Practical Lessons Learnt

Engaging with the community and offering them an opportunity to have a say in the future of their town was what this project was all about. As a legacy to the project we have collated these responses to Brierley Hillness and presented it to the council and key stakeholders in the future of the town on their behalf.

Through the project we have created two publications and produced a film; all with aim of either inspiring or influencing people. The results are fantastic, thanks to the creative talent of the people we have worked with, or the willingness of others to share memories and stories dear to them.

As a professional working on projects to engage communities with heritage, this has been a really interesting one; we used nine different approaches to get people talking about the town.

It’s fair to say that our engagement with some people was fleeting, and not always ‘meaningful’ or ‘sustainable’; there were a lot of ‘one-off’ taster sessions as well as more intensive work spread over a few weeks with some groups.

We talked to people in the streets, spent two hours getting messy with paints and banged a drum on more than one occaision. For some, being involved in the project has really made an impact or inspired them to get more creative and take steps to develop their own artistic practices. You’ll see from quotes later on where this has been the case.

Not everyone came away from a workshop knowing much more about the history of the town or Brierley Hill’s built environment. They did, however, spend some time talking about the town, even if they didn’t think they had much to say – and in a sense that was what we wanted to achieve.

Consultation can take many forms – we tried to make ours fun, sometimes noisy and messy, but certainly non-obtrusive (except on the few occaisions when we directly asked people to fill in forms or answer a set of questions that is!)

Tim Sunter on Creative Consultation from Jonathan Lee on Vimeo.

Using a range of different approaches has enabled us to engage with different types of people, from different communities. It is true – no size fits all. People respond in different ways. It is sparking that interest which is important.

Here are at least three things we have learnt from the nine different approaches we used to engage with people and get them talking about Brierley Hill. More detail about the methodlogies are found in Community Engagement Approaches, or by downloading the publication  Approaches to Community Engagement and Lessons Learnt.

 Community Mural

Vary the times and days of workshops in order to engage with a wider variety of participants. Programme more family activities in school holidays.

Tie in the mural painting workshops with a wider adult learning programme of activities, instead of promoting them under a separate project.

Do more initial research with the local community about what should feature on the mural before starting; to avoid ‘leading’ the content and then seeking endorsement. The steer from the community was very useful when people contributed.

 Some other perspectives…

“It has given me confidence to venture on an art course, which I keep meaning to do but keep putting off. However, I am booking a course in September at Halesowen College of Art.” (Participant)

“I enjoyed being part of something worthwhile. Watching the mural developing each week gave me a real sense of achievement. It made me feel useful again and had something still to give.” (Participant)

“It has helped me take more of an interest in the surrounding areas where I live and gain more knowledge of the history of Brierley Hill.” (Participant) 

More detail about the methodology.

Creative Writing

Working with an established group can make it easier to run a ‘one-off’ workshop over a short space of time. There was no need to use ice-breaker strategies as individuals were focussed and comfortable sharing their ideas.

There is a limit to what you can achieve in a two-hour writing workshop; there was not enough time for participants to write their own poetry. Further workshops would enable participants to learn writing techniques and to be more creative.

Offering bite-sized activities enables people to drop in and out of a session.  This allows for attention spans and people who might feel uncomfortable if they had to stay for a long period in the same space. If there are different group members at each workshop, it means everyone is able to take part and contribute.

Many of the participants responded easily to questions about Brierley Hillness. However, in initial conversations some were falling into the trap of either coming up with stereotypical answers or answers that they felt were wanted.  The creative activities helped people bypass these stock responses and come up with responses which were more thoughtful and relevant to them.

Creative work produced with one group can then be used to inspire another. In our case a poem forged out of a creative writing workshop with the Civic Society led to working with a group of children at a school who turned it into a performance piece. They were allowed to shape their own interpretation. This piece was then filmed and shared with a wider audience to inspire others. Where will it go next? Not limiting a piece of work to its original brief can create multi-media and community wide opportunities to participate.

Some other perspectives…

“The event was attended by people who were from outside of the centre and I think this also gave the group confidence and reinforced the idea that their words were being heard”.  (Workshop leader)                              

“Brendan and the project have brought living poetry into our classrooms and given the pupils a real opportunity to work with a professional in celebrating their community. It is delightful to hear young voices cataloguing the present and looking forward to the future.” (Headteacher, Holly Hall School)

“For me, they have been really creative, really enjoyable, really opened up a lot of doors within my mind… there is just so much talent that comes in and out these doors that we just need someone like Emma P… with the right tools to bring it out of your mind”. (Workshop participant)

More detail about the methodology.

Dance and Drama  – working with school groups

The performance was on the last day before half term and evaluation forms for children were given out at the last minute on the day to teachers. As many children left with their parents and didn’t return to school for over a week, there was a low response rate. Preparing teachers in advance would have enabled feedback forms to be sent home ready for completion.

The children performed on the floor in front of the stage at the Civic Hall due to space and logistical mangement of the production. The only negative feeback from the audience in the stalls was they found it difficult to see the children perform. This would need to be considered at any future performance at this venue working with small children.

Some other perspectives…

 “Brilliant!!! Please do another show”.

“The buzz theatre play was best at raising the essence of Brierley Hill”.

“Brilliant, inspiring and moving”.

“Fantastic, it is all my daughter has talked about for weeks, she had learnt a great deal too. I am a Geography teacher at high school and am amazed by how little the children know about their local area’s history when they arrive at high school”.

I couldn’t see the children performing due to their not being on stage which was very disappointing as I came to watch my niece perform”.

“I enjoyed the event, the only downside was we had to stand to see our children perform. It would have been much better if the performance had taken place on the stage”.

“Very positive and encouraging to see the enthusiasm of BH children and how they have embraced the heritage of BH and made it their own.”

What a production! Here is how some of the audience reacted.

Dance & Drama Audience reactions from Jonathan Lee on Vimeo.

Let some statistics also provide some feedback…

68% of audience members who responded agreed that the performance had increased their knowledge of the history and heritage of Brierley Hill.

Source: 74 audience self-completion questionnaires

100% of children who responded to the post-performance evaluation said that taking part in the project has helped them learn about the history and heritage of Brierley Hill.

Source: 17 self-completion questionnaires

More detail about the methodology.

Watch the performance.

Drama – working with Age UK

It is important to be flexible. We originally brought the idea to the group of creating a live performance piece for the project finale event. However, the group didn’t feel able to commit to this fixed date, and some members were unble to attend all the weekly sessions. We offered to film the performance instead and screen this at the finale event.  This actually gives the work longevity as a wider audience will see the performance through a presence on the web.

As the majority of the group were not from Brierley Hill, but surrounding areas, and some had not been to the town for years, the film transcripts of real interviews was an excellent starting point for script development and for group discussions. It also enabled us to give a voice for the shoppers, residents and traders through dramatic expression.

From a writing point of view, it was challenging to balance the creative expression and character development of members of the group and keep to the purpose of the film; which was to incorporate comments and ideas expressed in the street interviews. A clear brief about the purpose of the film and final audience is essential.

More detail about the methodology.

Watch the performance.

Music – African Drumming

Familiar surroundings and the timing of workshops are important when working with participants, especially young children. For us, the African drumming workshop which ran at the children’s own local venue, around lunchtime during the school holidays worked much better then the workshop at the end of a school day, in a new, unfamiliar environment.

Some pre-workshop preparation would have added more focus to the discussions and helped the children to think about the buildings of Brierley Hill before they came. The children would have felt more equipped to articulate what they think about their town and ways it could be improved.

More detail about the methodology.

Oral History / Reminiscence

At the drop-in day on a Tuesday we chose to record audio of conversations in a very informal way. However, we ended up with hours of audio to listen to, much of which had poor sound quality. Depending on whether you want to use audio footage in the future, it might be worth asking people to write down and send in their memories.

When inviting people to ‘drop in’, you never know when people are going to turn up. Make sure that you have the capacity to sit down and talk without major interruptions for a reasonable length of time.

Have a scanner or copier to hand and take copies of old photographs or newspaper clippings people bring you. Always ask for a description and date for the photo so you can use them accurately in the future.

When the mural artist was on holiday a musician ran a mandolin session with some participants at the time a formal oral history session was in progess. In busy spaces extraneous noises can distract those taking part and it can interfere with the quailty of the sound recording. When programming multiple acitivites you should take into account the need for a quiet and comfortable space for recording audio.

Oral history documentation was prepared for the project, based on previous examples of oral history projects. It is worth checking with the local archive that they are happy to accept your recordings and the documentation you are using is adequate. They may already have their own preferred format for cataloging audio.

 Another perspective…

“They steered their conversational approach towards important events and happenings, both serious and comical, within the works and its locale. Their (participants) passion and emotion often boiled over into tears of both sorrow and laughter. Their story preserved is now for the future”. (Interviewer)

More detail about the methodology.

Listen to stories about Round Oak Steel Works.

Arts and Crafts

Take into account some older people are reluctant to get creative through craft materials; painting or drawing could be difficult due to eye sight limitations or arthritis. Visual materials and discussion worked well with this group.

Negotiate workshops with participants and share the decision making to ensure they feel able to get involved. Plan a range of activities to ensure inclusive practice.

Be flexible about where the workshop is held. Transport to different locations can be challenging for some older people. We were thanked for taking the workshop to the group’s activity centre.

If the participants do not know each other they may feel uncomfortable giving their opinions in front of the group. If one of the outcomes of the project is to learn more about what people think about their town, an individual self-completion questionnaire may be a good option, or an additional word-based activity planned.

Everyone works at a different pace, so prepare additional art activities to keep people busy.

A group collage worked well with the under five age group. They painted blocks of colour and textures, which the lead artist could use to create a picture of the town.

Using a postcard activity is a good way for people to think about positive experiences they have in a town as they associate postcards with holidays and good times.

Parents may think the workshop is just for their children and be reluctant to get involved in the main activity. Giving them specific tasks such as drawing a shop, a person or cutting out shapes for the collage increased their level of engagement.

 Some other perspectives…

 “I found that encouraging my participants to engage with the theme slightly challenging as when asked to think of words which they would use to describe Brierley Hill, I felt that they found it hard to find positive things.” (Workshop leader)

“It was brilliant that the project was able to provide something for everyone… those that weren’t confident to use paints could draw in sketchbooks and take photos”. (Group leader, Dudley MIND)

More detail about the methodology.

 Photography competitions

Running competitions, with good prizes, can bring in a wider variety of participants and their families into a community project. For us it was a good way of finding out what Brierley Hillness means to more people.

A photo competition is a great way of collecting a range of images of the town – and documenting ‘life’ as well as buildings. There are 176 images of Brierley Hill on the Flickr account.

Projection is temporary and it can be expensive (hire and insurance of projector), but it takes exhibitions to new audiences. The projection was positioned next to a bus stop and opposite a pub, and gained a much wider and diverse audience than would have seen the work if it were displayed in an indoor gallery space.

More detail about the methodology.

Digital Photography – creating a panoramic using Photoshop

Using a busy high street as the focus of activity means you will have lots of traffic and parked cars to negotiate when stitching together images.

There is a limit to what can be achieved in one workshop. Learning this artistic skill takes time, and the participant’s experience with technology also needs to be taken into consideration.

Having a streetscape panoramic image is useful as it gives people who do not know the area an instant ‘flavour’ of the place; showing the variety of architecture along a single street. It also helps people to appreciate the historic quality of the buildings. Many people do not look above the shop frontages.

More detail about the methodology.

Evening events programme of illustrated talks and performance events

The illustrated talks and evening events were not part of the original project design, but it did offer more people the opportunity to get involved in aspects of the project and it provided a wealth of historical information and expertise in an informal and interactive setting. It is definitely worth planning this into an overall programme in future.

We wanted to programme something non-participatory or creative to see if we could engage with different audiences again. While attendance was fairly low, the illustrated talks on local history did attract people we hadn’t already met, although mainly from a traditional heritage audience. The performance nights, on the other hand, brought in young people, friends and family and we were able to engage with a wider audience.

An overall weakness is that we didn’t take the opportunity to provide any self-completion questionnaires at the evening events which would have strengthened the consultative element of the project.

Some other perspectives…

“What a good night it was to be present when these Round Oak Steelworkers were telling their stories. How good it was to get them together.” (Audience member)

“Met some wonderful people – young and not so young who have similar ideals and interests and feel that old days aren’t forgotten and future days are not so frightening.” (Regular audience member)

Watch clips of the illustrated talks.

Watch live performance.

Interviewing people in the streets

As a result of the less than expected take up of workshops and creative opportunities and people dropping in to Artspace, we decided in order to get a greater number of people involved and also produce a more meaningful and useful document to submit to the public consultation on the Urban Design Guidance Supplementary Planning Document. See An overview of Brierley Hill’s Urban Design Guidance.

Evaluation from Jonathan Lee on Vimeo.

The benefits of having film footage is that you get stories, articulated opinions rather than the one or two word answers and best of all – personalities. Obviously there is a cost to filming and editing, and transcribing interviews can be time-consuming, but you get a fuller picture of what people think, local accents, humour and an engaging narrative which can be used to influence.

Even if you don’t use the film footage to make a film, it can help researchers understand what is really being said. The questionnaire approach may be quicker, and certainly a cheaper option, but with the type of questions we were asking we ended up with a few words on a page. While the responses can be used in analysis and to create statistics, they offer less substance.

Be aware of the environment in which you are filming. Hammers banging, heavy traffic passing and loud background noises rendered some of our interviews unusable when editing the film, although we have still used what people said in written form.

We found that during a four hour session we were only able to film about 10 interviews. Not surprisingly people shy away from cameras and people with clipboards! Interviewing local traders is a good way of getting more people involved, and you can pre-book their time and visit them at their workplaces. If you are setting a target of people to speak to, then it may be worth having a test run of interviews to see how they go before finalising the timescale and the budget.

More detail about the methodology.

Watch My Brierley Hill film, featuring street interviews.

Survey work

Looking back, an overall weakness of the survey work was a lack of consistency.  A core set of questions for everyone taking part in any research or survey would have strengthened the research. We could have improved this by the project partners agreeing the questions at the very beginning of the project. See the different methodologies we used.

We could have also given out a small core set of statements for agreement or disagreement to everyone we worked with through workshops, or who came to events. This would have increased our evidence base significantly.  At the same time, however, we wanted to show that people can express their opinions through creative expression and that formal ‘consultation’ isn’t the only approach. Keeping the balance is important.


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