We’re really excited to announce a new article from our Unpath’d Waters team has been published in The Historic Environment: Policy & Practice. Centring audiences: What is the value of audience mapping for influencing public engagement with cultural heritage? is co-authored by Sara Perry (Associate Professor, UCL), Katrina Foxton (Engagement Project Officer, MOLA), Katrina Gargett (Audience and Network Manager, Council for British Archaeology), Lawrence Northall (Community Partnerships Project Officer, MOLA) and is available to read for free here through our open access portal.

Unpath’d Waters is a groundbreaking 3-year research project. We’re working with our partners across the country to unleash the potential of maritime heritage, covering more than 23,000 years of history relating to the sea and inland waters.

UK maritime collections are held in hundreds of different archives, museums, libraries, and galleries across the country. But not enough use is made of them in research, and it can be very difficult for the public to access them. The same is true of maritime archaeological and historical sites, which can lie deep under the ocean. Unpath’d Waters aims to develop innovative ways of sharing this treasure trove of information with new and diverse audiences.

Centring audiences to improve collections use

To do this, we first need to know who our audiences are, and how they are currently being excluded from engaging with or participating in maritime heritage. That’s where our audience mapping research comes in.

What is audience mapping?

Audience mapping is a type of research that identifies and understands different audiences' needs, interests, and motivations.

At MOLA we carry out audience mapping for many of our developer-led projects, as well as our research projects, so we were able to build on this experience. This included adapting our methods to account for the strengths and weaknesses of audience mapping – your research is only as good as the data you have access to.

For our Unpath’d research we compared audience data (that’s interviews, web analytics, reports, feedback forms and more!) from 18 organisations involved in maritime heritage, including museums, archives and citizen science projects. This helps us see how people engage with and access maritime heritage and who the current audience is.

The current audience for maritime heritage is quite narrow: they are generally white, from older age groups, and with high levels of education. Our research has helped us home in on three target audiences for Unpath’d Waters, who each face different barriers in engaging with maritime collections. This means we can focus on ensuring their access to and inclusion in co-design and development activities.

Access refers to the ability for individuals to meaningfully participate in our activities. Inclusion refers to a person’s sense of feeling welcomed, respected, and able to ‘be themselves’ in contexts related to Unpath’d Waters.

The three key audiences we studied

  1. Non-coastal/ inland communities who do not identify with the sea.

    Much of the UK population lives inland and has limited access to the sea. This audience group also includes people who live close to the sea but choose not to – or cannot – engage with it.

  2. Cross-disciplinary natural science and cultural researchers.

    Non-archaeological and non-maritime specialists who currently don’t use the national virtual maritime heritage collection as part of their research.

  3. People who are visually impaired (with either sight impairment or severe sight impairment)

    Archaeological data is often visual and technologies that Unpath’d will use to bring maritime heritage to a new audience - such as VR - focus on visual immersion.

graph showing unpath'd audience mapping
The UNPATH Audience Map

What have we learnt

As well as developing an understanding of how our target audiences for the Unpath’d Waters project are being served by existing maritime heritage institutions, our research has also revealed important findings about effective audience research and mapping within the heritage sector. You can read more about these in detail in the article.

• To make our activities truly inclusive and accessible, our engagement AND evaluation must be designed collaboratively by individuals with lived experience and organisations that support them.

• Pre-existing audience data and population data can be useful, as it helps us identify groups or individuals we can collaborate with. It can also help us identify important issues. However, this data cannot be taken at face value.

• We need to revamp heritage evaluation. It must address access requirements PLUS individuals’ inclusion needs, communication habits, tastes, and interests. If we don’t, we aren’t collecting the right information and the data we have isn’t useful.  


unpath'd waters logo

About Unpath'd Waters

Unpath’d Waters is one of five Towards a National Collection projects awarded £14.5 million by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Together these form ‘Towards a National Collection (TaNC)’, a major five-year research and development programme. The programme will take the first steps towards creating a unified virtual national collection by dissolving barriers between different collections, opening UK heritage to the world.

Find out more about Unpath’d Waters on the project website.