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Engaging with the past to build better futures

Carey Newson, author of our essay 'Designs on the past', describes her experience of learning from four Big Local communities who see their histories as a catalyst for community change

September 2018

Read the essay: 'Designs on the past' and listen to the podcast: 'Pride of place'

"Scratch the surface of any community and you’re likely to find a rich and complex social history. In many Big Local areas that history has played an important part in their plans: it shapes the identity of the area and enters into debates about its future. But some Big Local areas have dug much deeper into the past. Together with a broad mix of initiatives to address local needs, they have made heritage a key component of their work.

In ‘Designs on the past’ I explore the experience of these projects and the thinking behind them.

I wanted to know why residents looking to overcome serious local challenges saw heritage as a catalyst for community change.

To find out I visited four areas. Ramsey in Huntingdonshire regularly throws open the gates of its historic attractions to bring new visitors into the town. Gateshead in Tyne and Wear has drawn on its industrial heritage to fire the imaginations of local schoolchildren with an urban arts project. Plaistow South in London is celebrating the 70th anniversary of the NHS through the living memories of nurses who worked in the area’s hospitals and clinics. Boston in Lincolnshire is reviving its Hanseatic connections and raising the profile of the European trading links that built the town’s early prosperity in medieval times.

In each of these Big Local areas I found a fascination for local history was matched by a strong rationale for the group’s heritage initiatives and their community benefits. History is being put to work. And while the reasoning behind each of the projects is distinctively different, all of these groups share a common belief that engaging with the past can help them to build a better future. My essay unpicks the whys and wherefores of that promise.

Along the way there are plenty of tips and ideas from the residents I met for other Big Local areas considering their own heritage projects. For example, the groups especially valued the creative input they had commissioned for their schemes, which included the work of community artists, marketing professionals and oral historians. All of the projects had found ways to engage with younger people and some had a strong inter-generational focus, as in Plaistow, where students had been trained to conduct their own oral history interviews.

At the time of my visit to Ramsey, the Big Local group there was disappointed that a grant application to extend its heritage work had just been turned down. Community development worker Val Fendley explained their frustration at being unable to progress their plans: “It’s big, it’s ambitious, and we’d need the money to do these things, but there’s huge potential here now and we’re just at the start of a journey.” It’s great to report then that Ramsey has since been awarded Heritage Lottery Funding. With community engagement around the wealth of local stories that enliven its heritage open days, it is taking that journey forward."


Read the essay: Designs on the past and listen to the podcast: Pride of place

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