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.