How are decisions made about heritage and how can we get involved?

How can participation in heritage decision making be increased from wherever you are?

I have been part of a collaborative research team that is now able to share its findings via the following press release.

Heritage is about what we value: places, buildings, objects, memories, cultures, skills or ways of life. So why can it be so hard to get actively involved in heritage decision-making? Drawing on innovative practice and research experiments, the Heritage Decisions team have developed a website, publications and a series of events to show what you can do to increase participation in museums and heritage; whether you are a leader and shaper of policy and organizations, you’re trying to do good work within structures you don’t control or whether you simply care about the culture and history of the place in which you live.

Project background

Over the last two years a team of twenty people – researchers, policy makers, funders, museum practitioners, people who are activists about their own history and heritage – have worked together to design and then carry out a research project.

The Heritage Decisions team was brought together by an innovative pilot scheme developed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities programme. The Connected Communities ‘Co-design and Co-creation Development Awards’ scheme sought not only to enable collaborative research between researchers, policy makers, practitioners and community groups but to actively enable the collaborative development of a research agenda, from its earliest stages.

While we all had a shared interest in heritage and decision-making, the team was formed deliberately to draw into dialogue people from different backgrounds, positions and approaches. The aim was to use the team’s collective experiences, perspectives and positions to create a research project which might explore how to increase participation in heritage decision-making.

Project approaches: Reflecting on innovative practice and research experiments

The project’s research insights are derived from two key approaches: the first by reflecting on innovative work already undertaken by practitioners in the research team and the second through conducting research experiments. The project’s final booklet focused on how participation in heritage decision-making can be increased from wherever you work or live and whatever your position – professional, researcher or someone who cares about your own culture and place.

In terms of reflecting on innovative practice, John Lawson, Kathy Cremin and Mike Benson, who collaborated first at Ryedale Folk Museum and now at Bede’s World, reflected on the development of their approaches to distributed decisions making through turning museums inside out, conceptualising heritage as a ‘living stream’ that sustain the places it flows through and decision-making as distributed so that all staff and volunteers might have ‘freedom of self’.

In terms of a research experiment, at the Science Museum the focus was on how communities can contribute towards developing museum collections. The project, coordinated by Tim Boon, Head of Research and Public History, focused on electronic music and work with musicians, fans and self-confessed synth-geeks – Jean-Phillipe Calvin, John Stanley, David Robinson, Martin Swan and researcher Richard Courtney from the University of Leicester – to recommend items for the Science Museum collections. Alongside these practical recommendations, the project also came to question logics of preservation by arguing that a future for the synthesizer collections might be best secured not by keeping them away from being touched but by them being played, used and celebrated by a community of those that know and care about them.

Other projects included:

  • A chance for a funder – Karen Brookfield from the Heritage Lottery Fund – to see one of their projects, The Potteries Tile Trail, up close. A collaboration which also gave time and space for The Potteries Tile Trail coordinator, Danny Callaghan, to draw out some of his principles and ways of working which has led to the project’s ‘DIY Heritage Manifesto’.
  • An exploration of how a Conservation Officer, Jenny Timothy, collaborated with architects and developers in Leicester – and how the significance of a building unfolded through the relationships and conversations as the project developed.
  • A project of organizational reflective practice at the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland focused on their Discovering the Clyde project – made possible by research collaboration between researcher Rebecca Madgin, University of Glasgow, and the RCAHMS’s Alex Hale.
  • An investigation of heritage decision making within a city – in York. Here Peter Brown, York Civic Trust, Lianne and Richard Brigham, York Past and Present, Paul Furness, York’s Alternative History and researcher, Helen Graham, University of Leeds, develop a series of events, history walks and interventions to both make more visible decision-making practices and to model and explore alternatives.

Key ideas

The key ideas that have emerged from the Heritage Decisions project – all ways in which to increase participation in museums and heritage – are:

  • Act: Make change from where you are
  • Connect: Cross boundaries and collaborate
  • Reflect: See your work through other people’s eyes
  • Situate: Understand your work in context

Events for the Connected Communities Festival

The project was celebrated by the launch of the final project booklet – ‘How should heritage decisions be made? Increasing participation from where you are’ – with four events tying into the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities Festival in June 2015. The events – in Manchester, York (20th June) and Stoke (27th June) – each explored community-led and DIY approaches to heritage. There was also an event – lined to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland strand of the research – Connected with the Clyde: A Multi-Disciplinary Canoe Journey (training workshops Thu 18-Fri 19 June, event Sat 27 June, River Clyde).

To find out more about the Heritage Decisions June events:

To download the project’s final booklet and for more information see the project

Twitter: @heritageres

Or alternatively contact the project’s Principle Investigator Helen Graham, University of Leeds on


York Social – The Gathering

On Saturday evening, 9 March 2013, we followed up the successful ‘Luddite Wake’ from January with ‘York Social-The Gathering’ in the Golden Ball pub in York. The format is a bit unusual, incorporating acoustic music, not always folk music and with songs not always accompanied by instruments, mixed in with poetry in any format, along with reading of interesting items of prose. It is billed as words, songs and music ‘by the people, of the people and for the people’, so it tends to have a critical political edge, or at least an undercurrent of social commentary. This first attempt was somewhat experimental and we did it ’round the room’, with a full house and not a lot of room for those of us who brought guitars, which had a very democratic effect and created a friendly, informal atmosphere. It was decidedly hard work to organise it and to compere it on the night, but once again we unearthed some new talent and the feedback suggested that some of those who might not have put themselves forward before, will do so in future. What one might call a ‘result’! Time will tell whether the idea will progress and how it might evolve in future. But it is good to have created a cultural space for the beleaguered ‘left’ in hard times. By coincidence, while preparing for the night, I discovered that Geordie Radical and Utopian Socialist Thomas Spence had just such an idea back around 1807-1810, meeting in the Fleece Inn, Old Windmill Lane, London. He called his evenings, ‘Free and Easy Club’. I’ll drink to that!