Southampton Winter Forum 2019

A wooden chest. A tankard for ale. A pair of leather shoes.

The relics of Henry VIII’s battleship, the Mary Rose, serve as both time capsule and memorial to the lives lost in 1545 when she sank off the coast of Portsmouth during the Battle of Solent. As I walk the length of her hull in the museum, it comes to life with the sounds and smells of water and wood, sailors and sails. The exposed beams of the decks and cabins are lit in a golden light, a treasure ship of sorts, one that inspires awe and wonder. The Mary Rose is about the people more than the ship itself, a point made by Christopher Dobbs, maritime archeologist, when he introduced the ship and its excavation to our group of US Fulbright scholars, teachers and students touring the museum.

The cook, the doctor, the carpenter, the soldier. The bones of a terrier. The bones of a rat. As I walk beside the decks of the ship, I think about the humanity that lies beneath the sediment of day to day life, the layers that cloak us from one another.

It isn’t every evening that I sit beside a mathematician and a theater director discussing how to craft a play that explores the human desire to name and count the unnameable. The director recites a snippet from Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Monc Blanc”:

The everlasting universe of things

Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,

Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom—

Now lending splendour, where from secret springs

The source of human thought its tribute brings

The math professor passes me a screenshot of the preface to W.H. Auden’s “The Sea and the Mirror:” “This world of fact we love / is unsubstantial stuff.” We’re sitting by candlelight in Southampton’s The Vestry, a restaurant nestled within the stone arches of a former church that dates back to the 12th century. We’re just a few streets over from the John Hansard modern art gallery where the mayor welcomed us, his chain of office a ring of gold. The evening achieves a balance between tradition and revision, the ways in which we explore the past even as we discover new modes of expression.

A cucumber drink. A square of melon on a silver tray. The chatter of voices sharing, connecting, discovering one another in the midst of art and history.

Hosted by the University of Southampton and the US-UK Fulbright Commission, we spent our first day looking at sediment cores from ocean floors, examining shipwrecks with VR goggles, holding shards of Roman pottery in our hands. As a high school librarian and former English teacher, oceanography and archeology aren't subjects I normally encounter. As we toured the workshops that house the submersibles used by the National Oceanography Center, I wondered about the people behind the technology. Their ability to scrutinize a long tube of mud, to travel for months on arctic research ships, to design ISIS to gather images and samples from the ocean floor. When the mathematician asked about the monetary value of the data, our guide seemed stymied by the question. The data, after all, is priceless, preserved for the future as new questions and ideas emerge about our oceans.

A collection of PowerPoint slides. A break for tea. A plate of biscuits.

At the close of the Fulbright Winter Forum, we shared our projects and passions. A pre-med student explained her interest in serving communities in Haiti and Ghana. A teacher shared images of her children learning Tlingit songs, using music to shape their minds and affirm their identities. An author explained how he helps people recover from trauma and systemic silence by telling their own stories. An artist passed her copy of Tom Sawyer around the room, a text she had reimagined and reshaped to tell her own story, a project she would share with others who have been left out of dominant narratives. In the end, our projects are not about the data or the documents, they are about the people, cultures and communities that give them meaning.

Meeting the various US Fulbright recipients, some immersed in graduate work while others research, write, publish, and teach, I am struck by how rare it is to be in such mixed company. As we swap favorite books, films, and UK travel tips, our disciplines begin to lose their defined shape. If archaeologists were to carefully mine our depths and gather samples, would they find that while we each have our passions and professions, our small wooden caskets of trinkets and tools, we sail on the same waters? Who is the physicist and who the artist? Who teaches and who learns?

It rises slowly from the depths: this spark we share that extends beyond our individual projects and degrees. We celebrate and delight in our collective humanity as we explore how we can share that spark with the communities we serve. We feel a wonder and a joy of the world around us with all of its depths and discoveries, a golden light that illuminates the dark.

- Shana Ferguson, January 2019

Photos from top: mural at a public skate ramp in Southampton's Houndwell Park; submersible at the National Oceanography Center; Bitterne Park clock tower; sediment samples at the National Oceanography Center; view from the deck of the HMS Warrior in Portsmouth; quote from the wall of the John Hansard Gallery.