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.




Heritage research questions and evidence

In pulling together ideas for a couple of upcoming talks, the Framework for Policy Research which the now defunct UK Historic Environment Research Group (UKHRG) created in 2005 re-emerged from my filing system. I was running part of the Heritage Futures programme at Glasgow Caledonian University at that point, producing regular e-updates covering research, data and knowledge which was of relevance for the sector.  The Framework still has questions that are relevant, and which are now being addressed in a variety of ways through the Heritage Counts / Heritage Auditing programmes in England, Scotland and Wales, as well as via research supported through research councils such as the AHRC.

It is pleasing to see that an ecosystem of heritage research of relevance to policy is now well established, though there are still challenges in capturing all the potentially useful bits of knowledge that are ‘out there’.  An oft-quoted mantra within the sector is that we don’t have enough evidence to make conclusive arguments (usually in the public policy arena). I remain firmly of the opinion that we are actually drowning in evidence – it can be found across academic research, grey literature, institutional data etc. Our problem remains in effectively signposting, synthesising and translating/using the evidence effectively.  It is a knowledge management challenge, not a lack of data and information problem, so discussions underway in England about the potential development of a Heritage Observatory (which I have been making noise about for years!) is exciting.

Access the archived UKHRG Research Framework here: UK_HERITAGE_RESEARCH_POLICY

Terry Levinthal guest blog: On inventories

927_inv_cover_fullConservation professional Terry Levinthal (Director of Conservation at the National Trust for Scotland & Board Member of BEFS) has been reflecting on Inventories for us:

“Three interesting publications crossed my path today. The first, given to me by Diana Murray, former Head of the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS – now subsumed into the new NDPB Historic Environment Scotland) is called “An Inventory for the Nation” which records the 107 year journey of the Commission to produce a permanent and enduring record of the archaeology and antiquities of Scotland.

The second, which arrived by post later in the day was volume 144 of the Proceeding of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (SocAnt). A good proper academic read if there ever was one, I was drawn to an article by James Scott Pedre titled, “Mingary in Ardnamurchan: a review of who could have built the castle.” It was interesting to see liberal references to some of the RCAHMS’s publications, including the seminal Inventories of Argyllshire.

The third publication (actually the first, if I can call it a “publication”) that drew my attention came from the BBC’s Breakfast newscast, which I enjoy most mornings over the first coffee of the day. James Donal Wales was interviewed on the 15th anniversary of the founding of the Wikipedia, the free, open content, collaborative encyclopedia that would accept contributions from ordinary people. Loved and pilloried by all, I was struck by his mission of democratizing knowledge.

In flicking through An Inventory for a Nation, I was also struck by a quote from Roger Mercer, the Commission’s Secretary between 1990 and 2004, where he said, “Published Inventories have not ever really be a practicable, or, perhaps a desirable proposition.… By their nature, they seek to define, and as a result they tend to fossilise what must inevitably be a subject of constant reassessment”. As essentially a national collection for the antiquities of Scotland, this is an undeniable fact. Collections change; our understanding matures; different perspectives re-define.

However, in returning the Volume 144 of the SocAnts Proceedings, I was immediately struck on the timelessness of the Argyll Inventories and how they remain relevant and essential for modern scholastic purposes. The Inventories were referenced in numerous occasions, as were other works such as MacGibbons and Ross work on castles in Scotland (1889).

In essence, these Inventories provide a definable baseline; a point from which later works can be measured. James Wales spoke about his memory of an encyclopaedia, where as a child he would receive updates from the publisher on sticky labels and with his mother would painstakingly stick these over the corrected pages. These corrected passages never actually disappeared; they simply were hidden from view. Can we same the same about the edits to Wiki pages?

With no such fixed baseline, such as Argyll. An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments, Volume 1, Kintyre and the subsequent suite of other volumes, it would prove more challenging to conduct such a review as James Scott Pedre has done.

As such, it is comforting to have been given An Inventory for the Nation, which at least draws a measurable line from which future historians, scholars and management committees may wish to review in times to come. As our national heritage agencies merge and change in response to new challenges, being able to go back to review progress is more important than ever.

The heritage news hub – on editing Update @heritage_NGOs

Heritage update screenshotOver the past couple of months I have stepped in as ‘Guest Editor’ to help The Heritage Alliance produce its fortnightly email newsletter, Heritage Update. This is circulated directly to over 3,600 subscribers, and is then forwarded on or circulated to a few thousand more folk within organisations and networks within the sector and beyond – both in the UK and overseas.  Judging from sheer amount of information collated and edited from pro-active monitoring of a wide range of information and data sources, along with items submitted directly for inclusion from professionals and organisations across the sector, it is probably the single most important point of news and information for anybody wanting to keep up with what is going on. [Along with the BEFS Bulletin, for organisations north of the border in Scotland, serviced by the sister organisation, the Built Environment Forum Scotland!]

We exist in a multi-channel environment for receiving information, and it has been both fascinating, hugely enjoyable and utterly daunting at times to be at the heart of the flow of policy updates, news, consultations, job vacancies, events, debates, courses, critique, analysis, data, research projects, emails, calls, images and tweets. The sector is incredibly dynamic with so much going on. Update tries to provide a central point of curated information to particularly support the independent sector which usually doesn’t have the capacity to monitor what’s going on beyond the horizon in the way that the larger heritage organisations do.  It also tries to make sense of wider policy issues in planning and the environment, which are of relevance for the sector, and flags opportunities to engage in consultations which Government departments and other bodies conduct to feed in reaction, concerns of ideas where they might impact on the heritage sector.  The whole sector seems to find it useful and essential reading.

What is abundantly clear is that whilst Update contains a lot of information every fortnight (frequently running to over 20 pages if you happen to press print!), it is only able to cover the essentials: much more could be included, and the information feeds and platforms expand week by week (new projects, websites, RSS feeds, tweets, LinkedIn groups and discussions, publications).  There is a combination of information overload, connection deficit, a curatorial requirement, and a challenge in making sense of the heritage sector’s activities – which all washes up into the production of Update: as I swap back from the editor’s hat to my management academic hat I am starting to scribble ideas on how this can be conceptualised and signposted in terms of a knowledge management case study.

To sign up for Update – follow the link here: http://email.premmdesign.co.uk/h/r/31BE9009F8B5DF9B

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