If buildings could talk: Activity Plan nuts and bolts

The latest National Lottery Heritage Grants funding programme has recently been launched.

The Heritage 2033 strategy is centred around a framework of four investment principles:

  • saving heritage
  • protecting the environment
  • inclusion, access and participation, and
  • organisational sustainability.

The principle of participation and engaging new and diverse audiences in the heritage of a site has always been at the heart of the aims of the fund. It is also something that is close to my heart.

In Part 1 of this series If Buildings Could Talk I wrote about how important ‘deep listening’ is on a project to help with the process. This kind of understanding of place and communities is a crucial aspect for the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) in their consideration of projects.

When I established BB Heritage Studio ten years ago in 2014, one of the first projects I was involved with was Clayton Hall in East Manchester.

My twin daughters, then aged 8, would come with me to visit this amazing historic site. Seeing how they engaged with the stories of that place in a way I hadn’t witnessed at other historic houses, and how the volunteers connected with visitors of all ages and from all walks of life, was truly inspiring. I go back to this experience and draw upon it time and time again.

Islington Mill Activity Plan

When I was asked to write the Activity Plan to support Islington Mill’s round 2 application to the NLHF, this ‘homegrown’ hands-on approach to heritage engagement was at the forefront of my mind.

However, it felt daunting and like a bit of a minefield bringing together a plan that simultaneously followed the specific guidance from the NLHF, could be supported by the funders, and was also deliverable and meaningful on-site.

When working on any project in the built heritage sector, it is always my aim to try to make what could be seen as subjective opinions on heritage values as black and white as possible. I try to clear the smoke and mirrors, and simplify the process and dialogue.

As a sector we have established and authoritative ways of approaching heritage projects, which provide for a clear conservation-led process. This includes conservation planning, the principles of which are very similar to management plans used for World Heritage sites, and have their origins in the international charters relating to conservation (see Kate Clark’s Conservation Plans: a guide for the perplexed for more information).

So a key starting point at Islington Mill was to engage the project team in a conservation management planning approach from the outset.

This approach takes direct steps through a process which starts by recording:

  • what we understand about the site,
  • why it is important and to whom,
  • what the issues are, and
  • what the opportunities are.

Finding the heritage happy place

Drawing upon the WIP draft Conservation Management Plan, I prepared simple workshop materials for the project team. I explained what we knew at that point about the heritage of the site, and what the opportunities were to learn more.

We talked about how this related to the aims and aspirations of Islington Mill Art Club as an organisation, and then how this all related to the aims and principles of the key funders such as NLHF.

We drew together the starting principles for the Activity Plan, and alongside this considered both the audiences that were currently engaged with the heritage of the site and those that were missing.

From this we structured a series of consultation events to bring in the different audiences and engage with them to inform the plan.

The aim throughout this process was to find ‘the happy place’ for the project, which is a term I have used over my years in practice and returned to time and time again. All projects require some degree of compromise and negotiation, but on all projects there will be an area of common ground.

At times when allowing space for discussion and deep listening, finding the happy place could feel like a minefield in itself. I found that a useful way to ground the team was to use the concept of a Venn diagram.

Each of the three overlapping circles represented:

  • the heritage values of the site,
  • the aims of the organisation, and
  • the requirements of the key stakeholders (such as the funders of the local planning authority).

Where these three elements overlap can help define ‘the happy place’ for the project. The closest we can keep the scope of the project to this overlapping zone, the more place-specific and successful (and conservation-led) the results will be.

The Heritage Happy Place Venn Diagram shows three overlapping circles with the Heritage Happy Place in the middle. Top left is a blue circle with text the heritage values of the place and community. Top right is burgundy, saying the aims of the organisation. Bottom circle is the requirements of the key stakeholders.

Engaged communities leave a legacy

At Islington Mill this provided us with so many unique opportunities to engage existing and new audiences in the heritage of the site. This included recording the building archaeology which is now shared through a number of resources including an online film alongside numerous other collaborations.

We researched key aspects of the social history of the site, and engaged with artists to tell these stories in unique ways ranging from documentary research, poetry and spoken word to ceramics and textiles.

The focus of all these activities was to reveal, record and hold space for what could be seen as ephemeral stories of place, but are those that combine the factual and the very visceral elements that make Islington Mill unique as a place.

We received very positive feedback from all involved through the process, including the artists, visitors, and the National Lottery Heritage Fund itself.

Some of the projects that we developed and shared during the delivery of the Activity Plan at Islington Mill have been shown at an exhibition at Salford Museum and Art Gallery ‘Islington Mill – 200 years in the making’ in early 2024.

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