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Building partnerships for impact in the Arts and Humanities

In today’s blog, Anne Sofie Laegran, Knowledge Exchange Manager for RSO CAHSS, takes us through main outcomes and insights from the recent Knowledge Exchange and Impact in the Arts and Humanities event, as part of the AHRC Developing Research Excellence Campaign. The blog includes insights from Andrea Cop of the National Musuem of Scotland, and Tanja Romankiewicz, Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh.

I was once struck by a comment made by a senior official in the Arts and Humanities Research Council, responding to a question about the emerging ‘impact agenda’, and it has always stayed with me. Asked about the role that impact would play on the Arts and Humanities agenda, they stated that whilst “medics may save lives, the arts and humanities make life worth living.” Hence, they argued, arts and humanities research should bring benefits to the public and society at large.

In the last Research Excellence Framework (2014), impact case studies did indeed demonstrate how arts and humanities research make a difference to cultural heritage; creative works; public engagement with, and understanding of, important issues; policy and practice in a wide variety of organisations, and the economy at large.

Impact in the arts and humanities takes many forms, and there is no one recipe for how to develop pathways to impact. However, as we saw through examples in this workshop, strong partnership with non-academic organisations are crucial. In developing your engagement strategy, it is important to first imagine what difference your research could contribute towards. Then from that understanding, identify who you need to influence. Who you can partner with to achieve your aims, be that directed towards benefiting practitioners, or members of the public.

Museums and cultural heritage organisations are often good partners for Arts and Humanities researchers. Andrea Cop, Research Liaison Manager for the National Museums Scotland (NMS), started off her talk at the workshop by countering the common perception that the museum is an exhibition space that can easily be made available for research informed content. At the NMS, as well as at any other large cultural heritage organisations, major exhibitions are planned years in advance and require a lot of funding to stage. Andrea therefore encouraged colleagues to get in touch at an early stage with an idea, as this will allow the curators to co-create the project with the researcher, and increase the chances for impact both on the Museum and its audiences. Rather than a large exhibition (or a small one with hardly any audience), the potential impact may be updates to the signage in established galleries, identifying new aspects of the collections, new ways of engaging audiences in the existing exhibitions and galleries etc.

If aims and plans align, co-created projects may also lead to a major exhibition. For example, Professor in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh, Toby Kelly’s work on conscientious objectors will inform an exhibition taking place in the National War Museum in 2019.

Tanja Romankiewicz, is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in Archaeology and her work also relates to our cultural heritage. She analyses remains of early architectures and is particularly focused on “roundhouses”, a typical form of later prehistoric housing in Scotland. Being dependent on records from archaeological excavations done in conjunction with new developments, Tanja experienced that these records were not always as detailed and as easily comparable as she needed for her research. This is because in the challenging environment of commercial excavations, often under time pressure, the professional archaeologists have to make quick decisions as to what needs recorded and at what level of detail. Bruce Mann, archaeologist at Aberdeenshire Council, is in charge of the archaeological planning conditions relating to new developments and their archaeological impact, and had the same concerns. He also wants to ensure that archaeology undertaken as part of development work contains all relevant information and that a recording standard is consistent so that no gaps arise in his record and that potentially important information on our past is not lost. Together, based on Tanja’s research, and liaising with the wider archaeologist community of professional fieldworkers, company managers, academic researchers, and experienced volunteers, they developed a set of detailed guidance for field archaeologists on how to excavate and record roundhouse in Aberdeenshire more consistently. This document is now used widely in the profession, and in their training, but also by local volunteers working on similar sites as part of community archaeology projects. It has led to improved records and better management of the cultural heritage in the North-East of Scotland by Aberdeenshire Council. It also underpinned their policy decisions as the preparation of such guidance documents for other archaeological sites is now embedded in the Regional Archaeological Strategy document for Aberdeenshire. Bruce’s and Tanja’s roundhouse guidance document is now being widely distributed and has inspired the Local Authorities of other regions across Scotland and England to prepare similar guidance to aid their record management.

Tanja’s example shows how arts and humanities research can be made relevant to, and used by, policy makers and practitioners alike. Speaking at the workshop Tanya identifyied that the key to success in achieving this impact, is the importance of building partnerships, not only with the Council as the main beneficiary but also with the archaeologists that are using the document. It is important to ensure that guidance was pitched at the right level, and that the archaeologist’ profession had input into this rather than seeing it as something imposed on them. Their practical experience of course also improved the end result.

After these brief presentations and discussion on projects from the participants, we rounded off the workshop with a note on what reviewers look for when assessing pathways to impact in research applications:

· Impact is integral to the project; not an afterthought

· Impact claims are appropriate for the research, and the applicant clearly knows the field they hope to have an impact on

· Applicants identify specific target groups, explains how they will benefit, and designs meaningful activities that allow target groups to engage

· Activities are realistic, having taken into account the skills required, the time it takes and ensured all activities are costed appropriately.

· The applications demonstrates inbuilt ways of capturing impact

For more information about developing a knowledge exchange and impact strategy please see our guide and other resources on the knowledge exchange webpage:

To discuss how to develop pathways to impact for your research, please contact Anne Sofie in the KE office and she or a colleague will be delighted to meet with you.

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Anne Sofie Laegran is Manager of the KE CAHSS Team at the Research Support Office, University of Edinburgh.

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Anne Sofie Laegran



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