(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.