Creative practitioners – including artists, photographers, playwrights, novelists, poets and filmmakers – have long treated the past as a rich source of inspiration for their work. Heritage research and creative practices are often linked through the shared goal of telling stories, and during the Researching Community Heritage project we’ve seen community researchers and their partners harnessing the opportunities offered by creative practices in order to find out more about their own places, traditions, communities, identities, values and personal ancestries.
Filmmaker Gemma Thorpe and university researcher Toby Pillatt produced a film in collaboration with the rural community of Mosser in Cumbria, for instance. Co-producing their film with local people, they used insights from Toby’s PhD research into two eighteenth-century diaries which document weather and its impact on people’s daily lives in and around Mosser. Meanwhile, the residents of Sheffield’s Roundabout Hostel produced a film documenting their processes of discovery about the Georgian building they live in.
The Transmitting Musical Heritage project, meanwhile, brought together community groups to explore cultural heritage through music, whilst Rotherham Youth Service’s Portals to the Past project invited children and young people in Rawmarsh to use their creativity and imaginations to ‘enter’ the past through magical portals. Even the football match played to original Sheffield Rules of 1857 by All Saints Catholic High School as part of their Home of Football project can be seen as a performance – a physical manifestation of sporting heritage, with actors and an audience.
What can creative practice bring to heritage research? Firstly, I think, a great strength of creative practice – whether that’s music, photography, drawing, filmmaking, theatre or something else entirely – is that it can be participatory and inclusive. This type of work allows many different people, of different ages and backgrounds, to express their reactions to the past creatively. Multiple voices can be heard, and these outputs can transcend cultural, economic and language barriers.
Secondly, creative practices can make us think more deeply about the stories we tell about the past. They offer alternative ways of communicating heritage research to audiences, appealing to people who might not engage with more traditional forms of dissemination. The processes of making and viewing creative outputs can encourage people to relate aspects of heritage to their own lives and experiences. They can also enable us to tell ‘unofficial’ or painful stores about the past, by representing in images what we cannot get across in words, and they can fill in the blanks in incomplete stories to allow us to imagine more fully what people and places were like in the past. Through doing this, we can get closer to connecting with past communities in more direct and emotive ways.
Thirdly, perhaps the most significant thing about the creative practices used during the Researching Community Heritage project is that they’ve been used as part of the heritage research that’s been carried out, not just as a representation of the findings. The acts of filming, photographing, writing and so on can become central to the process of discovery, contributing to the research itself and providing the opportunity to reflect on findings and pose new questions. They can be much more than simply records of ‘what we did’ at the end of a project, as many of the groups involved in this project have successfully shown.
Dr Vicky Crewe