(Re)negotiating Expertise and Participation round-table discussions (12th August, 2016)

For event information, see http://new.archaeologyuk.org/negotiating-expertise

I have summarised the morning session on storify: https://storify.com/haraldfred/re-negotiating-expertise-and-participation

The afternoon of round-table discussions began with me asking participants to organise into groups according to whether they identified as volunteers, professionals and academics. I knew we were short on volunteers, but did not realise how few academics there were in the end, which made dividing into groups more challenging. I then asked each group to identify their own expertise, and what they though the expertise of volunteers as well as different kinds of heritage professionals is. The idea was to identify mis-perceptions of each other’s expertise as well as attitudes toward one’s own.

  • The five different groups independently expressed that they disliked the questions.
  • Their own expertise did not appear to be a topic they were comfortable discussing and they did not seem to think that meaningful generalisations could be made about different people’s expertise.
  • It became clear that while professionals may have a core of specialist expertise, much of the expertise required to perform their jobs well lie outside this core and may well be areas others, including volunteers, have more expertise in. There was a general sense that volunteers can have all sorts of expertise, but that this expertise often is not formally recognised, which led to a discussion of how expertise is something labelled from outside oneself and is often attached to specific things, such as qualifications or position, which may often be poor metrics for measuring knowledge and skills.
  • There was general agreement that professionals may often hide behind mis-perceptions of their expertise and that this can have a negative impact on effective collaboration with volunteers.

It is worth noting that most attendees have performed multiple roles and are used to collaborative partnership working, which led to balanced discussions where few stereotypical views expressed. It had also been emphasised earlier in the day that most people don’t know what some professionals, like conservators do – so there was a prevailing sense of cautiousness in labelling others from ignorance.


The second round of discussion related to a dilemma I am facing in my own research – how can I successfully facilitate the increased capacity and sustainability of voluntary groups interested in taking care of heritage without simultaneously justifying austerity? There are many reasons why increased participation is a good thing, but with increased participation there is a need for changing professional roles, not fewer professionals. I asked: “In an ideal scenario, how would roles and responsibilities be divided between paid professionals and unpaid volunteers/citizens in your field/type of heritage work – and why?”

I want to paraphrase just a few points that really stuck with me:

  • The mystique of professional work is overplayed and leads to dumbing down when presenting to non-specialists; we must be really clear about the complexity of what we do, so volunteers can see how their contributions fit into the larger system, but also highlight where professional involvement is necessary due to complexity or risks.
  • Volunteers/local people are experts about their place and should be respected as such
  • There doesn’t always have to be a professional in the dynamic – be available, but more is not always needed.
  • Volunteers should not be forced to be in certain places or to do certain tasks – if they are, they are workers, not volunteers. If volunteers are given responsibility, they must be allowed to do things their own way according to their priorities. Volunteering should cost you more – volunteers should get more out of it than professionals, otherwise it’s exploitation
  • Professionals working with volunteers need a support network – professionals must look after themselves.
  • Jobs that are for public good should not necessarily be unpaid. Many tasks could be done by volunteers, but must be arranged in a way that does not perpetuate exclusion and oppression. Experience through volunteering should not be requirement for getting paid work.
  • Money, money, money – all this requires money, and will not be provided unless importance of the work is recognised.


We ended the day with four parallel discussions chosen by participants on the day.

  1. Attempting to delineate boundaries between what volunteers can do and what professional involvement is required for.
  2. The purpose of archaeological projects – what happens once a project finishes – “why am I here?”
  3. Discussing the potential for a co-operative museum, or a heritage co-op – what would this look like?
  4. Attempting to identify the barriers to diversifying the heritage sector, both paid and unpaid and how they could be removed.

It is fair to say that these are all big questions and that none were solved on the day, but plenty of great ideas were thrown about, and there is definitely a need for exploring these further.

co-design meeting in Pontefract (8th August, 2016)

In relation to the event in York on 3rd July, it was commented that it was a valuable session that fleshed out what we want and what’s possible – Meghan’s input was useful.

With regard to audiences, it was pointed out that there may be differences between groups. Pontefract Civic Society see it as an opportunity to promote Pontefract and what it has to offer. Pontefract already have a web-presence. A lot of effort is about setting Pontefract in a good light and providing information.

The group also wants to create links more broadly, connect and learn from others. I pointed out that I hope this will be achieved through the co-design process as much as the co-designed products.


In going over design brief it was pointed out that analytical back-end can be facilitated through search function.

We ended up spending some time discussing the purpose of the platform and the idea of iterative adaptive design. Are we looking to design a good virtual experience, or are we also interested in how the design impacts place-based experiences – actual interactions with heritage as opposed to virtual representations of it. I had been so stuck on creating a pleasing virtual experience in order to encourage users to dwell and make their own contributions that I had lost sight of the idea that the platform should facilitate changing perspectives, attitudes and thereby relationships and behaviour with heritage. This should not be seen as simply a platform to document emotional responses to heritage, but also to impact emotional responses. So we must design the platform to impact both virtual and physical experiences and have feedback loops from both. As much as I like to think I’m an interdisciplinary thinker, this highlighted how stuck I am on a narrower definition of caring for heritage of decision-making and interventions – but caring for heritage must include encouraging use and developing connections between people and heritage.

The issue of sustainability was also raised. Sustainability does not come from having a website – so how does this design contribute to sustainability exactly? Well, I certainly hope it does contribute, but not on its own, no.

How do we know that we have attracted younger people? Do they give age in registration? If this is an aim for the design and for the larger project the surely we should make sure we can measure it?

Talking about platform names – it was suggested heritage must be in the title. We must be careful not to use something that already exists.

Users should be allowed to curate their feed by choosing places, categories etc. that are important to them. They control content on their profile page, but should also be able to filter content in their feed.

For design, it was emphasised that it must be simple and uncluttered – not too busy. Different kinds of heritage are so different. Do we need different pages for different types of heritage? Flexible – different individuals must be able to create different things on the site. I responded that while I think I sometimes gloss over differences between types of heritage, this tool is about highlighting why things are as important, not to document and digitise heritage. There is a big difference between the technical documentation of an archaeological site or historic building and the documentation of why people think it is important. Oral history came up again, and is clearly something worth looking at in the future, but I think tying it to what we are designing now is complicated. This is because its relationship to heritage is not clear cut. Oral history can both be heritage and can talk about heritage.

It was suggested that a map with a zoom feature could be a simple way of letting users navigate posts. The platform must both be simple to inexperienced users and satisfying to advanced users.

The use of a 4-divided screen was suggested. I think this could work really well as a landing page that gives an overview of what the platform does.  

first plenary co-design meeting in York (3rd July, 2016)

Central co-design session at Council for British Archaeology offices 3rd July 2016 with representatives from Pontefract Civic Society, Bridlington Civic Society and Friends of the Chalk Tower (Flamborough). Meghan Dennis joined us as a consultant at the end of the day.

Things we hoped to get out of the day and from working together:

  • Engaging younger people
  • Learn from experienced groups
  • How digital tools can help struggling towns interested in heritage
  • Find ways to let people interact with their towns – not everyone has time to attend meetings
  • To help ensure that Civic Societies speak for people
  • To build up around local decision making
  • To break out of insular groups and committee meetings – to talk to other people, not just ourselves as first step to attracting new members
  • Embrace social media in an effort to reach new audiences
  • Link with other groups

Then a moment of bonding over hatred of litter ++: it was becoming clear that this exercise of sharing hopes and expectations was helping connect individuals from different groups

  • To create a tool that shares information and connections to people – a place that points people in direction of where (or to whom) to go for more information
  • Again, to build consensus, or at least the sense of speaking on behalf of more people


Early expectations for what we are co-designing:

  • Must accommodate culture/nature, sea/land, practices/relationships/people/etc. not just monuments
  • Must accept images and video, not just text
  • Noted concern about sharing/pooling ignorance
  • It must be simple to register
  • Easy to navigate and use
  • Give near instant gratification
  • Intuitive search function that gives desired results
  • No initial requirement to agree to conditions – puts people off
  • Pictures to draw you in
  • Remember that some people have slow computers and internet connections
  • Let you use it before registering etc. and have functionality to draft and then share/publish as distinct phases.

The full list of requirements, intended users, etc. have been compiled and organised in a design brief draft document which is attached. It was clear that having a range of people present who were drawing on their own personal experiences and frustrations with websites was highlighting a range of different issues – making a case for co-design with regard to useful products.

We talked specifically about our users and did an exercise creating personas. While this got us thinking, I think the exercise should have been introduced and explained better to be more useful. Despite this, it got us thinking about who we are designing for and the implications of this. By the end of the day, it was very clear to me that we were designing for two different types of people, broadly speaking: those who want to share and contribute views, and those who want to use these views. In the room, we represented a range of different people who wanted to use views, but we need to be creative about how to attract people to the platform and make them want to share, contribute and interact with personal identifications and interpretations about heritage. While my focus coming in had been on the analytical back-end, or how we could use contributed data (and designing a system that made access and analysis simple), by the end it was clear to me that where we really need to focus is in making it appealing and intuitive to use on a casual basis.

Bringing Meghan in was very useful, initially because it forced us to pull all the ideas we had brought up together so we had something to present. There seemed to be a general consensus that what I (assisted by the group) presented to Meghan was a fair reflection of our discussions. Gratifyingly, it seemed our presentation was clear – when Meghan delivered a summary of what she understood our wants to be, the response was overwhelmingly positive; it felt as though Meghan had described what we wanted better than we had been able to ourselves. Especially the expression “emotional response” struck a chord – this is what we want people to express: their emotional responses to places and use this as a way to identify “heritage”. This led to the idea that what our platform will do is “add colour to black and white” descriptions of heritage, and about moving forward, about how we want something to be and how we want to use something. A number of other points were sparked:

  • We need a clear design to ensure that people can do what they want – useful from first visit
  • Instant gratification looks different to different people
  • We need to understand how people use social media, not just that they do
  • Information should be open – access should not be restricted
  • Let people set filters rather than have filters be imposed

This is only a very partial account of the meeting, which lasted four hours. Some of my initial reflections on the meeting are below:


I think the meeting achieved introducing participants to other groups and creating ties – at times it was a challenge to keep us on track due to so many other connections and useful conversations being initiated, but this was part of the point of the meeting. There was not enough time to work through the design process together – there was definitely not enough time to work through the process together and make room for creating connections between people and groups. For me, this has re-emphasised the importance of building in more time throughout the process, as these connections that are formed and the ideas, skills and knowledge that are shared during the process are a central part of the reason for choosing collaborative design.

I was reminded again how much expertise there is within this group, which makes me reflect on my own role. I was very grateful to the response at the end, when I re-iterated that the work this summer is partly about learning how to work together, about developing a way of working that builds capacity and sustainability in participating groups. It is clear that those participating are as interested in facilitating sustainability and connections between groups as I am – again, this leads me to reflect on my role in this process.

As we concluded the meeting, it was perfectly clear to everyone (I hope) that we had only just begun the co-design process. We had really just started formulating what we wanted to create together. Again, this emphasises the need to resist the temptation to rush the process: if we want to reap the benefits of everyone’s input, we must make time for ideas to be formulated, shared, captured and integrated.

While I think the participating groups already had many characteristics that underpin capacity and resilience (or if you like, sustainability), I like to think that our work together has been productive in facilitating sustainability already. We have linked groups and people, linked to a supporting organisation (the CBA), secured grants to make our collaborative work possible, shared ideas and knowledge – and we are working toward a common goal. I hope that the digital design work we do together will just be one part of the many activities we are inspired to initiate by working together toward fostering resilience, diversity, vibrancy and relevance in groups of people who want to take care of their local heritage.


a little background

I began researching the sustainability of community groups involved in caring for their local heritage (in the UK) last autumn, as part of the Adopting Archaeology project, set up by the University of York and the Council for British Archaeology (CBA). I will be using this blog to share my research process and some of my data. I won’t be back-posting most of my work, but if you’re interested in a partial snapshot, I have storified some of the events I have attended at https://storify.com/haraldfred.

Rather than assessing how sustainable community groups involved in caring for their local heritage are, I have decided to focus on how sustainability in groups can be facilitated, within the current grant-dependent heritage economy. I am investigating the potential for using grants to build digital infrastructure through processes that build capacity, rather than to support discrete practical conservation interventions. As a result, much of my research involves initiating collaborative design (co-design) projects with groups already involved in caring for their local heritage, to design digital tools that can support their efforts. I will be using this blog to share reflections on our collaborative process and would like to welcome you to engage with it, either through comments or by getting in touch about setting up additional co-design projects to develop tools that can help you take care of your local heritage.

This summer I have been working with three groups in Yorkshire to develop a prototype of the first digital tool for our digital hub hosted at the CBA. We hope to create something that will let you identify what you consider your local heritage to be and why you think it is important, reflecting the first stage in caring for heritage together: identifying what we should be caring for.