Place-making or place-keeping ?

MP4 project placekeepingIn tackling my backlog of grey literature reading, a report re-emerged in my files on an EU-funded project which ran as part of the 2007-2013 North Sea Region Programme.  The project, entitled “Making Places Profitable – Public and Private Open Spaces”, shortened to MP4 focused on exploration of approaches for planning and designing, maintaining and using public places in the long-term. It set out to demonstrate how open space improvements offer positive socio-economic benefits, and how the benefits offered to key communities can be maintained in the long run.  It also illustrated support for greater interaction between all those involved in the open space management process.  The original project website is no longer active (and I’d advise anyone not to click the link in the project report as the project domain has been re-used for something else entirely!) – but it can be found archived here.  Broader research and case studies were also published in an academic text. (I also hadn’t realised that a Heriot-Watt colleague was involved in the study, and I will now track him down for a conversation!).

The key phrase used within the project which has stuck in my mind over the past few days, is ‘place-keeping’, mainly because I haven’t consciously heard it being used in the historic environment milieu which I am embedded in (rather than the open space management context where it originated).  That we haven’t picked up on the term ‘place-keeping’ surprises me therefore – as the ethos of balancing preservation and managing change which is at the heart of heritage management seems to be neatly captured in it,  particularly where community and stakeholder engagement is at the fore, and especially where it is trying to encourage greater sense of ‘ownership’.  Place-keeping, however perhaps better captures aspects of our discussions in heritage management which which have co-opted ‘place-making’ as a term to use somewhat uncomfortably at times, where heritage has been hard-wired to regeneration and as an instrumental tool for development.  Place-keeping also has an implicit sense of history within the term, whilst place-making just doesn’t – to me it suggests a constant act of development.    Perhaps I have missed it entirely, but I think I shall now be slipping place-keeping into meetings and discussions and see where it finds new traction – or gets challenged forcing me to consider this all a little more.

Engaging with policy, and trying it out on the spot – personal workshop takeaways

A few takeaways which have stuck with me from the PRAXIS workshop on heritage researchers and their engagement / potential engagement with policy-making:

We shouldn’t overthink it / expertise counts. 

We are used as academics to couching arguments within a hypothesised context often, which can lead to writing that can be less than definite in its views.  In developing evidence which may be used as policy, whilst data and argument does matter, the format and amount of back-up for arguments is the same as may be required in a typical peer-reviewed paper which is open to close scrutiny.  I am not saying that evidence should be lightweight, but equally in our approach to engagement, we shouldn’t overthink things before submitting. Likewise, academics do have expertise, and can be recognised as such due to their experience and positions – we should not be over-concerned about setting out our credentials to show that our views are valid.

The quality of input considered evidence isn’t that high. 

    Within the workshop, an interesting exercise was undertaken where we worked in groups critiquing materials that had already been submitted and accepted as evidence by the House of Lords enquiry which we were using as a case study. The range of materials was interesting, ranging from simple statements of fact, through to closely argumented positions statements.  Not all pieces of evidence stuck to the brief for the call for evidence, and some pieces did not pass the ‘accept as first year undergraduate coursework’ critical viewpoint.  The bar for what is considered evidence suitable for consideration is not the same as a journal article or what might be acceptable in an academic setting – however this doesn’t mean it isn’t used in high level situations, and therefore as academics we very clearly could provide considerable benefit to contributing (given the quality of what else might be considered).

It can be challenging to think about potential impact in the arts and humanities space.

    There was broad recognition that within the arts and humanities space, engagement with policy was not as widespread; the benefits (for all parties) was not well recognised; the potential contribution not realised; and the thinking process may be more difficult for researchers who are used to approaching the subject in a different way (based on the background of the researcher).  Findings or outputs from arts and humanities research might need considerable repurposing to make them suitable for input into policy, and, as one senior academic in the room neatly put it, their brain has to work in two different modes of thinking as to whether they are using material and knowledge for research or for evidence production and submission.  This is not necessarily easy, as the mindsets are different.

Provide killer facts and do some packaging of solutions. 

    Evidence that might be picked up, quoted and used within discussions, often takes the form of a ‘killer fact’ or turn of phrase which suits arguments being made in a sometimes political setting.  Blinding policy-makers or committees with data might be what we want to do, to ensure people have the right facts to back up arguments, but sometimes it can be too much.  Statistics and data needs simple explanation for the everyday reader who may not be an expert in the specialised field of the academic.  Where solutions can be provided for a problem, inference and obfuscation can sometimes hide the intended meaning (especially in the language of academic papers) – a bit of packaging of solutions is therefore worthwhile and appreciated.

Don’t create work for those reading.

    Allied to much of what has been said already, and perhaps obvious – the reader has to be able to understand what is being said.  Inference, nuanced arguments and theoretical frameworks, whilst important, do not necessarily help a reader who is looking for clarity in what is being said.  Think about the abstract rather than the full paper as the equivalent.  Particularly for Parliamentary enquiries and evidence gathering, simplicity in language is really important – as the weight of evidence from across the board may be substantial.

Relate to the brief. 

    We pick up our students on this – but in looking at what had been asked for and what was submitted, in a number of cases the submission really wasn’t entirely relevant. (This may have been deliberate in some cases where a different point was being put across, but it doesn’t necessarily help the analysers of the evidence).
  1. Potentially great impact from arts and humanities researchers.

The interest in the wider role of culture, society, creativity and comparators than can be brought from different societies, viewpoints, locations, and points in time has the potential to add great depth to policy consideration and analysis of evidence.  We should get more involved in submitting evidence that we do currently.

Academic incentives don’t always relate to policy (impact is often thought of differently).

There was much reflection on the incentivisation scheme for getting involved in policy work – recognising that structures in which many of us work rate research, teaching and particular forms of impact metric in such a way that the reasons for investing in policy engagement may not be high.  Even with the impact agenda expanding, there was talk about the way in which impact has to be evaluated and demonstrated, meaning that policy engagement along the way, as opposed to clearly seeing an outcome or change as a result of input can prove problematic.

Heritage observatory observations

black binocular on round device

Useful discussion has continued around the notion of what a heritage observatory might look like, and there seems to be common agreement that what the sector doesn’t need is another static repository where information, data and what could otherwise be useful knowledge gets dumped and gathers digital dust.  We’ve got those already.  Any such development needs to be useful and ultimately sustainable (therefore useful might be replaced with vital).

In participating in a discussion with the wonderfully entitled ‘helping to help things happen’ group (part of the wider Heritage2020 programme of activity in England), my takeaway is that there are a set of areas/activities where an observatory function might operate which need further considering in a future feasibility study.  These are:

  1. Signposting of data / research / resources.  There is lots out there, but it can be hard to find or sometimes accidentally stumbled across. The signposting could therefore be passively pointing to what is held elsewhere, and also actively undertaking scanning outside the core sector to signpost knowledge and data that is useful.
  2. Brokerage. There is a need for further assistance in putting partners together (users / producers of knowledge), and supporting knowledge exchange in the heritage policy space. There are excellent projects and partnerships already underway (such as the Oxford TORCH Heritage programme, or our own work at the Scottish Confucius Institute for Business & Communication’s heritage and tourism activity streams supporting international working), and also organisations that exist to support this area of work (such as knowledge exchange units or the National Co-ordinating Centre for Public Engagement which focuses on the ‘translation’ of research into wider society) but much more could be done here on a national basis specifically within the heritage sector.
  3. Synthesis. Complex datasets, information sources, and technical detail which exist can be synthesised and translated for end users (particularly in the ‘SME’ world of NGO heritage) where little capacity exists to undertake this.  Again, organisations such as The Heritage Alliance and the Built Environment Forum Scotland already play a key role in this, but their own capacity is limited and could be scaled up further.
  4. Horizon scanning, scenarios and research agendas. There could be a ‘think tank’ role for an observatory, looking at longer term issues or macro pictures and drivers affecting the business and policy environment of the heritage sector.  In undertaking the potential roles listed above, an observatory might play a role in forming a shared heritage policy research agenda (taking aspects of the Heritage Counts / Heritage Audits programmes further, and picking up on the UKHRG work previously blogged about).
  5. Rewiring the relationships and transforming practice. A key aspect of any observatory development might be that it can support the transformation of the way we already work in the heritage policy arena, thinking about how we can do knowledge management better, and support skills and practice development at an individual and organisational level. New ways of working, creating shared knowledge, and better ‘evidence deployment’ techniques in policy debates could be the transformative element for making the case for heritage.
  6. Geographical coverage. Discussions at the moment are centred in England, however many heritage policy issues are cross-cutting in terms of geography, and the research funding councils which fund most of the University-centred research activities have a UK-wide remit. Whilst heritage and cultural policy is largely a devolved issue across the home nations, any observatory development should try to work at a country-wide level, not least as the devolved approaches in heritage are already raising interesting opportunities for learning from each other about difference – and can collectively support the wider public policy challenges for the sector that lie ahead regardless of where we live.

 

 

 

PRAXIS – heritage, research and policy

I am finalising ideas for a talk next week for the Praxis programme at the University of Leeds, considering how best to engage with the policy progress from an academic standpoint. I have been asked to talk due to my career path which has weaved backwards and forwards between industry and applied research as a very practical academic and hands-on manager (of projects, people and bits of Universities and charities), always within or closely aligned to the heritage sector.

The organisers are indulging me, so I have prepared the short talk from a autobiographical standpoint, using some case studies to illustrate different points on a personal journey working between policy and practice over an extended period (rather than advising on policy input per se).  I am hoping that this may be a useful counterpoint to the typical “here’s what is expected of you as researchers to achieve impact” to think about longer term opportunities and trajectories for not only applying findings back into policy as an influencer, but also career and skills development, as well and managing different requirements and expectations of stakeholders along the way.

It has been a useful exercise for me in the preparation of the talk to begin to see the common threads in some of the wildly different and disparate things that I have been involved with over the last 25 years, and remind myself about still useful and relevant items stored in the far reaches of my files and notes.

Half century and hospitality

Heritage, hospitality and culture in business is intimately bound together in any China visit with the University. Yesterday’s catch up with our colleagues at Beijing Technical & Business University saw us exchanging gifts, which remains a key cultural expectation in any business meeting. It tangibly represents the more intangible bond of friendship, reciprocity in culture and trust which underpin successful and prosperous partnerships which must be nurtured over time. BTBU has a historical association with the marketing and development of the traditional drink Baiju – and on previous visits #heritagehospitality has been free-flowing. Perhaps luckily yesterday the meeting was too early in the day, as little else may have been achieved.

We ended the day learning more about the heritage of birthday traditions, where celebrating the 9 in an age is more important than the 0. Reasons for this are explained here. One of our colleagues on the trip has turned 50 today, so it was culturally appropriate to feast on the eve of his birthday (whilst still 49) to wish him a long life.

Appreciating scale from the air in heritage management – returning to China

F5392A91-62A8-46A6-A300-C57409778815I have just arrived back in China for one of my regular trips in my role as Confucius Institute director for Heriot-Watt University.  The sheer scale of heritage sites, cultural parks and the effect that scale has on heritage management practice never ceases to fascinate me particularly from the air as I arrive in Beijing. Sadly I didn’t have my camera to hand on this trip as the plane banked around the city from north to south to bring me in to the new Daxing airport, but the visibility was good enough to again identify stretches of the Great Wall to the north, and then a number of urban parks and cultural sites as we got closer to our landing point. Regardless of differences in management philosophies for heritage between the west and the east, one of the major factors that we sometimes fail to really appreciate is the sheer scale for heritage conservation which China faces in both the rural and urban landscape.

Politically correct heritage – storming in a (bone china) teacup.

An understated comment and warning by the Director General of Historic Houses in the members’ magazine before Christmas has been picked up by the Spectator and the Telegraph and turned into an argument that the National Trust is continuing to pursue a politically correct agenda in the presentation of its properties open to the public.

The Prejudice and Pride activity programme, report and research by the National Trust and Leicester University, which followed the 2017 celebration marking 50 years since the Sexual Offences Act (1967), which partially decriminalised homosexuality in England, provided an opportunity to understand heritage better, reflecting on the legacy of those LGBTQ individuals whose stories have not been fully told.

The Historic Houses Director-General, Ben Cowell, picked up on a specific point in the programme’s accompanying report which suggested the the focus on family history at National Trust houses results in ‘a narrative that privileges heterosexual lives’, leading to ‘a heteronormative emphasis’ on the line of succession (who married whom, which children they had, and all that).  Cowell questions whether in future succession might only reluctantly be acknowledged in interpretation, and states a hope that we shouldn’t end up with complex historical circumstances at a house being reduced to ‘a single (progressive) story‘.

Rod Liddle, writing in the Spectator on January 12th, has enlarged on the ‘mild rebuke‘ of the National Trust by Ben Cowell, into an opinion piece which laments that Historic Houses is on the wrong side of history, and that sadly, everything is now ‘reducible to a single (progressive) story which takes no account of historical realities.’  Liddle ends by opining, ‘the past is not, as Historic Houses quietly suggested it was, a foreign country where people do things differently. The past either did not exist or should not have existed, and those aspects which conflict with our modern sensibilities must be airbrushed out of the picture’.  

Amusingly, The Telegraph, has taken the opinion piece a step further (January 25th), suggesting that a row over revisionism has started, ‘with one prominent conservator [Cowell, in his original Historic Houses Magazine column] suggesting the Trust would “jar with the realities of history” if it tried to play down the role of families who have looked after stately homes for centuries, without whom they would not exist.‘  The story goes on to regurgitate previous accusations of the Trust acting in a politically correct way, reminding readers of the row started at Felbrigg in 2017, when the Trust “outed” Robert Wyndham Ketton-Cremer, the late owner of the hall, leading to volunteers at the site refusing to wear rainbow lanyards; and the accusation by the Church of England that the Trust was “airbrushing faith” by not using the word ‘Easter’ in its annual chocolate egg hunt sponsored by Cadburys.

The Telegraph piece didn’t refer to the Mail’s NT-PC story from the back end of last year, when a visitor spotted a timeline at Avebury Manor using BCE / CE (before common era / common era) instead of AD / BC labelled dates.  It is, however, a theme which the Telegraph does tend to revisit, having reported on the Trust chairman’s end of year (2017) internal memo to staff, and then again with an opinion piece geared around Cragside covering up busts and paintings of men, under the wonderfully provocative banner, “Nobody joins the National Trust to be subjected to politically correct agitprop“.

The National Trust has indeed changed its approach to presenting its properties, beginning to foreground alternative histories relevant to its properties and stories around gender, slavery, equality, and sexual orientation which wouldn’t necessarily have featured previously, as it tries to make the experience of its sites more inclusive, and aims to attract a more diverse audience.  Has it become politically correct though?  Probably not. The jury is likely to continue to play this out in the press, from varying standpoints and with more or less accompanied eye-rolling at an organisation perceived to be at the centre of the heritage ‘establishment’, and therefore a good target for critique by journalists.

This is all perhaps more instructive in media studies terms rather than anything else, with ideas of left or right-leaning politics, establishment and subversion, all thrown together with more than a sprinkling of journalistic license to create a storm in a bone china teacup. A great case study for my heritage management students has written itself.