A road less travelled: celebrating Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month – part 2

June is Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month (GRTHM), which aims to raise awareness of and promote GRT history and culture.

It is widely recognised that raising awareness of different cultures is a key part of addressing prejudice and discrimination.

In this post – the second of two for GRTHM – we look at the inequalities and discrimination that GRT face across education, employment and health.  We also highlight work to address these inequalities and raise awareness of GRT communities’ rich cultural heritage.

GRT communities experience many educational and health inequalities

The recent House of Commons report, ‘Tackling inequalities faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities’, sets out a comprehensive review of the available evidence across a range of areas.

In education, Gypsy and Traveller children leave school at a much earlier age and have lower attainment levels than non-GRT children, and only a handful go on to university each year.  They also experience much higher rates of exclusions and non-attendance.

There are many reasons for this – from discrimination and bullying, to a lack of inclusion of GRT within the educational curriculum. There are also cultural issues to be addressed within the GRT community itself.

Scottish Traveller activist Davie Donaldson has spoken about the discrimination he faced in school where a teacher refused to “waste resources” by marking his homework because he was a Traveller, who she assumed was “not going to do anything with his education anyway”.  He also discusses how many Travellers within his own community felt he was betraying his roots by attending university. This clearly illustrates the multi-faceted nature of the issue of supporting GRT children in education.  The Traveller Movement addresses this and other related issues in their recently published guide to supporting GRT children in education.

Health outcomes for GRT communities are also very poor compared to other ethnic groups.  Their life expectancy is 10 to 12 years less than that of the non-Traveller population.  Maternal health outcomes are even more shocking – with one in five Gypsy Traveller mothers experiencing the loss of a child, compared to one in 100 in the non-Traveller community.

Poor health outcomes can be partially attributed to the difficulties that many experiences when accessing or registering for healthcare services due to discrimination or language and literacy barriers.  There is also a lack of trust among GRT communities which can result in a lack of engagement with public health campaigns.

Historic fear of engagement with public services

Indeed, there is a historic wariness of public services among many in the GRT community.

In the 1800s, many Travellers had a well-placed fear of the ‘burkers’ – body-snatchers looking to provide the medical schools with bodies for dissection.  Travellers felt particularly at risk because they lived on the margins of society.  There are many Traveller stories about burkers that have been passed on from generation to generation.

Similarly, a fear of social services intervention also exists, following the forced removal of children from Traveller families.  Some were taken into care, and others were deported to be servants in Canada or Australia.

Being aware of these cultural issues, along with the historic criminalisation and continued discrimination that GRT communities face, can help health and social services to understand and empathise with the GRT community when reaching out to them.

Poor employment outcomes and a lack of target support

Gypsies and Travellers were an essential part of the economy in the 19th Century and early 20th Century.  Many were skilled tinsmiths, silversmiths, basketmakers or other crafters.  They also played an important role as seasonal agricultural workers – for example, in the berry fields of Blair and farms of the north east of Scotland.  They moved from place to place, and bringing news and selling and trading their wares.  In the days before roads and motor vehicles, they were a lifeline for rural crofting communities who may have been many days travel away from the nearest settlement.

Time has rendered many traditional Traveller occupations redundant, and today employment outcomes for GRT groups are generally poor.

While more likely to be self-employed than the general population, the 2011 England and Wales Census found that Gypsies and Irish Travellers were the ethnic groups with the lowest employment rates, highest levels of economic inactivity, as well as the highest rates of unemployment.

However, unlike other minority groups, there has been no explicit government policies that support Gypsies or Travellers to enter employment or to take up apprenticeships and/or other training opportunities.  Many Gypsies and Travellers have also reported being discriminated against by employers, making it more difficult for them to find and stay in work.

A lack of robust data

There is a lack of robust data about the different GRT groups in the UK – even something as seemingly simple as how many GRT people there are.

This is because most data collection exercises – including the Census and in the NHS – do not include distinct GRT categories.  If an option exists at all, often it conflates the different GRT ethnicities into one generic tickbox, with no way to differentiate between the different ethnic minorities.  This is an issue that is being increasingly addressed and there are plans to include a Roma category in the 2021 census.

However, there are also issues with under-reporting.  Many people from GRT communities are reluctant to disclose their ethnicity, even when that option is available to them.  This stems both from a lack of trust and the fear of discrimination.

So, while the 2011 Census recorded 58,000 people as Gypsy/Traveller in England and Wales, and a further 4,000 in Scotland, it is estimated that there are actually between 100,000 to 300,000 Gypsy/Traveller people and up to 200,000 Roma people living in the UK.

Raising awareness of GRT culture

While this all may make for some pretty depressing reading, there are some promising signs of progress.

From Corlinda Lee’s Victorian ‘Gypsy Balls’ – where the curious public could pay to come and see how a Gypsy lived and dressed, to Hamish Henderson catalysing the 1950s Scottish Folk Revival with the songs and stories of Scottish Travellers – there have been attempts to promote Gypsy and Traveller culture among the settled population.

Today, organisations and individuals such as The Traveller Movement, Friends, Families and Travellers, and Scottish Traveller activist Davie Donaldson strive to promote awareness of and equality for the GRT community.

The recent Tobar an Keir festival held by the Elphinstone Institute at Aberdeen University sought to illustrate traditional Traveller’s skills such as peg-making, and there is a wonderful Traveller’s exhibition – including two traditional bow tents – at the Highland Folk Museum in Newtonmore.

There are even more events planned for GRTHM – including an exhibition of Travellers’ art and photography at the Scottish Parliament.

The hard work may be beginning to pay off – just last week, the government announced a new national strategy to tackle the inequalities faced by Gypsies, Roma and Travellers.

Using knowledge to fight prejudice

While there is without doubt an urgent need for practical measures to address the inequalities that the GRT community face – such as an increase in the number of authorised sites available – addressing the fundamental lack of awareness and knowledge of GRT culture is a key step towards eradicating prejudice towards GRT communities.

As well as raising awareness among the general public, there is also a need to for people working in public services – from health and social services to education and even politics – to have a better awareness and understanding of Traveller culture and history, and how this affects their present day needs and experiences.

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month is an ideal opportunity to address the huge gap that exists in society’s collective knowledge about the GRT way of life, their history, culture and contribution to society. All of which can help to combat the prejudice and discrimination that they continue to face.


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A road less travelled: celebrating Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month – part 1

Traditional Scottish Traveller bow tent at the Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore

This month is Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month (GRTHM).

GRTHM aims to celebrate and promote awareness of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller (GRT) history, culture and heritage, and the positive contribution that GRT groups have made and continue to make to society.  It also seeks to challenge negative stereotypes, prejudices and misconceptions associated with GRT groups.

Over the next two blog posts, we will raise awareness of the many issues faced by GRT communities in the UK today, and highlight some lesser known aspects of GRT culture and heritage.

Gypsies and Travellers are not a homogenous group

One common misconception is that Gypsies, Travellers and Roma are a homogenous group.

In fact, GRT is a term which encompasses many distinct ethnic groups with their own cultures, histories and traditions.

This includes Romany Gypsies, who today are generally of English or Welsh heritage.  Gypsies first arrived in Britain in the 16th Century. The term ‘Gypsy’ was coined due to a common misconception that Gypsies originated from Egypt. However, recent DNA studies suggest that they actually originated from the Indian subcontinent.  Some Gypsies may prefer to be known as either English Gypsies or Welsh Gypsies specifically.

Irish Travellers are Travellers with Irish roots, however, a recent DNA study suggests they have been genetically distinct from the settled Irish community for at least 1000 years. Irish Travellers have their own language – Shelta (also known as Cant).

Scottish Gypsies/Travellers are indigenous to Scotland.  Their exact origins are uncertain, but it is thought that they may be descended from the Picts, and/or the scattering of the clans following the Battle of Culloden in 1746.  Certainly, Scottish Travellers tend to share many of the same Clan surnames – including Stewart, McMillan, McPhee and McGregor.

Scottish Travellers also have their own language – the Gaelic-based Beurla Reagaird.

European Roma are descended from the same people as British Romany Gypsies, and they are Gypsies/Travellers who have moved to the UK from Central and Eastern Europe more recently.  Some have arrived as refugees and asylum seekers. While they face many of the same issues as Gypsies, Irish and Scottish Travellers, they are also subject to a number of additional challenges.

There are also other groups that are considered ‘cultural’ rather than ‘ethnic’ Travellers.  These include Occupational Travellers such as fairground and circus owners and workers and New Age Travellers – individuals who have chosen a travelling lifestyle for ideological reasons.

Distinct ethnic minorities protected by law

Whilst there are some similarities between GRT groups in terms of lifestyle, economic, family and community norms and values – and certainly in terms of the discrimination and poor outcomes that they experience – there are clear genetic differences between each of the groups.

As such, Gypsies, Irish Travellers and Scottish Travellers are each considered ethnic minorities in their own right and protected as “races” under the Equality Act 2010.  Migrant Roma are protected both by virtue of their ethnicities and their national identities.

However, despite this protection, GRT groups are still subject to high levels of discrimination.

‘The last acceptable form of racism’

Indeed, prejudice and discrimination has affected GRT groups throughout history.

In the 16th century, any person found to be a Gypsy could be subject to imprisonment, execution or banishment.  Even after anti-Gypsy laws were repealed, discrimination continued.  In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was not uncommon for doctors to refuse to attend to Travellers.  And despite Travellers’ strong Christian beliefs, churches would often refuse to bury their bodies within their grounds.

And today, GRT people have the worst outcomes of any ethnic group across a huge range of areas, including education, health, employment and criminal justice.  They have the poorest health and the lowest life expectancy of any ethnic group in the UK, and are subject to high levels of racism and hate crime.

GRT groups still face barriers to accessing health services.  As part of a mystery shopper exercise by the Friends, Families and Travellers (FFT) charity, 50 GP practices were contacted by an individual posing as a patient wishing to register without a fixed address or proof of identity. They found that almost half would not register them, despite NHS guidance to the contrary.

And while racism towards most ethnic groups is now seen as unacceptable and less frequently expressed in public, racism towards GRT groups is still common and often overt – even among those who would otherwise consider themselves ‘liberal’ or ‘forward thinking’.  This had led it to be termed “the last acceptable form of racism”.

The 2015 Scottish Social Attitudes Survey found that over 30% of people in Scotland would be unhappy with a close relative marrying a Gypsy or Traveller, and 34% felt that Gypsies or Travellers were unsuitable as primary school teachers.

Research by Travellers Movement has found that four out of five (77%) of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers have experienced hate speech or a hate crime – ranging from regularly being subject to racist abuse in public to physical assaults.

Prejudice and discrimination against GRT groups is not limited to the public – there is also evidence of discrimination against GRT individuals by the media, police, teachers, employers and other public services.

Even politicians have openly displayed anti-GRT sentiment.  In 2017, the Conservative MP for Moray Douglas Ross, stated that he would impose “tougher enforcement against Gypsy Travellers” if he were Prime Minster for the day.

His remarks were widely criticised.  Amnesty International’s Scottish director, Naomi McAuliffe, said “When our elected leaders use this sort of blatantly partisan speech, they set a terrible example that only serves to foster further discrimination and prejudice.”.

A lack of sites has led to a ‘housing crisis’

Mr Ross’s remarks reflect another common misconception about GRT communities – that they all live in caravans, purposefully choosing to set up on unauthorised sites.

The truth is that while Gypsies and Travellers have traditionally lived a nomadic life, living in bow tents, wagons – and even caves – over 70% of Gypsies and Travellers no longer live in caravans, having chosen, or being forced for one reason or the other – disability, old age, lack of suitable sites – to move into traditional ‘bricks and mortar’ accommodation.

For those who do still live in caravans, it is widely recognised that they face a ‘housing crisis’ – an urgent shortage of authorised sites to set up on, which threatens their travelling heritage.  It is this shortage that drives much of the use of unauthorised sites.

Of those sites that do exist, quality has been raised as a key issue.  Many sites can lack even the most basic amenities, and some are sited near recycling plants or in other undesirable locations.  Poor conditions and sanitation contributes to poor levels of health, exacerbating existing health inequalities.

Further inequalities

In our next blog post, we will look in more depth at the inequalities that GRT communities face – in health, education and employment.  We also highlight work to address these inequalities and raise awareness of GRT communities’ rich cultural heritage.


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The challenge of engaging with marginalised Traveller, Gypsy and Roma communities

In March 2018, a Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission report found 13 systematic concerns about Traveller accommodation, suggesting that Traveller communities are subject to an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality from local authorities and service providers. You do not have to look far to find more research, from across the whole of the UK, which highlights similar challenges for, and attitudes towards Traveller communities. Attainment, school attendance, unemployment and community cohesion are all shown in research as being consistently lower among Traveller communities.

Research from IRISS shows that Traveller communities are subject to regular racial, social and cultural discrimination and feel isolated within a society that they feel does not respect them in the same way as other minority groups. Some even feel that it is more acceptable to make a derogatory comment about a Traveller than someone who is from another ethnic group.

Commentators repeatedly highlight that there is very little knowledge or understanding of nomadic lifestyles, and that this can contribute to the racism, abuse and stigmatisation of Traveller people. However, some projects are trying to address the view of Traveller communities and improve their treatment and engagement with other members of non-Traveller communities.

An erosion of traditional lifestyles and cultures

A lack of flexibility around housing arrangements means that, to a large extent, Traveller families are often forced to choose between either poor accommodation sites which allow them to maintain their traditional way of living, or giving up this traditional lifestyle (which is not just a way of living, but also an entrenched part of their heritage and culture) to live in mainstream traditional social housing. One major criticism of local authority and central government supported services is that they are very inflexible to nomadic living; health, education, housing and employment support are all usually reliant on a fixed address. As a result, third sector organisations, charities and specific engagement bodies usually end up taking the bulk of the pressure and responsibility for supporting Traveller families, or Travellers are left to fend for themselves. This can lead to them becoming isolated or reluctant to engage.

Those who make attempts to assimilate often do so at the cost of their traditional way of life, with some even commenting that there is a level of cultural erosion and almost cleansing, and that Travellers are being forced to choose between suitable accommodation and living standards, and their heritage and traditions.

Challenges span generations, and create entrenched barriers

Many Traveller families have poor education and health experiences and there are multiple barriers to Traveller families accessing these services. In schools, it has been well documented that Traveller children have lower levels of attendance and attainment, with higher levels of exclusion and a higher incidence of bullying, discrimination and racist abuse while at school.

In social work, Traveller children are more likely to be engaged with a social worker and taken into care. It is clear that professionals working within these environments need to be trained to react and respond to the needs of Traveller children in a culturally sensitive way.

Practitioners need to be sensitive, aware and flexible where possible to accommodate needs, but this is not always the case and it can make Traveller communities reluctant to engage directly with local authorities on issues. However, there is a growing body of research which looks at art and culture-centred practice to try and engage Traveller communities with their wider community, and to enlighten other members of the community in a positive way about Traveller culture.

Could art be the bridge to build understanding between communities?

Many Traveller communities do not readily have access to art and do not participate in “cultural activities” like attending the theatre or museums or using libraries. They also don’t have any relationship to most art produced. There is very little Traveller representation in art, music, theatre or museum exhibitions and it can be the case that Travellers feel art and culture in the mainstream is not representative of them or their culture, which can also hinder them from engaging.

However, using art and art-based interventions can help to break down entrenched stereotypes and can create a level playing field for people to participate and contribute, particularly among children who may not be as effective at communicating using words or language.

Engaging young children (and their families) through play and cultural activities can help break down some of the barriers and mistrust that communities feel towards one another. Community engagement initiatives enhance trust and can improve relations, but this must be done in a sensitive and inclusive manner. Traditional crafts and arts are something that can be shared across the whole community, not just within Traveller communities.

Non-Traveller children also are at a cultural disadvantage from not having Traveller communities portrayed in mainstream cultural activities. Greater representation in art, TV and books would help integration, help to break barriers, reduce stereotypes, increase understanding of a unique culture in Britain and (it is hoped) lead to greater integration and less hate crime.

Art also has the potential to be used as a tool to engage adults within the community. Using art as part of consultation exercises can make the process accessible and can allow people to be involved who may not usually contribute, helping them to feel they have had a say in decisions made within their community. Art can also be a useful strategy in community cohesion and neighbourhood building activities, with people able to express their opinions and fears through other mediums such as painting, drawing or acting – although establishing the initial engagement can be challenging.

Final thoughts

Art-based practice can be an accessible way to engage and create a dialogue between communities, and help to build a level of trust between Traveller communities and local services. However the activities must be culturally sensitive, and staff within local services must be willing to be flexible and creative with how they engage if they are to create meaningful relationships with Traveller communities.


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Managing growth in historic towns

canterbury cathedral

By Heather Cameron

Predominantly set within environmentally attractive surroundings, historic towns and cities have a strong sense of place, offer a good quality of life, are often prosperous and represent models of sustainable development.

Research shows that businesses based in older places are more productive than the average for all commercial businesses across the whole economy. Retail and leisure businesses often seek to cluster in historic areas of towns and cities, and historic buildings are particularly attractive to new business start-ups, especially in the creative and cultural sector. Well-maintained historic places also enhance cultural life and community resilience.

As a result, historic towns are much sought after places to live and work, which has contributed to unprecedented growth.

Growth pressures

While growth is seen as a good thing for the future of town centres, managing it effectively in these areas of historic importance is not without its challenges. Older townscapes and buildings are a valuable and irreplaceable community asset that need to be protected.

Growth in historic towns creates pressure for new housing and development, and the infrastructure that is needed alongside it. It can also lead to increased congestion and depletion of suburban quality through redevelopment and loss of garden space. The traditional infrastructure in these towns may not be able cope with the increased capacity resulting in demand for suitable adaptation.

Managing these growth pressures is a particular challenge for historic towns as they need to try and meet local development need while both conserving the identity and sense of place of the existing town and nurturing the creation of sustainable new communities within them.

The Historic Towns Forum has highlighted that “there are challenges of infrastructure, partnership working, working with major national developers, the tension between modernity and pastiche and how to learn from the past and the present when building at this scale.”

In addition, the main political priority across all areas is economic wellbeing, taking precedence over any heritage considerations. A report from Green Balance in 2014 found that this principle concern was interpreted differently from place to place, with some local councillors viewing heritage as beneficial to a town’s economic and social wellbeing, while others viewed it is a burden and drag on investment.

As the heritage of places can be a particular pull for tourism, not preserving them could lead to a loss in economic wellbeing. The importance of achieving the right balance between sustainable development and heritage conservation is a theme that has been consistently highlighted in the research.

Smarter growth

So how do such places manage growth while also safeguarding both the character of the towns themselves and the settings around them?

According to the Historic Towns Forum, key issues in effectively addressing growth pressures in historic towns include:

  • planning and process;
  • partnerships;
  • finance and economics;
  • climate change;
  • community benefits and community engagement;
  • design; and
  • learning from the past and present.

It has been argued that a strategic approach to growth needs to be taken, such as the approach taken in Cambridge, where the Cambridgeshire Quality Charter for Growth is being used to help steer the creation of high quality sustainable communities.

Partnerships involving a range of local stakeholders, encompassing a shared vision and cooperation are also important for effective growth. Where strategic resources are lacking, which is often the case in smaller towns, community engagement can be of particular importance, as shown in Cirencester.

Key principles of good design have been highlighted to include:

  • learning from the past, including study of appropriate models;
  • localising by understanding local conditions; and
  • transforming action by applying appropriate, robust advances.

The overarching message seems to be that ‘smarter growth’ is required.

Good practice

There are examples of good practice where historic towns are managing growth in a way that protects their heritage. Cambridge, as mentioned previously, is one example. Sutton is another, where the challenges of growth are being addressed through the use of a Heritage Action Zone. The aim here is to balance growth with the management of heritage assets, providing lessons for elsewhere.

It is also important to look further afield. The historic town of Amersfoort in the Netherlands has been presented as a good model for managing housing growth to achieve attractive new settlements and create balanced communities. It has been suggested that this smarter approach is something that historic towns in the UK can learn from.

Another good example is Freiburg in Germany. Although different in terms of development to Britain, some of the issues applicable to British towns and cities have been addressed – including how to attract families to live at higher densities close enough to city centres to avoid car dependency.

As Historic England states:

“Learning is central to sustaining the historic environment. It raises people’s awareness and understanding of their heritage, including the varied ways in which its values are perceived by different generations and communities. It encourages informed and active participation in caring for the historic environment.”


If you enjoyed this blog post, why not read are previous posts on the civic use of heritage assets and the value of preserving our built heritage.

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Moving into the 21st century … the challenges and opportunities of digital culture

art gallery, kelvingrove glasgowBack in December, I attended the International Symposium on Evaluating Digital Cultural Resources at the newly refurbished Kelvin Hall in Glasgow.

The day provided an opportunity for researchers and professionals with an interest in culture and heritage in Scotland to come together to consider how digital technologies are transforming the sector. Key questions addressed included what digital culture means in practice, and how to demonstrate the benefits for both professionals and the public who experience culture and heritage in galleries, libraries, museums and other cultural spaces.

Whose ‘culture’ is it anyway?

A number of the studies presented during the day argued that making a collection ‘digital’ does not necessarily make it accessible. In some instances “preserving” collections by digitising them can actually make sources less accessible to members of the general public than if they had been kept in “hard copy” – raising the question of who exactly the material is being preserved for.

Is it for the benefit of researchers and archivists of the future? Or is the aim to present heritage and culture in a new way, preserving it, but in a way which makes it more engaging to the general public?

Questions were raised about public access, digital copyright, online availability, online cataloguing and digital databases – sometimes collections can remain as hidden as they had been before they were digitised, due to paywalls or complicated and over-elaborate online archives.

And it was clear throughout the day that delegates and speakers were wrestling with the notion of “ownership of digital cultural resources”. One example highlighted was that of Scotland’s Sounds, an audio archive of recordings which is held in the National Library of Scotland. These are resources captured in communities, donated by people and groups who want their local heritage to be preserved.

However, when it is held in a collection within a national institution, decisions about these resources are centralised with curators. They decide which elements of the collection should be exhibited and when. And they design the layout of the collection and the edited versions of recordings. Is the power of creation taken away from the original creators in this process? And does “going digital” actually make the resources, while preserving them, more inaccessible to local people who could be daunted by the prospect of visiting a national institution or may not be able to travel.

Researchers from the online archive database project ENUMERATE found that only 3-4% of digitised cultural heritage collections are available through Wikipedia (which is the world’s 7th most viewed website). What is the point, they asked, of investing in digitising if collections are as inaccessible as they were before?

This also ties in with the question of who the intended audience is. Publicly funded museums and galleries are increasingly asked about their “audience reach”. Digitising colections and making resources findable by anyone in the world may increase website visits and page hits but does this have the same value as engaging with targeted or local communities? It depends on the mission of the heritage organisation and what they view success to be.

Justifying spend and showing value

Project managers at the conference reported that they were facing a constant struggle to fund online developments. And in many cases, in the period of time from commissioning to implementation the technology and expectations moves on again.

Demonstrating value and impact are central to securing and reporting on how funds are spent in relation to digital collection projects. Funding bodies like the Heritage Lottery Fund have a set of deliverable requirements which should be included in funding bids in order to exemplify good and sustainable use of funding, particularly in relation to digital projects. This includes creating resources which have a long life span (the favoured format is online PDF uploads, although they are trying inhouse to diversify their content); creating projects that will preserve heritage and benefit communities; and creating projects which have ambition and are easy to use, while also contributing to the organisation’s wider digital infrastructure and outcomes plan (which may also include interactive exhibitions and the provision of public Wi-Fi).

A unique opportunity to bring history and culture to life for new learners

When bidding for funding, cultural heritage organisations will often claim the project will support learning within their communities. However, many write this in their “digital strategy” without really knowing what it could or should mean in practice. How schools and other learners can engage with digital cultural projects is important not only to showing their value but to developing the collections in the future, making them representative or the interests and desires of their local communities.

Technology-enhanced learning was something which many delegates raised as one of the major potential benefits of digitising collections. In addition to the benefits for planners (particularly erosion and building management specialists) and the tourism industry (through virtual reality city tours which show what an area looked like hundreds of years ago) delegates stressed that one of the primary aims of digital collections was to make it easier for material to be used as a tool for learning. An example given at the conference was the REVISIT project which was run in Glasgow and focused on the British Empire Exhibition of 1938 which took place in Bellahouston Park in Glasgow. The project created a 3D visualisation of over 100 buildings from the exhibition. The modellers worked from dozens of small-scale drawings, hundreds of photographs and many maps to recreate the 3D virtual Empire Exhibition as well as mapping roads, pathways and other transport systems in the area. These were then uploaded to an online repository, with accompanying text, where they could be viewed and “explored” using navigation tools.

bee-image

Image of the 3D recreation of the 1938 British Empire Exhibition, Glasgow

The aim of the project was to create a permanent resource for the exploration, research and public exhibition of the Empire Exhibition of 1938 in the context of Scottish and UK social and architectural history. Researchers used a variety of archived material, newspaper articles, photos and interviews with people who attended the exhibition to create the interactive map. They then invited local school children to use the resources to inform their learning on the topic through a series of guided workshop sessions and interactive group activities. The 3D maps were a learning resource but also a tool to generate discussion and questioning about the period and the exhibition itself.

Measuring the “impact of digital” in cultural spaces

One of the most interesting sessions of the day involved input from the V&A in London. It highlighted how mapping and analytics, as well as a more functional understanding of users and visitors to the museum, can be used to help during digital planning. The way that consumer research around digital cultural resources is done can help refine digital programmes in an efficient and cost effective way.

va-online-user-groups

Kati Price from the V&A led a discussion on the creation of new digital platforms and how important understanding user preference can be in design and functionality of digital resources in a museum setting. She highlighted their use of agile methods to test the usability and effectiveness of some of the new digital content produced by the V&A, including new audio guides. In terms of measuring outcomes in digital strategies, she stressed the importance of being flexible with your evaluation methods but also to consider what are you measuring, when in the process are you measuring it, and why and to what end are you measuring it.

Summing up

The day provided useful insight into the challenges and opportunities of digital for cultural and heritage organisations.

It highlighted the adaptability of cultural spaces to digital environments, and the value and benefit to collections of “going digital”. It also identified some potential directions for the future, such as 3D printing to create replicas and Virtual Reality platforms to create more immersive and interactive learning spaces.

It is clear, however, that if the cultural heritage sector is to make the most of what could potentially be game-changing technology, museums, libraries and other organisations need to work closely with communities to make sure they remain connected to their heritage and do not get left behind by this digital revolution.

Cultural spaces need to be mindful of potential exclusion and work to promote digital engagement, skills and education to allow people to access and contribute to the future growth of digital collections in Scotland and the UK.


Reading Room (an Idox company) is one of the UK’s leading digital agencies and has extensive experience working with museums and libraries on award-winning digital projects. Clients include the British Library, Arts Council England, The National Archives, and Durham Council (Durham at War archive). If you’d like to talk to us about how we can help your organisation with developing your digital strategy, contact info.uk@readingroom.com

The civic use of heritage assets

Today, we’re pleased to welcome our guest blogger, Cliff Hague, former Chair of Built Environment Forum Scotland, who reflects on the civic use of heritage assets and the challenges facing Scotland’s historic built environment.

The sorry saga of the hotel proposals* for the Royal High School in Edinburgh illustrates the wider problems that Scotland’s historic built environment faces. While insensitivity from local councils in the face of commercial pressure is by no means new, the hollowing out of local government that began in the 1980s is so profound that the very notion of “civic” has reached a vanishing point. We are left with organisations whose existence is reduced to least cost “service delivery” to customers and clients. The idea that a place belongs to its citizens is imperilled.

Viewed through this prism, the historic environment is stripped of all meaning and memories. It becomes only an item on a balance sheet, where it shows up as negative rather than as an asset, unless it can be monetarised in some way. Faced with the presumption that all investment is good investment, but investment to draw and cater to the whims of a global elite is best of all, it becomes very difficult to conduct a truly rational debate about how historic places should be planned and managed. Decisions are framed in a space where on the one side there is practical economic realism promising “jobs”, and on the other a “heritage lobby”, self-interested, marginal and unaccountable.

Similar unequal contests are taking place globally, not least in the developing world where the institutions defending places are less resourced and established, the growth rates higher, and transparency in governments less than here in Scotland.

Reinfusion of the civic ideal

While, ultimately, each site is unique and a case needs to be made on specific grounds, some general framework for addressing  the challenges can be advanced.  A starting point needs to be a reinfusion of the civic ideal. Villages, towns and cities intrinsically have a civic dimension; they are shared spaces, common experiences, a legacy passed on through time, embodying values and relationships in their built and natural environment. Just by being there each of us shares and has a legitimate stake in the place. The idea that citizens are no more than “third parties”, necessarily subservient to owners and even anonymous investors from far away, has become a means of degrading these connections.  It complements the surge of corporate investment into urban property that Saskia Sassen has recently pointed to as altering “the historic meaning of the city”.

Civic responsibility is not a new idea: what is new is the extent to which it has been squeezed as governments, international (e.g. EU), national and local, have become aligned with footloose finance, which in turn scours the globe for opportunities to achieve higher returns. Concomitant with this process has been the leeching of public service, draining away proactive civic leadership, and leaving only the application of routine procedures as its dilute lifeblood.

The last generation has seen a proliferation of exclusive spaces in urban areas. The obvious ones are gated communities, private streets and security-guarded shopping malls, but increasingly the impoverishment of the civic ideal points to the erection of paywalls to access public buildings and spaces. Within increasingly unequal societies exclusive spaces have become a prerequisite for the privileged, complementing their avoidance of transfer payments to the less well off.

A new civic ideal both requires and can drive enlightenment. We need new eyes to see possibilities beyond the idea that secure and high returns on property investment constitute the unchallengeable logic to drive urban development. Enlightenment also means mobilising civic society to lead and share new thinking, to rise above the apathy of powerlessness and create an active citizenship.

Failings but also possibilities

The situation at the Royal High School site embodies all the failings, but also all the possibilities sketched above. An iconic building on an outstanding site has been underused for years, with a void of civic vision for its use. Then comes the whiff of multi-million pound investment and the promise of an additional facility for the exclusive use of the very rich. The heritage lobby is left to react, wringing its hands at the pre-requisites for a commercially (confidential) viable design.

But what if? What if this jewel in Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site could be combined with the Collective’s City Observatory Redevelopment Project for Calton Hill, to become the catalyst for doing things differently, a hub for civic enlightenment symbolically looking over the civil servants in St Andrews House and the politicians in Holyrood?

Just what might a hub for civic enlightenment be? An ideas and design competition to find out would be a good start, telling the people of the city, its children, professionals and civic groups that they can have a leading voice. It could be a place where regular, high profile “Edinburgh Debates” are staged on topical issues, and live streamed as part of the branding of the city as a global node of ideas and openness. It could be a venue in the Book Festival and the Science Festival, and of course the Edinburgh Lectures. It could incorporate aspects of the School of Music counter-proposal for the Royal High School building.

There could be spaces for multi-disciplinary and international innovation teams, young graduates selected on merit and given space and a time-limited brief to come up with new ideas – social as well as technological innovations to address a practical brief such as the delivery of affordable, carbon-neutral  housing, or narrowing the gaps in educational attainment. There could be some serviced apartments to accommodate visiting “enlighteners in residence”, as well as some commercial lets, and, of course, an interpretation facility explaining civic enlightenment, and pointing to how every individual and community has a part to play.

The whole would be a swirl of ideas and creativity, a place open to all, locally rooted but globally renowned. In other words, we would use the meaning of the building to explain and inspire Edinburgh’s greatest asset – the dynamic fusion of learning, thinking and environment as a catalyst for a high quality civic life. Or we could always have a luxury hotel, with as much new development crammed on to the idle ground as is required to ensure satisfactory returns to investors.


*The Royal High School hotel plans mentioned in this article were rejected by councillors on 17 December 2015, and the search for an appropriate new use for the site will continue.

Cliff Hague is a freelance consultant, researcher, author and trainer. He is Professor Emeritus of Planning and Spatial Development at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, past President of the Royal Town Planning Institute, and of the Commonwealth Association of Planners, and a past Chair of Built Environment Forum Scotland. You can read more about Cliff’s current work on his website: http://www.cliffhague.com/

This article was originally published on the Built Environment Forum Scotland blog. BEFS is the strategic intermediary body for Scotland’s built environment sector, bringing together voluntary and professional non-governmental organisations that operate at the national level.

If you enjoyed this article, we discussed the issue of planning in Edinburgh and the impact of its World Heritage Site status in another recent blog: Is there any value in preserving our built heritage?

Archives in a digital world … creating social value and community engagement

By Rebecca Jackson

Recording the everyday goings on in our lives has almost become second nature, without most of us even thinking about it. Constant updates on Twitter or Facebook act as a personal archive in a digital age. Events we attend often result in photos being uploaded, tagged, liked and shared; while the advent of new tools like Periscope enable live streaming.

While we may think this is a modern phenomenon, a similar, albeit less personal, chronicling of people and events has been going on for centuries and is accessible to us today in the form of archives and art collections. Giving us a window into the lives of those who lived before us, archives have traditionally been seen as a way to enhance learning and increase understanding about the society we live in today. Archive material has also been used as a fun and accessible way to explore our history that goes beyond (sometimes tedious) reading in books.

But in this digital age, where does archiving fit in? What purpose does it serve and what relevance can it have to local communities?

spa blog photoThe Scottish Political Archive

The Scottish Political Archive (SPA) is a small but dedicated team of researchers and archivists based at the University of Stirling. I’ve been involved as a volunteer since 2012.

The archive, which is almost entirely reliant on student and public volunteers to function, is home to collections which document the recent political, social and cultural history of Scotland. There’s a particular focus on the impact of national events at a local level around Scotland’s Central Belt – preserving the legacy of Scottish politics for future generations.

A modern archive for modern politics

Since its establishment in 2010, the SPA has actively hunted for material to document the recent political history of Scotland, particularly artefacts relating to central Scotland. This includes anything from leaflets and posters to badges, banners, mugs and T-shirts.

It seeks to merge the traditional with the digital, with artefacts held on site (available to browse on request) and a digital Flickr archive which includes photos and videos from events attended by researchers and archivists.

The 2014 independence referendum archive is now one of the largest that the organisation holds, along with the digital archive of the Scots independent photography collection, and the personal archive of former first Minister of Scotland Baron McConnell of Glenscorrodale (aka Jack McConnell).

In addition to this, the archive sends archivists and researchers to public meetings, hustings, party conferences and election night counts so that we can create as complete a documentation of political events from start to finish as possible. This was the case in both the 2014 independence referendum and the 2015 general election campaigns.

  Indyref photosreferendum collage 3

Engaging with local communities

As well as collecting material to add to its collections, SPA engages widely with the local community and in cooperation with the Stirling University Art Collection has organised projects with local primary schools, elderly groups and marginalised groups.

One of the most successful projects to date was a project with inmates of HMP YOI Cornton Vale prison in Stirling. The Create and Curate project, funded by Education Scotland, was designed to provide an innovative way to teach skills and encourage inclusion and participation, with inmates creating pieces of writing and artwork to be displayed in an exhibition.

The project helped to build the confidence of those inside the prison and gave them a creative outlet which many said they had never had before. Their work was initially shown in a private exhibition space within Cornton Vale Prison, but has since been moved to an exhibition space at the University of Stirling, where it will remain open for members of the public to view free of charge.

Archives as a bridge to the past

The SPA doesn’t just engage with local communities about modern politics. This year marks the second year of commemorations to mark the centenary of the First World War, and more specifically this year, the centenary of the Battle of Gallipoli.

SPA and the Art Collection worked with local primary schools in the Stirling area, in cooperation with academics from the University of Stirling and Stirling Council, to host an event to mark 100 years since the outbreak of Gallipoli.

The Gallipoli exhibition included the installation of over 100 handmade poppies, to mimic that of Paul Cummins and Tom Piper outside the Tower of London last year. The poppies were made from recycled material by the schoolchildren. The children were then invited to the University grounds to install them alongside representatives from the Scottish Government, Stirling Council and Stirling University.

poppies

The cultural value of archives

Local authority archive and heritage services have suffered from significant budget cuts in recent years. Demonstrating the value and impact of archives can be hard to evidence – it’s been suggested that the economic value of archives depends on how users make them meaningful. And the sector has suffered from a lack of public and official understanding of their wider benefits.

The SPA projects not only highlight how archiving, art and heritage projects are still beneficial to communities today but also show how local authorities can use them to bring social issues to life.

By collaborating with other organisations in the cultural sector, local authorities can use resources such as archives to promote local community engagement and link the importance of heritage to community values. It can also provide a way to teach new skills and integrate marginalised groups, as well as acting as a useful way to promote the local area.


Earlier this summer, we looked at the question of the use of volunteers to run libraries and archives, and the risks associated with the fragmentation of these public services.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Blustery conditions: conflicting priorities in wind farm planning decisions

by Laura Dobie

The recent decision by the Secretary of State to refuse planning permission for Spring Farm Ridge wind farm brings into focus the tension between government policy and targets on renewable energy, and opponents of these schemes who are concerned about the possible negative effects of renewable energy developments, in particular on the environment.

Government policy on renewable energy

The UK government “is committed to supporting renewable energy as part of a diverse, low-carbon and secure energy mix.” (DECC, 2012, p.4), and recognises the contribution that renewables can make to energy security, the decarbonisation of the economy and sustainable growth. It has a target set out in the 2009 EU Renewable Energy Directive to deliver 15% of the UK’s energy demand from renewable sources by 2020, and it is anticipated that renewables will play a key role in the UK’s energy mix in subsequent decades.

The most recent update to the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s Renewable Energy Roadmap suggests that the UK is making good progress against this target, although it acknowledges that the siting of certain renewable energy projects has caused concern. It recommended that greater numbers of communities should be actively involved in small-scale renewable energy projects and emphasised the importance of ensuring that communities are properly engaged with, and can see the benefits of, renewable energy developments.

Public opposition to wind farm projects

While wind turbine developments can offer a range of community benefits, wind farms have faced considerable opposition from local residents and other stakeholders concerned with environmental and other costs of such developments, particularly their visual impact: optimal sites for developments tend to be in rural, coastal and remote locations in which the natural environment is prized.

While there has been much debate around nimbyism, with suggestions that people tend to favour wind power until schemes intrude upon their local areas, developments may well have an impact at the individual level: a recent study has found that operational wind farm developments reduce house prices in areas in which turbines are visible, in comparison with locations where they are not visible.

In its campaign against a wind farm development, Allt Duine, on the edge of the Cairngorms National Park, the Save the Monadhliath Mountains group has highlighted the potential impact of the scheme on the landscape and wildlife, and also on tourism: the development could have negative effects on the amenity of the area for those who visit the Cairngorms for leisure. While renewable energy schemes can create new jobs in communities, they could also have a negative effect on another major employment sector in rural areas.

It is clear that there are competing interests at stake in the siting and construction of wind farms: the need for a greater proportion of renewable energy in the UK’s energy mix, and the need to protect our natural landscape and heritage assets. The job creation potential of such schemes must also be weighed against the possible adverse impact on the tourism sector.

The Spring Farm Ridge Development

On 22nd December 2014 the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government refused planning permission for a commercial scale wind farm, Spring Farm Ridge, between Greatworth and Helmdon in Northamptonshire, overturning the recommendation of the Inspector.

He acknowledged that all communities have a duty to help to drive up the use and supply of green energy, but that this does not mean that the requirement for renewable energy will automatically take precedence over the environmental protection and planning concerns of local communities.

While the Secretary of State agreed with the Inspector that the benefits and disadvantages of the proposal were finely balanced, he disagreed with the Inspector as to where the balance should lie. The proposal would not accord with the Development Plan and, although there were some material considerations which counted in favour of the proposal, including the renewable energy benefits, the Secretary of State did not consider those benefits to be sufficient to outweigh the likely negative effects of the development, notably identified harm to heritage assets, as well as to the character and visual amenity of the area.

This decision highlights the competing environmental priorities and stakeholder interests which are at play in proposals for new renewable energy developments, and the challenges in determining whether renewable energy benefits should override the negative environmental impacts of these schemes in planning decisions. Perhaps there is a need for greater community engagement and careful consideration of the siting of such developments in relation to the natural environment in order to gain wider public acceptance for such schemes and to improve their chances of approval in the future.

Further reading

Some resources may only be available to Idox Information Service members.

Recovered appeal: land at Spring Farm Ridge, land to the north of Welsh Lane between Greatworth and Helmdon (ref 2165035, 22 December 2014) (2014). Department for Communities and Local Government

Gone with the wind: valuing the visual impacts of wind turbines through house prices (2014). Spatial Economics Research Centre

Renewable Energy Roadmap Update 2013 (2013). Department of Energy and Climate Change

Renewable Energy Roadmap Update 2012 (2012). Department of Energy and Climate Change

Breathing space (natural landscape protection and wind energy development), IN Holyrood, (Renewables No 6 Winter 2013 supplement), pp32-33

Wind trap (opposition to wind farms in Scotland, IN Urban Realm, Vol 3 No 12 Winter 2012, pp87-89,91

Can cities exploit, conserve & promote their historic environment?

Liverpool Albert Dock

Liverpool is an example of a city which has seen tension between commercial development and its World Heritage Status

by Stephen Lochore

According to a recent talk on Sustainable Development in World Heritage Cities, urban heritage has not been adequately addressed by existing multinational agreements designed to guide approaches to sustainable development. Examples of such agreements include the outputs of the United Nations’ Earth Summit 2012 or 1992’s Local Agenda 21 and the subsequent ‘Aalborg’ Charter of European Sustainable Cities and Towns Towards Sustainability, which over 100 UK local authorities signed. Continue reading