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The Potteries Tile Trail: The role of the catalyst and DIY approaches

DIY Heritage ManifestoThe research strand in The Potteries offered an opportunity for reflection from both the macro perspective of the Heritage Lottery Fund as a funder and the micro perspective of a small project they funded, The Potteries Tile Trail. The discussions in Stoke-on-Trent made visible the crucial role of local heritage catalysts – those who can connect people and resources – and the power of not waiting for permission but just getting on and doing-heritage-yourself.

The starting point for this part of the ‘how should decisions about heritage be made?’ research was to enable three members of the research team – Danny Callaghan, Karen Brookfield and Helen Graham – to reflect on a funding programme, the Heritage Lottery Fund’s ‘All Our Stories’, from two ends of the spectrum.

The local focus for this research strand was The Potteries Tile Trail, a community and crowd-sourced virtual collection of tiles and architectural ceramics found in buildings and public spaces throughout Stoke-on-Trent and further afield. Danny developed and facilitated the project on behalf of the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society (TACS). Karen had strategic responsibility for the All Our Stories programme at a national level in HLF.

Karen Brookfield, Heritage Lottery Fund

The Heritage Lottery Fund supports hundreds of small community projects every year, but only rarely am I able to spend time with a ‘heritage activist’ like Danny, to begin to understand how an individual's knowledge and passion for heritage makes great things happen locally. This has been invaluable to my professional practice, particularly in stimulating ideas of how HLF might invest differently to enable people to take ownership of their heritage and realise their vision for the future.

The conversations focused on the effects Heritage Lottery Fund support has had in encouraging and enabling grassroots led heritage activity over the last 20 years. Danny, Helen and Karen – along with others in the research group – identified valuable examples of heritage activism that simply would not have happened had it not been for an HLF-funding. A focus for the conversations was the way in which HLF money has – often without this being visible in the applications – supported a new breed of heritage activist who is often behind bidding for funding and the resultant local activity. Key characteristics include passion, energy and an instinct for taking action about things that matter (to them and a 'project constituency') regardless of any kind of formal permission.

Danny Callaghan, The Potteries Tile Trail

For years I have found myself trying to get specific people in local councils or conservation professionals interested in what I was interested in. Basically they had other priorities and looking back, I can see I wasted a lot of time running into the same brick wall over and over again. Through the delivery of projects such as The Potteries Tile Trail – and importantly, the time for self-reflection enabled by the research – it suddenly became much more clear that these alternative ways of operating are not only possible but also highly effective in delivering results. This approach enables individuals and communities to make decisions for themselves and act without 'asking for permission'.

An example of Danny’s approach to ‘acting’ and ‘connecting’ developed from very early on in the project. As part of the Phase 1 ‘Day in the Life’ swap methodology, Danny spent a day with the team at Historypin, an online resource that had underpinned The Potteries Tile Trail project from the beginning. Danny was hosted by Rebekkah Abraham, Historypin Operations Director at their UK base in Clerkenwell, London and met the wider team including Nick Stanhope, Shift CEO (parent company for Historypin). This relationship has resulted in a number of practical actions and wider public engagement. Historypin featured The Potteries Tile Trail in a prominent position on their 'Profiles' page. This enhanced visibility and indirectly supported the 'repatriation' of original Minton-Pugin encaustic tiles from The Palace of Westminster to the city that made them more than 150 years ago.

The recently published Historypin in the Community 2013/14 identifies ten exemplar projects from around the world including The Potteries Tile Trail. In his foreword Breandán Knowlton, Historypin Executive Director, acknowledges that the 'positive results in these places are due to the energy and enthusiasm of a network of volunteers and partners from around the world who consistently deliver positive social change. We call these people Community Heritage Activists.'

Karen Brookfield, Heritage Lottery Fund

Finding the right language when you're trying to create change can be hard. Over lunch one day with Nick Stanhope, Shift CEO (the social enterprise behind Historypin) I used Danny's term 'community heritage activist' to describe what I saw as our shared mission - to start with people, to support local activity, to use heritage for social good - and it clearly struck a chord. It's interesting and encouraging to see this approach and language being directly reflected in Historypin communications.

Identifying and nurturing relationships with other individuals who 'act' is one way that community heritage activists operate. Another is by refusing to wait for professional recognition – including that of funders – and helping people connect to others with shared interests. In conversation with other members of the team this way of working emerged as crucial know-how and, as part of his research, Danny has developed it into the DIY Heritage Manifesto.

Helen Graham, Museum and Heritage Studies, University of Leeds

I had a ‘oh I get it now’ moment sitting in Danny’s car on a wet December day in 2013. He was explaining how he’d gone about trying to make sure doorstep tiles weren’t ripped out during a redevelopment. As Danny spoke his whole way of approaching heritage, which is about small actions and local networks, suddenly became clear. Something clunked into place that day and directly influenced the design of the York strand of the research project. This thinking has now become the DIY Heritage Manifesto.