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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.