David Beel: EViDAnCE – Exploring Value in Digital Archives and the Comainn Eachdraidh

A large proportion of the work on cultural value centres upon primarily institutional accounts as to how ‘culture’ brings value to both individuals and communities. Research from institutions such as museums, libraries, galleries, theatres and arts organisations dominate the literature in this area, however, very little is written or researched with regards to more everyday and voluntary cultural work conducted by communities. Even more so this is especially pertinent for rural, remote and peripheral locations where such activities often play a central role in maintaining community ties. This is especially true of the Comainn Eachdraidh (Gaelic for Historical Societies) in the Outer Hebrides whose potential cultural value extends well beyond their initial remit as a historical society. There are around 19 active and autonomous Comainn Eachdraidh groups in the Outer Hebrides with the earliest dating back to the 1970s, beginning with a very specific political motivation: to preserve the aspects of their own culture that more official, institutional and mainstream archives saw as irrelevant or unimportant. The larger groups have almost full membership from the populations in their respective areas. As such, the Comainn Eachdraidh represents a medium for the cultural transmission of meaning (McGuigan, 2004) in order to present and preserve a ‘way of life’ (Williams, 2010) that for Islanders is seen as fragile and under threat due to a variety of long-term external influences.

Archives such as these are generated as an articulation of ‘heritage from below’ (Robertson, 2012) and they represent spaces of ‘marginalised memory’ (Creswell, 2011) attempting to give a counterpoint to more top-down and mainstream articulations of history (Mason and Baveystock, 2009). As Stevenson et al. (2008) suggest, their relevance and value extends well beyond the physical site of the archive itself, it is ‘the active and on-going involvement in the source community in documenting and making accessible their history on their own terms’. This makes understanding the practice of archive production amongst volunteers central to comprehending their broader value. Added to this, through the process of digitisation something is both gained and lost in the ‘click of a mouse’ (Latour and Hermant, 2004), and understanding both the production and outcome of such ‘clicks’ is key in understanding the different ways in which value is potentially generated.

Most Comainn Eachdraidh groups have some form of digital presence whether through social media (facebook, twitter and blogs), their own websites or through online digital archives. Digitisation, however has not been a simple process for such small groups to undertake alone. Despite allowing their archives to reach beyond the walls of the archive, it have often meant trading-off autonomy. Due to the expense of converting analogue records to digital form as well the need for long-term hosting solutions, collaboration with other Comainn Eachdraidh groups in order to pool resources has been necessary (for example see Hebridean Connections and their blog . This raises a series of interesting questions about the nature of such practices in term of how digitised content creates value for Island life. And following on from this a series of further questions which this project wishes to understand – How are everyday practices of cultural heritage production represented in digital formats? What value do volunteers/non-institutional heritage work have culturally, economically and socially for communities? Finally, in a broad sense, how does the ‘memory work’ of the Comainn Eachdraidh build identity for individuals and communities?

Project website/blog – evidance-ahrc.com

Charlotte Gilmore: The enactment of cultural values and taste-making within contemporary classical music

Our research tackles a case study at the ‘hard end’ of cultural value; we explore both taste-making and cultural value in contemporary classical music. Our interdisciplinary study, which is supported by Creative Scotland, comprises of two case studies based on performances given by our research partners Red Note contemporary music ensemble and Psappha, also a contemporary music ensemble. Red Note is Scotland’s contemporary music ensemble and Psappha is Manchester’s new music ensemble. There are similarities between the ensembles in the musical styles but the audience, location, musicians and management teams are all different.

Our methodological approach acknowledges the complexity of cultural value. Within society there are diverse range of values and meanings associated with these values, especially in relation to cultural value. We propose an innovative way of exploring this complexity, and that is through taste-making. Taste-making is a situated activity that rests on learning and knowing how to appraise specific performances of a practice (Gherardi, 2009). In this way music can be understood by studying the social and organisational practices of its creation, performance and communication, as well as its enjoyment; these are all music practices. Taste shapes and is shaped within difference practices and is refined through negotiation and reflectivity, in order to express aesthetic judgments of it (Gheradi, 2009). For example gaining pleasure from music is a form of attachment socially supported by the respective communities of practice, which have developed vocabularies and specific criteria of taste and value in order to communicate, share and refine the ways in which such practices are enacted. This research will involve exploring such enactments of taste-making among the different communities of music practitioners.

Specifically, our Research Question is: how are cultural values and taste-making enacted in a contemporary music setting, and what are the consequences of that for practice. We will explore taste-making among music practitioners within the empirical setting of a contemporary music performance. These practitioners will be musicians, creative directors/managers as ‘insiders’ of the practice and also actual and potential audience members (firstly those who attend classical music performances but have never attended a contemporary classical performance and secondly those who have never attended a contemporary or classical music performance but who have an interest in arts and music), as ‘outsiders’ of the practice.

We aim to develop insights from the selected setting for broader application in the creative industries and beyond. In addition we seek to activate learning from the research in skills and capacity building for the practitioner, policy and academic communities.

Link to Red Note ensemble playing a piece which the projects work was based around:


Philip Davis: Assessing the intrinsic value, and health and well-being benefits, for individual and community, of The Reader Organisation’s Volunteer Reader Scheme

Some of the results from the Built Environment Group

Some of the results from the Built Environment Group

Most Mondays, three, four or five of us sit together in front of a computer screen. We are watching video-recordings of reading groups. They are not what conventionally goes under the tile of reading groups when a group of people, mainly women, mainly middle class, decide upon a novel they are going to read in advance separately (usually a contemporary novel), and then meet to discuss it afterwards in one of the group-members’ homes. The groups we are watching are established on a quite different model. They are set up by The Reader Organization under its scheme of Get Into Reading. That means that the works – poems, short stories, even novels over a period of months – are read aloud in the group, live and shared, with time and space for re-reading and comment. The project involves a wide range of participants in terms of age and background, including people who have suffered recently from some sort of trouble, sometimes described and even treated in terms of ‘mental health issues’. Our task is to see the value of the shared reading model, compared with other forms of group activity (in this case, in a cross-over design, a group discussing the built environment with particular relation to The Reader Organization’s re-opening of Calderstones Mansion in Liverpool as a Centre of Reading and Well-Being).

We have done audio recordings before, with transcripts, but never video-recordings as now. It is impressive that the participants assented to it, and it is extraordinary to watch these groups – making little collaborative communities – in live action around a text of deep human presence. The teams of researchers watch them reading from John Clare’s poem of mental distress, ‘I am’, written in the mid 1840s from inside a lunatic asylum– ‘I am: but what I am none knows or cares./My friends forsake me like a memory lost /. . . And yet I am . . .’ Then the final stanza:

I long for scenes where man has never trod;
A place where woman never smil’d or wept;
There to abide with my creator, God,
And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept:
Untroubling and untroubled where I lie;
The grass below–above the vaulted sky.

After a while – after people have wondered how desirable or desperate this state is, and how close to a sort of death or paradise – one member says, ‘I don’t know what it did, it did something in me.’ The linguist in our research team has got interested in how many times, over many different sessions, the participants refer to literature directly doing something, as if it were both an active and (for all its language) unnaming presence, instead of the usual professionalized definitions, medicalized diagnoses, and second-hand paraphrase of ‘themes’. She is also interested in the regular but unpredictable shift of pronouns – I, me, it, he, we – in course of group discussion, across text, individual, group. But this time our linguist notes the phrase: ‘It did something in me – not to me’. She is reading the participants as carefully as they are reading poetry, working out (later with the use of linguistic markers and software analysis) how much the vocabulary and syntax becomes inflected by the poetry itself – how much the group-members are themselves in their way becoming a little more like poets.

Meanwhile one group member keeps coming back to why ‘Untroubling’ comes ahead of ‘untroubled’ in the poem. She hints – just a little – about causing trouble involuntarily in her own family through her own troubled state. That last stanza, says one group member, ‘is not paradise, just ordinary life without its pain, illness . . .’


So it is that, for all our micro analysis of the process, there is also, always, this larger personal level of meaning. Often, someone will quietly say something like the usually slangy ‘I’ve been there’ – but here as though the poem were a real mental site or place in the human world. Personal stories come out, in fragments – about a lost beloved in a mental institution, or one’s own sense of dereliction, or an aunt asking her nephew (as one of the men in the group recalls) ‘Am I dying?’ We do not know for sure yet whether to describe these accounts as ‘relevant’ to the text or not, as part of the intrinsic value of the reading group or only (as a purist might say) of ‘instrumental’ value in relieving or reliving past memories. But we do know that we do not see or hear such responses in the other group where they are (still imaginatively) considering the built environment.

We also know that we will not be coming up with a clear abstract dividing line between relevant and irrelevant, or even perhaps between intrinsic and instrumental. The two may be messily closer than we prefer. We are thinking of other terms. For instance. The built environment group-discussion is manifestly proceeding on the basis of everyday relevance: it is clear when someone crosses the invisible line and is (as we say in Liverpool) going off on one. But the reading groups works within a sort of created circle of resonance, going to and from the text at its centre – until or unless the bubble (as it were) is burst.

Soon, as another new move in the research, we shall be showing excerpts from this footage to the participants themselves, to see what they make of what happened. As the phrase goes, we are working on it, and it is – this watching of people themselves working together in intimate social collaboration – a privilege. The reflective individual and the engaged citizen: those AHRC things are there together and alive in this setting.

Flora Samuel – The Cultural Value of Architecture: A Critical Review with specific reference to UK homes and neighbourhoods


This nine month project, led by Sheffield University and supported by the Royal Institute of British Architects, has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of a wider Cultural Value of the Arts project. The project is already proving extremely timely. Our initial findings have already been submitted to the Call for Evidence for the government instigated Farrell Enquiry on architecture. It will also contribute to a three year project on the value of architecture recently launched by the new RIBA President Stephen Hodder. In these days of increasing austerity councils, housing associations and others are under real pressure to prove value and our project is already contributing to this debate, for example at a symposium for Registered Providers of housing led by the Homes and Communities Agency on value in housing later in November.

We really enjoy the richness and complexity of trying to pin down architectural value, a notoriously difficult and contentious task. Previous studies have generally focused on economic benefits or have been based on highly debatable assumptions, for example that it is always good to make as much community interaction as possible or that urban regeneration is always helpful. Our focus is on wellbeing.

The project has two very different workpackages. The first is a critical review of a very large range of reports and standards on housing written over the last decade in the UK by government. These are so numerous that we have to make a initial sift – the criteria being research rigour – before choosing the ones that we will subject to in depth analysis. The critical review has initially been divided into three components : Health and Ageing; Neighbourhood Cohesion; a as well as Identity, Belonging and Heritage, but these two are subject to revision. Our aim here is to reveal how others have tried to assess or evidence value and to use these findings to suggest possible future frameworks. The critical review will form the basis for a database accessible via the web, a report and a proposal for a new framework for the evidencing of architecture’s cultural value, to be published as a book Why Architecture Matters by Routledge in 2015. The project team benefits from an extensive, interdisciplinary advisory board of world experts who are themselves helping us to create a definition of value in this context.


The second workpackage the public consultation on the value of architecture will take place in the Sheffield University based LiveLab, the city based outreach arm of the architecture school and is likely to take the form of a research by design project involving some twenty five Sheffield MArch students. This unprecedented piece of participatory action research will test the extent of public knowledge about the activities of architects, build public awareness of what architects really do and suggest new avenues for public engagement.

If you have any evidence of value that you think we should be taking into consideration please contact culturalvalueofarchitecture@sheffield.ac.uk , follow us on twitter @home_research

Calvin Taylor: A Perspective from Cultural Economy

In 1930, reflecting on the possibilities of life 100 years into the future, the economist and later the first Chair of the Arts Council of Great Britain John Maynard Keynes predicted that humanity would have solved the “economic problem” but, would have in the process created a new one: “how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well”. In Keynes’s world the economy had one objective: to create the wealth necessary for the whole of society to live a full and rich cultural life. The two things were distinct. Interestingly, whilst Keynes was prepared to admit that there were alternatives to market economy (something the modern world has learned to forget); he would have found it difficult to imagine that culture was anything other than a given (the alternative being something over which the modern world simultaneously celebrates and agonises).

Things are very different today. You don’t need to subscribe to one of the many variants of postmodernism to see that the types of things that get bundled up respectively as ‘economic’ on the one hand and ‘culture’ on the other are very closely related. The emergence of a whole host of culturally reflexive economic imaginaries: the experience economy, the cultural economy and the creative economy to name just three here, ask important questions about the contemporary relationship of culture and economy, most importantly for my project, the extent to which they share common intellectual architecture, especially with respect to the use of the term value. Whilst economists of a more traditional stripe tend on the whole to ignore cultural matters (or assume that culture is just an odd corner of consumer economics), it is surprising to note how many advocates of culture fail to recognise any other model of economic life than those inscribed by marginalism and neo-classicism. In fact, I think many ardent defenders of culture’s specificity would be surprised to discover just how much their arguments rest on assumptions shared by precisely these kinds of models. What makes the alternative cultural economic imaginaries interesting is the possibility that they might actually suggest alternative economic models which might not reconcile easily with market economy.

My project, a critical review, is interested in how these models construct their respective ideas of cultural value and the extent to which they are capable of sustaining alternative ideas about economic life. For thirty years I have been reading economics, cultural analysis and philosophy in parallel (stimulated I would say by my under-graduate experience at City University, London, in the 1980s where I took courses in the History of Economic Thought, the Sociology of Art and Popular Culture, and Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Philosophy) with a sneaking suspicion that there are all sorts of historical entanglements between these three bodies of thought. Some of those entanglements, I think, have important things to say about our contemporary ideas of cultural value. My review will take a series of historical lenses on the relationship between culture and economy and apply them to our contemporary cultural imaginaries. My basic outlook is informed by the interactions between political economy, critical theory, cultural analysis and philosophy, for which together, I use the term cultural economy. This, I think, is something fundamentally different to cultural economics, which, on the whole works within the marginalist and neo-classical economic traditions.

As far as the specific AHRC Cultural Value Project goes, I am generally speaking unhappy that the ‘economic’ gets conflated with only one tradition or approach. I think the arguments about cultural value today have much to offer both economy and culture, and I think, in broad terms, culture has much to gain from entertaining a much more diverse view of economy than current positions seem to reflect. Keynes reflected on one kind of future for 2030. The world that could entertain the idea that economy and culture were fundamentally different things has gone. However, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the object of achieving a rich and full cultural life for all society has gone with it. Maybe we need to think a little intensely about a different kind of economy, and with it the possibility of a different kind of cultural life.