Helen Keighley

Presenting heritage: public impact, relevance and sustainability through volunteer involvement

The financial cost of keeping our built heritage is enormous. Caring for and preserving it relies on the public purse and the vast number of people who pay to visit historic and cultural places and spaces each year, and so creating a sustainable future for our heritage is more than just about conserving objects, bricks and mortar. Ensuring a viable future for heritage is also about making the intangible connections, between heritage and the public, relevant and engaging.

My research proposes to explore some challenging questions about the way community involvement through volunteering can breathe new life into our heritage and create a connectedness to local communities; influencing how it is cared for, presented and valued and therefore also potentially changing how communities view, engage with and make use of heritage.

Who is responsible for how heritage is interpreted, presented and connected? Curators, interpretation officers, outreach and education managers, site managers and researchers all play a role. And there is an increasing responsibility, especially now in times of austerity when the heritage sector has experienced unprecedented reductions in public funding, of a growing number of community volunteers and interest groups.

I will undertake a comparative study of a number of case studies and also research the history of the volunteer movement in the heritage sector to establish how this has changed and developed. Holding interviews with stakeholders, I hope to explore the ways volunteers bring life to heritage sites and how their role helps towards ensuring that heritage ranks highly in the public psyche.

Credit: Helen Keighley

Some central questions for my research will be:

  • What impact is community involvement having on how our heritage is presented, cared for and valued?
  • What are the trade-offs for creating a sustainable future for heritage through increased involvement, in terms of authenticity and preservation?
  • Can community volunteers help create relevance and meaning for heritage different from (or beyond) what paid staff can achieve?
  • Is shared ownership and community involvement (as opposed to simple engagement) really as desirable, with the challenges it brings, as it appears to be?
  • And, to what degree does greater community involvement require a balancing act and bring a new set of challenges for heritage professionals?

 

Whilst a greater emphasis on volunteer involvement can help foster a positive relationship between a site and its local community how this process is managed is crucial to its success, on both sides. Changes in retirement age, demographics, unemployment and work patterns could mean that the old ‘style’ of volunteering no longer works well for all – and focussing on the intangible rather than the bricks and mortar of a site can offer new and transformational opportunities to further that relationship.

Studies have been undertaken in the past which explore the benefits of volunteering on the individual but I am focussing my research on the impact volunteering has on the presentation of, and engagement with, heritage. By researching the areas above I aim to explore the extent to which heritage sites can become ‘living’, vibrant and relevant (and therefore more sustainable) through involving local communities through volunteering. It is hoped that my research in this area of heritage management will further knowledge and debate and may result in guidance for policy on the future management of heritage volunteering. I also hope that it will offer insight for heritage professionals on harnessing impactful volunteer support to create a balanced approach for the 21st century.

Biography

With a degree in History and Archaeology and a PGCE in History, I have spent much of my working life in the heritage sector in the field of outreach and education but I have also worked for a number of years in community development, in adult education and as a university Education Officer and an archaeological finds curator.

Working for English Heritage both as the Outreach Manager for the Yorkshire and Humber region and as a Community Projects Manager, I have many years of professional experience of widening audiences, education and outreach, and volunteer management within the sector.

Get Invloved

I have seen first-hand the benefits volunteering brings but have also witnessed some of the challenges it can bring about. I’m really looking forward to exploring this field of study through my AHRC Heritage Consortium PhD Studentship based at the University of Hull, and would be delighted to hear from anyone who would like to suggest examples of great volunteering practice or who would like to discuss the way the sector is changing through volunteering.

You can get in touch with me at: h.keighley@2016.hull.ac.uk

Supervisors: Professor Franco Bianchini, University of Hull and Dr Susan Ashley, Northumbria University.

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