New heritage toolkit to improve community input in conservation

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An image of a loch

A new toolkit for heritage professionals is helping them understand and assess how people and communities value and relate to Scotland’s historic environment.   

The resource has been developed through a collaborative PhD project jointly funded by the University of Stirling and Historic Environment Scotland (HES).  

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. Developed by PhD student Elizabeth Robson, it offers practical guidance and support for heritage professionals working with social values – people’s connections, memories, and associations with historic places.

The launch of the online toolkit follows extensive research carried out by Ms Robson at historic sites across Scotland on the impact of using different methods to assess social values.

PhD student Elizabeth Robson

 PhD student Elizabeth Robson

Ms Robson said: “When heritage practitioners are deciding what kind of work is needed, for example, to conserve a monument or manage visitor numbers, they will consider the historic or scientific significance of the site, but not normally the social values.

“Changes to the look, feel, or access to a place impacts how people experience it and can lead to tensions with communities or leave some groups feeling excluded.

“Social values are complex to assess and work with because they are often contextual and evolving. A variety of groups and communities can have a connection to a site, including people who don’t live nearby, and they may express a range of different, potentially contradictory, values.

“This toolkit not only helps raise awareness of the importance of wider public engagement, but provides a step-by-step, practical guide for heritage professionals, supporting them to identify and collaborate with relevant communities in assessing and evidencing the values of the historic environment.”

Sites included in Ms Robson’s research varied from an Iron Age monument in the Outer Hebrides to an Edinburgh city centre listed building and undesignated graffiti culture in Glasgow. Her research explored how historic environments are valued by people today and the methods heritage professionals could use to incorporate this knowledge into heritage management decisions.

The collaborative doctoral project is part of a programme of research focusing on heritage values within the University of Stirling’s Centre for Environment, Heritage and Policy. It is also linked to a wider institutional partnership between the University and Historic Environment Scotland.

Professor Siân Jones Director of the Centre for Environment, Heritage and Policy at the University of Stirling, said: “Through her excellent doctoral research, Elizabeth Robson has advanced our knowledge and understanding of methods for assessing the social values of heritage places, in often challenging situations.

“By providing a sophisticated toolkit for assessing and understanding social values, her PhD project has the potential to transform heritage conservation, taking the meanings, memories and values people associate with them into account.”

Judith Anderson, Senior Cultural Significance Adviser, Historic Environment Scotland, said: “Our vision in HES is that the historic environment is cherished, understood, shared and enjoyed by everyone. This means that we need to understand the many aspects of the historic environment that people and communities value, and we know these may reach well beyond architectural or archaeological values. For many heritage practitioners addressing these social values represents a gap in understanding and experience.

“The toolkit will be available free as a resource on the HES website to help anyone undertaking or commissioning research into the social value of heritage.”

The toolkit will be officially launched at an online event on Wednesday 9 June.

For more information about the research project ‘Wrestling with Social Value: An Examination of Methods and Approaches for Assessing Social Value in Heritage Management and Conservation’ visit: