Skip to main content

Taking the Thinking Further

The research project has been characterized by conversation and action and we want this to continue – and to involve you.

We are all hoping to take something we’ve learnt and share it with others working in a similar way or in similar organisations. These are some of the things we’d like to share with you and we’d like to hear your sense of how greater participation in heritage decision-making can be created too.

Karen Brookfield, Heritage Lottery Fund

The project has planted a lot of seeds. They are germinating; I hope they will bear fruit in the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Strategic Framework for 2018 onwards. The research has directly provoked a number of issues I will make sure we explore. How can we best support people who make change happen locally - brokers, incubators, community heritage activists, people on a mission, and heritage professionals who want to work differently and need new skills? Will change happen if we only ever fund organisations and not individuals? How do you fund new ideas if you always demand to know the outcomes at the start of a project? What does innovation look like? Is our way of funding outmoded? How can successful projects share their learning without burdening people? How do we demonstrate the public value of heritage? There was a real and tangible benefit for my practice as a funder and policy-maker from taking part in co-designing and co-researching a complex subject with such a wide range of academic and community partners: it was a space to reflect and be critical; it brought new perspectives from academic theories and from grass-roots activity; and it has inspired me to action, and in turn I hope I’ve inspired my colleagues.

Alex Hale, Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland

How do we affect decisions when we are locked into public service codes of practice, institutional protocols and organisational boundaries? Well, to begin with the past (whatever that is) has a very evocative, emotional, messy, non-regulated, confusing nature. Given our understanding of it, this enables us to consider it through multiple lenses, disrupt the accepted tropes and develop different approaches. So, what might one of those approaches be? Can I suggest the value and impact of practice-based engagement, which I feel is crucial for all parties, even us public servants. This takes resources and planning, but it brings great insights for all partners; changes and builds relationships and can shape how we think when back at our desks. To this end, I would advocate practice-based learning experiences to be incorporated into public servant's continuing professional development plans.

Tim Boon, Science Museum

By bringing together people from inside and outside very different kinds of heritage organisation, this project has enabled us to see similarities which were invisible for each of us in our silos, pursuing our own business. In that sense, for those of us within heritage organisations, it has helped situate our own experience, especially in relation to issues of democracy in heritage. It is clear, for example, that the extent of the collections we hold (the comparison on another part of the map might be buildings we oversee) is often not apparent to many people outside. Our stewardship has, especially in times of financial stricture, focussed on users in the future rather than those present. But the public of people outside our organisations is – rightly – becoming more articulate about their wish to access what we hold on their behalf. This project has shown some ways in which this might be achieved, to everyone’s advantage.

For at least a generation, ‘contemporary collecting’ has featured in museum debates; every few years we rediscover this deficit in our practice. Perhaps for a while the small numbers of hard-pressed curators in the nation’s museums do manage the odd initiative and collections do become a little more representative of the recent past. But this heritage decisions project suggested an alternative – or at the least a complementary – path: if we enrol the people we think of as audiences as experts, we can expect heritage decisions that are every bit as nuanced and informed as any we might make ourselves. The results would not only address our collections deficits, but also our democratic deficit.

Peter Brown, York Civic Trust

I feel that other Civic Societies would benefit greatly from engaging in proactive 'shared vision' exercises. Often the lone voice is ignored, but participation with those who have a broad ranges of interests gives more weight to local opinion, and the combined view can influence Local Authorities.

Richard Courtney, Management Studies, University of Leicester

Inclusivity, participation, and access have been issues in heritage management for quite sometime. The project is a stark illustration to the fact that these terms need to be incorporated into heritage management in literal ways. This means that it is the people with diverse interests and values that need to be included in decision-making rather than an idea of excluded people and communities held by those already in powerful decision-making roles. The benefit of including actual people in decision-making is that management styles are confronted with the realities faced by those who value heritage from the periphery first-hand. In fact, inclusion seen as a real and practical activity can overturn this dualism between a central decision-making arena and those on the periphery; so that the periphery becomes the centre. Decisions made on this basis create the space for lively debate and discussion over the nature of heritage management, but it is also a real-world example as to the power of participatory democracy.

Danny Callaghan, Ceramic City Stories and The Potteries Tile Trail

Being involved in the project has changed my professional practice. It provided a unique thinkspace - a place to reflect on heritage practice - my own as well as others. For those of us working somewhat 'head down' on the day-to-day delivery of public activities - this reflection felt like a luxury at the beginning, however, it is important to report that this was an intense, rigorous and sometimes uncomfortable learning journey.

The diversity and difference within the team enabled a very broad range of perspectives and thinking. The research experience has changed the way I think about my own practice - why and how I deliver work. It has already influenced the design of some of my current and planned project activities. I am also particularly interested in the link between individual activism and the development of new heritage leadership models.

How do public heritage bodies encourage and invest in this disparate and diverse constituency? What are the rules of engagement? How can we ensure transparency and accountability? There are already major challenges and seismic shifts re-shaping the heritage ecology and economy. It is vital that we find new ways to include and harness all individuals with passion, expertise and entrepreneurial skills - especially those that currently operate outside (or even in conflict with) the mainstream sector.

Martin Bashforth, radical family historian and York’s Alternative History

Since 2003, I have questioned the meaning of the term ‘public history’ and how the general public come to understand the past. I developed a conception of family history as a kind of ‘history from below’ with a mass following that had radical potential to help people reshape their view of the past and, indeed, what history means from their viewpoint. I called this ‘Radical Family History’. I was also keen to become involved with other like-minded people in challenging the way in which official institutions tended to shape the public dialogue about the past by joining a radical local history group: York Alternative History. The two practices came together.

Involvement in the project has provided better tools for achieving the same ends in ways that reach a broader audience and a better understanding of how one might work with public institutions and authorities. I am still working through the changes to my perspectives as well as the intellectual challenges that involvement in the project has brought. Maybe instead of sectioning myself off into groups designated ‘radical’, I would expect in future to work through mainstream grassroots organisations such as local and family history societies wherever I live? Maybe the ‘radical’ actually happens to be more effective as part of the everyday?

Lianne Brigham and Richard Brigham, York Past and Present

What we’d like to pass on is some advice for other people hoping to get more involved in heritage decision-making in their city.

  • Build a community of people with the same interest.
  • Meet key people based in Institutions (like in a University or in the Council). ‘Be give your free time because it’s volunteering that makes the connections’.
  • Tap into these key people’s networks.
  • Crossover from social media to real life events and life live events back to social media.
  • You need an idea to talk about [for York Past and Present this has been public documentation].
  • Communication and language – you need to speak to different people in different ways.
  • Gain more and more confidence from speaking to lots of different people – and seeing that they like what you are doing.
  • Be generous to people in institutions / council. ‘They can shut the door, faster than you can open it’.
  • Don’t settle for small things, keep your eyes on your main goal. ‘Be like a child, be happy with what those in decision-making positions offer but always demand more’.

Paul Manners, National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement

This project has had a profound impact on the ways I work.  My job is all about change.  I’m convinced that organisations need to become more open and ‘engaged’: more accountable, transparent and just plain interested in the world around them.  This process is hard – especially because custom and practice often encourage ‘silo’ working and a defensiveness about change.

This project has given me a lot more confidence about how to influence such change.  The mantra of ‘act, connect, reflect and situate’ crystallises what was previously implicit in how I worked.  And the focus on decision-making gives a harder edge to slippery concepts like ‘engagement’ and ‘participation’: it emphasises not just taking part – but actually making something happen collectively.

One concrete example of how the project helped is the role I’ve played recently as part of a major change programme in a large national heritage organisation.  They recently initiated a major review of advice within the organisation – looking at the role of trustees, specialists within the organisation, and the various advisory panels that they draw on. The process has inevitably been challenging – and risked grinding to a halt.  A real breakthrough moment came when we re-framed the process from being about ‘advice’ (a passive commodity, traded between different power bases) to ‘decision-making’: an active process of collective responsibility.  This seemingly subtle shift was transformational.  The focus shifted from ‘structure’ to ‘system’ – and released much more open, creative and strategic conversations.  The power of simple ideas!  But how hard it is sometimes to see the wood for the trees…

Helen Graham, Museum and Heritage Studies, University of Leeds

Throughout the project I have been aware of a constant mirroring between our research focus, participation in heritage decision-making, and our research form, as a participatory research team. During the active experimentation phase of the project, I encountered people concerned about either the dilution of expertise or lack of public engagement in heritage. In a not dissimilar way, probably all of us at some point have been anxious about our project’s relevance, usefulness, quality, validity, rigour, or whether we were answering our research questions. Every bump in our journey together as a team revealed something for me about the systemic conditions of ‘heritage decision-making’ but also the systemic conditions within which participatory research take place. A question for all of us thinking about heritage and participation clearly became: Where, and to whom, do we feel accountable? Who are the voices in our heads? Ultimately for me our complex and lived web of acting, connecting, reflecting and situating are methods of quite deliberately working to pluralising those accountabilities. They are ways of making the institutional ‘devil on your shoulder’, that draws you too much towards mono-cultures in your work, sit alongside many people from quite different perspectives and places. This method works, we hope we’ve shown, for increasing participation in heritage decision-making but, for me as an academic, it also offers a method for building the relationships and systemically-informed extra- and trans-institutional politics that will mean that the peers who judge the quality of my work will never only be academic.

Rachael Turner, Director, Manchester Digital Laboratory

The heritage issue in Manchester right now (and has been for some time) is the preservation of the community's assets. With the loss of public space in Library Walk, the question now is how to help support the growing numbers who wish to preserve sites such as the Cornerhouse and to develop ways in which councils and residents can engage in collaborative work.

I think too, that we are yet to see the full benefits that digital technology can bring to the heritage sector. The use of Open Data in assessing Museum collections is already underway in Manchester and organisations are creating heritage-related Apps, for example. But, to quote Richard Sennett* again, technology is still about hierarchy and performance. Breaking down these hierarchies, and creating stronger, more interconnected communities must be the way forward.

Rebecca Madgin, Urban Studies, University of Glasgow

Working with the project team has shone a light on the similarities between the role of heritage in decision-making in museums and in urban planning. To give just one example, the various projects have demonstrated a tension between preservation and use. More precisely how is the relationship between the visual and the experiential managed in both the museum sector and within urban conservation? Often the historic interest of an object or building is encapsulated by its aesthetic appearance but if we maintain this focus do we negate the lived experience of playing an instrument or working or living and playing in a historic environment? Working through a range of projects within an urban context in Leicester, York and Stoke alongside projects at the Science Museum and Bede’s World has sharpened the lens on the different values attached to heritage and the place for the lived experience of the past. The group workshops have facilitated this synthetic approach to research that has enabled common themes concerning heritage to be elucidated and debated by people who are each involved in different aspects of heritage protection. Crucially, this project has brought out some common issues which exist across the heritage sector and borrowing insights from museums may develop our understanding of heritage in the planning system and vice versa.

Mike Benson, Bede’s World and Kathy Cremin, Hive

De-clutter: take the time to work out a simple message, a simple story that you can deliver in a really human way, develop a simple approach and work hard simply to humanise what you do in an everyday way

John Lawson, Storyteller, Loftus

Make a din, even if it's just you - write to your MP, tell them why your heritage matters, write to local papers, talk to Councillors, go to as many local meetings and forums as you can, put up displays, keep a blog, go into schools, keep talking about the power of heritage.

Paul Furness, Writer and historian, York

There are a lot of little cliques in York – they’ve got all these little arts and cultural organizations, they keep control and are stultified; they don’t grow. These people don’t inquire enough about the writers and artists that York has produced. They don’t look at the city properly, they’ve got their own ideas of what York is. Poet Steve Ellis wrote a poem speaking about all the kids from the city’s suburbs who every weekend get on the buses and take the city back. There would be a real breakthrough if all the other people who live in York – who are rooted here – come forward and start doing things to make these small worlds irrelevant. They’d be exciting events, things people want to go to. And it’s feels like it’s started to happen.