James Beighton reports on his Heritage placement at Tees Valley Arts
It might be described as the researcher’s worst nightmare: to begin a project that you have been excited about for so long, only to find that someone else has just pipped you to the post. It is especially galling when the offending party is an app called Pokémon Go. So it was that in the week I began my placement at Tees Valley Arts, thinking about how digital technology might be able to engage diverse audiences with the hidden cultural heritage of Middlesbrough, hundreds of people, ranging from teenagers fresh from their GCSE ordeals to barristers taking a hurried break from the law courts, could be seen wandering the streets looking for Pokéstops to collect resources for their games. According to John Hanke, the CEO and founder of the company responsible for the app, these Pokéstops, which corresponded with real world locations, were chosen according to the following criteria “Things that were public artwork, that were historical sites, that were buildings with some unique history or characteristics, or a unique local business”; in short sites of heritage.[i]
Tees Valley Arts (TVA) describes itself as a participatory arts organisation. It is based in Middlesbrough but works across the five boroughs that make up the Tees Valley. In this regard it is unusual amongst arts organisations within the region which tend to focus their activities on a single borough. It is therefore well positioned to contribute to the local government vision of a combined Tees Valley Authority with aspirations of being awarded City of Culture status for 2020. Both my placement host and I were keen to investigate a specific project for this placement: a project that both I, the host organisation and hopefully the wider region, could benefit from.
We wanted to consider what it would look like to develop a digital archive that would reconnect the disparate archival material relating to culture in Middlesbrough: one that would work for the institutions of the region and would also allow anyone to contribute who felt that they had stories to be told. The aspiration was to conceive of a model that could be of value to academics, to the cultural sector, to amateur historians and to genealogist. My placement therefore took the form of a scoping exercise to understand what might be required to realise such an archive: who needed to be involved and what some of the stumbling blocks might be along the way. The starting point for thinking was a drawing that I produced for Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art’s Localism exhibition (10 October 2015 – 7 February 2016), which was translated as a large scale wall drawing and started to map out relationships between artistically involved individuals and organisations within the region.
The level of enthusiasm for the project among institutions was considerable, with many talking about the strategic advantages they could see it bringing to them, whether that be through impact case studies for academic research, engaging with new audiences, or helping to make the case for their value to funding bodies. It ensured that a team of enthusiastic potential partners quickly became apparent. Perhaps more difficult was engaging the enthusiasm of communities outside of academic or institutional circles. Given that such communities would be the life blood of the project if it were to move forward, it evidenced the need for plural strategies to learn from different communities and interest groups. At the very end of my placement I received a message from a woman researching her family tree. She had a collection of paintings by three amateur artists that we had been investigating as part of the database, one of whom was her great aunt. Suddenly names on a piece of paper came alive through images and a story of friendships. It was evidence of what might be achieved with the project and how researchers, curators and archivists can move towards a mutual exchange of learning with their constituents.
[i] John Hanke interviewed by Ariel Bogle (Australia) for Mashable. 10 July 2016. https://mashable.com/2016/07/10/john-hanke-pokemon-go/ accessed 15 July 2016.