Interview: Saint Martin in the city

The city of Utrecht celebrated its 900th anniversary on 3 and 4 July 2022, with events including a festival in honour of city patron Saint Martin the Merciful. The festival, initiated by Els Rose, was themed “The miracle of Saint Martin, the happy city”. The event highlighted Saint Martin's importance to the people of Utrecht, from Medieval times to the present day. The festival programme was designed to make scientific research more accessible to the city's residents. It included performances of medieval music, an exhibition in the Dom Church produced by students, a visitors' book, a symposium and documentary on Saint Martin and a concert that saw primary school pupils from Utrecht singing new Saint Martin songs composed by conservatory students.

Organising a festival like that must have been a lot of work. How did you pull it off? 

"The main challenge was giving other people a role in the project and allowing them to approach that in their own way. For example, I told the lecturers working on the children's songs to explore the raw material – i.e. Gregorian church music – first. Then we brought in the conservatory students. They worked on the songs and coordinated the whole process with the kids. You need to give your partners a lot of freedom. Then it was up to the kids to really breathe life into the festival." 

What kind of issues did you run into during the collaboration? 

"We were working with a lot of different partners, so it was a complex process. I had to delegate a lot of tasks because of the sheer scale. Staying in control of the overall process was definitely challenging. I would have approached some things differently with the benefit of hindsight. Still, we cooperated really well with all the colleagues, interns and students involved in the exhibition. I couldn't handle all the details myself, but we coordinated everything smoothly, and it all went well; I got to leave lots of things to the interns. I also got a lot of help from our Faculty's Communications & Marketing department. For example, they came up with the idea of calling it a festival and gave me some personal media training." 

As a professor, how do you manage to balance all those different tasks? 

"I think public engagement is very much part of your research remit, so you have to choose. That means I won't be publishing much in academic journals or attending many conferences if I'm spending the year on a major public engagement project. I also promised to write a scientific monograph as part of my research project, but I pushed that forward in order to focus on this project. That was definitely a conscious decision." 

Prof.dr. Els Rose is Professor of Late and Medieval Latin at the Faculty of Humanities. Her research as part of an NWO VICI-project focuses on citizenship discourses in Western Europe in the period 400-1100.

Text: Stephanie Helfferich

Een tentoonstelling in de Domkerk gemaakt door studenten
Portrait: Ed van Rijswijk / Photo Gregorian Choir Utrecht: Paul van der Lugt


This article also appears in the third edition of the magazine Close-Up, full of inspiring columns, background stories and experiences of researchers and support staff.

Go to Close-up #3