Participation, #hexpertise and exemplar theory

In February, two people whose writing I always enjoy reading blogged about different forms of partnership working. Sara Perry wrote about the “everyday diplomacy” required for effective collaboration, while Pat Hadley proposed “gooey” and “prickly” experts as reference points for understanding the role of expertise in shaping effective forms of collaboration in different contexts. Since then I have thought a lot about #hexpertise – whether more accurate understandings of expertise and the benefits of participation can lead to productive renegotiations of professional and volunteer roles and responsibilities in caring for heritage. I specifically wrote about this last autumn, but it has quickly become a recurring theme for me that runs through most of what I write.

Pat’s prickly and gooey experts struck a chord with me, especially because I think sometimes we don’t know what kind of expert we, or the people we work with, are. I would argue that most of us have both prickly and gooey parts; take conservators as an example, who Pat identifies as prickly experts. It is true that conservators have a lot of specialist expertise about things most people know very little about. We know things about different types of materials, how they deteriorate, how deterioration can be mitigated etc., and conservators know a little about an awful lot of things and are really good at knowing when to bring other experts into the mix and when to hold off on decisions until more information has been gathered. Don’t try to tell a conservator which scalpel blade or adhesive to use. But increasingly, conservators also have to deal with people. Conservators need to understand what it is they are supposed to be conserving exactly, is it how something looks, how it works or the original material it is made of. These questions often have no right or wrong answer. Usually, making a good decision will require your knowledge and preferences as a owner and the conservator’s knowledge of what is possible, what will work well and what the implications of your decisions might be if you wanted to use this thing you’re having conserved differently in the future. As Pat says, successful collaboration requires trust, and it requires knowing when to trust and when to assert yourself. When operating in a new area this can be difficult – as I have found while pretending to be a web-designer.

Sara’s piece is also on collaboration, but it focuses in on questions of how to teach someone to be an effective collaborator. Successful collaboration doesn’t just happen, and arguably what makes collaboration successful is the right team of collaborators. The world needs good team-players; how do we teach the necessary skills – or how do we encourage people to learn collaboration? Agency has become a really central theme in both my research and teaching over the past half year or so; in a #hexpertise sense of working as a heritage professional with community groups and with regard to the agency of my students in their own learning process. I like to think that Paolo Freire’s critical pedagogy underpins both my research and teaching practice – the truth is, I still have some way to go. Here I’m thinking of the idea that students are active agents in a knowledge creation process and that learning only truly happens when students generate knowledge for themselves, as opposed to have knowledge deposited in them by a teacher.

Recently, I came across Exemplar Theory, which proposes that we form concepts from examples. This is also how we learn languages; memorising translations or definitions will only get you so far. A pedagogical application of this is that the best way to teach a concept is to provide loads of great examples. I love connecting different ideas and coming up with theories and concepts. I think I’m pretty good at forming definitions and explaining things – but if you want to understand what I’m saying, you’d probably be better off if I gave you examples and let you make those connections yourself. I think I’m doing you a favour by doing that work for you, but I might actually be doing you a disservice. I give you definitions instead of examples because that’s what I’m good at. I’m helping you cut the corner on an arduous learning process – but that process may be exactly what you need.

Pulling all these things together – my thoughts on #hexpertise are that a beneficial renegotiation of roles and responsibilities, be it between “experts”, between professionals and volunteers, or between students and teachers, is about expertise, but it is also about the benefits of agency in participation. What makes an act a service or a disservice? I’d suggest we start by distinguishing our prickles from our goo. Then we can discuss what we hope of getting out of working together. Then we can start negotiating roles and responsibilities. At the moment, I’m thinking the ideal scenario is one where that renegotiation never ends. Maybe I’ll be writing about #hexpertise forever.

Entrepreneurship in Cultural Heritage (2/2/2017)

I travelled to Birmingham last week to attend an event on Entrepreneurship in Cultural Heritage, put on by the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage and West Midlands Museum Development. I approached the event as an interested sceptic. Although I am all for new and creative ways of working, I’m sceptical of efforts to dress up new ways of getting money off people – especially when these efforts end up targeting people who do not have a lot of money in the first place. I suppose I generally feel more favourable toward ‘social innovation’ than ‘social entrepreneurship’, but it was an event I felt I should attend – and I’m glad I did.

The introductory talk and keynote clearly communicated the rationale for entrepreneurship in cultural heritage: heritage organisations are experiencing budget cuts and looking after heritage is expensive. We keep on accumulating more heritage and as heritage ages it is costly to conserve. These things are all true, but in my opinion we can’t responsibly leap directly from this to discussions of raising enough money to balance our books through entrepreneurship, without asking whether we should be spending money conserving an ever increasing assemblage of heritage. While I completely agree with the sentiment that we must move beyond regarding “profit” as an inherently dirty word and that we must judge its cleanliness on how it is spent, I don’t think we can embrace “profit” without considering how money is made or which expenses are approved before “profits” are declared. Protecting and restoring the original fabric of heritage is not the only way to care for heritage, nor is it the cheapest. I’m not saying that we should not take care of material remains, but that we can’t begin with the assumption that it is the only appropriate way to care for and manage heritage. A discussion of whether material remains should be preserved must be part of a balanced debate about entrepreneurship and innovation in cultural heritage.

The opening presentations were followed by some really interesting talks on filming at National Trust properties, the role of creative industries at the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, retail at the National Gallery Company, international touring exhibits organised by the Bury Art Museum and the work of the Birmingham Museums Trust Enterprise Committee. Apart from the speakers’ really engaging delivery and the freshness of hearing from professionals who don’t usually present at the kinds of events I usually attend, there were a few things that stuck out to me as really inspiring:

  • The sheer scale of interest generated for National Trust properties by television and film, the new audiences that are attracted through these media and the (baby)steps the organisation is taking toward recognising film and TV heritage as valid subjects for interpretation and engagement. Diversifying heritage should be about telling new stories, not just convincing diverse audiences that the stories we’re already telling are interesting.
  • The great work the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust is doing to use the merchandise they sell in their shops as part of their engagement and interpretation strategy – creating close connections between curation and retail. Selling products made in the gorge or inspired by the gorge is a way to communicate the heritage of the gorge and allow visitors to take aspects of it home with them.
  • The amount of work and creativity that goes into designing the displays in the shops at the National Gallery and the commitment to create original merchandise that visitors are happy to spend money on because it is not available elsewhere.

I think it is fair to say that these presentations and the following discussion primed me for Kiran Trehan‘s closing talk, ‘Cultural Heritage, Business and Entrepreneurship: Sleeping with the Enemy or Match Made in Heaven?’ She began by asking whether we wanted to be entrepreneurs or whether what we really wanted was to be entrepreneurial, and stressed that being entrepreneurial is really all about identifying what our clients/audiences need. She challenged us to dream futures for cultural heritage and make the most of opportunities as they arise, while working strategically within these broader progressive visions. Her point about moving beyond the idea that “profit” is a dirty word struck a chord with me, following on from talks about the sale of innovative products and services. Over lunch I talked to a tour guide who made the point that in the UK, we seem less interested in the services professional tour guides have to offer than in many other countries. This led me to think that the challenge for tour guides and heritage professionals is not to try to squeeze money out of people, but to offer something people are happy to pay for and that represents value for money – in the view of a broader segment of society.

This is an entrepreneurial challenge, but a challenge I think is worthwhile – one that will ultimately be more meaningful and rewarding than simply finding new ways of making enough money to let us keep on doing what we’re doing.



Volunteering: Empowerment or Exploitation?

I came across this article on Best Practices to Strengthen Your Organization with Volunteers last weekend when it was retweeted by a UK-based heritage volunteering account I follow on Twitter. While I realise that a retweet does not necessarily indicate an endorsement, I find a number of the so-called ‘best practices’ troubling in a heritage context, with regard to questions of exploiting volunteers and devaluing professionals during austerity. For me, what makes this especially important, is the fact that volunteering is often linked to progressive ideals and commitments to human rights, such as that everyone should be given the opportunity to be involved in identifying and looking after their heritage. The question then becomes whether we, in the heritage sector, are promoting volunteering in an effort to save money and make heritage non-profits financially sustainable, or to encourage people to connect with their heritage and develop agency for its identification and care.

I hope it is perfectly clear which of these two directions a text that leads with this sentence is taking us:

‘It no longer makes sense for nonprofits to simply take whoever wants to volunteer. In order to actually grow your organization, you want to make sure you choose qualified volunteers with special skills that can be utilized. Don’t be afraid to say “no” when someone is not the right fit for your organization.’

So this article is concerned with saving money. Fair enough, but surely this should still be done without exploiting volunteers or devaluing professionals?

‘Set your expectations early on and write clear position descriptions the same way you would for any job, so they know what they are getting into from the beginning.’

This is where we get closer to the difficult issues of volunteering in the heritage sector. On Twitter, archaeologists use the hashtag #freearchaeology to highlight and shame organisations that advertise unpaid jobs. A volunteer position is not a job. Full-time jobs in the heritage sector being advertised as volunteer positions devalues professionals and exploits volunteers. The heritage sector is notorious for its lack of diversity, with professional archaeologists in the UK at 99% white and conservators 98% in 2013. If unpaid work is necessary to gain relevant experience and experience is required to get paid work, then entering the sector is only possible for those who can afford to risk having to work for free; heritage volunteering cannot wash its hands of its role in this.

What really gets me is when articles like this one begin talking about empowerment:

‘The importance of planning your volunteer program ahead of time, showing volunteer appreciation, and empowering your volunteers to share your message can’t be stressed enough.’

At least in this case it is clear that volunteers are being “empowered” to share your message – but this is an article of top tips for volunteer managers, not a call for volunteers, so the transparency is perhaps not that surprising.

I’ll just leave you with the end of the article – just to be clear what this volunteering is all about. Let’s not pretend this kind of thinking is not going on in the heritage sector; let’s spend our energy thinking about what we are going to do about it instead:

‘Too many nonprofits put volunteers and donors into two separate silos, when the reality is that there’s a huge potential for overlap. People who volunteer with an organization are far more likely to donate when asked than people who haven’t volunteered, meaning a positive volunteer experience is even more important to your organization as it has the added benefit of helping you grow your donor base. When someone supports your organization they support it because your mission resonates with them, meaning they are going to want to help in any way they can. The main motivator that makes a volunteer choose your organization over another is their passion about your cause. Keep this in mind as you are planning your volunteer outreach and experience, and be sure to let them know just how important they are!’



What am I doing, exactly – or, why am I doing what I’m doing?

Unfortunately, the meeting with my partners scheduled for last weekend had to be postponed. In the meantime, I thought I would reflect on the final prep meeting I had with Jo last Friday.

I mentioned that I wanted to spend time sharing what I had learned about wire-framing and paper prototyping with my partners, so they could take on the role I have taken on in the future – pretending to be a designer. Jo was immediately suspicious. Why would I want my users to become designers; by taking on the role of designers, they would lose value as representative users. I explained that part of my reason for choosing to try collaborative design in the first place was to test its “transformative” potential. While I hope the digital tools we design together will be useful and facilitate sustainability, I’m primarily interested in the process of collaborative design and how everyone participating is changed through the process – changed in ways that facilitate sustainability. Jo then pointed out that he is uncomfortable with the idea that sustainability comes from changing people, which sent me back to thinking about the incumbent and critical democracies I blogged about a few weeks ago. Am I back to the form of capacity building where I am teaching people to work in the ways I think they should work, rather than providing support; am I talking about my work in the form of “critical democracy” while practising a form of “incumbent democracy” where I’m co-opting local voluntary initiative to suit professional and academic priorities? Am I claiming to empower my partner groups, while actually just manipulating them to do professional work for free?

It is fair to say that I chose to use co-design before I discovered Blaug’s critical and incumbent democracies and took a further critical look at my project. While I re-evaluated my research aims and revisited what I’m using as my data, I didn’t really step fully back from my research and reconsider my overarching methodologies. Similarly, while I’m focusing on the process of struggling to enact my own critical and reflexive practice, I remain tasked with studying the sustainability of community groups involved in taking care of local heritage. I also remain committed to studying how sustainability can be facilitated, rather than simply assessing sustainability. So I am torn – I’m critical of projects that set out to meet their own needs by changing others – yet that is what my project is. Unless, sustainability and facilitating sustainability is a shared need. If my partner groups are interested in what makes groups like theirs more effective and sustainable, and want to work with me to facilitate sustainability in their groups and others – then maybe I am involved in engineering critical democracy after all? For me, power is the key – only by sharing power is empowerment possible. This is why I am not interested in forming networks through the Council for British Archaeology that they (or I) hold power over, but to use our resources to help set up networks that can empower.

Part of the reason why sharing power is difficult is that we may not see ourselves as having power, and others may not mind us having it or exercising it – it may even be welcomed and encouraged. Sharing power may sometimes involve refusing or declining power.

In my case, these reflections have reminded me that my research isn’t about digital tools or co-design. I must be willing to scrap the idea for the digital tool we are working on that I pitched at the start of the project. I must be willing to move away from the idea of using co-design and digital tools that I pitched at the start of the project. At the very least, I must be willing to give up on these ideas if I am going to claim to be promoting critical rather than incumbent democracy. My research isn’t about any individual digital tool. It’s not about digital tools. It’s not about co-design. It’s about facilitating sustainability in community groups and it’s about community groups facilitating their own sustainability. It’s about supporting something I can walk away from two years from now. Why am I so set on having myself and my ideas at the centre of it all?


I’m not a web designer

Renegotiating roles and responsibilities is becoming the very core of my research – I have recently decided to focus more on why it is difficult to re-position myself as a heritage practitioner when I do collaborative work. I think this has a lot to do with my perceptions of expertise: my own expertise and the expertise of those I work with. I am a trained archaeologist, objects conservator and heritage manager – though I don’t know that I am entirely comfortable in any of those identities. I am very clear on what I am not, though; I am not a web designer or a digital specialist.

I have chosen to use digital design in my research because I believe it can be used to build infrastructure that can facilitate sustainability in community groups who want to take care of heritage and because it is an area where collaborative approaches are well-developed. Together with my research partners, I am designing digital tools that we think will be useful. Despite this, I have been very clear from the beginning that while I am reading up on collaborative design, I am not, and never will be, a designer. I wanted to use collaborative design to give my partners a sense of ownership over the digital products we come up with together and to make sure that we end up with something useful, but at some point in the design process I always thought we would hand things over to a digital specialist. This is still the case, but I have repeatedly been encouraged to go further in the design process before handing it over to someone outside the project. As a result, I found myself downloading Balsamiq (a wireframing software) this morning, and am now beginning to do some mock-ups that will be used as a tool to drive creative discussions with my partners at the end of next week. Essentially, I am doing web design.

Conservation professionals who want to involve others in caring for heritage are sometimes frustrated by people’s reluctance to get involved, and being told “you’re the expert”. While there obviously are tasks that should be reserved for specialists, whether in conservation or in web design, resisting the urge to say “I’m not a conservator” or “I’m not a web designer” and taking the plunge can be really rewarding.

What I think we really need is a better understanding of “expertise” and what it takes to perform tasks that are unfamiliar – so we know what we can try and when we should ask for help. You might just be surprised how much you can actually do yourself and how much that knowledge changes how you view yourself and others. Ultimately, as our perceptions change, I hope we change how we work together.



Toward personas, scenarios and prototyping

Late in August, I met with Gareth Beale (@GCBeale) and Mike Heyworth (@mikeheyworth) to discuss how we could move forward with the design process based on the requirements identified during our co-design session in July. Mike kindly agreed that the Council for British Archaeology would provide funds to bring in a technical consultant to help us to move toward a technical design brief and Gareth forwarded a project description to PhD students and postdoctoral researchers in the DC Labs and Department of Computer Science, which put me in touch with Jo Pugh (@mentionthewar).

Jo has convinced me that we (my partner groups and I) should retain more control over the design process and that while we have user data for heritage professionals (decision-makers) and community groups, we know very little about a third group of potential users: those who are not already part of an established heritage group, but nevertheless have an interest in heritage. While we have been proceeding with the design process based on the information we already have, we are therefore also planning how we can gather this additional user information:

  • Who are these users?
  • What is their interest in heritage and the changes that are made to the places that matter to them?
  • How do they use digital and web-based technology?

Once we have gathered this information, we will have a fuller picture of the range of our users, which will allow us to make design decisions to provide for their wants and needs.

More significantly, Jo pointed out that while the theoretical argument I am constructing for my PhD research is critical of participatory initiatives that promote institutional agendas and co-opt local initiatives, I could be accused of promoting institutional agendas through my own participatory research practice. I have chosen to select this as a central theme for my research – why do heritage practitioners and academics find it so difficult to apply critical approaches to participation in practice. I will be studying a range of other participatory projects, documenting my own struggle of attempting to bring my practice in line with my ideals and reflecting on whether aligning theory and practice can lead to more sustainable partnerships. I think it is difficult because sometimes we don’t realise and sometimes we simply think we know best. I’m not suggesting that practitioners and academics have nothing to bring to the table, but that cloaking our agendas in a rhetoric of emancipation should have no place in our practice. I’m grateful to those of you who have called me out when I’ve strayed into this area, and would like to encourage you to continue to do so. 

I have already kick-started the process of describing some of our users based on the requirements we identified in July. We had a go at this at the time, but I don’t think we had a clear enough grasp of how to do this to really come up with what we needed. We will be discussing my drafts the next time I meet with my partners in October and will hopefully be able to share examples of our personas and scenarios after that, but I thought I would give you a sneak-peak.

Based on what I told Jo about our work, he identified three main user groups and seven different personas that I have tried to describe:

  • Community group members
    • Liz (the booster), 63, is a local business owner in Bridlington, who wants to attract tourists, foster civic pride and meet others who love Bridlington, and is frustrated by negativity and narrow-mindedness as well as that no one listens to or seems to care about her efforts.
    • Michael (the bigwig), 68, is a retired lawyer in Pontefract, who wants to responsibly represent local interest through the civic society and get more people involved in local decision-making, and is frustrated by apathy and lack of initiative.
  • Heritage professionals
    • Laura, (the decision-maker) 43, is an archaeologist working for Historic England, who wants to make good decisions for heritage in keeping with the interests of current and future generations, and is frustrated by the lack of time and money to give each case the attention it deserves and the absence of a mechanism to effectively communicate with stakeholders.
  • Those not part of established groups
    • Caroline (the tourist), 39, is a sales assistant from Manchester, visiting Flamborough, who loves having experiences of the local and every-day while on vacation, and is frustrated by the lack of time to get to know the places she visits.
    • Boris (the disconnected local), 28, is a hairstylist in Bridlington, who wants an exciting social life and to be connected with current issues, and is frustrated to be stuck in Bridlington where nothing happens.
    • Paulette (the teacher), 28, is a teacher in Pontefract, who wants to incorporate local history in her teaching, and is frustrated by her lack of time and accessible resources to find out more.

I have drafted scenarios for Liz, Michael and Laura that we will be discussing in October, where we will also be laying a plan for how we can find out more about Caroline, Boris and Paulette, so we can draft their scenarios based on evidence rather than pure guess-work. If any of you identify with Laura, we would also be really interested in knowing more about her.



Social innovation and engineering democracy

This summer I’ve been going to too many conferences, but they have all been helpful in challenging my thinking and my research approach. Most recently, I had the opportunity to take part in the 8th World Archaeological Congress in Kyoto, Japan. Here I participated in two sessions, one on Archaeology and Social Innovation and one on moving beyond Heritage Dogma in practice as well as theory. I thought I’d share a couple of things I’ve been thinking about recently that became central to my contributions to these two sessions.

  • Am I promoting social innovation (see the Hesiod Project for a great take on social innovation in heritage) to further heritage conservation, or am I using heritage conservation as an avenue to promote social change through innovation? Like one of my main questions from the #hexpertise event: can heritage projects promote volunteering as a means to save money without exploiting volunteers? I was asking myself whether either social innovation or conservation would ultimately take precedence and whether deciding which is my priority will dramatically impact the approach I take to my work.
  • Drawing on Blaug’s “Engineering Democracy” (apologies for the paywall): what can heritage professionals do to increase the agency of community groups interested in heritage without co-opting their initiative and building dependency rather than capacity? Blaug’s conclusion (with regard to engineering critical democracy) is that they cannot. Back to #hexpertise again and my utopia for heritage conservation: in renegotiating professional and volunteer roles and responsibilities there is still room for professionals, but we must take decentring ourselves seriously. Either we attempt to get volunteers to work towards our priorities for free, sharing responsibility while holding on to power, or we make ourselves and our “expertise” available to local voluntary groups and work toward their agendas. Again, we may think we can do both, but ultimately we must choose one over the other – so we might as well choose one and let that become the foundation of our practice.