A group of women in two rows. The row at the back is standing while the row at the front is seated. They are wearing colourful bold print dresses posing for the photo.
Mojatu Women's group workshop showing participants in traditional Angolan clothing. © Dr Ana Souto, Nottingham Trent University
Mojatu Women's group workshop showing participants in traditional Angolan clothing. © Dr Ana Souto, Nottingham Trent University

Outreach to Ownership: a Community-focused Research Pilot

Public heritage bodies in England and Scotland working in partnership to empower community-led research in the cultural sector.

The Project

In July 2021, The Arts and Humanities Research Council put out a funding call for Independent Research Organisations to deliver a pilot research project for the Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums sector.

The idea was simple: how could Independent Research Organisations support community-led research that would help to understand the value of the arts and humanities and promote more inclusive engagement with culture and heritage.

The call fitted well with Historic England’s priorities, and we put together a bid with colleagues at Historic Environment Scotland based around supporting community-led research at all levels of community cultural activity ‘from outreach to ownership’. We were awarded £250,000 at the end of 2021 and secured a further £150,000 at the end of 2022 to continue the work until July 2023.

While integrating heritage organisations and the historic environment more strongly into the overall pilot was a strong driver for us, our pilot hasn’t restricted its work to just those themes, and we’ve supported organisations from the arts, museums, and archives sectors as well as heritage organisations.

Our pilot follows a ‘hub and spokes model’. Historic England and Historic Environment Scotland run a central ‘ Outreach to Ownership hub’ that has designed and delivered capacity building and other support functions, while our ‘spokes’ are partner organisations from across England and Scotland who bid to us through a competitive process to take forward research projects of their own design. Our partners have been:

  • Heritage Lincolnshire, whose project ‘Building on History’ explored the potential of a co-created digital tool to recognise diverse heritage.
  • The Scottish Council on Archives, whose project Everyone's Stories Matter explored the obstacles and opportunities around managing community archives in Scotland.
  • MSDS Marine and Moder Dy, whose project ‘Cladaichean to laebraks: Maritime heritage and engagement on Skye and Shetland’ explored inclusive heritage engagement in island communities
  • The Art House, whose project ‘Makey Wakey’ sought to understand the impact of creatively using vacant shop spaces in the Ridings Centre in Wakefield.
  • The Churches Conservation Trust, the Heritage Trust Network, Historic Churches Scotland and Churches Trust for Cumbria, whose consortium project ‘Bridging the Gap’ explored the barriers and solutions to sustainable community ownership of historic rural churches.

The place of heritage

The Arts and Humanities Research Council’s call for the pilots came just after the Government’s Community Ownership Fund was first announced. We were therefore keen to use the work to understand directly from communities what this agenda meant to them, and what kind of support they might need to take on and run heritage assets. But the ambitions of the Arts and Humanities Research Council call also fitted neatly with Historic England’s active participation approach set out in its ‘Future Strategy’ document as being designed to ‘create opportunities for people to get involved by providing information’, and with our commitment to connecting communities by developing and delivering ‘heritage programmes and projects in inclusive and participatory ways’.

By working with Historic Environment Scotland, we’ve also been able to learn more about the community empowerment agenda in Scotland: the pilot was seen as something that could contribute significantly to the development of this policy priority.

The hub and spokes structure for our pilot project was an innovative way for Historic England and Historic Environment Scotland to partner with smaller cultural organisations and helped us to work directly with community groups to amplify their voices. It also offered an opportunity to test out a more democratic approach to grant-giving than is always possible through our core grants programmes. And in supporting community-led research not into history or archaeology but into concepts such as ownership, inclusive engagement, and the economic and social value of culture and heritage, we’ve created new ways to empower communities to have a say in the issues affecting them.

The capacity building programme

‘Active participation’ was at the heart of our design for ‘Outreach to Ownership’. Not only did we want to encourage our partners to focus on community needs and interests, but we also wanted the capacity building programme itself to be co-created and delivered.

We undertook a light-touch skills audit which allowed us to design a programme of training and development activities to be delivered online through a variety of formats. This programme was split across a development phase focusing on subject-specific workshop sessions in which partners could refine the ideas set out in their initial applications, and a delivery phase when we undertook troubleshooting and facilitated peer-to-peer support as issues arose during the running of projects.

The capacity building programme was delivered by our Project Co-ordinator but drew on support from academics brought in to advise on specific issues and our evaluation consultants. Virtual workshops supplemented a small online library of content for partners to draw upon.

All of this was designed and delivered at pace, and it’s a great credit to Dr Desmond Clarke, our Project Co-ordinator, that the programme ran so smoothly.

Some benefits of the ‘Galleries Libraries Archives and Museums hubs’ model

A key benefit of the hub and spokes model which we implemented has been that it enables us to bring together partners from different sectors around a common theme.

Partners have been able to learn from each other as well as from us, and we know from our evaluation that they’ve found this inspiring as well as helpful. In fact, our partners have now begun to support each other outside of their ‘Outreach to Ownership’ work through sharing knowledge or contributing to events.

The creation of local or sectoral impact with research by placing the needs and interests of communities and practitioners alongside academic or ‘expert’ knowledge has also been a central impact of the ‘Outreach to Ownership’ hub model. By giving ownership to communities, and empowering them to take work forward, we have reached a range of people and organisations that both Historic England and Historic Environment Scotland often struggle to engage. This in turn has highlighted the potential of research to foster greater collaboration between research organisations and community groups active in the cultural sector, playing into UK Government place and levelling up agendas, and Scottish Government’s community empowerment agenda.

The impact of the pilot so far

The ‘Outreach to Ownership’ project has had extensive geographical reach across England and Scotland, with a diverse range of stakeholders and communities engaged through the five projects and their activities. Across the ‘Outreach to Ownership’ projects:

  • Approximately 440 people took part in 30 workshops either in person or online
  • 159 people responded to surveys
  • New or strengthened partnerships were created with 79 community groups
  • 652 people attended pop-up exhibitions or events

Evaluation of the pilot by our independent evaluation consultant Bright Culture continues as we move into our second phase of funding.

But to conclude, one of our partners puts it best:

It was a huge learning experience for me. I literally Googled what research was when we applied for this project because I had no idea where to start, and I really thought it wasn't something that I would ever be able to do.

When we applied, the thing that was most exciting was the learning part of the project, we saw it as a huge professional development opportunity.

The workshops and the really interesting discussions with partners gave me a lot of confidence that what we think is important has the right to be the subject of research. I'm really, really proud of what we've achieved and excited to carry it forward.

I feel so confident now!

About the authors

Name and role

Charlotte Garratt

Title and organisation
Community Development Research Manager at Historic England
Charlotte Garratt is a Heritage professional with 16 years’ experience in the Historic England grants team. She is the Project Manager and Co-Investigator on the Outreach to Ownership Pilot. Charlotte has extensive experience of working alongside community organisations to develop and support delivery of funded projects.

Name and role

Ben Thomas

Title and organisation
Research Manager at Historic Environment Scotland
Dr Ben Thomas is Research Manager for Historic Environment Scotland, and the Principal Investigator on the Outreach to Ownership project. Ben’s work focuses on how heritage can empower and enable community groups in Scotland, and how heritage can create social and economic benefits.

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