The Past is Now

The co-design project that was the driving force behind this blog came to a slow, somewhat unsatisfying end some time ago. That, and the fact that I have been overwhelmed with writing up my thesis while applying for post-PhD work for the past six months, goes some way to explain the length of time since my last post. I will at the very least write one blog post about the end of the co-design project at some point, but for now I want to focus on the thinking I have been doing about “what’s next” – which is all connected to Birmingham Museums’ exhibition “The Past is Now“, which I have been putting off writing about for ages.

It began with Sarah May’s (@Sarah_May1) tweet last summer about how the results of the 2014 YouGov poll on “Pride in the Empire” and “Empire’s Legacy” (brought back up by YouGov in a tweet last July) are ‘a shocking failure of the heritage sector. We peddle fantasies of glory that directly contribute to contemporary problems.’ It initiated a process of thinking about how I, as a critical heritage researcher, could address how “toxic whiteness” is created and perpetuated through heritage practice. It was while in this frame of mind that I came across the exhibition and one of it’s “co-curators”, Mariam Khan (@helloiammariam), on Twitter – and promised I would try to go see it.

In the end, I was able attend most of the open evening on the 8th of December and to have a proper look before the space filled up earlier in the afternoon. The exhibition was brilliant. Not only did it present a frank perspective on Birmingham’s colonial past, it foregrounded that this is not all in the past – the past is now. It also commented on the past and present function of the museum within which it was housed. The contrast between “The Past is Now” and the rest of the museum is stark – and invites the visitor to consider museums as active agents in pasts that are present.

The open evening was amazing. It began with welcome drinks and DJ Chakraman in the Round Room, which according to a panel, ‘looked much as it does today’ when it opened in 1885. I’m sure it looks much like it did most days, and it did earlier in the afternoon when I came to see the exhibition, but that evening it was decidedly different. The music. The people. The energy. It was a very different space. And it hinted at what entry spaces like the Round Room could be if museums were willing to look beyond their tired tropes and tones. The demographic difference between then and only a few hours previously was remarkable and should speak loud and clear to the fundamental shift that is required to attract “hard to reach” audiences.

Sumaya Kassim (@SFKassim), one of the six supremely talented “co-curators”, wrote about the exhibition and her experience as a co-curator for Media Diversified last autumn in a piece titled “The museum will not be decolonised“. The piece explicitly expands the exhibition’s critique of the sector in multiple ways. It is a MUST READ. Go read it now before you read the rest of this.

Now that you’ve read it, I especially want to highlight these two paragraphs:

Rather than place the onus on people of colour – either as facilitators or as an audience for the museum – we need to flip the narrative and ask how the museum can facilitate the decolonial process for its majority white audience in a way that does not continue to exploit people of colour. Key to this is accepting that the museum needs us; we do not need the museum. Institutions need to stop considering giving access to BAME people’s own cultures something they should be grateful for, and they should definitely ensure that ‘focus groups’ and visiting curators are remunerated adequately for their work.

This came to a head at the last meeting. We raised these issues – about emotional labour, about not receiving adequate pay for the work we were doing, and about the fact certain key decisions were made without us – and explained that the co-curation process betrayed a fundamental lack of understanding of what decoloniality is and who it is for. We argued that words and systems that hide exploitative practices such as ‘volunteering’, ‘zero-hour contracts’, and ‘diversity’ have no place in a decolonial project. Too often people of colour are rolled in to provide natural resources – our bodies and our “decolonial” thoughts – which are exploited, and then discarded. The human cost, the emotional labour, are seen as worthy sacrifices in the name of an exhibition which can be celebrated as a successful attempt by the museum at “inclusion” and “decolonising”, as a marker that it – and, indeed, Britain – is dealing with its past.

Since seeing the exhibition and reading Sumaya Kassim’s piece, I’ve tried to educate myself on issues of race in the UK. I’d highly recommend Reni Eddo Lodge’s Why I’m no Longer Talking to White People about Race and Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish) as places to start. Both books are current, powerful, engaging and informative page-turners. Neither is explicitly about cultural heritage, but both clearly communicate the message that The Past Is Now and that the narratives of the past that are perpetuated through heritage practice have serious personal and societal consequences. This was brought to the forefront of my mind today as Afua Hirsch tweeted the tweet below:

The linked article ends with the following note:

‘In a speech last year, the Danish prime minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, expressed regret for his country’s past in the slave trade – but he stopped short of an apology. “Many of Copenhagen’s beautiful old houses were erected with money made on the toil and exploitation on the other side of the planet, he said. “It’s not a proud part of Denmark’s history. It’s shameful and luckily of the past.”‘

Only it’s not, of course. I’ll leave you with some pictures of panels from “The Past Is Now” and Sumaya Kassim’s challenge not to shirk the responsibility of addressing enduring toxic legacies of Whiteness.














#hexpertise in game-worlds and getting my story straight

Yesterday I had a conversation with Tara Copplestone (@gamingarchaeo) about #hexpetise in video-games. We ended up discussing what the role of the professional researcher is when all information is available – through a digital game-log, for example. Online games can track everything that happens in their game-world – if you have a game-log with all this information, what is the role of the researcher? We agreed that even with a game-log that records everything that happens, there is still much the game-log doesn’t tell you – like the experiences and perceptions of those who play or the reasons why players made certain decisions. But even if we look past this, the fact that all the “data” is accessible doesn’t mean there is no role for the professional researcher. For example, the fact that archives exist doesn’t mean there is no need for historians. Accessing, interpreting, synthesising, creating and communicating meaning from those archives is what historians are trained to do. This doesn’t mean that everyone can’t do archival research, but there definitely are some things historians could do that I can’t – this is also true of researchers who are trained to work with other kinds of data sets. So in a digital world where every action is recorded there still could be a role for a professional researcher, but that role might be more like a historian or desk-based archaeologist – or it might be more like an oral historian, cultural anthropologist, community psychologist or human geographer – than say, an archaeologist excavating a prehistoric site.

On Monday, I wrote that “maybe the key to #hexpertise is for professionals to care less about the task and more about the people they work with” and that maybe there was a value in “letting go” a little. But what happens if the people I’m co-designing with want to design something quite different from what I want? This makes me ask myself – why am I co-designing in the first place? If the value is in the process and if it is about realising my partners’ goals, then the question of their and my conflicting wishes become less important. But if the value lies in the product or if I have more complex goals than simply to help someone make something, then this becomes more complicated. Throughout this co-design process, I have been negotiating the tension between sharing power over the co-design process and realising my vision for change in the heritage sector.

I want both change and consensus.

I like radical ideas, but I want to do what everyone else wants.

I want to drive change, but I want to restrict my power and agency in the change process by sharing power with others who may or may not share my vision for change.

I wonder whether this is common for projects that set out to be “community-led”, “co-designed” or “co-created”. We set out to share authority over the process without being clear enough with our partners, or ourselves, what our underlying agenda is, within which we are prepared to be flexible and “share” authority. I don’t necessarily think it is wrong to have an underlying agenda – maybe it’s our responsibility to have one. But I do think it is wrong to have an underlying agenda that you and your partners are unaware of – it sets you up for problems down the road and may place you in danger of doing more harm than good.

What does this have to do with #hexpertise in video-games? I set out to ask heritage groups around the country about the support they needed to become more sustainable. Doing this proved difficult in practice, so I ended up just talking to a few groups – and in detail with the ones I partnered up with. I wonder whether my approach ended up being a bit like if a researcher of a game world, who has access to the game-log, identifies some issues based on their understanding of the game-world as a whole, but recognises that this perspective only offers a partial picture of the truth. They set out to survey players to ask about the issues they have with the game – with the goal of grouping players according to commonly identified issues and asking them to partner up in developing solutions to these issues together. In the end, the researcher only gets in touch with a few players and suggest they work together to solve an issue the researcher identified from studying the game-logs. You can perhaps already see where things are going wrong for this hypothetical video-game researcher – if not, maybe I’m just not very good with analogies!

My point here is expertise matters and the expertise required depends on the task at hand. Working together can be really valuable, but working together productively requires matching up the right team with the right task – and being clear about exactly what it is you’re trying to achieve. There are also many different ways of working together. Previously (here and here), I’ve touched on how user-centred design differs from co-design – one isn’t necessarily better than the other. How we work together and who we work together with are questions of #hexpertise and these questions must be approached differently for each project. I really like the three groups I’ve partnered up with this past year – I feel really lucky to have been able to learn from them and through working together, but I think I have sometimes asked or expected things of them that I shouldn’t have. I definitely think I haven’t been clear enough about what I actually am trying to achieve, but in my defence, my own understanding of this has also changed throughout the process. For all the benefits of collaborating, in its various forms, let’s not forget that there is also value in working independently. There is even a time and a place for top-down approaches! Sometimes positive change comes about through working against popular consensus – take the bag-charge for example.

Where does this all leave me. Well, with a lot of conflicting thoughts and ideas. Can’t you tell?


finding the co in co-design

The last few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about how to proceed with the co-design project I started with my community partners over a year ago. I have been concerned that according to my timeline, I should be wrapping up this part of my PhD, but that we set out to make something together and that we still haven’t accomplished that. Recently, I was reminded of existing projects like Know Your Placembira and Historypin that are attempting to provide platforms for people to provide information about the places that matter to them. These projects are far further along than we are, and already have established teams with digital skills and resources – and in terms of accessing funding, we would be treading some common ground. Having spent some more time with these platforms, I went over the requirements my partners and I had identified at the very beginning and I still wasn’t satisfied these other platforms offer what we were looking for.

From the beginning, I have been picturing short snippets of information, uploaded by users, that can be intuitively navigated, organised and combined to create personal representations of shared heritage places. We had discussed the possibility of contributing content through existing social media platforms and Twitter had always been my dominant mental image for this. During a conversation a couple of weeks ago, I realised maybe Instagram was a better fit. The conversation was about how Instagram feels so much happier than Twitter. It made me think – why? And it made me wonder whether I should be thinking about using Instagram more for research.

Taking a step back, and considering the functionality of Twitter and Instagram, it struck me that Instagram more naturally lends itself to what we are looking for. It is visually appealing, there is no limit to the length of captions or the number of hashtags, it accepts various forms of media and it attracts younger users – to mention just a few factors. By using Instagram in combination with Storify, users could contribute content, navigate it through hashtags and combine it into stories on Storify. I don’t think this provides us with everything we were looking for, but I think the functionality of Instagram and Storify, used in combination, offers elements of what we want – and uploading sample content to these platforms and playing around with it might make it clearer to us what we would like to do with it that these platforms don’t provide. This then, would help us define our design concept.

I tried to communicate this idea with my partners by email and suggested we meet up. But over the next few days, I became increasingly uncomfortable with this development. It felt like once again, I was coming up with ideas and trying to convince others that they were worthwhile. I was brought to co-design through an experience of being involved in designing a product that nobody wanted to use. Co-design was supposed to save me from experiencing that again, but in order to breathe life back into my co-design project I was heading back down that route – of coming up with an idea and trying to convince others its what they want. It struck me, that we have perhaps fallen into this trap together, as a group. My partners seem to often be thinking about how they want other people to use what we are designing, but the whole point of co-design is to invite potential users to design a solution that meets their own needs – if I’m designing for others and my partners are designing for others, then we are simply designing for someone else, together.

I got an email back from one of my partners saying my Instagram-Storify solution is not what they wanted. It made me feel anxious, but it also made me happy. I think my idea was misunderstood (I don’t think I communicated it well in my initial email), but what was significant to me was the sense that my partners knew what they didn’t want and that this was helping a clearer picture of what they do want instead.

On Saturday I met up with another of my partner groups at one of their events. It was great to catch up. They don’t really know what they want in terms of a digital platform, but they got something else out of working with me. I’ve decided I’ll consider this a win. Over the last few days I’ve realised I need to let go a little. Yes, I’d love to see people upload content about their heritage to Instagram and string it together on Storify – and I’d love to build a platform that sits between the two that becomes wildly popular and helps make heritage an everyday concern for everyone. But I don’t need that to happen – certainly not for my PhD. And I definitely don’t need to spend energy trying to force that if nobody is interested. We heritage professionals love to think that everyone has opinions about heritage and are dying to share them – but maybe they’re not. Maybe they just want to enjoy it and not have to deal with it’s management. For me, “letting go a little” doesn’t mean that I don’t care about the co-design project anymore, but that I don’t need a successful product for me. If my partners need a solution, I’ll do my best to help create that together – and if they don’t, that’s fine too. Maybe letting go will help me truly find the “co” in co-design. It’s not about me using my partners to turn my vision into one that everyone wants, but for us together to create something that meets my partners’ needs.

Maybe the key to #hexpertise is for professionals to care less about the task and more about the people they work with.

Co-design vs co-design and the dimensions of #hexpertise

In my last post I said I would write more about connecting reflections on my research and teaching. This is something I have thought quite a lot about this spring and summer.

In April, I was asked to teach on the Heritage Practice field school again. Last year, Meghan Dennis (@gingerygamer & @archaeoethics) and I worked with Sara Perry (@ArchaeologistSP) and a group of 1st year undergraduates to create an audio guide and paper-leaflet for Breary Banks in the Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The students’ work is still available on the project blog – it’s definitely worth a look. This year, Meghan and I were asked to take on more responsibility for the field school; the compromise was that we would be allowed to shape the work with this year’s project partner – Malton Museum – according to our own research interests. The museum had already expressed an interest in a digital game and given Meghan’s research into video games and ethics it was a perfect fit. With regard to my own research, the connection was that the museum is run by volunteers and that making a game would provide an opportunity to explore co-design from another angle.

Leading up to the course, I was wrestling with how we could use co-design in the field school. In the end I settled for teaching user-centred design instead, as we would only be spending a few hours with the museum volunteers – it wouldn’t really be possible to design together. Meghan suggested that maybe it still was co-design, but that the students were our co-designers instead of the volunteers at the museum. At the time, I wasn’t quite satisfied with this perspective, but she was right, of course, and I want to share some reflections around this experience here.

The design and production process can absolutely be understood as co-design in that while we wanted the students to make the decisions and do the work. That said, we were working with students who had *no* experience with game design and limited digital skills. The students were responsible for planning and executing the design and production process, but we had to make that possible – facilitating this in practice was a classic case of negotiating #hexpertise. As instructors, we had to determine what we should do for the students and what we should make them do themselves, both in order to maximise learning and to produce a product we were satisfied with. I think it’s fair to say it was a great learning experience for everyone involved. You can read the students’ reflections on the process, as well as their final report on their project blog. The game is available there too – how long would you survive in Roman Malton?

An image of the opening page of our game showing the entrance to a Roman fort with the text "How long would you survive in Roman Malton".

In terms of comparing the processes of co-designing for my research and co-designing as part of my teaching, the most obvious difference is how much time we spent together. While we only had two full weeks to design and produce the game, we spent 24 hours together each of those weeks. That is a lot of intense contact time. There are obviously a host of other differences between working with students and working with community partners, but the difference in contact time matters. How can you truly design together without enough time. Taking this idea further, the students spent all that time with us because it’s their job to. They are full-time students – my community partners are not. Their commitment to their local heritage is voluntary and their work with me is just one small part of that. One of the many issues wrapped up in #hexpertise is that of having someone paid to work full-time collaborating with someone who is participating on a voluntary basis alongside their other commitments. As a result, expertise is just one dimension of #hexpertise. This doesn’t mean that my work with my community partners isn’t co-design – it just highlights that all co-design projects are different and that questions of #hexpertise must be negotiated on a case-by-case basis. There may be common underlying principles – these are what I’m trying to get at in my research – but the way those principles are enacted in practice has to vary.

To design and produce the game, I introduced the students to user-centred design by sharing an experience from my MSc degree that I sometimes describe as producing a solution that nobody wanted. The first principle of user-centred design is to create something that your user wants. The person you are designing for should want to use what you have created – you’re facing an uphill battle if you create something that you then have to convince people they should want to use. I performed a mock design exercise with them to help them plan exercises they could use with the museum volunteers, and I was there while they were planning, offering advice and being available as a resource for them to use. Later, when it came to actually producing the game, Tara Copplestone (@Gamingarchaeo), our resident game-design genius and Twine extraordinaire, provided the necessary frameworks for our students to be able to produce their game. The students would not have been able to create everything from scratch in the time available, so Tara provided what was necessary and was on hand to help. The students designed and made their game, but without the support available, that would not have been possible. These decisions about the support to provide and how to provide it are complex decisions – and it’s not just a question of providing or holding back in order to create the perfect challenge. That certainly is not how I work with my community partners. They are questions of agency and ownership and they are questions of expertise.

The kind of collaborative work I love is when people with different sets of expertise work together to create something that none of the individuals could have created on their own. I really don’t like the model of “experts” and “non-experts” working together, where “experts” are worried “non-experts” aren’t doing it right and “non-experts” get to be involved by necessity or as an act of charity. In a university setting with students and instructors, my ideal model for collaboration is warped slightly, but I firmly believe that we could not have created the game we made without the students.

In terms of my work with my community partners, I absolutely see it as individuals with different sets of expertise working together. But we’re still identifying our own expertise and figuring out how to best work together for everyone’s benefit. The experience of working with my students has changed my perspective and my expectations of working with my community partners. As I keep co-designing, I keep learning – hopefully for the benefit of everyone I work with!

Supporting agency – not too much, not too little

Last December, I met with a couple of the groups I have been partnering with to plan how we could create sets of sample content for our platform and do some more user research. I wrote a post about this meeting months ago, but I haven’t stopped thinking about it, partly because the experience resonated with some of the reflections on my teaching practice I had to write up and submit for the York Learning and Teaching Award (YLTA). One of the reasons I signed up for the YLTA was that I thought it would force me to look into pedagogic theory, which I thought I should be doing anyway for my own research. This has actually worked our pretty well – the YLTA has taken up a lot of my time, but it absolutely has been helpful to my thinking about action research, co-design and that ever-present #hexpertise. I touched on this overlap before and I’ll be talking about it more in my next few posts.

I have been trying to align my teaching practice with critical pedagogy and learner-centred teaching – in a nutshell, this means that instead attempting to deposit information from my brain into my students’, I try to help students become active agents in generating and internalise knowledge for themselves. This approach also underpins the collaborative elements of my research, where instead of more traditional approaches to “capacity building” that try to transform those who I think need more “capacity”, I want to support the groups I work with to help resolve their own needs – rather than the needs I think they have. It’s fair to say I’m not convinced I’ve executed this successfully – part of the point of these blog posts is to self-assess and these reflections will feed directly into one of the chapters of my PhD.

One of the realisations I’ve had about my approach to teaching, is that it naturally works better with postgraduates. They already have highly developed knowledge- and skill-sets, so it can be an effective teaching strategy to provide resources and support and then let students get on with things. With my undergraduate students, this was more difficult. There were times when I would come to class with activities prepared and realise half-way through that they simply didn’t have the pre-existing knowledge to learn effectively through those activities. For all my talk of students being active agents in their own learning, under the current circumstances I’d created, they weren’t able to achieve much learning. In pedagogical terms, you might call this a lack of “scaffolding” – as a facilitator of learning, I hadn’t provided the support necessary for my students to learn effectively.

In Bridlington in December, I was asking my partners to plan a research strategy with me. I wanted us to do it together and to not come in with too many fixed ideas. I thought we all agreed we needed to do the research in question and that we would just work out the practical details. Crucially, I didn’t have a plan to share in case my partners didn’t have clear ideas. I also didn’t have a strong case for why the research was necessary in the first place. In effect, my commitment to facilitating “agency” led me to plan and prepare less. Like the lesson I had prepared for my students, I was relying on them to contribute the content and I didn’t have a contingency plan prepared in case they didn’t have content to contribute. Through both my teaching and my research, I have learned that critical pedagogy, learner-centred teaching, action research and co-design all require more planning, not less, to ensure that activities are productive – because those activities are likely to be unpredictable due to relying on participant contributions.

These reflections also speak directly to questions of #hexpertise. Critical pedagogy, user-centred learning, action research, co-design – they all challenge traditional roles and responsibilities of “experts” and “participants”, whether teachers/lecturers, researchers, students or community partners. If you follow my blog, you’ll know that I think this renegotiation of roles and responsibilities is healthy and necessary, but that doesn’t make it easy. I still believe both my students and my community partners should have agency in what we do together. I still think we should work together, but issues of #hexpertise are all about how best to work together. I should have been better prepared in December. I should have drawn on my expertise as a trained researcher to have clear thoughts on what we were doing, why we were doing it and how we could go about doing it in practice. Coming to the meeting with ideas needn’t have kept us from developing ideas together as long as I wasn’t too attached to the ideas I came to the meeting with. Arguably, If I’d had clearer ideas, myself, I could have helped my partners develop their own more effectively. Taking another step back, I should also have made sure we were all on the same page, before the meeting. The need for sample content and more user research was raised by Jo and accepted by myself. I should have recognised that the fact that nobody argued against this at our previous meeting needn’t mean everyone agreed this was important and understood why.

In my teaching and in the collaborative aspects of my research, the #hexpertise challenge is to determine how to best use the skills, knowledge and resources of everyone involved – myself included – for the task and purpose at hand. In my previous post linking research and teaching, I highlighted how I do my students a disservice when I provide answers instead of helping them develop their own. My point here is that not providing enough support is equally unhelpful. #Hexpertise is also not all about rational calculations – it’s relational and will always require empathy and communication. I’ll be writing more about all this in my next few posts – soon.

Connecting with the Crowd (16/6/2017)

Last Friday I was at the Natural History Museum (@NHM_London) for an event on citizen science and crowdsourcing. It was called “Connecting with the Crowd” – you can look up tweets using #crowdsourcingNHM. I don’t want to spend too much time talking about what citizen science and crowdsourcing are. If you’re curious about citizen science, check out the Zooniverse where you can participate in “people powered” research. While crowdsourcing is used for-profit in big business, let’s for now go along with the idea that crowdsourcing in heritage contexts can be understood as digital volunteering. You’re volunteering, but it’s online instead of at your local museum or library. You may be transcribing handwritten text, tagging images or video clips.

Crowdsourcing can be ethically murky, as many projects involve farming out repetitive tasks on a massive scale that institutions aren’t able to address professionally. I was curious to see whether the speakers at “Connecting with the Crowd” would address this. I was disappointed to find that they didn’t really, but the projects mentioned and issues raised clarified a few things for me in my mind.

Most heritage crowdsourcing projects report “super-users” and “long tails”. In most projects, the vast majority of contributors make a small number of contributions, while a small core of “super-users” complete tens- or hundreds- of thousands tasks. There was a presentation addressing this directly, offering techniques to try to keep contributors engaged by sending reminder emails etc. when they had been inactive for a while. Sitting there listening to this I couldn’t help but think: surely most people don’t come back because while participating in “real” research may sound like a cool idea, the reality of performing these repetitive tasks is not that compelling.

There was a presentation by the creators of the Zooniverse, who discussed a success story, where the discussion forum used by their users had led to contributors becoming co-authors in a professional publication using the crowdsourced data. This is a cool story. Those users really got to actively contribute to, and be involved in, cutting edge research – but the majority still just get to do grunt work, however colourful. The whole idea of crowdsourcing is to make volunteering efficient and to require as little of the professional as possible.

By contrast, the Visiteering programme at the Natural History Museum let’s you volunteer in the museum for a day, working on a real project together with a real scientist. Through the day, it was highlighted that what makes citizen science participants come back is interaction with real scientists – this is the main selling point for the visiteering scheme.

The closing keynote was by Dan Rubenstein on his citizen science work in Kenya. Before discussing his project, he highlighted the need to provide compelling experiences that make a difference. While the whole room agreed with his three key issues highlighted in the image below, few if any of the other projects presented at the conference live up to these ideals. He pays his participants a living wage, gives data collectors ownership of their data and includes them in data analysis. He doesn’t involve Kenyan’s in his work with the Grevvy Zebras because it saves him money, but because local people have the necessary local knowledge to do the work in their native landscape.

Photo taken by Lucy Robinson @littlelocket

Most citizen science and crowdsourcing projects are designed to provide exactly what the researcher needs, through an experience they hope someone will find compelling enough to do for free. This is obvious if you consider how these projects and websites are designed.

You wouldn’t invite someone to volunteer at your museum without giving them any face-to-face time with a member of staff. You wouldn’t have them follow signs to a large room with a huge stack of papers for them to transcribe with just a post-it note on the table that says “thanks” – and hope that someone would leap at the opportunity and keep coming back, day after day.

Using web-technology for volunteering makes it easy to keep volunteers at arms length and not worry too much about who they are, what they want and whether or not they find their role worthwhile – as long as someone else is there to pick up the work when they’ve had enough.

If your goal is to work with volunteers as partners for all to truly benefit, this will be obvious in how you design volunteer experiences – whether online or in person. Providing meaningful experiences that make a difference isn’t simple and it’s unlikely to be efficient or cost-effective. Engagement activities shouldn’t be about saving money – if they are, how is that not exploitative?


A few weeks ago now I ended a blog post on a bit of a cliffhanger. I said I wanted to write about trust and communication in collaborative work, but first I had to send a few emails – even though I didn’t know exactly what to say. It was difficult for me, but absolutely necessary.

Communication is definitely something I would have tried to approach differently if I had the chance to begin my co-design project again. One of the main difficulties has been that my PhD has changed a lot since the co-design element began. Arguably, it has also become a smaller part of my overarching research project. On top of that, this year I have done many other things, alongside my own research. But these are excuses. I want people to think the best of me, and it is sometimes difficult to admit that I don’t know, or that I don’t have a clear plan. In hindsight, I should have communicated more often, through shorter messages, and I should have trusted my partners with my own uncertainties and insecurities. Instead, there have been long stretches of silence. The longer those silences became, the harder it was to break them – especially as there was nothing definite to break them with. Then, when not all the replies were 100% positive, I became defensive. While I was nervous that my partners were fed up with me, there may have been elements of them being afraid I was fed up with them – or that I would be, if I knew…

I’m going to work on being clear and concise – and on communicating more often. My research has changed a lot over the past year; my partners’ interests have probably changed too. It’s time to get back on track, but I need to remind myself that we should be doing that together, not waiting for me to figure it out and then try to get everyone else on-board.

Do we really want more volunteers in public services?

Those of you who know me well may remember that when I began my PhD, I was eager to talk about austerity as an opportunity, not just a threat. I wanted to move beyond merely protesting against austerity and do something productive in (or despite of) austerity.

For decades, more progressive heritage professionals and academics have been promoting the idea that everyone has a right to identify their own heritage and be involved in caring for it, but little has changed in practice. I thought maybe the loss of professional capacity caused by austerity could be used to force change. If we want local people to care for their own heritage, according to their own values and priorities, maybe we need professionals to leave. Maybe, I thought, what the heritage sector needs, is a bit of a crisis.

My current thinking is that there are two main drivers for including volunteers in caring for heritage. One is to save money (it’s cheaper to not pay a volunteer than to pay a professional). Another is this progressive agenda of increased local, non-professional agency (let’s call it democratisation). One of the questions I asked myself early on was whether these drivers are mutually exclusive: is it possible to both save money and democratise? A related question is whether it is possible to use volunteers to save money without exploiting them. One of my focus group participants told me categorically NO. Putting on good volunteering opportunities takes effort and requires resources. If we’re looking to volunteers to boost our capacity and balance our books, we’re exploiting volunteers and devaluing professional labour. So what do we do when we’re faced with budget cuts AND we want to democratise? In my mind, the only way we can do this is by letting go. I realise this is not possible for everyone, but I wonder whether it is possible more often than we think.

Let’s suggest for now that democratisation is positive. If so, the ideal situation is the purple area in the top right of the figure above. My observation going into the PhD was that we were never there, even before austerity, and I didn’t think it looked like we were on our way there either (at least not fast enough!). I thought a loss of resources might drop us down into the redder area and drive us to the right out of necessity. This might involve letting go of some of the things we think of as necessary and diverting our attention to supporting people according to their priorities. My current observations are that this doesn’t seem to be happening. There are other ways to maintain capacity and uphold existing priorities despite a loss of resources – like asking people to work for you for free.

In this regard (as so many others) trends in the heritage sector mirror those of society as a whole. Paid jobs are transformed into unpaid (volunteer) positions, dressed up in the language of democratisation and celebrated as victories for volunteering. For those who can afford to work for free, this may not be a problem. Austerity will always disproportionately affect those less well off. This brings me to the NCVO General Election Manifesto that says it should be ‘easier for charities and volunteers to support public services’ and the Guardian’s “UK desperately needs new volunteers to fill yawning gaps in public services“. Do we really want more volunteering in public services?

  • Less funding doesn’t magically clear the way for the masses who have yearned to transform local services for free.
  • Less funding doesn’t simply provide rich and rewarding opportunities for volunteers.
  • Local (voluntary) input may improve public services (heritage included), but this input must be resourced so everyone can participate, and facilitated so participating is meaningful.

I don’t know that much about most public service provision, but specifically with regard to heritage:

  • I think change is needed.
  • I think democratisation is positive.
  • I think this must involve some letting go.
  • I think a loss of resources can prompt beneficial discussions about priorities.

But those discussions do not create a willingness to democratise – unless that willingness is already there, any increase in volunteering is more likely to resemble exploitation than democratisation. So finally:

  • I still think we need to reassess and renegotiate roles, responsibilities and priorities.
  • We don’t need austerity to do this.
  • Unpaid jobs should not be celebrated.
  • Purple will always be better than red.


Co-design and dealing with change

This month, a lot of my time has been spent planning, organising or teaching the Archaeology Department’s Heritage Field School. Like last year, Meghan Dennis (@GingeryGamer aka @ArchaeoEthics) and I were working on the module with Sara Perry (@ArchaeologistSP). Unlike last year, Meghan and I are now primarily responsible for organising and delivering the module. Part of the deal was that we would be allowed to shape the module to align more closely with our research interests. Sara likes to always do something new, so having worked on an audio guide and leaflet last year and a mobile app the year before (and given Meghan’s research interests), we decided to make a game this year. How does this align with my research interests? Well, we are working with Malton Museum, which is run by volunteers, so it is an opportunity for me to teach the user-centred and co-design approaches I have been using in my own work, and see them put to use in a different context. It also gives me another experience of participating in a project that includes volunteer and “professional” (read full-time) contributors. When we were planning the module, Meghan suggested that because we were only going to spend a couple of days at the museum, I should consider our students as my co-designers, rather than the volunteers at the museum. I wasn’t quite happy with this idea at the time – but she was right, of course. I thought I’d share some reflections on teaching the module (which is almost finished), and how this project has changed the way I view my other co-design work.

In my research, I often talk about two different design approaches: user-centred design and co-design. I’m an expert in neither, but I think both are relevant (and underutilised) in professional heritage practice. User-centred design is all about designing for users. In order to create a product users will want to use, you need to understand what they want and what their restrictions are – don’t design a phone app for users who don’t use smartphones. This may seem obvious, but it’s incredible how easy it is to start designing for yourself – or an ideal user that doesn’t exist – rather than the users who actually are likely to interact with your design. Co-design is about designing together. I had been introduced to it as an approach where the boundaries between users and designers are blurred and users are more involved in the design process. Recently, a computer scientist told me that it is perhaps most often used to refer to integrated design projects, where different kinds of designers design together. He said the most obvious example is the difference between Android and iPhone. Software and hardware designers design iPhones and iPhone apps together, while Android phones and apps are designed separately. This means that new iPhones and iPhone apps are designed specifically for each other; they are co-designed by software and hardware engineers. The reason why I found this so interesting is that it resonates with my reflections around #hexpertise. Collaborative heritage projects where professionals work with volunteers shouldn’t be framed as non-experts participating in professional practice, but as individuals with different kinds of expertise working together for the benefit of everyone involved.

I came into the module I’m teaching wanting to co-design a game with the volunteers at Malton Museum. It quickly became clear that this wouldn’t really be possible, because we would only be spending a couple of days together. As a result, I decided to tone down the talk of co-design, and tell my students that we would be adopting a user-centred design approach, where it was our responsibility to find out what our client (the museum) wanted and who our users would be (museum visitors). Then, of course, I realised that the involvement of the volunteers at Malton Museum wouldn’t be that different from the involvement of my partners in my own co-design project. The projects are different, of course, in that my students are building a game, while my own co-design work is about designing a web-resource, but it made me question whether my own co-design work is truly co-design. As I have written previously, my co-design project changed a few months in when I was convinced that we should take the design process further, before handing it over to a web-developer. I accepted this change, but I didn’t discuss it with my partners until after I had already taken on the extended design responsibility, which fundamentally changed the skills and time-commitment required. It was only after this shift that I began feeling that maybe we were no longer co-designing, but reverting to more traditional roles of a professional consulting focus groups. This feeling is what has caused me to think that maybe I began my co-design work too soon, before I knew what I was getting myself into, and that my co-design partners have had to pay the price for my inexperience. Increasingly though, I’m being persuaded that this isn’t the case. Like Sara, who likes to do something new every year for the Heritage Field School, starting my co-design work as early as I did was risky, but maybe this wasn’t the real problem. I think the problem was a lack of communication. I was uncertain, and instead of communicating that uncertainty and the ways I was navigating it, I let it keep me from communicating with my partners on a regular basis.

This problem is ongoing. I want to write another post about communication and trust and how important they are in collaborative work. But first I’m going to email my co-design partners – even if I don’t know exactly what to say.

In the meantime, you can check out my students’ blog. The game they’ve made will be online soon!


A heritage paperclip or a cheese slicer for heritage – thoughts from ACHS-N (20/4/2017)

Two weeks ago, I travelled to Oslo for the first annual meeting of ACHS Norway, a national chapter of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies. It was an opportunity for me to find out more about critical heritage studies in Norway and to spread the word about the newly launched ACHS Early Career Researcher Network. The theme for the day was “Hva er kritisk kulturarvforskning i Norge?” (What is critical heritage studies in Norway?) and while this was discussed throughout the event, arguably the more fundamental question of “what is critical heritage studies” took centre stage.

The day began with short introductions from the ACHS-N board:

Gørill Nilsen, from the University of Tromsø, began by sharing her personal heritage, identifying as Norwegian, Sami and Kven, and how this influences her research. She made the point that she, like many others, has been engaged with critical heritage studies for a long time, despite only recently hearing of the term. She touched on issues relating to Sami archaeology and her frustration with maps depicting Viking lands stopping at Trondheim before ending with a challenge for critical heritage studies in Norway to more often look northward.

Terje Brattli, from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), warned us of becoming too concerned with “the Authorised Heritage Discourse” and the conflict between experts and non-experts, highlighting that there are many other conflicts and more nuanced power-dynamics worth investigating. He came with a challenge to look more at practice and less at predefined positions, and to approach knowledge and knowledge production in new ways. He also raised the issue of difficult or “dark” heritage, emphasising that the removal of the NS Monument could in some ways be compared to the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. He suggested that critical heritage researchers should look at unusual contrasts and comparisons.

Marit Johansson, from the University College of Southeast Norway, shared her hope that ACHS-N could become a lasting meeting point for heritage researchers and those who work in public heritage organisations in Norway. She outlined how this could lead to the development of new avenues for research and a greater awareness of the types of research that are needed. She also challenged ACHS-N to make critical heritage studies more visible publicly.

Nanna Løkka, from Telemark Research Institute, began with her hope that bringing researchers and public heritage organisations together through ACHS-N might allow public organisations to become less defensive and recognise the importance of critical perspectives. She counterbalanced this through a reminder that we must also critical of critical perspectives. She called for more nuance with regard to the criticism of experts in light of growing radical populism. She suggested that it is boring to exclusively be critical; we must be critical and creative, critical and constructive.

Torgrim Sneve Guttormsen (@TorgrimG), from the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU), suggested that ACHS-N is more than a smaller ACHS; it is an opportunity to discuss issues at a different scale in a forum that is more homelike. He invited us to consider what Norway has to offer the world. What is heritage’s cheese slicer or paperclip (two of Norway’s greatest inventions)? He emphasised that foreigners are often interested in Norwegian concepts like “dugnad“, the Nordic social democracy and Norwegian perspectives on Brexit. In Norway, the idea of an entrepreneur being involved in a public park is strange, but he suggested it wouldn’t be in the USA. He ended by asking how these things influence heritage policy and practice – what does Norway have to offer critical heritage studies internationally?








Following these short introductions, Herdis Hølleland (@HHolleland), also from NIKU, gave a presentation on critical heritage studies in Norway. As part of her preparation for the presentation she had surveyed the ACHS-N membership in order to find out more about their backgrounds, research interests, affiliations and understandings of “critical heritage”. She made the point that everyone seems to think critical heritage studies is about power and politics, but none of her respondents had ever worked in politics. She also highlighted that for critical heritage, it is the subject, not the methods, that define the field – yet the subject (heritage or critical heritage) is rarely defined. This talk set the scene for the discussions of what critical heritage studies is and what ACHS-N should be about that continued throughout the day.


It was then time for lunch and the AGM itself, where Gørill Nilsen raised the issue of the name of ACHS-N. ACHS-N has been promoted as the Norwegian Chapter, but she suggested that it should instead be the Chapter in Norway, as “Norwegian” is a more exclusive term than “Norway”. Given the centrality of postcolonial research and indigenous rights to critical heritage studies, it was suggested that “Norway” (outlining a territory) should replace the use of “Norwegian” (outlining a language and culture), thereby avoiding the exclusion of Sami, Kven and other minority cultures in Norway.

The proposed purpose statement for ACHS-N also prompted discussion (found under point 7 at the end of this page). The term “kritisk kulturarvforskning” (critical heritage studies) was used twice in the statement. One suggestion was that “kritisk” should be dropped, prompting a discussion of how invested we were in the “critical” in critical heritage studies and what “critical” means in a heritage context. This reminded me of a similar discussion I had heard took place in the WAC (World Archaeological Congress) mailing list last year about whether or not archaeology is political. WAC is an organisation that was founded as overtly political, in reaction to other international archaeological organisations that wanted to keep politics out of archaeology. Similarly, here I was at the annual meeting of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies in Norway, participating in a discussion about whether or not the emphasis on critical is significant or not.

In this context I think it is important to understand that heritage studies has emerged from a range of different academic disciplines, professions and specialisms. I think there are two problems here. The first is that there is no international organisation for heritage studies and few national fora that bring heritage researchers and practitioners together. The second is that proponents of critical heritage studies have not been clear enough about what “critical” actually means in a heritage context.* Critical heritage studies was coined (and the ACHS formed) as a reaction to heritage research and practice predominantly being concerned with the what and the how of heritage, rather than the why and so what. Nevertheless, the success of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies has propelled it into a position of being THE international organisation for heritage studies. I sensed this quite clearly at ACHS 2016 in Montreal, which, while a wonderful conference, seemed to want to be both THE critical heritage conference and THE heritage conference all at once. Heritage researchers and practitioners are the most obvious potential members for the new Association, but their majority also represents what critical heritage studies is a reaction against. Significantly, they are also an audience in need of national and international fora that bring their disparate members together – something ACHS and its various networks and chapters could seem to offer. In this context, the questioning of the importance of “critical” by new (potential) members at the ACHS-N chapter in Norway is perhaps not surprising.


After the AGM, proper, came the presentation that I found the most powerful. Tor Einar Fagerland, Head of the Department of Historical Studies at NTNU, spoke about his work with the Workers’ Youth League (AUF) following the terrorist attacks in Norway on the 22 of July, 2011, and his research on July 22 and the Negotiation of Memory. Four articles about his work were published in the Norwegian national newspaper, Aftenposten, three of which I was able to find through a quick search (published 15 July 2015, 14 July 2016 and 9 Feb 2017). He spoke about spending time with the AUF group and their families and the work he did with them, both on Utøya and in Oslo. He told us how when the Americans brought in to consult on the project had asked “what are the traditions in Norway of dealing with these kinds of events”, the question was met with a stony silence – there are no traditions. Fagerland highlighted that the building on the island where some of the young men and women were shot and killed was both a house of death and a house of survival. 7 survived inside, crammed into a toilet cubicle.

Unlike most buildings conservation, which emphasises retaining exteriors, dialogue highlighted that what was important about the building on Utøya was the interior. The building has now been transformed into a learning centre. Most of the centre is new, including 69 wooden posts representing the individuals who lost their lives that day, but it incorporates parts of the original structure where 13 died and 7 survived in the toilet cubicle.

Fagerland also discussed the work of creating the 22 July Centre in Oslo and the input from US partners. He recalled being advised that you can do whatever you want, as long as you begin by telling what happened. This is what the 22 July Centre does. I was able to make time for a short visit there, following the AGM, before they closed for the day. The Centre is in spaces damaged by the bomb blast outside the government offices in Oslo and the displays are simple and frank – featuring text messages from the day. Fagerland mentioned that there was never any doubt what Ground Zero would be used for following the attacks on the World Trade Centre, but unlike the 9/11 Memorial Museum, the debates about whether or not there should be a 22 July Centre continue. Is the Centre important? For whom? It has been suggested that the Centre will be removed when the government building is renovated, prompting a public debate in national media – a debate in which no museum professionals, humanists, or cultural research centres like NIKU have taken part in. Fagerland emphasised that he was not highlighting this as an accusation, but as a question. If we think we our research is so important to society, why do we stay silent when society debates dark heritage?

Other presentations followed this, Atle Omland, from the Directorate for Cultural Heritage, spoke about critical heritage studies’ need for pathos and Gro Birgit Ween, from the University of Oslo, discussed her exciting interdisciplinary Housing Heritage project – but I think I want to end on Norway’s dark heritage and the lack of “expert” engagement with the public debate around it. I don’t know why the “experts” were silent. I don’t know if it was because they felt they didn’t have the answers. I wish we would engage publicly when there are no answers – not with inflated egos and false bravado in cases where we don’t have the answers and others do – but when our expertise may be useful without being authoritative. From my, ever hopelessly idealistic perceptive, this is where the potential power of critical heritage studies lies.


*My understanding of the “critical” in critical heritage studies is an expression of alignment with Critical Theory, which posits that current reality and practice is not necessary or inevitable, but the result of power and ideology. It is in this tradition that Laurajane Smith wrote about an “authorised heritage discourse” (see cultural hegemony) which outlines how certain ways of seeing and using heritage have become normalised. Critical heritage studies, then, is about how heritage is used in society, what it does socially, politically and economically, and about uncovering how heritage practice and theory marginalises, excludes and reinforces existing power-dynamics through supposedly neutral processes and concepts. It is not just about criticising, but critique is a significant feature. My take on “critical” is that it encompasses both “constructive” and “creative” – it is about identifying that the present is not neutral or necessary, highlighting that things could be different and about causing change.