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Community-led Research

Assessing the value of voluntary projects.

The voluntary and community research project

The heritage sector has a long history of volunteer involvement, the social and communal benefits of which are widely recognised (English Heritage 2014, Heritage Lottery Fund 2015). The significance of this is reflected in the grant-giving policies of the Heritage Lottery Fund and other providers, which favour those projects featuring community engagement, interaction and development.

Very little attention, however, has been paid to the research outputs generated by such projects. This is in spite of the increased acknowledgement of the value of research carried out outside of the academic sphere, for example by development-led investigations (for example the recent Roman Rural Settlement Project). 

In 2015, Historic England commissioned Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service to establish a clearer picture of the volume and range of heritage research undertaken on a voluntary basis. The project also assessed the potential of this research to inform the planning system through the enhancement of Historic Environment Records (HERs) and research frameworks. The project did not aim to provide a commentary on the quality of work produced, but rather to assess its potential value.

The Assessing the Value of Community Generated Research Project  covered both terrestrial and maritime archaeological groups, as well as those recording historic buildings, and ‒ for the first time ‒ local history groups. This connection with the local history community was facilitated through a partnership with the British Association for Local History. Data was gathered through an online survey and case studies focusing on specific regions provided qualitative as well as quantitative information.

cover of a report showing a line of volunteer archaeologists working on an excavation.
The project looked at all aspects of archaeology and local history, from excavation to archive research. © WAAS

Main findings

The data produced a number of interesting, in some cases surprising, results. The amount of research generated by heritage community groups was substantial: an estimated 12,000 projects were carried out in the last five years alone, resulting in the production of 20,000 pieces of research. These figures are likely to be a conservative estimate, as information on community-led research is not systematically gathered.

Worryingly, 60 per cent of this research is not fed back to HERs. While 67 per cent of archaeological groups pass on their work to HERs (which in turn means a third do not), only 23 per cent of local history groups do the same. This can be attributed to the history of HERs, which have long had an archaeological focus; the local history community has had a closer relationship with local studies libraries and archives.

Respondents who had consulted local authority services, archaeological units or professional freelance archaeologists were 78 per cent more likely than those who had not consulted professional archaeologists to submit their results to HERs. This demonstrates the importance of the relationship between voluntary/community researchers and professional practitioners. The survey also showed that while grant-funded projects are more likely to consult HERs or advisory services than purely voluntary organisations, only 51 per cent of these submitted their final results to HERs; this is worryingly low.

The project also found how varied the motivation is for carrying out research. Many respondents were directly responding to planning and development issues. In spite of this, much of their work is not making its way into research resources, and is thus not being considered in strategic planning decisions.

An alarming statistic involves the fate of physical archives, with only 23 per cent of respondents who undertook intrusive fieldwork without grant funding sending the resulting material to museums.

The case studies demonstrated that a vast quantity of research is being generated by heritage community groups; this material has significant value, with a great potential to enhance both HERs and research frameworks. The inclusion of such material would enable the sector to more effectively manage and protect the historic environment, particularly in those areas of the country which have seen very little planning-led activity.

A group of volunteers planning archaeological remains
Volunteers recording structures during the fieldwork phase of the DigBromsgrove project. © WAAS

Research frameworks

One of the key aims of the project was to assess the potential value of community-generated research for the development of research frameworks. As a result, the online survey aimed to understand how these were viewed by community groups and researchers.

Only 45 per cent of respondents, it was found, were aware of existing research frameworks. Of those who had heard of them, however, 78 per cent had consulted the relevant documents.

Community groups and researchers have not to date been active participants in the collaboration between local authorities, commercial and academic sectors which saw the development of the frameworks in the 1990s, so it is perhaps not surprising that there is a low awareness of their existence.

Encouragingly, 94 per cent felt that their work was of value and could contribute to a wider understanding of their field of research.

There is thus a real opportunity to engage with these groups, involving them in the process of developing research frameworks. This would ensure that local research agendas are more fully considered and incorporated into the frameworks, and that they have a stronger sense of community ownership and collaboration.

The recommendations in this report are currently being taken forward in the recently commissioned projects to revise the regional research frameworks for the east of England, north-east and north-west.

Two archaeologists studying a historic map
Tithe map transcription research in Worcestershire Archives. © WAAS

Moving forward

So what happens now? The project presents an ideal opportunity to start addressing the issues surrounding community-generated research.

The work will involve partnerships between Historic England, the Council for British Archaeology (CBA), the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA), the British Association for Local History, voluntary groups  and the wider heritage community.

Some of the recommendations are already feeding into existing initiatives, such as Historic England's Heritage Information Access Strategy, and the redevelopment of OASIS (the system for reporting investigations online) which is being carried out through the HERALD Project. The Chartered Institute for Archaeologists Voluntary and Community Special Interest Group was reinstated with a new committee in February 2016 with a commitment to take forward the findings of this project.

The project has been a timely one, especially in light of the current financial situation within the heritage sector.

The solutions to the issues raised cannot fall to one section of the sector or to a single organisation, but should rather be seen as the responsibility of all within the profession: from national heritage bodies to commercial units, local authority services to academic researchers – not to mention voluntary organisations.

A wordcloud expressing how community groups funded their research projects.
Wordcloud generated from survey responses on project funding. © WAAS

Authors

Aisling Nash

Aisling Nash

Aisling Nash MA is a Historic Environment Advisor at Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service. She manages the HER as part of her role and has a lot of contact with community groups and researchers. She has a background as a field archaeologist, with a wide range of experience in outreach and community archaeology.

robert hedge, community led research

Robert Hedge

Robert Hedge MA (Cantab) is a Community Project Officer at Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service. Originally a field archaeologist, he joined the service on a Council for British Archaeology bursary, and has since worked on a variety of public archaeology projects aimed at enhancing public awareness of archaeology in the West Midlands, and in addition to his role as a Finds Archaeologist

Dan Miles

Dan Miles

Dan Miles MCIfA, MA is the Research Resources Officer in the Capacity Building Team at Historic England. He is responsible for developing research frameworks and reference resources. He has an archaeology degree and an MA in Museum Studies, and has worked in the heritage sector for a number of years in England and Spain.

An infographic about sharing results of community led research
Wordcloud generated from survey responses on publication © WAAS
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