Over the last 6 weeks, we’ve been working with Historic England to ask for your experiences from up and down the country of supporting the historic places and heritage that matter to you. We’ve had an amazing and generous response, we heard about not only the huge breadth of activity that goes into celebrating and protecting our everyday heritage but what inspires you to get involved and helps you to stick at it.
We’ve heard about the post boxes you lovingly polish; the buildings you restore, the research you undertake, the celebrations you host, the groups you form, the art you create, the overall passion you impart and much more besides.
We’re doing this work because we believe in the benefit that the historic environment can bring, but more than that because we believe that this benefit will grow exponentially the more people we have adding their perspectives, energy and ideas to shaping and championing the places and traditions that make up our ever-evolving sense of heritage.
At the heart of this work is the question:
How can we work together with more, and more diverse, people so that more action is taken to support the historic environment?
Every story you’ve submitted has helped build a growing picture of what’s important to being able to take action in support of the historic environment. In addition to reading your stories, we brought together people with a range of experiences to delve deeper into what enables us to get involved, helping us understand the common threads that run through different experiences.
As the picture builds, we wanted to take this moment to share what we’re learning and to hear from you — What feels true to your experience? What might be missing?
To that end, here are 5 work in progress “building blocks” that, as we move forward in answering that big question, will act as the starting points for what might be important to do more of, less of and completely differently in the future. The building blocks come directly from your experiences and your words. They follow a journey from the idea that we can make a difference no matter how big or small, into what inspires us to get involved and what equips us to go deeper.
Building Block #1 — Everyone’s a keyholder
‘We are all agents of our own heritage’
Perhaps the cornerstone of our work is this idea — that when it comes to our history and heritage we all have a right to be in and a role in the room. Everyone has a story to tell and in doing so we can not only further our own sense of identity and belonging — we can give others the confidence to feel ‘I can be part of this’.
“I was in my early 20s, and was just a stage technician who’d lived all his life on one council estate. I think I was able to save the Dome because I didn’t know I couldn’t — I have never been involved in committees etc so I just got on and did it. Worth saying I guess that it did give me the confidence to do a lot more afterwards!” Dan
Through nothing more than the experiences we have and stories we share we can unlock the value in places and practices that might otherwise be hidden, and inspire others in the process. The word used to describe this was ‘agency’ — an innate capacity to act and make our own choices about the places that matter to us.
“We are of South Asian heritage ourselves, and we wanted to make sure that our culture and identity is celebrated, as well as making sure that we can take control of our own narratives as people of colour.” Jasvir
Important to developing that sense of agency is a realisation and reminder of the difference we can make.
“She suddenly became excited, “your illustration made me and my family realise the beauty of mundane life, the buildings I had never looked at, and the town my family have lived over generations”. It was so rewarding to hear what the lady said. It was worthwhile even if it only touched one family.” Jun
Finally, part of the agency we each have is to ‘create the space’ for others to come into the room. People spoke about the importance of welcoming others in without the expectation that they will participate in our own image; as one person put it, to allow more people to shape our historic environment, we sometimes need to ‘get out of the way’ for others to get involved on their own terms.
“Lastly, I believe there needs to be an outstretched hand to welcome everybody from all walks of life and background” Esther
This makes us ask:
Building Block #2 — Unlock the love
‘Love always translates to people’
Woven through stories shared online and in person was the language of love: a passion for history and a love of place. The power of that passion was evident through online stories but came alive in the storytelling of the workshops.
This was about not just stories in the abstract but ‘storyTELLING’ — the act of sharing our personal passion, one person to another.
“The fact that such places have survived can appeal to our hearts, to our emotions, and remind us that the people who built them or created them contributed to and are part of who we are today.” Imogen
The learning here is that when we tap into and speak from the ‘delight and wonder’ that first captured our imagination about a particular place or part of our past — we can create ‘goosebump moments’ that light the spark for others.
“Having people who are passionate about history ‘spreading the word’ is vital. I love history and I hope that my enthusiasm for it will infect others (in a nice way) and get them addicted to engaging with their local history too.” Emma
This makes us ask:
Building Block #3 — Open more doors
‘Many ways to get the ball rolling’
Sometimes we make the assumption that the starting point for taking action is always knowledge, education, awareness — we say ‘if only people knew X’. But a consistent theme running across the stories shared was just how many routes in there are to our historic environment — through a beautiful photo, a social event, or a hands-on experience.
“For me it’s bringing places alive with stories and objects. My learning style is definitely experiencing the place, the objects and putting things into context” Quentin
Realising the importance of ‘respecting different ways of learning’ and creating different start points, goes hand in hand with realising the huge array of skills that can be used to open doors and support the historic environment: the photographer who can open others eyes to the beauty of a place, the builder who can reveal the hidden craftsmanship, the tour guide who can bring history to life. Doing more to recognise and make space for the different skills we all have to offer is in itself opening a door that will bring others in behind.
“I’ve made a point to use my photography skills to go to these places, support them, and capture this beauty online” Thomas
This makes us ask:
Building block #4 — Tools to start and stick at it
‘Helping people to understand what’s possible’
As we go deeper into supporting the places and practices that matter to us, we need help; the tools to get going, and longer term skills building support to keep going.
“Little did I know how involved I’d get in the campaign and how long it would go on for.” Leigh
When it comes to the first steps in taking on a project or forming a group, you spoke about the tangible tools needed: the easy to access source of knowledge that gave you confidence, the small bit of funding that kicked it off, the authority that gave permission or the local group that inspired you to give it a go.
“We have needed resources and professional advice for us to establish our policies and governance, and to provide materials, and were really fortunate to have the support of the NLHF to do this.” Erika
When it comes to going deeper still and leading the charge for our historic environment, alongside those tools we need greater opportunities ‘to share and build skills’, to pass on organisational memory while developing skills for today like social media, the chance to form deeper partnerships, call upon specialist expertise and to connect with other advocates.
“As the challenge grows trustees need different skills — commercial, marketing, business, legal, HR etc... for heritage sites to survive and thrive the demands are greater.” Vicky
What’s clear is that supporting our historic environment isn’t a ‘one size fits all’, it’s a large scale of things we can do from the light touch to the deeply involved. As we go further along that scale the greater the scaffolding we need around us to maximise our efforts and support us in sticking at it.
This makes us ask:
Building block #5 — You’re not alone
‘You’re not a weirdo’
Essential to becoming more active in support of our historic environment are the people alongside us. The people that share our passion and give us a sense of belonging — as one person put it the sense that “you’re not a weirdo” and another “there’s nothing wrong with being a weirdo!”.
This is about both the people standing right next to you, those on our committees or alongside us in campaigns, and it’s about solidarity from further afield, the network we can connect with for expertise and empathetic support from all around the world.
“In both Gloucester and in York, I need the support and advice of the volunteer teams around me, who provide expertise about the buildings and their histories, and support me in meeting people and playing a part in the communities of both York and Gloucester.” Eleanor
The people alongside us are sources of energy and fun that get things going in the first place.
“We didn’t have any money (although money to make it happen would have helped!), but we had space. All we really needed was people. People to collaborate with. People who cared.” Josie
But crucially they are sources of reassurance and resilience to keep at it, our commitment to others is a reason to keep going in tricky times, and their positive feedback reaffirms the reason we got involved in the first place.
“Only since forming a volunteer group of interested people in 2011 have I felt confident in having the capability of doing something positive to prevent further decay of the site… During most of the recent lockdown having a project like this to report to members on weekly progress has helped keep the widely scattered members of the group in touch.” Simon
This makes us ask:
These building blocks are not intended to be revelations but rather reminders of and points of focus for what’s important to acting in support of our historic environment. In the next phase of this work we’ll be asking what would it look like to really live up to these building blocks? We’ll be looking for your ideas about how we might create a future where more people feel able, inspired and equipped to act in support of the heritage that matters to them.
In the meantime, if this has sparked any thoughts for you then we’d love to hear them — please comment below or get in touch at email@example.com.