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

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

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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.

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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