If I haven’t convinced you by now, there probably isn’t much else I can say. But I wanted to say something, if only to ensure the SE-PS criteria on metricised quantifiable impacts are fulfilled.
I’m going to get a little philosophical, so it might be time for candles and whale song again, if you feel the need.
Borrowing from Robert Pirsig, I’d like you imagine your organisation is a cathedral, temple or mosque… one of those amazing constructions dedicated to whichever Deity you worship. We’ll use the building below in this analogy.
The artistry of the carvings and the stained glass, the mosaics and the decoration are a wonder to behold. You feel overawed and a sense of wonder when you walk through the doors. The labour of hundreds of craftsmen and women, which went into the building of this cathedral, is evident everywhere you look… the carved-oak pews, the gilded-altar, the stations of the cross around the walls.
The simple materials – stone and timber and mortar – that made this building are as truly miraculous as the faith and devotion, which fills those pews at every service. But subtract the people and their faith, remove the reason for the building’s existence, and it is no longer a cathedral.
The building might be cathedral-shaped, but without a congregation to worship below its vaulted ceilings, it is nothing more than a pile of beautifully-crafted stone, mortar and timber. The congregation is what makes it a cathedral.
Now think of your organisation, without the worshippers, without that devotion to heritage and culture…
Architectural awards, glass and concrete facades, management and organisational structures, strategy documents, staff roles and grades… all of those fade into insignificance without the community you serve being part of what you do.
So what’s the problem?
We can still make exhibitions and create heritage projects, and the people will still come…
If only it were that simple, but the traditional roles of Us and Them are shifting.
The congregation of the Catholic cathedral of St. Eunan’s, has been getting smaller, year on year. Nowadays, the demographic of the mass-goers is ageing, and the younger generation no longer see organised religion as being relevant to their lives.
Across the world, in every sector you can imagine, we are experiencing similar paradigm shifts. What was once acceptable and ‘the way we’ve always done it’, is no longer in tune people’s aspirations and versions of this new, connected world.
It is the same within the communities we serve, as heritage or culture professionals. What was once the accepted version of culture and heritage has lost its connection and meaning. Why?
The great democratisation
Take a quick look at the video below.
How are you going to compete with that amount of democratised culture, news, heritage, technology, art and community initiatives?
And this question is especially relevant given the explosion of online creativity due to Covid-19.
The simple fact is you, and your organisations, are being left behind by technology, by demographics, by YouTubers and citizen-journalists, by bloggers and community heritage groups.
Your relevance is diminishing with every tweet, every Facebook post, every #AncestryHour #LocalHistory #LocalHeritage and a hundred other hashtags. And if you keep doing what you’ve always done, then your connection to the community you serve will be lost in a blur of data and notifications.
So why co-produce?
Because if you don’t, you will not exist in ten years time, or five, or two…
Because if you don’t, you will become irrelevant to the community you serve…
Because if you don’t, you’ll wonder why you didn’t…
The question ‘Why co-produce at all?’ is, in my opinion, a fallacy. The real questions you should be asking are…
Why aren’t we co-producing?
What is stopping us from co-producing more?
Co-production doesn’t mean you stop being professional. Co-production doesn’t mean you aren’t excellent curators and heritage professionals. Co-production doesn’t mean you have to stop doing the traditional elements of your work. Co-production is simply a challenge to do more, and to do it differently. Here’s another analogy…
Below is an image of a bowl, excavated on Inch in 1938…
The bowl is in the National Museum of Ireland. It’s an important artefact. It’s been preserved, stabilised, recorded. It’s in the National Museum, that’s how very important it is. But the museum is in Dublin. That’s four hours or more by car or bus – the railways closed in 1959, if you recall. If someone from Inch wants to see the bowl, they have to make an appointment and stay overnight in Dublin.
This bowl was excavated on Stewart Buchanan’s farm, one of our respondents. It’s been preserved, stabilised, recorded. It’s in the National Museum, too. He hasn’t seen the bowl since it left for Dublin. It’s similar in design to the other bowl, and no, neither of them are the most beautiful examples of bronze-age ware, but they are part of Inch’s heritage.
You’d think it might be easy enough to get a photo of these bowls, maybe to do some 3D photogrammetry, or even bring one back to Inch, so the community can actually see the artefact that was found on their island. You’d think… but no. They are important artefacts, very important artefacts. Forms have to be filled, requests made, the procedures have to be adhered to, and so they should for a museum that preserves the history and heritage of the nation.
The museum has done its job, and done it well, the bowls are allocated a number and sit in storage or on display, but the community has never seen the bowls. The access is limited to those who can make the trip to Dublin in a day. Think about that for a second.
I’m not singling out any one particular organisation, and maybe there’s a separate conversation to be had about access to artefacts, but this story is worth time considering in terms of…
Who do you serve?
How do you make your organisation more relevant to those you serve?
Is there is a form of co-production that allows you to engage more effectively with those you serve?
And now you’re probably also asking…
Who on earth does this playwright think he is?
My answer to the last question is in this photograph. These are the outlets for three hundred metres of 18th Century, stone-lined, underground millraces. They have lain under the fertile soil of Inch since 1750, or maybe earlier. They are forgotten relics of an almost forgotten industry, until this playwright came along one cold day in February, with my co-production facilitator’s hat on.
Now this unloved, untended and forgotten history is on a Twitter feed and a website, for anyone to view and marvel at the ingenuity and craft of the builders. An integral part of an island’s history is remembered, the community’s heritage is celebrated, and that heritage is vibrant and relevant again.
Us theatre folk have been doing ‘co-production’ since the 1960s. It’s a recognised discipline, with specific funding streams from the Arts Council here in Ireland. We have been to every community hall. We have talked, laughed and cried with our communities. We have a decades of experience in this area.
All is not lost
Your cathedrals can rise again. The stained glass will pour its light on the rich oak of the pews again, and you can be sure your congregations will return. But only if you are prepared to co-produce this new reality as equal partners with your communities, in this uncertain, unpredictable but extraordinary process.
That’s the challenge. You have the tools. What are you waiting for?
At least, that’s what I think. Maybe you disagree vehemently. That is an argument I would love to engage with you in, some day.