‘Hard-to-reach’ audiences and vulnerable groups describe sections of the community that are often considered difficult to involve in the heritage sector. They have historically been underrepresented in cultural participation and find it difficult to access traditional services.
Interpretations of culture and heritage have tended to emphasise specific dominant historical narratives. These narratives often misrepresent or exclude the contributions and lived experiences of marginalised groups creating further barriers to participation. The Association of Critical Heritage Studies highlight ways in which:
Nationalism, imperialism, colonialism, cultural elitism, Western triumphalism, social exclusion based on class and ethnicity, and the fetishising of expert knowledge have all exerted strong influences on how heritage is used, defined and managed
The Association of Critical Heritage Studies
It is also important to expand the conversation around marginalised groups to ensure we consider people who are excluded for reasons of age, gender, sexuality, geography, socioeconomic conditions, disability and/or faith. Equally important is to consider how these different characteristics overlap and intersect within both individuals and communities.
In order to widen participation and engage with ‘hard-to-reach’ audiences and vulnerable groups, there are a few options to consider.
First, it is important that heritage organisations listen and respond to calls to rebuild the sector from the ground up. You can do this by reflecting on the kinds of stories these groups tell and considering how these stories might continue to exclude marginalised voices.
Heritage organisations have the responsibility to move beyond traditional ways of thinking about heritage by inviting under- and misrepresented communities to co-create and manage heritage. By engaging in digital participation, socially inclusive practices and embracing the insights and expertise of source communities, heritage organisations can incorporate these voices into a new model for the sector.
The value of different voices
Making use of digital participation to engage with ‘hard-to-reach’ and vulnerable organisations, heritage organisations can effectively:
- Harness a sense of belonging and social inclusion
- Empower individuals and communities
- Build cultural heritage with source communities
- Foster a sense of agency among source communities
- Gain community and stakeholder support for new initiatives
- Generate new project ideas from communities who are not traditionally involved
- Enhance the reputation of the heritage organisation
Note: The term ‘hard to reach’ is itself contested as it places the onus of responsibility on service users. For further details, read the article “We are not that hard-to-reach” – involving ‘seldom heard’ communities in research
Our expert, Dr Ruth Daly, University of Leeds, explains how you can begin to build relationships with marginalised communities through digital technology.
There are some very simple ways you can use new technologies to improve access to heritage, better represent marginalised groups and invite these audiences into your organisation.
Encourage digital participation
Digital technology enables you to reach and work with different communities worldwide. You might, for example, collaborate with community-based organisations through video conferencing, establishing a working group to begin to address the repatriation of artefacts. Similarly, you might work remotely with members of marginalised communities to develop a series of online workshops or streamed talks.
Engaging in digital participation enables heritage organisations to work in partnership with community-based organisations and source communities to harness a sense of belonging and social inclusion. Remember that access to technology may vary, so it is important to spend some time researching the best digital tools and platforms for reaching out to and working with the communities you would like to engage.
The resource created to answer the question ‘What criteria should we use when deciding what channels and platforms are right for us?’ may be helpful here.
Make your practice socially inclusive
Source communities should be invited to contribute to content making in partnership with heritage organisations. By working collaboratively, heritage organisations can contribute to sustainable social inclusion. By embracing the heritage insights of source communities, you can build cultural heritage with communities often excluded from mainstream cultural narratives.
The key to this is to embed long-term reciprocal relationships into your ways of working. Rather than invite communities’ members to contribute to a single event or exhibition, think about how you can build a lasting, meaningful role within your organisation. This might take the form of an advisory group that meets with your trustees regularly, creating internship opportunities which build skills and lead to employment within the sector or creating a gallery space which is regularly curated by members of the community.
Heritage organisations can use digital participation and socially inclusive practices to inform, consult, listen and respond to ‘hard-to-reach’ audiences and vulnerable groups. Rapport can be built, and trust established, by sharing resources, power and responsibility within a network of stakeholders which in turn fosters a sense of agency among source communities.
For example, you might set up a series of online open conversations with marginalised groups to begin a dialogue about ways of working together. You might make your archive or collections available digitally to source communities as a first step in sharing resources. Or you might host a community-led blog or podcast on your website.
Below are some links to further articles for reference:
- A brief history of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies
- An article from Good Governance on engaging with the ‘hard-to-reach’
- A report from the Good Things Foundation on their widening digital participation programme
- A history of Sweetpatootee, documentary producers on heritage interpretation
The Museum of Cardiff, in partnership with Cardiff Council’s independent living services, set up monthly online reminiscence sessions in 2020 as a means to provide access whilst the museum was closed during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The reminiscence sessions include the use of objects and personal stories from the collection to encourage conversation and sharing of memories. This incorporates a mix of images, stories, questions and activities like short history quizzes into the online sessions, to accommodate the different ways that people best engage with the topics. This has been especially valuable when encouraging sharing between people with dementia and their carers.
Lesley, a regular online reminiscence participant said:
The fact that you show objects from way back when promotes the sharing…it’s like a snowball effect
The museum’s learning and outreach officer is a dementia champion. The museum ensures that all staff and volunteers take part in a ‘dementia friend’ session prior to supporting activities and as part of the ongoing work towards being a dementia-friendly organisation. The Museum of Cardiff and the Independent Living Services team encourage everyone taking part in the activities to become a dementia friend. All are urged to continue to raise awareness for people living with dementia to support the Alzheimer’s Society’s dementia-friendly community work.
The Learning and Outreach Officer for the Museum of Cardiff, Jordan Taylor-Bosanko says:
The sessions have been running for fifteen months over Microsoft Teams, in which we have new participants join each month, as well as regular attendees.
To encourage continued reminiscence after the session finishes, Helen Harris, Community Engagement Officer for the council’s days opportunities team, shared feedback from a couple that she’s supported to attend the online reminiscence sessions:
Denis and his wife Jean have joined the online group a couple of times now and really enjoy it. Jean has dementia and they both find that after joining your session they have something to talk about and Jean interacts more.
The Independent Living Services team have also received ‘Digital Champion’ training (from Digital Communities Wales) to be able to provide the necessary support and digital devices for participants and help them to attend the online sessions.
Jordan outlines the importance of the work for supporting people’s wellbeing and risks of isolation:
Some of the people that attend the sessions had not taken part in digital activities previously and have other barriers to attending events, due to health concerns or full-time carer responsibilities.
Our partnership with the Independent Living Services team has been integral to the facilitation of these sessions.
Both services have been able to work well together, utilising the skills and resources available to support participants’ needs, who would not otherwise access these activities and has also allowed us to develop the content of the sessions to suit digital and in-person delivery.
There is no one-size fits all approach to working with ‘hard-to-reach’ groups. This section provides some points for reflection and some practical steps you can take to begin working with marginalised communities.
Before you begin to reach out to communities, it is important to do some groundwork within your organisation first.
Plan your engagement
- Use demographic or visitor data to help identify the presence of under-represented groups locally with whom you may focus engagement strategies.
- Place the needs and individual circumstances of source communities at the centre of your interaction.
- Identify appropriate approaches and strategies of engagement.
- Develop appropriate digital methods of community engagement.
- Co-create with communities in the planning and carrying out of the engagement.
- Develop and utilise networks for contact.
Engage target groups
- Recognize and respect a wide range of cultural traditions.
- Engage diverse representation.
- Identify and invite appropriate people to conduct interviews, surveys and focus groups with communities.
- Accommodate the needs of the communities you seek to engage by making participation as enjoyable and easy as possible for people
- Use appropriately varied graphics in promotional material
- Ensure digital content is accessible.
- Adapt information to meet the needs of individuals
- Make content accessible:
- Consider how users of screen readers and other devices will access your content.
- Text should be provided to describe any images used.
- Make content available in different languages.
- Use appropriate terminology when referring to the ‘hard-to-reach’ population group.
Further guidance to help ensure that digital media is inclusive and accessible
Browse related resources by smart tags:
Access Audience focused Community Inclusion Under-representation
Please attribute as: "How your organisation can engage with underrepresented groups (2022) by Dr Ruth Daly supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0