On Wachtzeit – an experiment

I have on a few occasions on this blog mentioned a project that we’ve done with our local Roman history museum. We’ve recently completed our internal debrief as well as a reflective session with a consultancy hired by the funder, so now I feel it’s time to share some insights from what I thought was a great experiment.

The starting point

I choose the term ‘experiment’ deliberately. These days, a good project to me is one that pushes an organisation’s boundaries, that questions the usual approaches and has the courage to try out something new. Success in such a project is not defined by quantifiable measures like visitor numbers and outputs. Rather, success is about impact, or change – primarily within the participating organisations. After all my years in audience development, I have come to believe that organisations are the main issue when it comes to being open and relevant to all.  

The original idea behind our project was to connect the diverse communities in our small town with the Roman archaeology present in our surrounding landscape. Particularly, we wanted to explore how this Roman heritage could engage us in a conversation about the contemporary identities and life experiences of everyone in our town. To facilitate this, we were committed to using the methodology of the Third Space.

Our approach

Using the Third Space also led us to invite three experts to develop the project, not entirely without us – we did have a session on our reasons for the project – but mostly on their own. We wanted to do something different. And we felt that we weren’t the ones best suited to develop whatever that may be. So we took a deep breath and handed over the first huge chunk of power. The parameters we set were mostly around timescale and finances as per our funding agreement, but we were genuinely open to what the experts would come back with.

Our experts:

Anke von Heyl museum consultant and long-time advocate for opening museums up for wider audiences.

Adam Ditchburn writer, artist and heritage engagement specialist with a knack for facilitating co-creation.

Lamia Fetzer art facilitator, local networker and member of the city’s so-called ‘Integration Committee’

The concept

Having chosen Adam Ditchburn as one of the experts immediately confirmed to me that we need more creative people like him in interpretation. Interpretation is not about subject knowledge. Others can provide that. And others did provide that in our project. Interpretation instead takes that knowledge and blows it wide open for people to engage with, to explore, to add, to subtract, to make it part of their lives.

So, on the basis of the Roman soldiers having spent their watch on the towers along the frontier, Adam inspired us to create an entirely new word: Wachtzeit, which is reminiscent of both the watch and being awake. Brilliant. Because supporting people in being awake and alert and mindful of this Roman heritage and our own places within it was the goal of our project. Adam and the other two experts suggested that we encourage people to spend their own Wachtzeit at a Roman site around Aalen, and indeed anywhere else in the world.


For this, during one month we offered facilitated sessions at the Roman sites in Aalen, where people could explore the sites and their own responses to them through, for example, guided writing, Qigong, mediation, photography or crafts like making a dream-catcher from the materials they found at the sites.

We also had a wonderfully personal evening hosted by Lamia Fetzer, who shared her experiences of the Roman sites in her native Tunisia, and the connection this gave her when she moved to Aalen. It was this connection that had inspired the experts to think of the Roman frontier not as a dividing border, but rather a connecting line.

Accordingly, the experts and here particularly Anke von Heyl suggested weekly social media challenges inviting people from all over to share their responses to Roman sites where they live. The challenges asked people to share the sites and what was special about them; to think about walls and borders, inspired by the Roman frontiers, and to think more broadly about how heritage sites have impacted their lives. We started this off with an Insta Live, which was the first of its kind my organisation had ever done.

To round it all up, and because we’d talked a lot about archaeology, Adam suggested giving all the submissions to the Wachtzeit project to musician and composer Mark Wardale at the end of the project month. Like an archaeologist, he examined the material and interpreted it in three beautiful pieces.

So: how was it?

A challenge. I’ve already blogged about a workshop we did at the museum. The challenge here was an attitude that wanted to be shown ‘what to do to achieve x’. Or, as the museum colleague expressed it in the debrief, ‘how to convey history without history’.

We discussed this a lot in the debrief, because of course in Third Space there is no ‘x’ other than to create an open space for engagement with a topic. To establish ‘x’ and work toward achieving it is to create something other than a Third Space. That is not what we were interested in.

We certainly should have made that more of a topic within the workshop in terms of explaining our assumptions and convictions, without necessarily entering into a discussion that might have pulled the project backwards. Nevertheless, we felt there should be follow-up workshops at the museum to explain and explore Third Space more with museum staff.

Another challenge was to ‘allow things to happen’. Firstly, during development, our entire project changed from the direction we originally thought it would take. This required a lot (and I mean a lot) of flexibility on the part of the project team, i.e. the museum and ourselves. What we were then asked to do also completely upended our normal approaches to delivery. For example, in our organisation we normally ask people to sign up for courses, but that seemed an unnecessary barrier for the Wachtzeiten. So we never knew if anyone would show up at all. We also generally have clear learning goals for our courses, but here the goal was ‘simply’ to deepen and facilitate everyone’s personal engagement. This introduced an element of the unknown and the uncontrollable which created a certain level of anxiety in all involved. We also realised the difficulty in explaining this to others; it is much simpler to explain the delivery of ‘x’. While there is more and more talk about focusing on processes, we discovered that actually doing that – giving priority to a process and not a goal – is much harder for people to accept. In many ways, it seems easier to (try to) control and communicate an outcome, instead of allowing a process to evolve. To ‘allow things to happen’ means to give up power, and beside the anxiety that causes in terms of daily responsibilities, there is still a whiff of unprofessionalism attached to this, at least in Germany.

Social media also proved a real challenge, for the simple reason that our organisations were not really set up for it. The museum didn’t have a social media presence at all, and my organisation was still grappling with how to provide meaningful content. Adam Ditchburn as curator luckily took over during the project month, and this really gave everyone in my organisation a boost in engaging with our social media content. A few months on and I can confidently say that we have become a lot better. And we are beginning to talk about using social media more for learning and creating a learning network.

And what about the impact?

If we simply look at numbers, the impact on people outside our organisation was not that great. However, as I said above, that is not how I measure success these days. Something major shifted, at least within our organisation, through this project. I’ve already mentioned social media, and while this may seem minimal to some, to us this was a major change. As an organisation we are currently searching for our place in the online marketplace of learning, and so thinking of social media as a channel for learning and engagement (as opposed to marketing) is really getting us to consider another aspect of our future. We’ve also been struck by the ability of social media to be facilitated as a Third Space, and this is something we want to explore more in future projects.

Having experienced that despite not having fixed structures and measurable learning goals the learning we offer can be deeply meaningful to those who participated has also been a great encouragement. The course tutors that were involved are open to new experiments which is what we as an organisation need as we think about responding to learners’ changing expectations and offering co-creative learning. We have become more comfortable about sharing power, and ultimately, that is what Third Space is about.


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