Strategies for public engagement: University of Sussex Special Collections at The Keep
The purpose of this paper is not to outline public engagement activities that have been have undertaken, but to look at the effects of a strategic driver based on public engagement and its implications on university special collections. To demonstrate this the paper will draw upon the case of The Keep, a partnership project to develop an archival resource centre that serves three separate institutional partners.
The Keep opened in late 2013 as a purpose built archival repository housing state of the art storage and collection management facilities and fully accessible public reading rooms and function rooms. The project is a partnership between East Sussex County Council, Brighton and Hove City Council and the University of Sussex and the building houses the East Sussex Record Office, collections from the Royal Pavilion and Museums and the University’s Special Collections, including its rare books and the Mass Observation Archive.
Entering such a partnership with local institutions meant that the university not only gained access to improved storage for its unique and distinctive collections, but was also enabled to achieve one of its institutional objectives as set out in its strategic plan, Making the future: 2013-2018. To achieve its purpose of ‘Building more and stronger partnerships with external organisations, institutions locally, nationally and internationally’ it defined strategic ambitions that included community and civic engagement and widening participation and volunteering. The opportunities provided by locating Special Collections, already establishing its outreach and community partnership credentials, into The Keep ticked all of these boxes and led the University to feature The Keep as a case study in external engagement in which opportunities for community access to academic and learning resources would be developed.
University of Sussex Special Collections worked very closely with colleagues in our Partner institutions to develop all aspects of The Keep’s building and services. This included extensive work on creating an audience development plan from which derived a programme of engagement activities and events. Part of the benefit of coming together as The Keep was the opportunity to take advantage of each other’s audiences by discovering synergies that cut across Partners’ collections and filling it gaps for our current audiences. We also wanted to engage new communities, in particular the local community with whom traditionally the University had less contact.
Over the last four years we have established a public programme of activities and events that include a public lecture series, open days and workshops on book-binding, photographic conservation and creative writing, all inspired by the collections held by all the Partners. We also have an active volunteering programme with individual participants ranging from students seeking new skills to retired locals wanting to try something new. Despite the fanfare of a Royal opening and plenty of press interest in the building and its contents, we have encountered various issues that have caused us to reflect and amend some of our approaches. The Keep is situated outside of the City of Brighton and Hove, and is a 15-minute walk away from the University campus. Each Partner was previously located within their constituent community and as such, we have had to overcome the psychological barriers of a greater travelling distance despite being well served by public transport and car parking availability.
We also discovered that we had to be a little more creative in engaging audiences with collections that were primarily of academic interest. Initial attempts to deliver talks on some of our literary papers such as Virginia Woolf had little success at attracting audiences from the local community, however re-aligning the subject to take advantage of her links with the region, particularly architectural and artistic links with local National Trust and heritage properties brought in much larger audiences. Those who were interested in local history found how much information they could gather on Sussex village life from the papers of a literary figure. Tying our collections into events and communities that are taking place in the region have also been useful, for example working with our local Jewish Community to explore some of our German Jewish refugee collections, or drawing on wartime diaries from Mass Observation to celebrate International Women’s Day. Although these may seem like obvious methods, we have had to realign our thinking to accommodate them, and take into account the different institutional strategic priorities and responsibilities that each Partner brings.
Doing so has brought us successes that we continue to build upon. We have found that it is sometimes easier to engage audiences with specific projects, and have been awarded Heritage Lottery Funding for three different projects so far, including History on Your Doorstep,which was designed to introduce the possibilities of The Keep to our immediate neighbours in the housing estate we are situated close to. The building itself has allowed us far more space and scope to engage with schools and community groups due to the accessibility that we have built into the design. Building on successful reminiscence workshops we have run with dementia sufferers and their carers using the Mass Observation Archive, we are currently running another Heritage Lottery Funded Project, Beyond Boxes,that seeks to make archives more accessible to communities that would normally find access difficult. This includes those with limited mobility and visual impairments as well as members of the homeless community. This project has also encouraged us to work with the local prison, seeking ways to bring the benefit of archives to prisoners.
The nature of the Partnership has also attracted other partnerships, for example the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project, led by the British Library and funded b Heritage Lottery, has selected The Keep as one of its ten regional hubs, partly based on the strength of the profile the Partnership gives.. Expectations are high, and we have to ensure that we can continue building on our successes despite our vulnerability to changes in our Partners’ own budgets and infrastructures. As a result, we have become more aware of how we can use our engagement activities to generate income as well as embed The Keep and its collections into the local, regional and national community demonstrating how The Keep is greater than the sum of its parts.
Melanie Cheung2019-10-08T13:04:08+01:00October 8th, 2019|Comments Off on Strategies for public engagement: University of Sussex Special Collections at The Keep