The multivalent future life of The National Gallery

Publication of the latest National Gallery Strategic Plan 2021-2026 will take the organisation through to its 200th birthday. The plan is very much a product of the pandemic, recognising the change over the past year, challenges and opportunities that the gallery has gone through and actions it needs now to mainstream in its operations to thrive into the future.

The Gallery sees itself as embarking on a newly enhanced commitment to engage with the widest audiences globally in innovative ways, and wants to demonstrate how art is transformative, enhancing culture and society. It intends to develop income streams through a range of digital channels and offerings, rework the visitor welcome and orientation in the Sainsbury Wng, and foregrounds the research credentials of the Gallery as a hub for an enhanced and diverse community of practice.

There is much to applaud here, not least the optimistic and engaging tone in which the strategy is written. As a connoisseur of strategic plans and annual reports, there are also some sentences which may baffle and amuse. My favourites for this plan include:

It is this multivalent life, always finding new ways to share our art, that defines the Gallery and will continually redefine it in future.

Strategic Plan, p.5

Multivalent? There’s a word you don’t see every day!.

…we will diversify the social media channels we serve to include programmes we do not already use (TikTok, Snapchat) as well as doubling down on the ones we do.

Strategic Plan, p.10

Doubling down? A phrase with history… but also a gamble.

Nested strategic messages and actions for the canal estate in Scotland

Scottish Canals communications strategy document
Scottish Canals comms strategy

The canal network in Scotland has been regenerated over the past 20 years to provide an enhanced environment for recreation, water-based transport and environmental protection. Since the old British Waterways organisation evolved in Scotland in 2012 to become Scottish Canals the focus within the organisation has been on reimagining the 250-year-old inland waterways from derelict and under-used industrial transport arteries into regeneration corridors for tourism and the natural environment.

Scotland's canals in numbers infographic
Scotland’s canals in numbers infographic [Scottish Canals]

The organisation has aligned its purpose to the wider Scottish Government aims for the country, and in the latest versions of the Scottish Canals Strategic Plan and Marketing & Communications Strategy documents covering the period from 2020 to 2023, the wider social, cultural and environmental purpose for the organisation and the waterway network has become much more clearly articulated.

Strategic plans can sometimes be somewhat turgid documents, and not necessarily accessible to wider audiences. This is not the case with the Scottish Canal document, moreso if read alongside the communications strategy. Whilst the focus of the organisation is on the cultural and environmental stewardship of a defined waterways and associated land estate, the opportunities for the organisation to play an important role of far wider relevance becomes evident as the management of that estate provides lessons and opportunities of what can be done with the repurposing of heritage and environmental assets and altering the perception for stakeholders and users.

The vision for the organisation has shifted to how people positively interact with the canal estate as green and blue infrastructure, and a set of thematic messages and engagements relevant to different audiences are clearly presented as nested within the requirements of the organisation which at its heart is a combined estate/asset management and stewardship function. The context for the nested messaging is completed by showing the relationship to the wider published Scottish Government ‘Purpose’ against which all publicly funded bodies align themselves.

Our vision is for Scotland’s canals to be a world-class waterway network with a thriving natural environment built upon 250 years of history that benefits communities and all users who live, work, visit and play along our canals.

Scottish Canals vision
Nested messages and engagement by Scottish Canals sit within organisational priorities and broader Government aims
Nested messages and engagement by Scottish Canals which sit within organisational priorities and broader Government aims

The follow-through of purpose to function to message is neatly presented diagrammatically, and the documents effectively provide insight and greater profile for the organisation, and as a good example of the logic and ongoing development of transparent and inclusive corporate planning for organisations in the heritage sector.

Learning from the experience of others – art, business and leadership

I had the pleasure of sitting in Benny Higgins’ inaugural lecture at the University of Edinburgh last week, as he explored ‘Hinterlands’ making connections between his passion for and deep knowledge of art, literature and poetry, and situations faced in business. He ranged widely in time and geography, and in drawing inspiration from his cultural knowledge has been able to consider many operational and strategic decisions in a broader context. His lecture was inspiring and a reminder that engagement with culture, heritage and context is a useful hinterland which can have far-reaching effects.IMG_20191106_174528

Behaviour change as strategy

The Built Environment Forum Scotland (BEFS) recently ran a workshop to explore aspects of prioritisation within the heritage sector. This was related to a Historic Environment Scotland work stream arising from a pledge within the last SNP Manifesto to explore funding priorities for public monies within the historic built environment, in order to ensure the dwindling pot of available public monies go to where they are most needed / effective. The workshop also allied to a decade-old collaborative thought experiment which I have been undertaking in a slightly ad hoc way with Dr Simon Gilmour, Director of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. This has, over an extended period, sought to investigate scenario planning approaches and long-term horizon scanning (sometimes called futurology) for the sector.  The use and applicability of such futures-oriented approaches are intimately linked through policy direction and strategic organisational intentions to funding streams and decision-making mechanisms.  They also try to understand the how and why organisations behave in the way they do, responding to external drivers affecting their operational and policy environments. This in turn affects the way they interact with each other; and collectively across organisations, the way the sector as as whole focuses its attention on specific issues at certain points in time.

Details of the recent workshop and the resultant discussion are reported elsewhere via the usual BEFS communication channels, but in reflecting on the day, and via wider discussion within the workshop co-ordinating team, it is worth trying to step back and consider macro-challenges which will influence the prioritisation debate as it moves forward. Bringing together the sector to try and create a matrix of funding priorities sounds entirely reasonable as an effective tactical response within a wider strategic movement to prioritise what we do with an asset base which we cannot realistically look after in its entirety. Sector wide applicability of a single tool, or even agreement of a single approach to using a flexible toolkit in organisations with different aims and priorities, divergent stakeholder views, and widely varied interests in sub-sets of the heritage asset base may be too big a challenge to contemplate in practice though. But, if theoretically it is a good idea, what really stops us from doing it?

The reasons we can’t are complex and relate to organisational and stakeholder autonomy, and a set of behaviours, both individual and organisational, which can hardwire nervousness of the unacceptability of monolithic behaviour; instil worry about a democratic deficit in decision-making; exacerbate tensions to do with perceptions of exclusivity and inclusivity; and worry about the prospect of change with foreseen or unforeseen consequences that we don’t like the sound of, even before we know what it might be.

Individually and collectively within the sector we already recognise a wide set of macro level issues both as consideration or sometimes as threat: these include issues like climate change, stakeholder inclusion and emergent ideas like intergenerational equity. We are already thinking and discussing the ways in which they may affect the historic environment generally and how we can incorporate them or mitigate against them, and thus protect assets we want to save and/or pass to the next generation. We also already conceptualise and manage the micro issues, on a daily basis within our personal and organisational forms – as professionals and agents / having agency within a specific sector forming part of a bigger ecosystem of planning and managing the environment around us. The mid-range, however, that gap between the big concepts and the micro objects/actions – the realm of behavioural systems – is one that we still struggle with, and I would argue that in order to move things forward collective both better understanding of behaviours, and subtle behaviour change is perhaps the next strategic challenge to engage with.

What do I mean by ‘behaviour change’ as a strategic approach? Well, listening to the various stakeholders expressing their views in the prioritisation discussion, I was struck by the thoughtful and deeply analytical ways in which all of the individuals present engaged with the process of sifting ideas on the heritage asset base and its need, and by consequence where/how we might prioritise that need. Alternative views on issues were chewed over; viewpoints were balanced; and ultimately, consensus was reached collectively within the room, perhaps surprisingly, with many items flagged for higher or lower prioritisation. What we didn’t do however was fully articulate why we individually, organisationally, and ultimately collectively, took particular stances, and how those stances might have changed or might change in any period of time. We didn’t put ourselves in others’ shoes (professionally), as we perhaps assumed we understood the stance of an architect versus a planner, or an archaeologist versus an advocator implicitly. I would argue that assumed implicit understanding or tacit knowledge holds us back, as our professional and organisational identities still mask and influence what we say or are prepared to say to foreground motivations for our behaviour in the present. For example, why as an academic in the workshop did I de-prioritise the funding for academic study in the matrix? Why did nobody challenge me on this? What was I thinking? Was I betraying my own profession, or was I making a stance as part of a projected persona, trying to be some kind of enfant terrible of the afternoon, disrespecting something I should be defending to the hilt?

I am not saying we need to laboriously psychoanalyse the way we talk about and respond in our professional consideration of heritage in workshop situations, but I do think that we might explore our behaviour in order to better recognise and articulate our individual and corporate behaviours.  In essence we need to be much clearer about the ‘mid range’ linkage between individual stakeholders and the big issues.   We need to be much more open about the tacit knowledge we use, that which isn’t codified. We need to re-identify and flag the drivers which influence us individually and corporately, and how these have changed and will change again.  Organisational and professional expectations (whether it is related to professional standards or institutional mission) affect subtly the way in which individuals collectively discuss, disagree and arrive at consensus.  These influences change over time, and what was foremost in our individual or organisational mindsets at the time of writing Our Place in Time (for example), may not be the most pressing issues to address now.  I don’t think we would have had a workshop outcome of consensus in the same way a couple of years ago, or longer – so what has caused us to behave in this way right now?

Discussion abounded in the room about what we did care about and what is of less interest. I think we need to be bolder and braver about admitting what and why things do and don’t concern us any more, and how the concerns change subtly but relatively quickly from one year to the next.  A broader consideration of the way in which we frame our responses to consultations, and foregrounding the current drivers which affect the way in which we engage with heritage issues would, I think, help to bridge the micro and the macro – to build and articulate better the ‘mid range’ thinking which links the consideration of the day to day operational challenges against the grand challenges which the wider world faces, and where we try to deploy effective management of the historic environment in order to add value to the world we live in, and explain fully the decisions we make now for those that come after.

Additional note 24/1/19 – This blog post also appears on the Built Environment Forum Scotland website: https://www.befs.org.uk/latest/behaviour-change-as-strategy/ 

Suffolk Heritage Strategy

suffolk_heritage_strat

The Suffolk Heritage Strategy has been developed ‘to preserve, protect and enhance Suffolk’s heritage for the enjoyment of future generations whilst maximising its impact and celebrating its wider contributions to education, economic development, health and well-being, helping to create a strong sense of place, pride and belonging’.

It contains three priorities:

  1. Identity, Economy, and Tourism
  2. Community Engagement and Learning
  3. Heritage Protection and Enhancement

Professors Baxter and Gill contributed to the strategy through the Strategic Heritage Forum.

The full document can be found here.

Scotland’s new Archaeology Strategy

A brand new 10 year Archaeology Strategy for Scotland was launched at Europe’s biggest archaeology conference in Glasgow today (European Archaeological Association).

Scotland's Archaeology Strategy
Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy

Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy has been developed by the Scottish Strategic Archaeology Committee, coordinated by Historic Scotland, with input from over 200 people from across the archaeology sector in Scotland and beyond. It sets out a shared national vision that Scotland’s archaeology should benefit everyone in society.

It complements work that has been undertaken over the past few years by the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, as part of the ScARF (Scotland’s Archaeological Research Framework), and puts in place a framework for the new national heritage organisation, Historic Environment Scotland, to support archaeology as an integral part of our lived and natural environment.

Research seminar 26th March: One lump or two? Fusion and fission in the heritage sector, a view from Scotland

The next research seminar will be held on Wednesday 26th March at 4.30pm.  Dr Simon Gilmour, Director of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, will be talking.

Simon-Gilmour

One lump or two? Fusion and fission in the heritage sector, a view from Scotland

This seminar will explore the different trajectories currently being taken in Wales, England and Scotland with regard to the historic environment. It will focus particularly on the Scottish experience, looking at the process of developing high-level strategic thinking on the subject and possible trends, and make some comparisons with elsewhere.

Simon has, since 2007, been the Director of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, a charitable not-for-profit membership organisation founded in 1780 and instituted by Royal Charter in 1783. He is trained as an archaeologist with excavation experience in Syria, Romania, France and, of course, Scotland, where he is co-director of several archaeology projects coming to fruition, or part published.  He is also currently the Vice Chair of the Built Environment Forum Scotland (BEFS) a membership organisation bringing together voluntary and professional non-governmental organisations that operate at the national level and represent people who work within the built environment sector.

All welcome. As usual, please contact Julie Barber email: julie.barber@ucs.ac.uk to register.