The Story of Us? Heritage and communities. Report and propositions for change from my placement with HLF, supported by the Clore Leadership programme.

Download the report here:

For 5 months earlier this year, I undertook a placement with the strategic team at the Heritage Lottery Fund, as part of my Clore Fellowship.  Ive blogged previously about what I learnt from that experience.  I brought together my thinking, interviews and observations about how to support heritage and communities into a report, now published by HLF. I also ventured some propositions for change. Here is the exec summary.  The full report, full of case studies and examples can be found here 

Heritage is the story of us. It is critical to communities, to building their sense of identity and how a more complex understanding of the past and place might inform and shape their vision for the future.


Set against a backdrop of austerity and the decline of community infrastructure, The Story of Us: Heritage and Communities seeks to identify strategic opportunities and new approaches to supporting communities to catalyse new heritage activity.

The research question asked ‘how might the Heritage Lottery Fund change its funding approach to support communities to catalyse new heritage activity?

The Story of Us: Heritage and Communities shares the WHY (motivations for and value of supporting communities and heritage), WHAT (case studies of heritage activity and models for catalysing change) and HOW (limitations and changes to funding approach and processes).

Three distinct themes and associated propositions for change emerged;

1          Be more relational

The Story of Us: Heritage and Communities calls for a more relational approach to enable HLF to be more inclusive, move beyond usual suspects and reach new people. It asks how they might share more of their thinking in public, shift the language and prioritise expertise in building relationships? The report proposes that HLF develop a relational, asset-based approach to grant giving which supports good ideas within communities, even if not fully formed or articulated

2          Focus on the local

Increasingly in UK, amongst funders and politicians, there is a commitment to and interest in place-based investment and localised decision making. The Story of Us: Heritage and Communities explores some of the implications of this for heritage and argues that that now is the time for new and ambitious thinking at HLF about ‘localism’ and place-based funding.


3          Find and support powerhouse people

Mavericks, champions, visionaries, activists, “powerhouse people”, the ones who drive things forwards – we all know them in our organisations, communities, lives.  With reference to key individuals and case studies, the report profiles their impact and explores might HLF might seek and support these individuals more effectively and consistently.



The Story of Us: Heritage and Communities seeks to support and influence HLF’s next strategic framework and contribute to the wider institutional and sector-facing conversation about the role, value and future of heritage within communities.

Let me know what you think, by email or twitter @ward_esme









Age Friendly culture: perspectives from the Hague and beyond

So I’m a month back in the day job(s) in Manchester, re-energised by Clore and with big plans ahead.  Some of the most collaborative work I do is as Strategic Culture Lead for the Greater Manchester Ageing Hub, and Age Friendly Manchester, leading the development of and shaping the role of culture in making this city-region a great place to grow older. Theres more about our work here

Its a citizen and place-based approach to ageing; championing agency, active participation and work led by older people themselves, in their communities. The ethos is to work “with and for, not to” local people.  Manchester was the UK’s first age friendly city and is widely known as an innovator and leader in this field.  Arts and culture has always been part of its vision of positive, active ageing. The more locally rooted and relevant our work, the greater international interest and recognition it receives.

Last week, I attended the World Health Organisation’s International Age Friendly Cities conference in the Hague, to present what we do, exchange learning and work towards joint action with five of the world’s other leading age friendly cities; New York, Suzhou, Bangalore, Frankfurt and the Hague.  The key themes, relevant to all the cities, in spite of our differences, were; Diversity, Vitality, Participation and Accessibility.

It was fascinating to hear experiences of urban ageing from across the globe; concerns in Suzhou on the long term impact of the one-child policy and urbanisation on caring for an ageing population; the role and growing importance of apps and tech for connectedness in Bangalore; New York’s steadfast commitment to becoming the most accessible city in the world; Frankfurt’s approach to participatory decision making and policy development and the Hague’s focus on innovation and independent living in a super-diverse city.  The conversations were full of generosity, new thinking and all too short – indeed, this is intended to be the start of an international movement committed to future collaboration, exchanges and collective endeavour.

Day two shifted focus to projects and work at a local level.  Time for a site visit – we walked through an old slaughterhouse, skilfully transformed into a shared public space/precinct with school, nursery and shops, past recently redeveloped social housing towards one of the most diverse neighbourhoods in the Hague. We passed the “Father Centre” set up a  few years ago by a group of Muslim elders concerned about their young people.  Today, it is open to and welcomes all.  Just up the road, on a fairly busy street, we stopped outside number 154.  The two mobility scooters parked outside were the only clue to what was inside.

We were here to see the Living Room project, “Laakse Lente”.  Back in 2012, the local community centre closed.  Many of the local older residents were disappointed and increasingly worried about creeping loneliness.  Where would they go now? Nettie and Leo, the couple who live at No.154 were so frustrated by the inaction and lack of solutions, they decided they would organise something themselves.

So they opened their living room, and continue to open it every weekday morning (10-12) for any local older residents who want to come and meet others.  Around 95 people visit each week.  “All seniors are welcome.  The house is open to all”.  They also organise activities each week, but especially in the summer, ” the loneliest time of year, when the city is either on holiday or at the beach.”

Surrounded by the stuff of family life; photos, trinkets and ornaments, they drink coffee, eat cake, chat, argue and laugh.   Earlier in the day, we’d heard about how, like the UK, the decline of civic infrastructure was resulting in an increasingly DIY approach to supporting independent living and care in later life across Holland.  Leo and Nettie receive donations from local businesses – food, coffee and cash – to support their work.

For many, its a lifeline.  Leo spoke movingly of one older man, who had been having dark suicidal thoughts before he found the Living Room.  Recently, he handed Leo a card of thanks.  It read “Attention is the most beautiful gift you can give anyone else”.  Another woman I spoke with proudly showed me the artwork she had given, now hanging pride of place on the living room wall.  She said it expressed how “if we are honest, we speak and make each other a little crazy.  But that’s home.  I’ve found home”


I asked those sat around on sofas and chairs “where would you be if you weren’t here today?”  Almost unanimously, they responded, “At home alone, behind the geraniums”      I now know this is a Dutch phrase to describe those who, in later life, sit alone at home, staring out of the window at the rest of the world. Its a heartbreaking image and so at odds with the warmth, humour and community in this living room.  No geraniums here…

So what can be learnt from projects like Living Room?  What relevance might this have to museums and arts organisations?

I would suggest plenty – not least the warmth of welcome, generosity of spirit, grit and DIY determination to get something done.   Museums know alot about care – for collections of course, but also I believe, for people and ideas.   We live in an age where social connectedness makes the greatest difference to quality of life as we age (above any medical intervention).  But museums are more than social spaces, more than living rooms full of interesting stuff.  We’re just coming to the end of a large-scale HLF-funded cultural volunteering programme with socially isolated people (including older people) that sheds light on this ; connectedness to others, the past and place, offers new perspectives and purpose.

Evaluation confirms that positive outcomes were underpinned by a strong sense of connectedness to people, local stories and events.  The connectedness to human experience over time enhanced the level of self-awareness, belonging, imagination and the ability to narrate and relate better to others and thus improve social relationships.

Inspiring Futures: Volunteering for Wellbeing SROI Summary 2016

An age friendly world, as conceived by the World Health Organisation, enables people of all ages to actively participate in community activities and treats everyone with respect, regardless of their age.  My trip to the Hague reminded me how critical it is to show we care, to pay more attention and to connect.  The international conversations were fascinating and I hope will lead to collective action, but its the living room at no.154 that made the greatest impression and will stay with me for some time.

What I learnt from my placement at HLF

I’ve learnt a lot – not least that folk in the heritage sector are amongst the finest there are, that large national organisations move slowly (and I’m impatient) and that there’s just not enough money to go round….

As part of the Clore Fellowship, you undertake a placement in a cultural organisation very different from your usual working environment. So, what might I learn from the Heritage Lottery Fund; a UK-wide organisation and funder, committed to supporting, advocating and driving forwards the heritage sector? With a new-ish CEO and based within a strategic team considering its priorities for a new framework for the coming years (and in the midst of a Tailored Review), it seemed a fascinating time to find out. Time to seek a larger perspective, above and beyond the museum sector I call home.

There is no doubt that HLF has changed the cultural and heritage landscape in my generation, for the better. I have only ever met committed, engaged and knowledgeable staff and as an organisation, it promotes values I share and hold dear;

“from the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks we love, from precious memories to rare wildlife….we use money raised by National Lottery players to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about”

It is the largest dedicated funder of heritage in the UK, with over £7.7billion awarded to over 42,000 projects since 1994.   But, like many other cultural organisations and funders, HLF does not engage with and reach as widely as it could or should. Widening access, entitlement and equity within the cultural and heritage sectors has been a motivating factor in my placement, research and throughout my Clore Fellowship.

So, for four months, I led an inquiry to explore how HLF might change their funding approach to support communities to catalyse new heritage activity. (Some of my study visits are covered in previous blogposts). I split my time between the strategic team (London) and HLF North West team (Manchester), but mostly I’ve been on the road meeting people and seeing stuff.   I’ve not done an exhaustive study and I’m no consultant. As a Clore Fellow on placemement, rather than a member of staff, I’ve had a licence to do things differently. I’ve been listening to those leading change, unearthing and distilling new insights, ideas and perspectives from within communities and beyond the heritage sector.

I shared headline findings as a provocation to HLF’s Board (aboard SS Great Britain!) and I’ve just completed a final report. In September, I’ll share this and the propositions for change that have emerged more widely.  In the meantime, I’d like to thank the Heritage Lottery Fund and particularly Karen Brookfield, Judy Cligman, Nathan Lee, Ros Kerlake and Sir Peter Luff for their welcome, support and encouragement (to stir things up).

Here’s my top 10 learning points;

1  The power of resisting definition

2 Heritage is about the future 

3 Spend more time outdoors

4 Keep it local

5 Lets talk more about love and care (and less about saving stuff)

6  Keeping it simple isn’t easy

7  Find and support “powerhouse people”

8   The challenge of ‘projects’

9  There’s just not enough money

10  And its not easy giving away the money there is..


1  The power of resisting definition

When the Heritage Lottery Fund was conceived, there was no definition of the word ‘heritage’. The first Trustees discussed the question of how the national heritage could be defined,

“We decided that [the question] was unanswerable; we could no more define the national heritage than we could define, say, beauty or art… So we let the national heritage define itself. We awaited requests for assistance from those who believed they had a part of the national heritage worth saving” (NHMF Annual Report 1980-81.2)

This became a founding principle (and a politically astute one at that) that still holds true today,

“Over the years we have resisted offering a definition of heritage, and will continue to challenge others to tell us what is important to them” (Liz Forgan, HLF SP2.19)

2 Heritage is about the future

During my placement, I’ve met lots of new people and visited new places. My opening question is usually ‘what do you really care about, here and now?’ It’s a question that gets to the heart of the matter and, if like me, you believe heritage is the story of us and as much about the future as past, it seems the right place to start.

In Hackney, heritage was described to me as “the glue”, “the mortar between the blocks” that “reminds communities of who they are, the values they share and the future they might collectively build”.

As someone who has, throughout my professional life, worked hard to engage communities with ‘art’ and ‘culture’, it strikes me that in comparison, the word ‘heritage’ is much more readily accepted, understood and liked (helped, in part, by HLF’s definition of heritage as what is meaningful to you). Time to talk about heritage more, not less. People spoke to me about the possibilities and opportunities for their communities and how a more complex understanding of their past and place informs and encourages their vision.

As Matthew Taylor from RSA once put it, “the question is whether the heritage sector can raise its sights from the day to day grind of protecting old stuff” How we, as a sector, engage in conversations about the future and might play a critical role in broadening the civic and cultural imagination will increasingly be my focus moving forwards.


3 Spend more time outdoors

As someone who has spent most of my working life in museums (though spends most of my private life outdoors), I’ve made the most of the opportunity to visit parks, landscapes and natural heritage. Some of the most valued and inspiring work I’ve seen has been in landscapes; coastlines, moors, forests, parks and yet more parks.

I think we have much to learn from the environmental sector and natural world. It’s led me to start working with the Forestry Commission as Project Advisor helping shape the future of Grizedale Forest, plan a forthcoming trip to Yosemite, co-produce a publication on museums and parks (2018) and reminded me of the value and joy of spending more time in the great outdoors. How an organisation like HLF, responsible for supporting and nurturing natural heritage, enables its staff to step away from the desk and get out and see more of the great outdoors, is an ongoing but important challenge. It’s good to get out, never time wasted.

4 Keep it local

‘Focus on the local’, interviewees said, time and again.

“The focus should be hyper-local, at block or street level.  Start small, build belief and capacity”.

One size does not fit all. Good. Be adaptable, respond to place. Be involved in decision making, creating relevance and building confidence.”

Local is a tricky concept for a national organisation. How regional teams respond to their regions and what constitutes ‘local’ in the Highlands as opposed to our inner cities varies wildly. And devolution shows little sign of slowing down. (In addition to varying forms of long-standing devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, there has recently been a spate of devolution agreements with cities and regions across the UK, including Greater Manchester, Merseyside and the West Midlands). Amongst other national funders, there is an increased commitment to and interest in place-based investment and localised decision making. Great Places has started to address this but now is the time for new and ambitious thinking at HLF about ‘localism’ and place-based funding.

5 Lets talk more about love and care (and less about saving stuff)

The value of heritage in supporting wellbeing came up time and again, though framed in a narrative of empathy and care rather than health determinants or provision.   One of the participants at Womens Community Matters at Barrow in Furness, expressed it beautifully,

“We build on love, on faith, on meeting of minds, A bundle of hope, creativity and rhymes”.

Many of the community-based organisations I met spoke about how important a sense of heritage and identity was for their clients and town and how heritage could encourage care, kindness, compassion and love.

“People want emotional connections, not civic commemorations”

Its time to make room for real words and feelings.

6 Keeping it simple isn’t easy

HLF is a highly process-driven organisation. Energy goes into managing the risk and processes and there is real expertise in this area within the organisation. However, there was consensus among interviewees and staff that it had all grown too complicated. Simplification should be (and is) a priority. Its not easy. Italian artist, designer and inventor Bruno Minari has it right I think – “to complicate is simple, to simplify is complicated”.

I know, from my conversations and working with development teams, there is real commitment to building relationships and a sense that this is what is needed to be more inclusive and reach new people. However the more systems and processes, the more divided you become from the people applying. This speaks to a wider concern, regularly expressed to me, that HLF should become more relational (and less transactional) in its approach. The current review of processes and plans for the future will, I am hopeful, create space for this shift and thinking.

7 Find and support “powerhouse people”

Mavericks, champions, visionaries, activists, “powerhouse people”, the ones who drive things forwards – we all know them in our organisations, communities, lives.  How HLF might seek and support them formed a cornerstone of my placement. I was encouraged to think about reaching ‘beyond the usual suspects’ and consider how HLF could engage and work with them. This ranged from exploring how they might fund individuals and their ideas (even if not fully formed) to exploring different forms of public knowledge and wisdom,

How to take account of the expertise of those like elderly botanist Margaret Bradshaw, with her long-held knowledge of plantlife in upper Teesdale? We need to broaden our notion of what expertise is.” (Ewan Allinson, Heart of Tessdale Landscape Partnership).

Beyond HLF, in the wider sector, there’s an opportunity to create new forms of debate, to bridge the authority gap. ‘Community expertise’ could and should be mobilised and given authority. Maddi Nicholson from Artgene and Coastal Communities in Cumbria, explained why this matters so much.

These folk are the stuff of change. But pride of place has been knocked out of people. Essentially, we’re in a civil war. Let heritage be the flagbearer for how communities like ours are empowered.

 8   The challenge of ‘projects’

“The work is never done but the project funding is over”

HLF is accountable to Parliament via the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). It’s what’s called an “arms-length public body” (though the length of that arm varies). It is constituted as a project funder by Policy Directions from UK Government. At present, HLF chooses to interpret ‘projects’ as work within time-limited frame (maximum 5 years) and at a range of different levels and scales.

The ongoing debate about investment in parks highlights the challenge of this approach. HLF has invested in parks for over 20 years. In recent years, in light of the absence of a leading voice for parks, it has stepped up to convene and lead debate about the future and state of UK parks. But it is not able to fund revenue and instead supports a wide range of transformational projects and supports new thinking about operating and business models for parks. As Dave Morris, Chair of National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces summarises;

“Those seeking alternatives to a statutory duty have recognised there’s no silver bullet available, in fact there’s not even a wooden bullet.  Recent governments have been causing the current under-funding crisis and park lovers need to put a rocket under the government.  They big up the Lottery funding but this is just taxation in reverse, with the poor punters being used to subsidise the government and its tax cuts for the rich.  The recommendations in the recent Parliamentary Select Committee Report do not go far enough.  Yes, the report set out the situation and challenges well, but, for me, its recommendations ran pitifully short of what is needed. Parks should simply be recognised as a statutory service and be backed by adequate public funding.  There are ways to find the money.  Its about political will.”

Dave Morris does not doubt HLF’s commitment to parks, nor its ability to convene and mobilise a disparate sector. He values HLF staff and support. But, rightly, he highlights the limitations of their remit and the complexity and challenges of public funding and political decision-making. For many projects, there are limited or no other options. HLF is the only game in town.

And of course, this sits within the broader context of austerity and the decline of community infrastructure. For over a decade, there have been ongoing cuts to public services. The impact of this was raised by every single community leader and organisation I interviewed.

“There are no longer housing offices, the role of the church in public life is diminishing, the closure of post offices, collapse of the high street, growth of online services, all of this is about community infrastructure being stripped back. Heritage is about people’s connections to places and each other and this is needed now more than ever”

My conversations have often focused on generational change and impact and, not for the first time, I’ve been conscious of the gap between funding (usually aligned to electoral cycles) and practice.   So, how much flex is there to reinterpret “projects” in a time of austerity?

9 There’s just not enough money

HLF’s CEO Ros Kerslake recently spelt it out,

“Demand for our funding has never been higher. For this year’s “major batch” Board meeting, we received grant requests totalling £224m for an available budget of £40m.”

The focus of my enquiry has been on small amounts of money that make a big difference within communities. These are also oversubscribed but their impact and ‘value’ is significant and I hope that, moving forwards, there will be further opportunities for lower-level community-based investment. I’ve observed how the need to balance bigger flagship projects and smaller-scale work forms an ongoing and important debate about what HLF is for. There’s just not enough money to go round. Lottery takings are variable and with increased competition from other forms of Lottery, there is real nervousness that funds will decrease.

10 And its not easy giving away the money there is..

Making the right decisions and being transparent about that decision-making takes time, energy and a lot of debate. I’ve been so used to working my socks off to build a compelling case for investment (as grantee), I’d not fully considered the challenges and demands from a funders’ perspective. I’ve been impressed by the commitment and skill of HLF staff and the Board to invest Lottery money with a balance of care and ambition but as demand increasingly outstrips supply, austerity deepens and the civic infrastructure declines, the concept of need and what is ‘at risk’ is also changing. Its not going to get easier any time soon.



Equity and progress: Museums and arts in San Francisco Bay Area

San Francisco, CA, USA

I head over the glorious Golden Gate bridge northwards to Fairfax, self-styled birthplace of mountain-biking.  I’m there to meet Margaret Kadoyama.   For thirty years Margaret has worked in museums (within organisations and as consultant), taught the J.F.Kennedy Museum Studies program and in recent years, been deeply involved in the US Museums and Race initiative.   When I catch up with her, she’s putting the finishing touches to a forthcoming book on Museums and Communities (to be published by Routledge later this year).  I’m there to talk to her about the role and future of museums, civic engagement and leadership.  I want to know more about the issues facing US museums.

“One of the biggest is equity. What does it really look like?  What do we need to do differently?  Museums have got to acknowledge and understand their own histories, as places based on colonialism.  They have to recognise when they exhibit institutional bias and racism.  A challenge is coming from the younger generation and museums are going to have to figure out where the leadership is.”

Margaret tells me how activism is increasing in the field and points to collectives like Museum Workers Speak   as change-makers who show the way for the wider sector. #MuseumWorkersSpeak is an action-oriented platform for social change at the intersection of labor, access, and inclusion.  Formed as a collective of activist museum workers, they interrogate the relationship between museums’ stated commitments to social value and their internal labor practices.

We talk about similar initiatives in the UK and how, amongst some museums, there is a discernible shift towards becoming more pro-social and activist.  I’ve taught on a post-graduate Museology course in Manchester for nearly a decade now, Margaret for double that time and we’ve both noticed a shift in the motivations and interests of students towards wider social impact.

When I ask how she views her role, she laughs.  “San Francisco is not exactly short of activists.  It’s in our DNA.  So I am an activist, but I also think about myself more in terms used by author Debra Myers, as a ‘tempered radical‘”.  She believes in quietly pushing things forward.  Since Trump, however, even she has become more vocal.  I sense a reluctance and even slight fatigue that she’s felt compelled to do this.  But, we both discuss, its no longer enough to be the platform or fora for debate in today’s world. Now is the time for museums to step beyond this, play a more active role.

So, why hasn’t it happened more?  Some of the museums I’m visiting on this trip (like Oakland Museum and MAH Santa Cruz) are doing this but they are the exception rather than the rule.  Margaret puts it simply, describing the qualities and attributes needed to work in this way.  “Its hard.  You need to be open, agile and often, just say yes.  Make things happen. Be at the table.  Listen.  Be part of your community.”  In addition, she tells me how, for some museums, IRS rules are used to limit the scope of socially engaged work you can do.  “If you get government funding however, there is still more you can say and do than you can’t.  It shouldn’t be the excuse to hold back or not step up.  We need to explore the limits.”

Which leads me back across town to the Yerba Buena Centre for the Arts (YBCA), a multi-disciplinary contemporary arts centre with a truly compelling mission; to generate culture that moves people.  It describes itself as the Center for the Art of Doing Something About It.  I love this.  I meet with CEO Deborah Cullinan and Jonathan Moscone, Chief of Civic Engagement and what is clear, from the outset, is their fundamental belief in the power of people and art to create more hopeful, equitable solutions.  Since joining in 2013, Deborah has fostered a “culture of invitation”, supporting staff and partners to coalesce around the vision of YBCA as community centre and civic asset.

“Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (YBCA) is the Bay Area’s creative home for civic action. We believe that culture precedes change, and it is the responsibility of arts organizations to spur and support societal movement.

Our community’s biggest challenges require collaborative solutions. We work across sectors to advance the insights, ideas, and projects that can create real change.”

Their YBCA Fellows program brings together creative citizens from across the Bay Area – artists and everyday people alike – to engage in a yearlong process of inquiry, dialogue, and project generation. Each Fellowship cohort explores and responds to a question and together they use art and culture to inspire community transformation.  This year, they’re asking “Where is our public imagination?”

YBCA have a commitment to supporting the arts ecosystem and believe one of the most effective ways to do this is to be part of the broader civic conversation.  This is something Ive been thinking about alot in the last couple of years.  For several months, on secondment to the public health team’s Greater Manchester Ageing Hub and now, as Strategic Lead (Culture) I regularly participate in those civic conversations and culture plays a significant role in shaping the city-region’s wider ambitions for ageing.  I know  colleagues from other sectors value the perspective, solutions and ideas culture and the arts bring.  Exploring how museums and arts organisations can be part of that wider civic conversation, has in large part, driven my thinking and research during my Clore fellowship.  Not surprising then that my interests and values align so strongly with YBCA. Their vision and programme is impressive, consistent and I’m so pleased to have found them. I’m glad they are doing this work.  I hope others follow.


The only disappointment is how the building and spaces don’t yet reflect their purpose. Although the staff are warm, friendly and soon put you at ease, the building feels cool and exclusive.  Also, there are real constraints on activities in the urban park outside and entrance area so their threshold is not as inviting as it should be.  Both Deborah and Jon are upfront about this and as you would expect, are doing something about it.  “We’re going to overhaul our spaces, experiment with them a bit.  There is so much reverence for architects. So we’re looking to a design studio skilled at working in public realm like shopping malls, to help us turn YBCA into a community centre, a voting place.”  Increasingly they’re not just interested in hosting others but in making and leading their own activism.   I’m curious and excited to see what and how this develops.

After leaving YBCA, purely by chance, I come across one of their projects; a People’s Garden in the Tenderloin District, one of the only neighborhoods in the city of San Francisco without a full-service grocery store, making access to fresh, affordable food a daily struggle for the many low-income residents of the Tenderloin. Over 30,000 residents, including families and children, live there.

In 2010 a vacant lot near San Francisco’s City Hall transformed into what is now a  thriving community garden. In partnership with YBCA, it was created as part of the Neighbourhood Development Corporation’s work for food justice and brings together hundreds of volunteers to grow food and build community.  That’s what you call the Art of Doing Something About It.

My final museum visit in the Bay Area is in Oakland, the Oakland Museum of California, neatly summarised as “the Museum of Us”.  I’ll confess, I fell slightly in love with this place.

From outside, it may look like a car park or bunker, but once inside, its a stylish modernist concrete building with terraces for sculpture, planting, views galore and large oak and glass doors leading you into and out of galleries of natural science, history and American art. There’s a sunken park, even a fishpond.  It felt so relaxed and informal (the sunshine does help) and the collection displays are both conversational in tone and thought-provoking. For me, all this makes for a great museum visit.

I spend a day there and meet up with Kelly McKinley, Deputy Director of Oakland Museum and several of her colleagues. Oakland is the third largest city in the Bay area and the most ethnically diverse in the US.  The Museum sits next to Lake Merritt, which Kelly tells me a decade ago, was little more than a muddy puddle.  Today, its a locus for the city.  She tells me more about what matters to the museum.

 “How do we tell stories connected to this place?  What does equity mean here, today?  Oakland is the birthplace of the Black Panthers movement and we have a duty to tell that story and if necessary, revisit the trauma.  We can’t do that alone. From consultation to contribution to co-creation, communities inform what we do and show.  If we’re really committed to equity, we’re committed to lifting up stories that haven’t had a stage”

Again, a real focus on equity, that I encounter time and again as a visitor.  Not least in the  Dorothea Lange retrospective commemorating her personal archive, gifted to the museum 50 years ago.  I’m excited about this and have been looking forward to it. I’m not disappointed.  Its a deeply moving exhibition, with striking (and many unfamiliar) images and a clear narrative focusing on her activism and the emotional and political impact of her work.

From documenting the plight of Dust Bowl migrants during the Great Depression to magnifying the grim conditions of incarcerated Japanese Americans during World War II, Lange’s photographs demonstrate how empathy and compassion—focused through art—can trigger political action.

Kelly tells me how they’ve shifted in recent years, from trying to be a Museum for the whole of California to primarily “being fabulous and beloved at home” for the people of Oakland.  This means building the confidence and courage of the staff, cracking out of the curatorial-driven model and the “paralysis of perfection” so prevalent, especially in art museums.  One of their programmes – Friday Nights at OMCA  has led this shift. Its  “Oakland’s most talked about food truck party” and every Friday, hundreds of local people go to this family-friendly event with music, art, dancing and of course food.  I meet its organiser-in chief Cynthia Taylor, Associate Director Public Programs, and for  two hours, beside the Koi carp pond, we chat about the role of museums as social spaces, advocating for social change, Trump, artists, developing exhibitions about the subjects people really care about (most recently at OMCA these have included the story of the Black Panthers and marijuana legalisation) and of course, equity and care.

What I admire about Oakland Museum is both their commitment to change and their recognition of the time and energy it requires.  Evolution, not revolution.  They may experiment (often with radical intent) but their public is engaged with and part of the process. I wish more museums did their thinking in public.  The big issues of equity,  creativity and social change underpin all I’ve seen on my visit and so they should.  Kelly reminds me of Michael Spock’s warning that ‘your museum will close if it can’t be for people rather than about stuff’.  But of course, the very best museums (like Oakland) are those that do both.


Getting lost and finding myself in San Francisco


For the next week or so I have a packed timetable of study visits, interviews and tours. I’m going to be meeting with academics, artists, practitioners and community leaders to find out more about how they do things at Oakland Museum, Yerba Buena Arts Centre, Exploratorium’s Office for Public Spaces and MAH Santa Cruz.

Since arriving in the City by the Bay, I’ve explored some of the wonders of Golden Gate Park and flagship arts organisations like SFMOMA.

I’ve been impressed with the commitment to sustainability and research throughout the building and work of California Academy of Sciences (above) and immersed myself in the nostalgia of the Summer of Love Experience at the beautiful de Young Museum. Here was the San Francisco of yesteryear; counter-cultural, with artists and activists at the forefront of political and social change. 50 years on, I wandered through an exhibition devoted to the art, fashion and rock and roll of 1967,  surrounded by the baby-boomers who had been there, done that.

But now, after a weekend of sightseeing and exhibitions, a day of doing things differently. Channelling my inner Walt Whitman and inspired by John Muir,  I decided to wander, get lost, see where I ended up.

“I only went for a walk….for going out I found was really going in” (John Muir)

I set off, with no destination in particular, heading west. Eventually I came across Mountain Lake, one of the last natural lakes in San Francisco. 200 years ago, San Francisco was full of freshwater habitats, creeks and ponds.  After many years of neglect, Mountain Lake is now being revived as a valued part of the city’s natural heritage.


It’s a long term project, still in its early days, that brings together park staff, scientific partners and hundreds of community volunteers.  Mountain Lake sits within the Presidio of San Francisco, a park and former U.S Army military fort on the northern tip of the peninsula, part of the Golden Gate Park Recreational Area.   After a hard-fought battle, the Presidio averted being sold at auction and came under the management of the Presidio Trust.  The Trust now manages most of the park in partnership with the National Park Service. The Presidio Trust Act called for “preservation of the cultural and historic integrity of the Presidio for public use.” This includes the restoration, care and lease of over 800 buildings.  The Act also required that the Presidio Trust be financially self-sufficient by 2013. How to balance the needs of preserving the integrity of the National Historic Landmark District in the face of new construction, competing pressures for natural habitat restoration, and requirements for commercial purposes is an ongoing concern.  But this afternoon, with tule reeds blowing in the breeze and red-winged blackbird (in the photo) within arms length, the gains and potential for both nature and people are clear.

Aside from Golden Gate park , the Presidio and a small number of neighbourhood and pocket parks, it strikes me that the predominant public space in San Francisco is the sidewalk. As I walk around the city, I keep spotting planted trees with large green bags and Friends of the Urban Forest signs, on the pavements and beside roads.


Friends of the Urban Forest ( was set up after the City and County of San Francisco cut funding to urban forestry in the late 1970’s.  With some leftover funding from city grant money, George Williams hired Michelle Anderson and they decided to take matters into their own hands by organizing neighborhoods to plant and care for their own trees.

Today, FUF is a thriving nonprofit organization committed to revitalizing San Francisco’s urban forest, building community, and taking a local leadership role in mitigating global environmental problems through the simple act of planting trees. FUF has planted more than 50,000 trees, has a strong partnership with the City and County of San Francisco, is well loved among San Franciscans, and has an outstanding reputation among urban-forestry organizations nationwide.

It has a Youth Tree Care program (now called Green Teens), one of the nation’s few paid urban forestry vocational skills training programs. It has just launched The Urban Forest Map, an online database and map of San Francisco’s trees. Anyone can look up — or add — information about trees, such as their location, health, species and more. And there is even an additional call to action;

if you have a lemon tree, be sure to add it to the Urban Forest Map so it can be counted in the Just One Tree campaign, which aims to make San Francisco self-sufficient in its lemon needs and serve as a model for how a city can grow more food locally.

The street tree is an often overlooked but significant public asset (please take note Sheffield). So what would a scaled-up call to action look like in UK?  The timing is critical.  Tree planting is at an all-time low.  It makes me think of Manchester’s City of Trees, which sets to re-invigorate Greater Manchester’s landscape by restoring underused, unloved woodland and planting a tree for every man, woman and child that lives in the City Region, within a generation.  The stories of their planting is the heritage of the future, as much as the trees themselves.

Onwards, past yet more trees, until I reach a destination of sorts and the end of my day’s wanderings, the Legion of Honour (art museum).  Outside, a plaque catches my eye. The joy of happenstance again.


Frances E Willard, it turns out, was an American educator, temperance reformer and womens suffragist.  She developed the slogan “Do Everything” for the Womens Christian Temperance Union, encouraging its membership to engage in a broad array of social reforms through lobbying, petitioning, preaching, publishing, and education.  Her vision encompassed  labor reforms and the global expansion of women’s rights. She was instrumental in the passage of the Nineteenth (Womens Suffrage) Amendment to the US Constitution. Its yet another reminder how interconnected we are.  I’m not so far from Manchester (home of the suffragettes) after all.

Run. Climb. Fall. Repeat. Making spaces for work and play in the Outdoor City

I drive up steep suburban Sheffield streets in the south of the city to Ash Tree Yard, the slightly dishevelled but friendly-looking home to Heeley Development Trust.  For more than 20 years, Heeley Development Trust has been creating spaces (indoors and out) that enable people to play and create.  For me, its a simple beautiful ethos that embraces everyday creativity and heritage.  The Trust was established “in response to state failure” and is rooted in the simple belief that small, locally owned and led organisations and projects achieve the greatest impact.

So we wander – from Ash Tree Yard, its recycling bike workshops and space for work with young people through a series of pocket parks (including small community orchard) towards the largest green space, Heeley Park, and finally to SUM studios (part of a large site of what was one of the finest Victorian schools in Sheffield, by pioneering architect E R Robson).

J.M.W Turner, Sheffield, from Derbyshire Lane, 1797.

My guide is Andy Jackson, who has devoted much of his life to this work since the early 2000s.  He tells me that originally, as in Turner’s painting, Heeley was a series of small semi-rural villages.  With industrialisation came significant change, a huge influx of people and infrastructure (the boom years) until eventually industrial decline left this suburb with pockets of derelict land, unloved and without a plan. “The heart of the community was ripped out”.  The housing and population is mixed and over half local residents are over 55.  It’s not one of the priority areas for the city and Andy is candid about the challenges of sustaining community development and securing investment for an area that is noone’s priority (other than those that live and work there).

When he started at the Trust, it was 100% grant dependent.  Today, it earns 98% of its income (though he is keen to point out a large portion of this is still through publicly funded contracts and commissioning).  Still, that is some turnaround.  In large part, this is because of the Trust’s holistic, neighbourhood-wide approach which encompasses public spaces like parks, heritage buildings and businesses.

There is power in land, bricks and ownership and its vital we own and care for these spaces.  They’re the heart of our community.

This mixed-model is what makes running the park, with 125 year lease but no dedicated income or negotiated maintenance agreement or dowry, even feasible.  It is  the largest community run park in the country.  And it’s a great park.

Climb. Jump. Ride. Relax. Dig Deep.  Your Park Needs You.  Heeley Peoples Park website.

We asked ‘how do we build a landscape like the Peak District (some 20 minutes away by car) here, for our kids?’ 80 tons of stone was locally sourced for walls, footpaths and rockeries.  Local species and native trees abound. Wildflower banks and woodland areas are left wild to explore.  Training-scale mountain bike single-track weaves through the trees.  Two large climbing boulders sit ready and waiting.  The park has drawn upon local talent, expertise and suppliers.

Andy talks about the desire and commitment to encourage risk taking at the heart of play.   I agree, this is just what we and our children need in our cities; “To run.  Climb.  Fall.  Repeat”

Sheffield brands itself as the Outdoor city and whilst I love the idea, I’ve struggled to see it as much more than a branding exercise.  Until now.   By sensitively responding to local landscapes and creativity (whether climbers, gardeners, makers or local kids), Heeley Park shows how the Outdoor City might encourage distinctive, playful and only-in-Sheffield spaces and opportunities.  Show, don’t tell.

It strikes me that Heeley Development Trust brilliantly brings together the “outdoor city” and “maker city” (Sheffield’s other big brand) as we head over to SUM Studios, part of the former Victorian Anns Grove School, next to the park.

Great care has been taken to retain the character of the historic building; windows, roofs and walls have been carefully repaired rather than replaced. Original brick and stone has been revealed, new interiors are open and light, with glimpses into each of the units.  It feels contemporary and friendly and I’m not at all surprised theres a waiting list for future spaces.  Originally conceived as a ‘castle of learning’, the ambition is to convert all three listed school buildings into the modern-day castle equivalent for Sheffield’s creative sector; a hub for business, arts and community use.

In the cultural sector, we’re increasingly (and rightly) encouraged to be more entrepreneurial with our assets but hearing Andy’s story of funding shortfalls, ownership issues, lack of political leadership and planning delays is a sobering reminder of the patience and tenacity you need to realise big and new ideas (and anyone who has worked on a capital project knows the blood, sweat and tears that underpin the process). What really interests me about Heeley Development Trust though is how interconnected everything is. Andy describes it as a mixed economy; people-land-buildings (in that order).  Income from SUMstudios helps pay for park maintenance (including two park keepers).  Bike repair contracts across the North support investment in Ash Tree Yard and allow them to commercialise their existing services.   On paper, it might look messy. But it works. Everything starts small and local.  Employ local.  Live here.  Work here.  Think in 15-20 year cycles – generational, not electoral or funding cycles.

So, how does a funder like HLF, keen to identify outcomes and timescales for investment, deal with an asset-based, localised, iterative development process like that in Heeley?   Reflecting on the much-needed and welcomed Lottery funding for the park in recent years, Andy summarises how difficult this was, “We want to build community, not break it and the processes of the bigger funders nearly broke us”.    When I ask Andy how funders might support communities more, he points to simplifying processes and learning from those who support community businesses like Locality and BIG Lottery funded Power to Change.

He admits too, that perhaps if they had been given too many large grants along the way, they wouldn’t be as imaginative, locally rooted and sustainable as they are now. But its come at a cost.  They’ve had to fight for recognition and new opportunities each step of the way.  Perhaps now is a time for change (for all). They’ve proved they can make it work, often in spite of (not because of) political support.  Their ambitions have grown.  They understand their value (to their community and city) and are now seeking greater investment than ever before.  After two decades, they are ready to seriously consider the future of a neighbourhood park and associated hall (Meersbrook Hall), with the aim of bringing it into community management. It’s within walking distance (part of their criteria for what constitutes local), on the other side of Heeley. It’s an enticing and many would say foolhardy prospect. They are just the start of a long journey that’s going to take time and yet more energy.  But I, for one, really hope they make it happen.  They could create something extraordinary.