A little bit about community heritage, and what it means
The team of staff I work with, at Gloucestershire Archives, is called the PLOT (Partnerships, Learning & Outreach) Team.
Community heritage is an integral part of what the Heritage Hub was set up to promote. If community groups want advice or support in gathering, keeping and sharing their documented heritage they can come to us and have a discussion, attend some of our training, pitch a funding bid (which we can help with) and talk through their plans. In an average year, we can receive around 6 or 7 such enquiries. Recent community groups have included a village history group, an African-Caribbean history group, a local history society, a film-maker wanting to document the experiences of older people, a primary school wanting to do a heritage project all about their neighbourhood, involving students and parents, and a whole range of others.
We receive requests from a wide range of organisations (some of them focussed on heritage, some of them not) to work in partnership with them to bring their project to fruition. Occasionally, this means signing a partnership agreement – making explicit what each of the partners will contribute to the project. But, more often, it’s about what we can contribute “in kind”. This could be support and guidance, staff time, becoming part of their project management team to advise on each stage of their project or whatever it is they need us to do.
One typical project we’ve been asked to provide some support to is “The Rainbow Street” project. This is an ordinary street, in Gloucester, of older terraced houses. A new householder moved in a few months ago, and she is an artist and a community activist. She painted the outside of her house in a bright colour, and all the other house-owners did the same – the street now comprises houses painted, on their exteriors, in bright reds, orange, yellows, greens and has earned national recognition of a community coming together. The artist has approached us, saying there are some interesting folk living in the street, many of them interested in history. Some have lived in their properties for 5 or 6 decades. So we’ve talked about doing oral history interviews with the residents of this street – capturing their memories of the street, the neighbourhood, the local shops and schools, the history of their houses, their street and their community. It is an example of what may be called ABCD – asset based community development. The street is in a neighbourhood that has its fair share of urban social and economic issues. But the community has come together, with a shared passion – brightening up the street, encouraging collective action, taking pride in place, looking out for one another – and restored a sense of neighbourliness. And all this through heritage.
Part of the vision for the Heritage Hub is that its partners will share their expertise, learn from each other, collaborate on big projects and offer reciprocal support. For example, in January 2022, the 1921 census will be published, and we’re already talking with onsite partners about how we might do something, together, to mark this occasion, such as a workshop for members of the public.
This very collaborative way of working is refreshing, and something I’ve not experienced in my working life before. By collaborating, you can easily share resources, exchange ideas, offer solutions, and get the job done (whatever it might be!) far more quickly than going solo.
Community heritage work can focus on literally anything – as we’ve seen with the Rainbow Street example, above. It can be a tool for revitalising a sense of community, improving a neighbourhood, building relationships, learning together and, indeed, celebrating identity (as with many of the minority ethnic community projects we support). But it also captures, for generations to come, people’s memories, thoughts, impressions and feelings. It is a snapshot, in so many ways, of what it’s like to live in a particular place, do a particular job or deal with today’s events large or small (like the coronavirus pandemic) in the early years of the twenty-first century.
Our core reason for existence is to share, and keep, our collections, dating back nearly 1,000 years. But collections don’t exist in a vacuum; to keep them relevant they must grow, be added to and reflect the here and now. Gloucestershire Archives is keen to reflect the experiences of people today – the diversity of life in Gloucestershire, the concerns of our residents right now, their experiences, and their memories.
Community heritage is just that. It’s about community. And it’s about heritage. In striving to share it, we learn so much about each other. And that has to be one of the best things about working in this sector.
Sally Middleton – Community Heritage Development Manager.