Roberta Cauchi-Santoro
Prof. Sandra Parmegiani, left, and Roberta Cauchi-Santoro

Taking a creative look at funding sources has paid off for College of Arts post-doc Roberta Cauchi-Santoro. She’s currently working on a project funded by Mitacs, a national non-profit organization that describes itself this way:

“Mitacs supports national innovation by co-ordinating collaborative industry-university research projects with human capital development at their core. Since 1999, Mitacs has been promoting academic-industrial R&D, while supporting the development of future innovation leaders.”

That description doesn’t scream “funding for the arts and humanities.” In fact, past funds have gone primarily to math, science and engineering projects. Cauchi-Santoro’s work is in the School of Languages and Literatures under the supervision of Prof. Sandra Parmegiani – definitely not a typical Mitacs project, yet Cauchi-Santoro was able to put together a proposal that met the organization’s funding requirements.

“I needed to look at the concept of ‘industry’ differently,” says Cauchi-Santoro. “Even though organizations such as the heritage council and the arts council are government-funded or not-for-profit, they are still industry.”

She had been teaching Italian for three years through a leisure program organized by the City of London, Ont., so she had some contacts in that community. She approached the city’s cultural office and asked for a list of projects they might be interested in pursuing.

“It turned out that the cultural office had created digital maps of the tangible culture in London and wanted to have something similar for the intangible elements of culture such as stories and folk tales,” she says. “This matched beautifully with my interests.”

The proposal was written to match the needs in London – a key element, Cauchi-Santoro says – and was approved following peer review. The end result will be a digital map that shows various aspects of the community’s intangible culture, including people’s memories of and stories about buildings of heritage significance in the historical core of the city.

“People remember when the downtown area of London was very vibrant. I hope with this project to revive some of that layer of experience,” she says. “There are also a number of projects that the city is proposing for the revitalization of its historic downtown. With this project, I hope to contribute to a revitalization that bases its new identity on the old one, emphasizing its authentic heritage and its traditional pedestrian appeal as means of achieving a distinctive sense of place and a distinctive cultural character.”

Cauchi-Santoro adds that London is hoping to become a hub for culture, and her project may help further that goal. “To attract people interested in culture, you need to have a beautiful setting that will inspire them and a city with a sense of community.” That can lead to cultural tourism as well, she points out. “It’s not airy fairy — it’s investing in the community’s heritage, which can ultimately bring in money.”

She points out that a similar strategy has worked well for the city of Stratford, where the city’s beautiful downtown has added to the experience of theatre-goers while increasing revenue.

While many of the older buildings in London have been taken down, Cauchi-Santoro focuses on those still standing. Through their details of carved wood and elaborate stonework they reflect the city’s elegant architectural history and remind people of their past experiences. “We want to explore the stories these buildings have to tell,” she says. “Who we are depends in part on those who came before us, and I think this project shows respect for those who built the city. They can help us learn to build on the past, not demolish it.”

Parmegiani adds: “I think this project shows the contribution of culture to a city’s life and how that can be lost. The beauty and esthetic dimension of buildings and the cityscape are important, and having places for people to meet builds community. Culture matters.

“The digital aspect of Roberta’s research is of great appeal, and my recent work on 18th-century Italian journalism will provide a theoretical frame of reference for mapping intangible culture through a mosaic of fragmented information.”

Robin Armistead is London’s manager of culture. She says Cauchi-Santoro’s systematic mapping will enrich London’s cultural resource database: “The culture office is thrilled to have the opportunity to work with Roberta.”

Cauchi-Santoro expects the resulting cultural map will also be placed on, an online interactive inventory and mobile application that allows Canadians to take a direct role in identifying important community heritage assets. This website will give the project and the city of London more visibility.

“I think this project is a good precedent,” adds Parmegiani. “Researchers in the humanities tend to ignore funders like Mitacs, thinking there are no industries related to what we do. Well, there are, even if there are not as many as in some other areas. The humanities intersect with the community in many important ways.”