Doing research strategically – aligning objectives and resources in the heritage sector

Engaged heritage picOn 23rd May as part of Bridging the Gap a group of heritage workers from around the region gathered together at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, to consider how they could further the research programmes of their own organisations.

The sector has voiced concerns about the imbalance of power in how research collaborations take place. The universities are often bringing in the money, and to a certain extent they get to set the terms of how the collaborations take place. This can lead to tension, disappointment and even the failure of collaborative projects. The workshop was intended to help counteract this imbalance, by suggesting ways in which heritage organisations of all sizes (from small volunteer led organisations, to large museums) can work more strategically.

If an organisation can build up a clear vision of how research fits into its mission, that organisation can be more prepared for the opportunities represented by collaborating with universities. This will result in collaborations that are more productive for all the parties involved, and that provide better foundations for longer term partnerships. However the staff time and resources the organisations in the heritage sector are often very constrained. Sharing best practice across a regional network is an efficient way to build capacity. The workshop took up this challenge with three parts to the day.

  • an introductory overview of research and universities
  • sharing experience of different kinds of collaboration from both university and heritage sector perspectives
  • a guided activity aimed at producing a draft of a research strategy

Nicola Thomas started the day off with a presentation that explored how heritage collaborations fit into the work of universities across the full range of their business. Part of this business is focused on education, and the ambition to provide dynamic educational opportunities for undergraduates that stretch their capacities but also give them grounded experience from which to seek employment. Part of that business comes from the research output of the universities, and the ways in which research excellence is rewarded.

(Listen to the introduction by Nicola Thomas, and see the slides here)

This presentation was followed by a panel discussion on what research ‘is’ from different perspectives in the sector. Tim Cole, Professor of History at Bristol, spoke from the point of view of an academic researcher. Brigid Howarth, Senior Impact and Partnership Development Manager for Culture at the University of Exeter, spoke from the point of view of the professional services team that support the expansion of research on behalf of academics. Julien Parsons Senior Collections Officer at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, spoke from the point of view of a heritage organisation that has carried out several successful collaborations with universities. This discussion already revealed how collaborations have to resolve the interests of several different groups. Research needs to be globally ‘original’ in scope, to fit the aims of the university and it needs to be challenging to get the interest of a researcher.  For the heritage organisation, however, the project often needs to be functional and and feed directly into an existing activity or programme of work. There is therefore a tension that arises between the need for heritage organisations to advance their core programme, and for research to be (in Tim Cole’s words) “Business Not As Usual” which needs considering in each project.

The panel also addressed the risk that writing large grant proposals represented in terms of investment of staff time. Universities have that risk built into their organisational structure, whereas heritage organisations usually don’t. This makes six months of fine-tuning a grant application makes for a much more substantial investment for heritage organisations. Advice from the panel was to seek the opportunity to take up small grants as a springboard to larger ones. By starting small it is possible to test the success of the idea and of the partnership before investing huge resources.

(Listen to the panel discussion here)

In the next part of the workshop, four presenters gave their perspectives on their prior experience of collaborations. Emma Dunn described how undergraduates at the University of Exeter had—despite initial hesitation by some members—been key in the development of the Devon and Exeter Institution’s work over the last few years. They had provided valuable extra hands and heads for collection management and interpretation, and created an atmosphere of intergenerational exchange that had been enriching for everyone. Rachel Hogden from the Employment Services at the University of Exeter described how facilitating placements for undergraduate students was beneficial to them and to the university.

Jenny Lee, who had been involved in an AHRC-collaborative doctoral project at the Porthcurno Telegraph Museum, described the benefits (and some of the discomforts) of working within a heritage organisation without a defined role. She emphasised how important it was to integrate doctoral students within the daily business of an organisation, in order  to make the exchange as rich as possible and to allow the research to feedback into the organisation’s own resources. Sam Rose, from the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site Trust had also been involved in a collaborative doctoral award project as a supervisor on the heritage partner side. Sam described how very differently three projects had influenced the organisation. The doctoral students had varied roles, from more straightforwardly providing knowledge, to providing organisational learning, to increasing the depth of contacts with local communities.

(Listen to these presentations and discussion here)

The final stage of the workshop was a series of activities that were designed to consider what the parameters for research are for heritage organisations. This included taking into account the resources, stakeholders and ambitions of the organisation, but also those of the individuals who would be directly involved in the collaboration. Nicola also provided some examples of different forms of guidance that heritage organisations could give to potential partners. The most elaborate of these was a full Research Strategy which the National Trust has developed for the first time this year. A simpler example was the research “wishlist” or prospectus that the Crafts Council has recently published. The third example from the Wiltshire Museum’s website doesn’t define themes or priorities, but does give a clear indication of the what the organisation has to offer and the constraints it has on working with the researchers – a great way to set up realistic expectations in a potential academic partner.

(See the activity and the examples here)

The workshop as a whole benefitted from the very committed engagement of the participants. They were generous in sharing their advice and experience. They reflected on other, relatively unexplored avenues for further collaboration, including co-ordinating opportunities for life-long learning and working in “citizen heritage”. They also introduced further problems to solve, such as supporting research placements in rural environments that are harder to access by public transport. We look forward to continuing these discussions over the coming months, and from GW4’s side, these comments and experiences will certainly feed into our thinking about future collaborations.

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