Next week sees the For Them and By Them: Involving Stakeholders and Communities in Interpretation conference take place, which I initiated. I am no longer able to be at the conference myself, so I thought I’d share here what I was going to talk about there .
It is really quite astonishing to see just how much the focus has shifted over recent years from heritage protection for its own sake, to heritage for the people . This is expressed in what is generally referred to as the (public) benefits of heritage. 
In the UK, it is English Heritage who first started to really specify what these benefits are. This was in 2005, in their strategy ‘Making the past part of our Future’. The benefits that the document listed ranged from vague ‘social benefits’ to ‘sense of belonging’ and ‘well-being’ . Over the following years, policies and strategies have further defined the public benefits of heritage: English Heritage’s 2008 Conservation Principles add ‘sense of identity’, ‘gives distinctiveness, meaning and quality to places’ and ‘reflection…of diverse communities’. The National Trust in their 2010 ‘Going Local’ strategy introduce ‘social cohesion’, ‘inspiration’, ‘pride’ and even ‘peace’. In 2011, the Arts Council England writes that heritage (through museums) can ‘empower people as citizens’, in addition to the benefits already listed above.
The interesting thing is that all these policies also provide a vision for how these benefits can best be delivered. Access and provision of learning are no longer seen as enough. It is again English Heritage’s strategy of 2005 that takes the first leap forward: it suggests that heritage managers ‘engage with diverse communities’. In their 2010 strategy, the National Trust declare that they no longer want to act as proprietors, but as facilitators, which signals their intention to place ‘the visitor’ in the driving seat of their own experience. Heritage Lottery Fund, the main funder in the UK heritage sector, require projects to demonstrate right from the start how they engage with stakeholders and involve them in creating and shaping the project. Most radically, however, it is the Arts Council England that express how heritage can realise its benefits for the public: managers need to work with ‘the public as creators’.
In other words, the impulse given by official policies (many from funders) is that by involving stakeholders and even handing control over to them, heritage can deliver a variety of benefits that are important to the welfare of society as a whole.
For those of us working in the field, the challenge is twofold: we need to find meaningful ways of engaging with stakeholders, and we need to provide the evidence that what we do really delivers.
I’ve reported in my last post that according to the Arts Council England, we’re not doing too well on the latter point. But what about the former? Are we engaging stakeholders in interpretation in meaningful ways?
Very often the approach is to have a series of focus groups at the start of a project, or maybe put out a call to the local community about stories or objects. While this is better than nothing, it doesn’t go far enough. In fact, the sector is full of stories (seldom properly analysed) of disillusioned communities who don’t visit their local sites after having been involved in consultations. The issue is usually around four key factors:
– expectations aren’t managed properly
– there is no or only a very poor communication strategy (e.g. keeping participants informed)
– there is a lack of transparency about the process
– an authoritarian or patronizing approach by the professionals 
What this highlights is that managing stakeholder engagement takes skill. It is as important to heritage management and interpretation as are the other tools of the trade.
But let’s look beyond consultation. The Arts Council wants people to be the creators. I don’t believe that’s a call for volunteer museums, and I’ve written here about the issues associated with those. I think it’s actually a call for interpreters acting as facilitators . If you think of it this way, then engaging stakeholders in interpretation becomes about two key things:
1) to help stakeholders articulate what they feel is their heritage, and
2) to help them interpret this heritage to a wider public.
A project for and by stakeholders is really exciting, but it’s not free of challenges. There are a number of issues that emerge:
– there’s never just one group of stakeholders
– stakeholders aren’t saints: they will try to dominate the discussion over another group
– stakeholders aren’t professional interpreters either: whatever took their fancy during their last museum/heritage visit is probably what they’ll focus on in terms of media for their project
– motivation, motivation, motivation: some stakeholders really aren’t that interested in working with an organisation
At Bedwellty House and Park, where the conference takes place, we tried a number of engagement projects with varying success. One project was to train up volunteer tour guides, and then work with them on developing new guided tours. There were representatives from the local heritage forum at the initial training who had very strong views about what period of the history of the house and park we should focus on. It also quickly became apparent that their estimation of some of the key figures in that history differed quite substantially from that of other stakeholder groups. My approach was to encourage all groups to substantiate their interpretation of history with relevant references (the most basic interpretive principle). I also encouraged a discussion among group members, and suggested that perhaps the way forward was to indicate in the guided tours that these different viewpoints existed – without making a judgement about either. The project was unfinished when I left my post, but before I left, I agreed with the heritage group that we would put on ‘opinion’ tours, whereby they would be able to present their views as passionately as they felt about them. I would have used the marketing of these tours, and the programming around them to make sure that visitors understand what is contentious about the issue. Whether or not this would have worked, I will not know until I try it at another site, should the issue arise again.
Another project, which worked really well for us, was the ‘Memories of Bedwellty’ project. Before the site opened in July last year, we actively went out into the community and asked people about their memories of Bedwellty. We put out the call for memories via newspapers, our website and posters and flyers around town. We also set up shop in several care homes, the local library, a local café and in the local youth café. The responses we got were fantastic. They ranged from stories of love to youthful adventure to work to the simple joy of being in the park. It did several things:
– it made people aware of what was happening at the house and park
– it gave people an opportunity to meet the new management team where there had been none before
– it let us know what people valued about Bedwellty House and Park
– it gave us a ton of material and ideas to use for future programming
For a start, we made some of the memories into an exhibition which we put on when the house opened. In my view, this provided a nice feel of continuation between what the house and park used to be, and what it was going to be now. Overall, this was a very low-key stakeholder engagement project, but it gave a starting point to do more. You can see a very basic version of the exhibition online.
The most notable thing about all of the stakeholder engagement projects that I’ve done and that we’re currently setting on their way in my new role, is that the benefits that people gain from heritage aren’t delivered by the outputs of these projects, but by the process. It is through engaging in the process that people learn new skills, meet other people, challenge prejudices and increase their quality of life through participating in opportunities.
In other words, interpretation makes connections no longer through media, but through engagement. At least that is what the research seems to suggest. It is certainly the process that attracts the funding, and not the end product per se. We do need more proper research into this, for it is already clear that evidence for the public benefit delivery of heritage projects is the next developmental step in public policy.
 Some of you may have planned on catching up with me at the conference. Please feel free to send me a comment via this blog and I’ll be happy to catch up about my research by phone or email.
 For the purpose of this post, I’m focussing on the UK. EU legislation was actually much quicker in putting people at the centre of its heritage legislation, at least in terms of benefit, if not participation. Benefits as we would recognise them now from UK legislation started to emerge in 1975, in the European Charter of the Architectural Heritage.
 In the UK, the term ‘benefit’ is actually first used in 1907, in the National Trust Act: the trust protects heritage ‘for the benefit of the nation’. However, the act didn’t specify wherein this benefit lay.
 Wellbeing is an interesting one. The Office of National Statistics introduced questions about wellbeing into their questionnaire in 2011. The Happy Museum Project is an initiative that sprang to life from the same thinking.
 There is a lot of knowledge about Stakeholder Engagement outside the heritage sector, which is why I am very excited that Participation Cymru will be at next week’s conference. Click here for the Scottish set of engagement principles.
 You still have to be careful, though: facilitation can be manipulative also, just like a survey can be, depending on how you frame your questions. We need to always take a step back and allow stakeholders to explore their own paths.
One thought on “Involving stakeholders in interpretation, Or: policy aspiration and practice challenges”
I’m thinking about going down the Heritage Interpretation path and your blog is interesting and informative. Haven’t got very far, but I will come back tomorrow and read more of what you have to say. Looking forward to it! Keep up the good work 😀