This week sees the official launch of a new toolkit for heritage practitioners looking to understand and work with the social values of the historic environment. For the first time, the toolkit provides practitioners with detailed guidance on how social values can be assessed and brought into decision making as part of heritage management and conservation projects. The following blog is by Elizabeth Robson, doctoral student and principal researcher in the Wrestling with Social Value project. It provides context to the findings that informed the development of the toolkit, a link to which is provided below.

The multiple values associated with the historic environment have been vividly illustrated by recent events in the UK. From the toppling of a statue of Edward Colston in Bristol to organisations investigating the links between historic places and slavery, the diverse values that historic places hold for different communities have been the focus of increased public debate and official attention. These processes of revaluing and recontextualising historic places, particularly those connected with the legacies of empire, have attracted a backlash from right-wing media and politicians. That the presentation of the historic environment is so hotly contested highlights the power of the stories we tell about such places and their relevance to society today.

Whether at local, national, or indeed international levels, the question of whose knowledge and values count is a political one. When managing or conserving a historic place, different, at times conflicting, values and diverse narratives have to be negotiated within and between communities for whom it is of importance. It is therefore imperative that heritage practitioners are able to assess and work with a multiplicity of values and types of expertise, including community knowledge of place, as part of their day-to-day practice.

Images: Walkers on the Brown Caterthun, Angus (left); visitors to Dun Carloway Broch, Isle of Lewis (right) [photo credits: Elizabeth Robson].

In the Wrestling with Social Value project, ‘social value’ refers to the significance of the historic environment to contemporary communities, including people’s sense of identity, belonging, attachment and place. Social values have been increasingly reflected in international heritage instruments and domestic frameworks in recent decades. Research has shown that communities are deeply connected to the historic environment and that the social values associated with historic places can differ considerably from values based on historic or scientific understandings of significance. However, despite the growing debate on social values, they are often a secondary consideration in day-to-day heritage practice. One of the reasons identified for this disparity is a lack of practical tools to assess social values and incorporate community understandings of place into routine heritage management and conservation work.

How, then, can we better understand and evidence the social values associated with the historic environment? That is the question addressed by this recently completed doctoral research project, conducted as part of an institutional partnership between the University of Stirling and Historic Environment Scotland. The research (completed between 2018 and 2020) involved around 150 people directly and included case study assessments for seven sites around Scotland. A range of qualitative assessment methods and rapid, participatory approaches were trialled across the seven case studies.

Images: Participant in a photo elicitation activity at Cables Wynd House (left) [photo credit: Elizabeth Robson]; participatory mapping of Dun Carloway Broch (right) [photo credit: Donald MacKinnon]

The research findings support other studies that have shown the efficacy of rapid, qualitative social research methods for understanding the social values of the historic environment. The project case studies demonstrate the ‘work’ different methods do, finding that they reveal different sorts of knowledge. This is a strong argument for using methods in combination, to build up a more complex understanding, to reveal diverse stories and multiple values, as well as to identify areas of dissonance (including groups or values that are not directly engaged or may be missing entirely).

Other key findings include the importance of:

  • working flexibly, in terms of methods, location and time;
  • being responsive to the specific social, management and conservation contexts; and
  • reflecting on the assessment process as well as the outcomes.

The research findings have been translated into an online toolkit, which offers practical guidance for heritage practitioners looking to assess or work with social values in ‘real world’ contexts. Alongside technical descriptions of potential methods and approaches, the toolkit incorporates the above findings on assessment process and provides key questions for practitioners to ‘think with’. The case studies provide examples of how methods and approaches might be combined in different contexts and are drawn on to illustrate the techniques that were trialled in the research.

It is hoped that the toolkit will support the incorporation of social values into heritage management and conservation processes, including practices that have not yet been considered as part of ‘community engagement’. Such a move would help connect formal heritage institutions more closely with communities and the role the historic environment plays in contemporary life, putting people at heart of co-creating and maintaining the significance of historic places that are important to them.

The ‘Social Value Toolkit’ will be officially launched at an online event on Wednesday 9 June 2021. It is available to view here (link opens a new window): https://socialvalue.stir.ac.uk.

Cover image: Bo’ness Hill Climb and Classic Car Show, Kinneil House & Estate [photo credit: Elizabeth Robson]