CHERF Workshop – Education & Research

High-level sector-strategies for rebuilding, recovery and resilience.

The fifth COVID Historic Environment Resilience Forum (CHERF) workshop, on 8th July 2020, focused on education and research. Chaired by Professor Ian Baxter, Heriot-Watt University, opening remarks were provided by Euan Leitch, BEFS Director. Over 60 professionals from across the sector participated.




Chaired by Professor Ian Baxter, opening remarks were provided by Euan Leitch, BEFS Director. The workshop was enabled by BEFS, and by Maya Hoole of Historic Environment Scotland. Over 60 professionals from across the sector participated.

Speakers included:

  • Dr Kirsten Carter McKee, University of Edinburgh
  • Professor Jane Downes, University of the Highlands & Islands
  • Dr Stuart Jeffrey,?Glasgow School of Art
  • Jane?Miller?and?Rebecca Barclay, Archaeology Scotland

The CHERF workshop discussions were framed to address two key questions, which raised the following topics:

What is the threat to heritage? 

  • Digital: poverty, natives, archives and technology
  • The Future of Funding
  • Impacts on teaching
  • Local Authorities and Communities
  • Health and wellbeing

What contribution can heritage make to the country’s recovery?  

  • Digital: archives and skills
  • New approaches to research and education
  • Collaboration and trans-disciplinary approaches
  • Equality & Diversity
  • Green recovery
  • Influencing policy and sector advocacy

Threats to heritage 

Digital: poverty, natives, archives and technology

The scale of digital poverty has been highlighted by the pandemic. Whilst many teaching institutions are aiming to move to a blended learning approach, the issue of digital poverty has become a key concern. There is a presumption that younger generations of students are ‘digital natives’, however:

…the myth of the digital native. Although the people who are coming through are familiar with digital technologies and learning, the suggestion that they are well equipped and automatically able to critique that context is simply not true. – Dr Stuart Jeffrey, Glasgow School of Art

Likewise, there is often little support for educators on how to move to a digital environment.  Solutions are being found: in academic institutions there are discussions around how digital tools can be used to teach architectural courses, such as walking tours where learners can be guided virtually through the places/sites.

There has been a considerable uptake in digital content from large heritage organisations, but there are concerns among the smaller heritage networks around how digital heritage can be economically viable for them, in the face of small budgets and a lack of training/familiarity. Many do not feel that their investment will be worthwhile as content is regularly free online, and they cannot easily monetise their digital output. In contrast, other organisations suggested that technology allowed them to keep up momentum and that – although there are numerous challenges around inclusion – a digital presence was better than a digital void. There was also a perceived threat from a rush to digital content reducing physical interactions (when safe to do so). Evidence suggests that, if done effectively, increased digital output tends to increase physical visitor numbers.

Finally, there was discussion around the problems posed by new, immersive and engaging technologies such as touchscreens and headsets which are vectors of infection. New approaches to software and hardware development, focusing on noncontact technology, is being undertaken but existing installations, which have been financially invested in, may be problematic.

The Future of Funding

Brexit will both limit access to EU support for research, which many find essential, and will reduce the potential numbers of European students, and staff, at British Universities.

PhD topics were proposed as opportunities to provide answers to future challenges, to look at demonstrating the ability of research to provide answers.

Longitudinal data is fundamental… we have suffered from a cycle of small, unlinked, unsustainable project activity. Longer term programmes may be critical as we go forward.Dr Gavin Macgregor, Northlight Heritage 

With the diversion of funding to respond to COVID-19 it was recognised that resources are being reprioritised, which will have future impacts. The sector needs to shift its mindset from viewing itself as worthy recipient, to that of a significant contributor. There is a tendency to focus on the needs of the heritage sector, rather than on the positive contributions that can be made.

The way forward for institutions, which was suggested as already being examined by the Scottish Funding Council, is collaborative working.  This will be especially apposite for challenge-led research projects. However, there were concerns around the rapid switch to funding COVID related projects and the tight timescales required to make positive changes:

Timescale of doing good research is a problem; even where academics are directly addressing or challenging innovation and societal change, the switch to pulling together money for COVID response research… Will [the projects] have a long-term benefit? Dr Stuart Jeffrey, Glasgow School of Art

Impacts on teaching

With most universities and colleges facing challenges from a major drop in income; student experiences and research quality could be heavily impacted. There are also challenges around students undertaking subjects with practical elements which cannot be taught under social distancing measures; many skills depend on field-based experience which cannot be learnt through virtual means. There was a suggestion that university departments could collaborate with and learn from industry partners who have developed vigorous health and safety procedures to allow fieldwork to take place.

The practical elements are troubling the whole sector. COVID will restrict practical experience – how do we support students to still develop those much-needed skills? What alternative ways can we explore to ensure they are not missing out on their learning experience? Time in the field is an important way of generating new knowledge… Cara Jones, CIfA

There were discussions around sustainability – if social distancing requires a lower ratio of staff to students – and where the additional finances will come from to cover this. Threats exist around: the speed of change; competing priorities within schools; and educators lacking digital skills, resources ,and confidence, to deliver activities effectively.

Local Authorities and Communities

Question were raised around plans to support research and learning in community settings, beyond academic institutions. Local Authorities have previously been a key advocate for supporting community-driven research, but they now face considerable financial and resource pressures.

Most Local Authority supported heritage research projects in communities are currently mothballed owing to budget freezes everywhere. It could be 20 months before funding becomes available again… – Bruce Mann, ALGAO

Communities sit at the heart of many heritage organisations. Archaeology Scotland, has revisited its vision statement to highlight the belief that archaeology can change lives and strengthen communities. The most successful community projects have often taken heritage research and turned them into arts and events.

The ‘sense of place’ was highlighted as crucially important to communities, particularly those in remote, rural areas. Sharing stories of how communities dealt with challenges in the past was also noted as a useful approach in the face of COVID. It was observed that, from a social value perspective, community engagement is not necessarily about the heritage but is about preventing social isolation and bringing together people with shared interests.

Health and wellbeing

One of the key areas that has come out of discussions within international heritage is the real threat to cultures and practice, through the control of the populous under the guise of public health, which has significant human rights implications. These conversations have suggested using heritage as a form of cultural memory to heal communities who are faced with these difficulties.

There were also significant concerns around mental health within the university environment, and the key role faculty staff are having to play in supporting students. This can often be a very serious responsibility; now that students are working in more isolated spaces, they will not have the same support networks as before, and as such mental health difficulties may increase.

What contribution can heritage make to the country’s recovery?  

Digital: archives and skills

There is a huge potential for using existing digitally archived material to conduct new research. There tends to be a focus on generating new data, but there is so much potential in existing resources such as the ADS library – which holds over 60,000 reports generated through commercial archaeology.

Digital archiving and the re-use of archives is a fruitful avenue to pursue… However, trusted digital repositories are expensive. When faced with financial difficulties there tends to be a focus on what generates revenue immediately… digital archiving may fall back down the agenda. Dr Stuart Jeffrey, Glasgow School of Art 

The new Heritage Alliance Heritage Digital Training Portal, supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, was highlighted as a source for free skills training by numerous participants.

New approaches to research and education

Outdoor education has been highlighted by Scottish Government as the benefits are well documented around health and wellbeing, self-confidence, and improved performance (whilst enabling adherence to social distance rules). Practical outdoor experiences can often make for excellent real-world teaching examples which make learning come to life. The Heritage Hero awards was highlighted as an excellent example of a working structure which has the potential to support learning going into recovery phase; ts flexibility can be made to suit individual needs. As school trips are on hold for a while, this approach can encourage a shift to a local focus. Similarly, with university students more likely to choose to study from home, their research may also shift to a local focus.

Many researchers around the world are considering how to address study and practice, including: a political approach to the study and practice of architecture and heritage; engaging with climate change; and addressing the impact of the Covid-19 Pandemic. COVID has brought the opportunity to reflect on both how heritage is taught and the way in which knowledge is created and passed on to learners. It presents an opportunity to think about methods of engagement and creating a more diverse curriculum.  The Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture Esala Group was given as an example of taking a holistic approach to teaching and practice as they are looking at how to engage with the wider world on interlinking topics such as climate change as well as wider environmental issues and societal equalities.

Academics across the globe are still coming to terms with the full impact of COVID on how to operate, research, and understand the world after this point. There are challenges to teaching in the new environment, and an effective move to a blended learning approach is critical. However, opportunities are being identified to engage with a much wider range of cultures through online discourse and learn from other experiences. More innovative thinking is needed to address how to re-tune the curriculum to teach in a manner that is fair and equal for all both in terms of process and content.

We can think about modes of delivery more thoroughly because things have been set back to zero. We are able to build and think about how we do this in the present day, rather than engaging with what was there before… how we engage with localised space, this is an opportunity to think about locality as we move to a more community-based society. We can learn from historical contexts how we can be more localised in our living despite being more global in our interaction.Dr Kirsten Carter McKee

There was a recognition of the role that the historic and built environment can take in helping the future of universities.

Big historic estates are a part of branding and can be instrumentalise to draw more students, especially oversea students. – Dr Stuart Jeffrey, Glasgow School of Art

Collaboration and trans-disciplinary approaches

Collaboration and engagement were highlighted (as they have been in every CHERF session) as the key to a successful way forward for the sector. The sector currently suffers from an environment where competition often inhibits collaboration. However, the impact of COVID is an opportunity to strengthen existing, and establish new, links between different disciplines.

We have heard how heritage can be useful or essential to coming out of COVID, and to the climate change agenda and to equality and so on, but are we just arguing for us all doing more of that in the same structures and the same way, or are we looking to change the infrastructure that these things are being done within?

Is there something here more generally –  strategically – a different infrastructure… less of the ‘beating each other to AHRC money’? Are we going to see a different Higher Education Infrastructure going forward, or more of the same? Dr Simon Gilmour, Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 

There was group discussion around Scottish Environment LINK and its capacity around influencing policy. The lack of overlap between the natural, cultural and forestry sectors was noted as there is the potential for much more cross sector collaboration. LINK was highlighted as effective for finding common ground between disciplines such as nature-based solutions to climate and biodiversity crises and recognition of community within that. There was a call for more collaboration between policy organisations such as BEFS and LINK. [Addendum: BEFS originated as a heritage/built environment group out of LINK initially. There is currently BEFS Member input into LINK so collaboration is encouraged, but duplication should be avoided.]

Trans-disciplinary approaches were raised by number speakers and attendees. There was a recognition for a consciousness that heritage has a wide audience and many benefits which are often not well engaged with by research institutions. There is a lack of collaboration between universities, with other research bodies, with communities, with networks of heritage organisations, with third sector bodies and with other subject areas. Most researchers are happy to engage with areas outside of their own speciality. More cross and inter-disciplinary research covering the economic, social, tourism or business aspects of heritage would be beneficial. Albeit with the caveat below:

Good and effective partnership working has to recognize significant asymmetries among potential partners. –Dr Gavin Macgregor, Northlight Heritage

Equality & Diversity

There was clear importance around equality and diversity, with a strong emphasis around the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement. Many researchers are now looking at re-writing their curricula to engage with, and better represent, more diverse practices. At Edinburgh University work is being done to tackle the impact of imperial legacies within the curriculum, and York University was highlighted for its work on decolonising reading lists for undergraduate courses. There was support for engagement with researchers across the globe with these topics.

In first-year architectural history classes we are conscious not to be talking only about white western architects but to be more global in scale. What are they reading? Is that perpetuating a certain narrative of how they understand the world? We have been re-writing parts of the curriculum… thinking about the nature of the approach we are taking… we are trying really hard not to recolonise a narrative… to ensure we are using our research and our understanding of the world to help understand the processes that exist in the present day and the effects that is having on individuals… Dr Kirsten Carter McKee, Edinburgh University

Green recovery

A green recovery was another recurring CHERF theme; the potential positive impacts of the pandemic on climate change were highlighted. This time has presented an opportunity to reset, engage with, and build on, existing work. The work can be focused to help achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals as well as supporting the National Performance Framework in Scotland.

To truly embed climate change within our practice, change starts with each of us as individuals. Building networks through online platforms, such as CHERF, was highlighted as a greener approach which should be encouraged in the future.  Climate change should not be viewed as separate to our practices but as something that is interlinked and embedded in our work. The 2019 ICOMOS Future of Our Pasts report, puts forward a multi-disciplinary approach to engaging cultural heritage in climate action.

Climate change is not a diversion; it is interlinked with impact on society and there is a need for action… and for better heritage knowledge and recommendations with a solidly science-based approach… it is equally relevant to heritage research and must be seen to underpin our future endeavours much more comprehensively than before. Professor Jane Downes, University of the Highlands and Islands

There was discussion on how contributions can be made at a local level through heritage activities. In Aberdeen, there are aims to enable opportunities for students to survey or excavate local coastal sites that have been identified as being at risk from climate change and are within walking distance of the University.

Influencing policy and sector advocacy

There was a recognition for a need for the academic world to better engage their knowledge and research within the realm of policy. Whilst communication between one another is strong, we can fail to communicate in a useful and accessible manner, and in a language that is effective when communicating with policymakers.

There needs to be a greater push to share research with the wider public and private sectors; to mobilize knowledge to effect more employment and resources. Policy makers are looking for clear ideas which can be simply expressed; as a sector we need to better understand how to effectively frame things for political influence.

There needs to be a mind shift within the sector around demonstrating the positive contributions that cultural heritage projects bring to: health, wellbeing, economic recovery, and wider societal needs. For this to happen we need the narrative and supporting evidence that helps make the case for the value and potential of heritage. This may require new and innovative research projects and partnerships.

The four-capitals approach (economic, social, human and natural) mentioned in the AGER report needs to be considered for how it applies to heritage; and how we can evidence and engage with economic and social research. Some headway has already been done in this arena by the OPiT Built Heritage Investment Group in relation to a Strategic Investment Toolkit (developed from work related to Prioritisation).

The question was asked if there are any tools for mapping experiences and heritage learning within a community context to allow the sector to demonstrate economic benefits. Although tourism has obvious benefits, it is challenging to evidence other aspects of heritage in terms relatable to policy makers’ needs.

We need to lobby harder for a place for heritage in its own right; it shouldn’t and doesn’t always have to be linked to tourism and heritage science… heritage and archaeological research… they are very strong and can be very tangible, but we don’t make them explicit them enough. We don’t do enough to promote heritage in its own right and the impact it can have. Heritage has an offering to societal transformation; we have to make stronger arguments… heritage science, tourism, wellbeing, food, climate change and heritage, heritage futures, social justice, decolonisation, inclusion. Professor Jane Downes, University of the Highlands and Islands 

Heritage has been noted through research in relation to the  OPiT Built Heritage Investment Group as contributing to 11 of the 12 Scottish Government directorates; but the communications used by the sector to engage politicians frequently pigeonholes it as an area of specialist interest. Heritage is often presented as a problem, as something which needs support rather than as a mechanism to provide answers to societal needs. We need to change of the narrative – and the advocacy – demonstrating what the built and historic environment can provide.

The initial CHERF planned sessions are now complete – the final discussion closed with a request for more information on the next steps:

The need to do more partnership working has come up throughout the CHERF workshops. At present many partnerships are almost accidental; we need to be more strategic in how we go forward. What we need to talk about next is who is going to co-ordinate or lead the creation of these partnerships?  – Cara Jones, Chartered Institute for Archaeologists

BEFS have already presented an interim report to the OPiT CEO Forum and will now take an overview of all five CHERF events and produce a final report.

BEFS reiterate our thanks to all speakers and attendees for their time, consideration, input and collaboration across the five CHERF events.


List will be updated as more information is released in relation to education and research.

AGER report 
ACCORD Archive  
Archaeology Data Service Library
AHRC How to Engage with Policy Makers
Archaeology Scotland – heritage teaching resources 
BEFS Advocacy Toolkit
BEFS prioritisation work  
Edinburgh University ESALA 
Heritage Digital 
Heritage 2020 
ICOMOS The Future of Our Pasts 
Museums Galleries Scotland – Economic Impact 
Research into decolonising Archaeology programme at York University 
Scottish Environment LINK 
SCRAP Project 
SPICE – The Scottish Parliament Information Centre
UN Sustainable Development Goals 
UNESCO 2030 Sustainability
What Works Wellbeing 
World Bank Urban Development series document