Positive collaborations between heritage and HE

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Central St Martins Students
Narrative Environment MA students present to industry partners at Coal Drops Yard, London

As part of the Heritage2020 #HeritageChat, we look at what has worked for the Pioneering Places projects in collaborating with the Higher Education sector and community groups. Open questions posed by Heritage2020.

What are the key elements to ensuring positive collaboration between the heritage sector, higher education institutions and community groups? 

Through Pioneering Places East Kent, we have worked in partnership across the educational spectrum – both HE and FE and primary school partners across two of our sites, (Dover and Folkestone), as well as primary and secondary school students in Ramsgate and Canterbury and special needs students in Canterbury. Local evaluation of the Pioneering Places project is being conducted by the CoAST Research Group at Canterbury Christ Church University. Working with local communities has been fundamental to all projects. 

The common key elements across all these educational partnerships – and notably HE – are: 

  • Shared understanding of what each partner is looking to get out of the collaboration, both individually and collectively
  • Commitment to a common shared goal
  • Clear understanding of time commitments required from all partners and participants. This should be long enough and/or regular enough to have real value, but should also be time bound and realistic
  • Education, communication and understanding of the history and heritage of the site but also an understanding that this heritage is shared – i.e. the importance and meaning of the heritage and history of site can come equally from the community and/or educational partners as well as from the heritage partners
  • Whilst collaboration works best when all partners are seen as equals, a lead partner is essential to help drive the process forwards

What can hinder collaboration between these partners? 

Not being clear from the outset about what each partner is trying to achieve or get out of the partnership or how much participation or time commitment will realistically be required in order to achieve those goals. 

What is the role of trust in working collaboratively?  Is it quantifiable? 

Trust is an essential component of any partnership. It can – and should – be quantifiable and this can take several different forms. It can be anything from a partnership agreement that sets out measurable targets and objectives, where applicable, to a formal contract where specific deliverables and/or payments are involved. Trust should be built into discussions leading up to these formal arrangements and continually reinforced by each partner in ensuring that targets, deliverables, objectives and outcomes are met. 

What do you think collaboration between these sectors will look like in the future, especially given the likelihood of less funding? Is it possible to work without funding for common benefit? 

Funding is often a vital component – especially where HE partners are delivering what might be considered a service to the project. There are a range of ethical issues that come into play without funding – e.g. graduates or students working on projects as unpaid interns or universities, researchers, graduates and/or students essentially competing with local businesses or industry providers on an uneven playing field. 

On the commercial partner/industry side – which may include owners or operators of heritage sites or project management organisations – funding for HE engagement, for example through Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, (KTPs), is often a crucial incentive and driver towards increased HE engagement, notably for innovation and research projects.

Collaborations are still of course possible without funding where there is common benefit, but these may be more limited in scope and scale. Future collaborations may have to be more commercial in nature in the absence of any funding, (see below). This may have certain benefits for some commercial private businesses – particularly in projects where high levels of commercial confidentiality may be a key factor – but may disadvantage HE partners who may wish to retain greater rights in terms of publishing and dissemination of any associated research.

What alternatives are there in terms of funding when trying to initiate joint HE-Heritage sector community engagement research projects? 

Joint commercial projects may be an area to explore, with shared revenue deals or potentially shared IP, where possible. 

What type of collaborative work would you like to see between these sectors in the future? 

It would be good to see a widening of the range of departments getting involved in collaborations in the future, beyond the more obvious ones such as cultural, history, architecture, planning etc. More engagement with computer science departments, (e.g. data modelling, AI, 3D technologies etc), tourism-related projects, placemaking, (we worked very successfully with Narrative Environments MA students from Central St Martins for our Dover project, for example), economics and business/MBA sectors and education departments might be good examples. We have also been very active in engaging with the policy landscape around culture and heritage and see this is another key area for development and collaboration. 

Bearing in mind travel will be limited in 2020, how can local tourist industries (i.e. tour guides) play a role in collaborations between the heritage sector, higher education and communities? 

We are currently embarking on a project around ‘online placemaking’ which looks at how the knowledge of local experts can be harnessed and focused on improving the way places and sites are represented on the web – e.g. through Google’s Local Guides and Maps services. We believe this has great potential both in terms of improving discoverability, “making the web smarter” around heritage sites and also as a digital skills development project for the local community. 

What are the best pieces of advice you’ve received/you have to share for people wanting to start a collaborative project? 

Know what you want to achieve from the outset and find the right partners to help deliver it … which also means knowing what’s in it for them and getting behind that as much as you do your own aims and objectives. 

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