decision marked an end to a 150-year
rule that the flag only flies when Parliament is sitting. The MP who
chaired Parliament's All Party Flags and Heraldry Committee, and who led a
nine-campaign on the issue, declared that `Prof. Groom's research and
publications have contributed to the campaign to gain formal recognition
for the national flag . . . (Groom) has played a noteworthy role in this
process' (5.1). The President of the Flag Institute, an advisor to
the All Party Flags and Heraldry Committee, noted that Groom `has
contributed significantly to the better understanding of what a national
flag means to people and its unique importance to the nation' (5.2).
Informing the content of associations between people and groups to
illuminate and challenge cultural values; extending the range of
evidence to enhance public understanding of major social issues
The `Mysticism, Myth, and "Celtic" Nationalism' project resulted in a
number of events which engaged publics at both regional and national level
with issues of Cornish heritage and identity. Gibson organized a
public exhibition on myth and the supernatural in Cornish culture in 2010
in collaboration with regional artists, photographers, and cultural
industries. The exhibition was initially held at the University's Penryn
campus and then moved to Cornwall Council's Cornish Centre in Redruth,
accompanied by an oral history archive of 60 interviews with locals and
tourists. One of the 20 comments in the visitor's book at Penryn commended
the `clear link between [public] lectures and exhibition'. A Cornish
independent publisher reported that the exhibition `felt like an
appropriate and happy meeting between the University and a local cultural
industry' (5.3). The event drew national media interest and Gibson
was interviewed about Cornish ghost stories in popular culture on BBC
Radio Five Live `Drive', BBC1 Spotlight, and BBC Radio Cornwall. Her
research subsequently led to appearances as an academic expert in Tony
Robinson's 2011 Channel 4 series about supernatural belief in Britain, Gods
and Monsters, including overseeing what the producer calls a `key
episode' in the series involving recreation of an exorcism, and on Radio
4's `Open Book' feature on `Literary Landscapes — Cornwall' (18 August
Groom has been a prominent commentator on issues of national
identity in diverse forms of regional, national, and international media.
The reach of his research is indicated by the fact that his 5000-word
podcast, `Conflict and Cohesion in Britain, 2005-10', broadcast on
Scholarcast, a digital humanities project run by University College
Dublin, was downloaded on average 100 times a day in June 2011 by visitors
from around the world (5.5). He has written on the topic of
identity for national newspapers and magazines including The Sunday
Times, The Sun, Total Politics, and Prospect (5.6).
He has been interviewed by the BBC about Britishness in relation to a
range of topics, including the Olympics on Radio 4's `Today' programme (4
June 2012), when he argued that the Union Jack is `a symbol of inclusivity
and diversity' and that it is `the people's flag' (5.7). Groom was
also a key academic contributor to BBC 4's Citizen Smith (2010),
about the search for a modern-day definition of English nationality. An
example of the diversity of these media contributions is an interview in The
Guardian discussing the use of the Union Jack in fashion (5.8).
During the Jubilee, Groom provided expert testimony to international media
outlets, including CNN and France's TF1 (5.9). These media
contributions have influenced online debate among an extraordinarily wide
range of interest groups: from lobbyists arguing for and against Scottish
independence, to gay rights activists observing that the BNP's emblem was
designed by a homosexual king, to members of the Scout Movement stressing
the cultural importance of the St George flag. Groom's publications are
often cited as authoritative sources to settle disagreements (5.10).
The Wikipedia entry for `the Union Flag' refers readers to Groom's 2007
essay `Union Jacks and Union Jills'.
Sources to corroborate the impact
- Email from Chair of the Parliamentary All Party Flags and Heraldry
Committee (28 Jul 2011).
- Email from the President of the Flag Institute and Advisor to the All
Party Flags and Heraldry Committee (1 July 2011).
- Email from head of Fal Publications, Cornwall (29 June 2011).
- Corroboration can be obtained from the producer / director of Tony
Robinson: Gods and Monsters.
- Emails from the academic director of Scholarcast (21 June 2011; 22 Aug
- `The UK Shouldn't Change its Flag', Prospectmagazine.co.uk.
Prospect Magazine, 25 Jan 2012
(accessed 8 Nov. 2013).
- Interview. `Today', BBC Radio 4, 4 June 2012.
(accessed 8 Nov. 2013).
- `How the Union Flag went Posh', Guardian.co.uk. The Guardian,
8 July 2012.
(accessed 8 Nov. 2013).
- `Union Jack Brings Boom for British Business'. cnn.com.
CNN, 6 June 2012.
(accessed 8 Nov. 2013).
- See e.g. `Britain's Flag was Introduced by a Gay or Bisexual King',
Greater Surbiton, September, 2010. Web. 21 June 2012.
(accessed 8 Nov. 2013).