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Posts Tagged ‘stakeholder engagement’

Last week I left my job as Audience Development Manager for St Albans Museums Service to join Jura Consultants as a Senior Consultant.  The change has prompted a few reflections, not the least around what it means to me to go from being a site-based member of staff to becoming a consultant.

There are a few things I think I’ll miss from being site-based.  I’ll miss those encounters with visitors who simply appreciated the contribution I made to their visit as a frontline interpreter. My key ring is still one that a visitor to Culloden Battlefield gave me.  For months, I kept a little piece of twig art in my car that a girl on one of our educational programmes made for me at Montgomery Place.

I’ll also miss being witness to people’s emotional responses to a site.  I’ve mentioned many times before on this blog the man who grabbed hold of my arm after a guided tour of Culloden Battlefield to tell me, with tears in his eyes, how glad he was to have made it there before he died.  What a privilege to see that happen!  And it opened my eyes to the fact that heritage is more than a material thing that must be protected.

I’ve learnt so much from visitors and stakeholders about heritage and interpretation. Theory and reports let you get away with words.  On-site practice holds you responsible to stakeholders’ on-the-spot feedback.  It was great doing a module on community engagement at university, but it wasn’t until I worked with the people of Tredegar that I understood why this was so very, very important, and how much further I needed to push my interpretive practice at Bedwellty House and Park to do them justice.  I valued that.

I think I’ll also miss having the ability to be creative and take risks with programmes and activities on site.  At St Albans Museums, our Occupy the Museum event last year was a great way to gauge people’s thoughts about the museum, and what we should bear in mind for an upcoming major redevelopment project.   Our Blood, Lust and Roses historic soap opera about the Wars of the Roses was a process-driven community engagement project that responded to outcomes from Occupy, and was one of the most creative, meaningful and yet unconventional projects I’ve ever been involved in.  It was also great to set out on these journeys of trial and error with an amazing team, and learn together.

Of course, some of this will also be part of my work as a consultant.  With every new project I will meet new, dedicated on-site staff and passionate stakeholders, and encounter visitors and what their heritage means to them. More so than in my work on site, I will be able to do in-depth research and take the time to properly analyse results and decide what this means for practice (there never was enough time to do that properly on site).  I’m thrilled to have joined a company that I’ve regularly come across professionally and as part of my academic work, and frankly, consultancy of the Jura kind has been my goal for a while now.  I am so looking forward to this new chapter in my professional life.

But as I leave St Albans and my work as a site-based member of staff, I realize how much these experiences have meant to me – professionally, and yes, I admit, also personally.  So, not knowing how much of this will be repeated in my new life as a consultant, I’m feeling a bit emotional.  And I’d like to say thank you to all the wonderful visitors I’ve met, to the stakeholders who challenged me to test my theories, and to the members of the various teams I’ve had the honour to work with.  Much of what I can bring to consultancy I owe to you.

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Last week we had to cancel a training day on community engagement because of low uptake [1].  The training co-ordinator suggested that community engagement may still not be seen to be important to the work of museums.  He may be right, but I very much hope he isn’t.  After all, there is, and has been for a couple of years, a lot of talk about community engagement in the museums sector in the UK.

The thing is, sometimes I wonder whether we’re all talking about the same thing when we say ‘community engagement’.  And I wonder if the practices that are out there can really be called ‘community engagement’, or whether it’s just a label that we apply to tick a box.

I deal a lot with community engagement and co-creation, so I inevitably hear a lot of comments about it too.  And I’m afraid I often disagree with them.  At a recent network meeting, for example, someone talked about a community engagement project in which they got people in to work on their archive.  That’s not community engagement, if you ask me.  That’s getting volunteers in to do the work you need doing. Another person understood engagement as working with pre-constituted groups, which you target according to your own choice. Again, with this level of museums control (your choice) and exclusion of other members of the community, I don’t feel we’re really justified in calling this community engagement [2]. In another meeting someone felt it was community engagement if a group approached the museum with an idea and then executed it on their own with the museum in effect providing nothing more than a venue.  I’m not sure I would call that engagement either.

Now don’t get me wrong: these are all worthy project structures [3].  And compared to those times when museums were completely closed off to any public input, they are better than nothing. But personally, I feel we need to strive for more than that.  For one thing, I think community engagement should be embedded in how a museum or heritage site is run.  No more one-off projects without any links to what else is happening. Yes, you may need to kick-start the process with a few individual projects, but these quickly should turn into a constant dialogue, where one thing leads to another and then sideways feeds into yet another aspect of museums work. We need a constant stream of crowd sourcing and participation and feedback and co-production, to the point where every little thing has a public connection.  And that’s not where it should end either.  I do believe museums and heritage sites are an active part of people’s lives, and therefore our community engagement should not only have an impact on us, it should have an impact on ‘the community’ as well.

Allow me to give an example of which I am mightily proud.  In my museums service, we decided to put the call out to the community to get their input into what should go onto our Community Timeline.  Not only did people submit events, people and landmarks we’d never even considered, but we were also able to draw on a previous engagement project, where people had specifically shared local superstitions.  We also, for the first time, heard from a part of the community that so far the service had had no contact with, and whose history is completely and utterly absent from our exhibition and the story we tell: the Jewish community.  So I asked them if they would like to do a talk as part of our lecture series.  They agreed, and what was going to be just a talk given by one Jewish group turned into their own engagement project where they collaborated across different denominations within Judaism.  The talk sold out, with plenty of attendees never having been to the museum before.  Now the synagogue will host a re-run, and some of our non-Jewish visitors who missed the first talk are set to go there to catch it this time around.

To me, this is really exciting.  It was a give and take, inspiration being traded and the programming and display most decidedly being developed together over a series of different activities and collaborations [4].  It had an impact on us, and it certainly had an impact on them.

There are still a few big questions to ask, and I will be the first to admit that I neither have the definite answers nor am I sure that everything we do in our service actually works when it comes to community engagement.  What level of collaboration and dialogue makes something real engagement?  What type of power balance qualifies?  Is it engagement if the stimulus comes from us?  Is it engagement if we just provide a venue?  In my service, we use several different methods, so I suppose we’re covering all bases. But as I tried to illustrate with my example: in the end, I feel that community engagement is real and truly successful when it develops a life of its own.

Note
[1] For the record, in my practice I prefer talking about stakeholder engagement.  But if ‘community engagement’ doesn’t find enough supporters, then ‘stakeholder’ engagement gathers none.  So I’ve given in.
[2] I actually feel quite strongly that targeting groups, especially when they’re the types of groups generally favoured by a social inclusion or ‘hard to reach’ agenda (young offenders, mental health groups, or ethnic minorities), is often a rather questionable practice.  It labels and defines people by something that’s negative and which they probably wouldn’t choose themselves as their one defining attribute (e.g. the offender).  It also tends to limit the responses or perspectives that we allow people to have (I hope I never see another ‘mental health’ response to a collection).
[3] Except for targeting groups.  I really can’t bring myself to see any good in that.
[4] Our volunteers did the artwork to represent what people had submitted, and the public helped us paint the timeline.  And talking of giving over control: when the young school children we’d invited in drew green grass and trees everywhere both our Learning Officer and I were close to a heart attack.  But then you just have to let go.  Now I like how colourful it is!

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I know I keep writing about how we need more research and critical self-analysis in interpretation.  But when I recently read Dr Bernadette Lynch’s report ‘Whose Cake is it Anyway?’ (2009) and Skibins, Powell and Stern’s 2012 ‘Exploring empirical support for interpretation’s best practices’ I didn’t feel validated.  I felt depressed.

Lynch researched ‘the real nature and effectiveness’ of community participation practices across 12 UK museums [1].  While it didn’t surprise me that she found there exists ‘an illusion that the work is more effective than it is’ (p. 10), I was plainly shocked to read that ‘target participants’ felt frustrated and had ‘the unhappy feeling of having colluded in their own marginalisation, disempowerment and even exclusion’ (my emphasis, p. 12). Lynch also had a good (discourse analytic) look at the language one museum used (‘we believe’, ‘we can make people’s lives better’, ‘we nurture a sense of belonging’, ‘we provide, expand, foster, encourage’, my emphasis) [2]. Her conclusion is that museums display ‘an almost nineteenth-century view of a passive subject, outside the institution, awaiting improvement (my emphasis, p. 16).

It’s worthwhile pointing out that in our official interpretation discourse, we use similar language as the museum quoted above.  For example, here in Britain, the Association for Heritage Interpretation writes that interpretation ‘helps people’ to ‘make sense, ‘understand more’, that it ‘enables communities to better understand their heritage’ and that it ‘enhances visitor’s experience, thus ‘resulting in a variety of benefits, including individuals possibly identifying ‘with lost values inherent in their culture’ (my emphasis). Is interpretation also stuck in a 19th century mindset?

Interestingly, in Lynch’s study the ‘participation’ experience was frustrating for participants, yes, but in the end they weren’t all that bothered, it seems to me. After all, they knew that they needed museums less than museums needed them, as one of them said (p. 21) [3].

The article by Skibins, Powell and Stern sought evidence for a causal relationship between the best practice techniques established in interpretation literature and outcomes examined in evaluation studies.  Theirs was a review of 70 articles rather than a piece of original research, which in itself makes for sobering reading.  Evaluators, they write, often didn’t seek to isolate factors that may have determined outcomes – there was a tendency to uncritically assume that an outcome is associated with a particular technique, when really, the cause for it could have been anything. This becomes even more depressing when they point out that many best practice examples still were only linked to an outcome fewer than 5 times, with many others having no link with an outcome at all.  If ever there was evidence that we need more evidence, this surely is it.

That’s all I’m saying.  We have to be self-critical.  We have to constantly test our assumptions or interpretation as a discipline will become even more marginalised and undervalued than it is already in places.

Notes
[1] Participation, or community engagement as I prefer to call it, to me is the core of interpretation.  Just in case you’re wondering why I’m talking about a study on participation on my interpretation blog.
[2] Of course that’s just the one museum who had the courage to hand over its policies for scrutiny.  I daresay we’ll find that most policies talk like that.
[3] Which is another way of saying that they don’t need museums, or interpreters, to understand their heritage.  They already understand it, or at least enough without having to put up with our professional hybris.

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Last week, UK’s Channel 4 aired a documentary about an archaeological dig in search of Richard III.  I found the show really illuminating.  Not because of its intended content – I actually thought the way they presented everything was neither here (archaeology) nor there (history). No, what I found fascinating was what the documentary revealed, rather unintentionally, about how little understanding some professionals have of people’s sense of heritage, and how unprepared they are for dealing with it.

Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society was the driver behind the project (the society funded it).  She was clearly deeply and emotionally connected to Richard III as a man and a king whose memory had been mutilated.  Everything about the dig had a meaning to her: the ‘R’ written on the parking space under which (apparently) they found Richard III’s body.  The rain clouds that drew up when they came upon his bones.  As she watched the bones being carefully freed of earth, she started to cry and practically hyperventilate.

The presenter, Simon Farnaby, a comedian and writer, clearly did not know what to do with this reaction or Langley’s emotional connection to Richard III in general.  Gazing down into the pit alongside Langley, he talked of how ‘weird’ it was to be ‘digging up a dead body’.  His choice of words said it all: while she talked about ‘finding him’ and ‘Richard’, to Farnaby this was something rather more remote and barely connected to an actual human life.

The scientists of course didn’t make this connection either.  To Dr Jo Appleby, the osteologist (bone expert), this was clearly neither about ‘Richard’ nor ‘dead bodies’.  This was a matter of an object to be scientifically examined in order to make a statement based on statistical probability about whether or not this was indeed the remains of a historically documented person (phew).  No humanity left in there at all. At first, this amused me – I thought of my own careful language when I write anything about my research.  Quickly, however, I became uncomfortable.  I could not help but feel that Appleby’s attitude toward Langley was downright patronising, never mind devoid of any understanding. A scene that highlighted this for me in stark contrasts was when Langley suggested that Appleby wrap the bones in Richard III’s colours for removal from site.  Appleby refused: ‘I’m not sure I’m very happy about doing that’, she said, allegedly because she felt it would be an inappropriate action if DNA testing later showed this was not Richard III (it didn’t and it was).

I have no issue with Appleby’s refusal per se.  What I did take issue with was how she made no effort to understand or show respect for Langley’s feelings throughout the documentary. Later, Appleby and a colleague told Langley that Richard III did have a ‘hunchback’, thus using a term to which it was clear Langley would take objection, it being at the heart of the defamation of Richard III’s character (they later qualified the ‘hunchback’ to have been a slight curvature of the spine that would have been hard to spot under clothes).  When Langley spoke of Richard III’s reputation as an able military leader, Appleby brought up a ‘source she could not now remember’, but which described Richard III as ‘effeminate’. Why?

For me, the documentary highlighted several points.  Neither Farnaby nor Appleby are likely to consider themselves heritage professionals, and yet here they were dealing with heritage and being confronted directly with the person holding a heritage belief.  Farnaby seemed merely befuddled, well-meaning but lacking depth.  Appleby on the other hand acted in a manner that seemed very arrogant, considering her own ‘evidence’ as above Langley’s heritage belief.

In reality, science and heritage aren’t even in competition.  They can, actually, live peacefully side by side, if it weren’t for the ‘specialist’s efforts to put all the facts straight.  There is a way of sharing evidence, and you can do it respectfully and without missionary zeal.  That is where the ‘heritage’ in ‘professional’ comes in – it does take training and learning to get it right.

As for Langley –  I don’t share her heritage belief, and I’m really not that fussed about Richard III.  But I thought it a poignant fact that if it hadn’t been for her and her heritage belief, the dig, and the celebrated discovery, and the documentary and Leicester’s (or York’s) future visitor attraction would never have happened.

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Last week I attended an excellent workshop on ‘Visitor Experiences of Co-produced Exhibitions’.  Co-production is a central theme in museums at the moment, and participants were encouraged to bring their own experiences of co-production to the workshop for discussion.  I came away with a few good points to ponder, which you might find interesting as well.

 

Process vs Product

Call me naïve, but it surprised me that all but one of the examples given by other participants were actually of co-producing an end product, usually an exhibition.  This is not what I do in my practice, where we are much more process focussed.  We do in general have a clear idea of the outcomes we hope for (e.g. understanding people’s heritage values as in our current Stake Your Claim project), and we are committed to doing something with whatever outputs are created.  But what that will be is decided in a second step, usually upon completion of the process.  My rationale for this is twofold: 1. Until the process is completed we won’t know what we’ll get from it – that’s the nature of truly handing over authority, as we try to do.  2. Creating a product for other visitors requires following best practice interpretation, which is a process governed by its own, and rather tight rules.  This is actually something that came out strongly in participants’ evaluations:

 

Just because it’s co-produced doesn’t mean other visitors like it

Over and over, participants reported this as an experience with their co-produced exhibitions: visitors’ reactions were either lukewarm or downright negative.  One project reported something very interesting: visitors didn’t like the co-produced exhibition – until they were told that it was co-produced.  They still didn’t seem to take more from it, relatively speaking, but they approved. This sense of moral approval came through quite strongly for other projects as well, but the question is of course whether moral approval is a good enough outcome for co-produced exhibitions.  Those in the discussion group that I was in agreed that it wasn’t.  A lady from Glasgow Museums raised the very interesting point that perhaps we feel that by selecting a group for co-production, say young people, we speak to all young people.  Interestingly, one of the projects actually found that the exhibition co-produced by young people was in fact rejected by other young people, who were more interested in the ‘expert’ voice.  Why?  Because they felt that if they wanted to hear what young people thought they could talk to them all day long outside the museum! Which brings me to another point we discussed:

 

How do you select groups for co-production?

I wish I could share the conviction put forward by one participant from a university: that selecting target groups by demographics is ‘no longer how museums do it’.  Well, it’s certainly how all of the projects we heard about at the workshop seemed to have selected the groups that they worked with (usually ‘young people’), never mind the local authority matrix that I continue to have to work toward, or the ever-present HLF identifications [1]. The colleague is right, however, that these group classifications are of limited if any use, especially if we expect the outputs (e.g. an exhibition) to have relevance for other groups.  This, in fact, is the crux of the matter: can co-production with one particular group ever be relevant to other groups? As we’ve seen with young people above, even such a seemingly clear-cut group doesn’t produce an exhibition relevant to the same group.  I don’t have the answer to this one, except that this is less of an issue when looking at ‘co-production’ as a process rather than end product.  Also, in my own practice I’m dreadfully reluctant to identify any specific target groups (by motivation or otherwise), so we just widen it out to as many people as possible.  It seems to work for us.

 

What, actually, do we mean by co-production?

In the end, this was one of the questions we were left with.  Some of us, myself included, argued that narrow parameters, such as providing objects for group interpretation, don’t actually make co-production.  The whole concept of co-produced end products also seemed generally flawed, and co-production thus a misleading term.  We agreed that further examination of concepts was required, not the least to provide a shared language between departments.  After all, without proper understanding of terms there cannot be proper implementation.

 

What next?

The workshop ended with some discussion on what the next steps should be.  In my opinion, we need to establish proper criteria that identify ‘successful’ co-production (whatever we decide this to mean).  Is this success for the museum? For participants? For visitors? We also need researchers that can spend time on identifying factors that impact the success of co-production.  This goes beyond the usual evaluative studies that we can do on our own, even those that go that one step further and ask, why did this work (because who answers the question will bias your results)?  Finally, I would also like to move beyond co-produced end products and look into how visitors can contribute to exhibitions while they’re up.  That to me is true co-production: on-going, dynamic, and democratic.  Here’s to the new challenge.

 

Happy New Year to all of you!

 

Notes

[1] Allow me an entirely personal rant here: 1. As a practitioner, I rely on university researchers to challenge me and to provide me with solid insights.  This requires that researchers actually examine existing practices on the ground, rather than build their argument on what I can only describe as wishful thinking.  The latter looks great on paper, but there may be a reason why it’s not being implemented in practice – and it is understanding these very reasons that can improve my practice. 2. As a researcher, I am expected to critically examine assertions and provide data to support my claims.  I am deeply worried by the many so-called researchers that are given a voice in our field who do not abide by this most basic of research principles.  It is absolutely acceptable to be a theorist, but let’s not treat theorists as researchers, please.  Apologies if I sound harsh, and no personal attack is intended on the colleague in question.

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Last week, I had a meeting with our Interpretation Stakeholder Group.  We discussed the interpretive vision for a project to relocate and redevelop one of our museums.  And what an interesting discussion it was!  As always, the most inspiring comments came from people who aren’t interpreters.

The first thing that struck me was just how much desire there is to make sure that our interpretation is not simply interactive, or even participatory.  These stakeholders want to see interpretation that is generated by the community and visitors in an on-going cycle of comment and response.  It is the ultimate democratic interpretation model.  I find that hugely exciting.  I had already put it into our interpretive principles that any interpretation would provide plenty of spaces to enable community and visitor authorship and participation.  However, this is a concept of interpretation that goes far beyond community engagement and participatory elements.  This is interpretation that evolves and changes with the people coming through, it is interpretation by visitors.

I don’t know if this will actually work in practice.  Especially visitor-tourists do come to museums also to learn about a place.  Their ability to comment, or make sense of other visitors’ contributions may be limited if there isn’t further professional intervention.  There is also a potential danger here that we inadvertently go backwards and introduce a specialist, albeit community jargon that is as inaccessible to visitor-tourists as the archaeologist’s, or historian’s etc.  And I don’t see a way around an initial starting point of whatever making, that selects content and presents it in a certain way.  But – and this is the important thing – I want to keep the possibility of such a democratic interpretation model in mind, and push my own boundaries of what I thought interpretation as facilitation can be.

Another comment that I found really interesting was with regard to policies.  I had written that our interpretation would support and deliver several local policies.  At this point, a local coucillor stopped me and asked that we also ensure the interpretation contribute to these policies.  I’m not entirely sure whether in their mind, they primarily thought of interpretation as the document before them, in which case using it to influence other policies is quite possible to do.  But imagine they didn’t.  Imagine they thought of interpretation of the kind described above.  Imagine that such interpretation could – and should – actively impact policy making on an on-going basis.  Wouldn’t that be revolutionary?  Wouldn’t that burst museums and heritage sites right out of their built confinement and into that sphere of social and civic life where we always say heritage belongs?

Again, I don’t know how we would do this. I don’t know whether this can ever be possible, considering all other requirements of interpretation and heritage management.  However, as above, this is an immensely challenging and at the same time inspiring concept.  I for one want to keep it in mind, and see what might come from it for our practice in the future.

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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 [1].

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 [2].  This is expressed in what is generally referred to as the (public) benefits of heritage. [3]

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’ [4].  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 [5]

 

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 [6].  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.

 

Notes

[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

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I have recently read the Arts Council England ‘Review of Research and Literature on Museums and Libraries’, compiled in September last year just before the Arts Council took over the responsibilities of the now-disbanded Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.  The review was part of an endeavour to ‘understand the needs and priorities of the sectors’ by the Arts Council.

It made quite interesting reading for two reasons.  Firstly, I had my doubts about how easily museums would sit within the fold of what continues to be called the ‘ARTS’ Council.  The review is very much written from an arts perspective, using ‘us and them’ style language that is slightly unsettling for ‘us’ on the museums side.  There is an evident and welcome willingness to engage with and represent the museum sector also, and yet I still wonder how much the continued and predominant use of the term ‘arts’ in the council’s strategic and even grant documents might over time privilege practices that are not necessarily best suited to museums.

On the other hand, the review highlights parallels in the aims and approaches of the previously distinct sectors, which are celebrated as promising starting points to bring them all under one roof.  Here the report becomes interesting for its outsider scrutiny of some of our practices and the ways in which they are – or are not – backed up by research.  The area I was particularly intrigued by was the reflections on stakeholder engagement.

The review acknowledges the fact that museums have responded to the ‘growing community engagement agenda’ (10), but notes that this has been primarily through consultation, rather than engaging stakeholders in interpretation, and giving them control (25).  Most crushingly, in my opinion, the report comes to the conclusion that while there is a lot of quantitative evidence about visitor or participant numbers, there is far less qualitative data (44).  In fact, the review notes a series of substantial methodological flaws in many evaluation studies, ranging from premature study completion (i.e. surveys finish before the project has come to an end) to ‘self-reported accounts of the difference made’ (45).  They also highlight that a large percentage of studies focus on one-off projects, producing data that cannot be generalized, and which thus cannot be used to inform practice on a day-to-day basis (45).

The report hints at the fact that funders are probably partially to blame for this state of affairs (9).  It suggests a commitment to changing evaluation criteria from numbers to capturing return on investment [1], which will certainly have a major impact on how museums will do things in the future.

Overall, the review didn’t really surprise me.  I have for a while now lamented the fact that especially within interpretation there is a lot of feel-good sharing of projects with very little critical analysis.  Practitioners say they are ‘of course’ involving communities and stakeholders, but this review confirms what Bella Dicks found in her study of Rhondda Heritage Park – that stakeholders are consulted and mined for content, but not granted any meaningful input.  The good thing of the current economic crisis and the dwindling funding is that increasingly, we will be asked to really involve stakeholders, and to prove qualitatively what difference we’re making – not in our own opinion, but in the opinion of our stakeholders: this review makes this very clear.  It’ll be a challenge, not merely because of the fact that we don’t know yet what methods to use.  It’s something I’m grappling with at the moment as I seek to measure public benefit delivery through interpretation.  But at last we’re starting to move (or be pushed) in the right direction.  No doubt there will be a few casualties in the shape of long-cherished beliefs and many bruised egos along the way, but in the end it’ll be an immensely good thing for our profession and the sectors we serve.

Notes

[1] The report specifically mentions contingent valuation, which is basically a method to reveal the monetary value of something that doesn’t have a price per se on the market (such as the environment).  Personally, I don’t think this is the way forward to capturing impact, but it is undoubtedly the method that most easily fits with how everything else is captured and decided upon in our current political and economic system.

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Tomorrow I will start in my new job and I thought that’s a good time to reflect on what I learnt in my last role.  So here we go, in no particular order:

 

It’s key to understand the heritage values

I started with a deeply felt commitment to inclusive significance assessments.  What this job did was remind me of why. There was no single dominant heritage value represented in this site.  To many people it was about the history of the labour movement.  To many others, it was about the Industrial Revolution and the Ironmasters that drove it in this particular region.  To a substantial group of others, it wasn’t about either of these things, but about their use of a much-loved green space.  What is more, all of these values were visible and lived all around the site.  For our management and interpretation of the site this meant there was no single story we could focus on.  This is a major concern that I have about almost every single interpretive planning model currently out there: they do not acknowledge that more often than not, this is the case at sites, nor do they offer a methodology on how to manage the situation.  I blame this for the many sites whose interpretation freezes them in time and falsely portrays a story to visitors that has been simplified beyond recognition.

 

Interpretation is facilitation, e.g. through events and projects

Especially because this site was in daily use by the community, and because they engaged in its history through various groups, more than any other role this job confirmed my belief that interpretation is about facilitation.  By facilitation I mean opportunities for stakeholders (community members, visitors, etc.) to actively live, experience and contribute to the heritage values of the site.  Events and projects are a perfect way of doing this, and they require the same degree of interpretive planning as your more traditional exhibition needs if they are to be meaningful.  A look at the current job listings will also show you that events and projects are considered to be part of interpretation by many employers, especially in the public sector.  A one-off intervention to put up panels or lay out a trail is no longer enough.

 

Stakeholders are your partners

The beautiful thing about this site was that the local stakeholders were so involved in it.  They had been more or less the ones who ‘managed’ the site before, and their rightful expectation was that they would continue to be a contributing part to how the site was managed, presented and used.  Again, I’d always believed in engaging with stakeholders, and this site offered plenty of opportunities, as well as learning in that area.  Mind, stakeholder engagement isn’t simply asking the local community about what they’d like to see, what stories they think are important, or what their local knowledge is.  The consultants that were responsible for the permanent interpretation at the site had done plenty of that, and then proceeded to do their own thing – most of which later proved meaningless in the on-going interpretation of the site and became a subject for criticism by stakeholders.  No, stakeholder engagement to me is about working with stakeholders as your partner.  So we did lecture series in collaboration with a local heritage group, we involved the community in creating our local history exhibitions, we created a project that we co-delivered with local stakeholders and through which young people will eventually interpret the site, and of course we had a community management board that gave direction to our efforts.

 

Interpretation is just a part of a larger whole

In many ways this harks back to the discussion about what interpretation encompasses.  And yet, in practice there are many limitations to what an interpreter – by virtue of the powers of their role – can do.  For example, I knew that the lack of tourism signage was a major issue for the site, but the power to change this didn’t lie with me, but with the Highways Department, together with the Tourism Officer (and funding, of course).  All of these departments and roles need to come together to make a heritage site work.  I will say, though, that they should probably recognise the expertise of the interpreter, and take their advice.  Which leads me to the final point.

 

It takes heritage professionals to support a heritage site

Unbelievable as it may seem, I was the only person working on site with a background in heritage.  This caused major issues.  I spent many hours trying to explain to team members why what they had done in a leisure centre (!) didn’t work as an approach to a heritage site.  In one instance I even had to explain what heritage meant, and why it was important that in our engagement efforts we focused on the heritage values of our site, rather than offer predominantly generic programmes such as willow weaving.  The consequence of this team make-up was that we didn’t achieve as much as we might have done otherwise in the time given.  While I would expect to have to do a certain amount of persuasion in bringing a new team up behind a particular vision, this took us back to such basics that I do feel the site was held back by it.

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For the stakeholder engagement conference I’m organising at my current site in September, I invited a member of the community to give the closing presentation.  I was very keen to ensure it isn’t just the ‘professionals’ talking about involving stakeholders and communities in interpretation, and reporting how well – or not – this worked.  I wanted to make sure that we also hear from the communities themselves.

So on Friday, this gentleman came to see me to run his presentation by me.  As I listened to him, I once again had this sense of humility that I often get when I speak to community members.  Let me explain what I mean.

First of all, I’ve never interpreted my own culture. And I think that’s been an asset, both to my practical work and to my thinking about interpretation.  I’ve always been aware that I’m an outsider to what I’m interpreting. And since I’m not a historian either, this meant that I’ve always started out by listening.  In listening to the people whose heritage I was about to interpret [1] I encountered emotions and stories, and existential questions that are so much larger than my own life. They have left me feeling humbled, and immensely grateful that I have the honour to interpret these people’s heritage.

To me, it is people’s sense of their own heritage that is the material for interpretation, not seemingly objective historical (or otherwise) facts.  And this too is something that I’ve come to believe through listening to people, and also because so far I’ve always worked at one site, where I’ve been immediately confronted with people’s reactions to my interpretation. I’ve learnt that if I don’t honour this sense of heritage, I might as well spare myself the effort.  At best, the stakeholders will politely recite my well-thought out interpretive themes and obligingly fulfil my learning objectives.  But then they’ll proceed to navigate around the interpretation as best they can so that they may engage with their heritage at this, their site on their terms.  They’ve shown me that if I can’t do better, then they don’t need me, thank you very much.

This experience may also explain why interpretation to me is facilitation.  It is not about imparting or increasing knowledge, in whatever form.  As one of my site’s stakeholders said, ‘Who does this person think he is to teach me about my own heritage?’  That isn’t to say that they don’t appreciate a professional’s input.  There is a very clear expectation at my current site that the stakeholders have of me.  On one hand, they rely on me to make sure that the site will be attractive to ‘tourists’.  But also they expect me to provide opportunities for them to engage with their heritage in different and meaningful ways. They expect to be involved. And I’ve learnt that letting go of the reins sometimes can actually lead to outcomes that I never would have been able to achieve on my own.  I remember vividly for example a talk that the local heritage forum did to coincide with an exhibition I had organised.  I wasn’t at all sure that the talk would live up to my ‘interpretive’ standards.  But it turned out to provide a perspective on the 1911 riots against Jewish businesses in town that it would have been impossible for me to introduce. And this sparked a lively and critical debate within the audience on the day and afterward that would be any interpreter’s dream.  Yes, I had a hand in it, by organising the exhibition and other talks around it.  But it was through the collaboration with the community that we achieved something we can be proud of.

So I’ve learnt to be humble as an interpreter.  Humble, because heritage communities really don’t need me when it comes down to it, at least not if I don’t pay heed to them.  And humble because they have so much to teach me.  Not the other way around.

 

Notes

[1] For the record, more often than not these people weren’t actually the local community.  This is the reason why I find it so very dangerous to use the term ‘community’ involvement, because most of the interpreters that I speak to and who use the term community involvement mean involving the local community.  But the local community may care the least about what is happening in their midst.  It may be people from very far away to whom this site matters.  To use an obvious example, the people living around Auschwitz are really not the ones for whom the site is preserved and interpreted.

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