MOLA archaeologist engaging with the public at Shake It Up Festival 24 Aug 19 Copyright @mishkopapic

Archaeology and Public Benefit Project Update 8: Reflections on a new Social Value Toolkit for heritage projects

Dr Sadie Watson
12.06.2021

Dr Sadie Watson  is leading a  four-year UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship  looking at maximising public benefit from archaeology carried out on UK infrastructure projects. In this blog series, she keeps us up to date with  the project team’s  progress… 

This summer, Liz Robson at the University of Stirling launched a new Social Value Toolkit for Heritage, designed as part of her Collaborative Doctoral Partnership project with Historic Environment Scotland. The Toolkit is primarily intended for heritage practitioners working to understand the social values associated with the historic environment. It leads us through a social value assessment process and provides key questions that are not dissimilar to our thoughts in terms of identifying communities and attempting to link professional aims in with community aims. I wanted to think about how we might be able to use parts of it in our own project.  

Liz’s work differs from ours in how it defines social value as ‘the significance of the historic environment to contemporary communities, including people’s sense of identity, belonging, attachment and place’. In a development context, by contrast, the expectation is that social value is to be provided by a development rather than just assessed prior to it. Despite this difference, there is much within the Toolkit for us to learn from, and many useful methods that could be adopted to ascertain values of a place where a heritage project is taking place. Some key insights from the Toolkit include: 

  • The importance of considering how communities already value their historic environment, and the impact of works on those values, both negative and positive 

  • The benefits of using a mix of methods to assess social value (including qualitative assessment and rapid, participatory approaches) as all capture slightly different things 

  • The need to remain flexible in the assessment process, given that communities are complex, and how corporate or organisational variables can change 

Liz’s Toolkit ensures that ‘heritage practitioners are able to assess and work with a multiplicity of values and types of expertise’ and to incorporate community values, while being aware that these might be different from professional or statutory values.  

Our challenge in all of this is that we operate in what Liz calls ‘hot contexts’ (in our case: construction, demolition) where rapid change is underway. Liz acknowledges that the prospect of change can bring otherwise quietly held social values to the fore and highlight differences in valuing. Of course, this is precisely where we are positioned as development-led archaeologists.  

We know that flexibility and qualitative approaches to social values are key, but the construction sector equally has a need for ‘known knowns’, often equating to quantitative measures or scores (https://socialvalue.stir.ac.uk/pathway/undertaking/step/5/ ). I see our project as setting out to bridge this gap. 

Liz also emphasises the need for organisations to establish long-term, local relationships in the communities they impact. This requires a lot of work and can be challenging where the organisations themselves are operating from long distances, and where archaeologists are only in the area for the duration of an excavation. This could be mitigated by allowing communities to ‘own’ the project outcomes after the archaeologists have left.  

The work that Liz has done to research and develop this ToolKit is thorough and maintains a focus on ensuring that value is provided for communities, something that the UKRI project team and our MOLA colleagues also feel strongly about. The way in which we view archaeology’s contribution to social value is developing rapidly, and our work will provide more challenges to practice as well as guidance on these concepts. For now, though, having read Liz’s ToolKit I believe the key takeaway is that collaborating with communities is the most meaningful way to ensure they benefit in whichever way they choose. 

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