Digital audience engagement during a heritage project … and a pandemic
In March 2020 Hereford Cathedral had just embarked upon the public engagement phase of their Eastern Cloisters Project (ECP) when the impact of COVID-19 meant that all their planned work had to be cancelled. In this case study, Abby Jones explains how the cathedral adopted a new digital approach to their audience engagement activities including developing a Virtual Work Experience programme, sharing video recordings of talks and lectures on YouTube and producing online content to complement in-person events.
Cloisters of Hereford Cathedral. Image courtesy of Hereford Cathedral. © Gordon Taylor, 2019.
When lockdown first struck, we were about to embark upon the public engagement phase of the Eastern Cloisters Project (ECP), supported by National Lottery Heritage Fund, at Hereford Cathedral. We started 2020 with a speed dating event sharing research and an afternoon tea party, which reunited previous residents of the cloisters, and then our plans for lectures, open days and activities were pretty much cancelled overnight.
As an organisation, digital engagement hadn’t formed a hugely significant part of our core activity prior to the pandemic. We had begun to increase our online presence through social media and drive more traffic to our website following on from a rebrand in 2018. But whilst there was a desire to increase our digital presence, progress was slow and unfocused. The impact of Covid-19 meant we had to react quickly to adapt to the changing situation and still meet our funders’ aims around engagement, without being able to meet or interact with the public. Fortunately, our Project Activity Officer Sarah Hollingdale leapt into action and developed a programme of activities that we could deliver online.
It is important to stress that none of the materials we produced were particularly highbrow or technically complex, as we were restricted by time and staff skills, but they served a purpose and helped us to maintain momentum and energy during a difficult phase of the project. After our initial worry of implementing a digital focus at such short notice, we actually found that there were some surprising benefits that we hadn’t anticipated.
Improved opportunities for Volunteering and Young People’s Engagement
A large aim of the project was to engage younger volunteers (ideally within the 16–25 age bracket) which we had initially planned to do through setting up a Youth Board and running a ‘Hackathon’ for Sixth Form students. It wasn’t feasible to run either of these projects in person, so instead we offered Virtual Work Experience Placements. These proved to be more successful than we could have imagined — in fact we are still receiving requests from schools and colleges to find out more, months after advertising.
We advertised four different roles — Audio Editing, Publishing, Events Organisation and Oral History — as one week placements for students aged 16+. Many of the applicants had been concerned for their future opportunities as placements and volunteering opportunities had fallen through as a result of the pandemic. At the start of the week they would receive a welcome to the project over Zoom and meet any relevant members of staff before having their task for the week introduced. Throughout the week the student would check-in daily with Sarah and update on their progress before a Friday afternoon catch up over a cup of tea on Zoom.
The virtual element made the placement more accessible to students. Some would have struggled to travel to Hereford each day for a physical placement and some had other commitments, which would have meant they would not have been able to be in an office environment 9am-5pm each day throughout the week. In a year in which young people have had to face so much upheaval within their education, as a team we found it incredibly rewarding to be able to offer a placement in which the individual had so much control.
“I enjoyed the level of contact because while I knew that I could always ask for help and could prepare for scheduled meetings, I also liked the independence of having to reach the main objective on my own.”
Feedback from Amelia, Virtual Work Experience 2020
Development of our legacy content
Another key part of the Eastern Cloisters Project was to raise the profile of the Cloisters and share the hidden history within the area by Sarah leading a series of lectures and talks. Fortunately, we were able to deliver several of these before lockdown was imposed to local history and church groups, but many that were scheduled had to be cancelled. As a digital alternative, we filmed Sarah delivering her lectures and released them onto our YouTube channel.
We had explored the possibility of video recording the lectures at the start of the project but decided to allocate the budget elsewhere as we weren’t sure what the uptake would be and didn’t have the skills internally to facilitate this. However, due to the pandemic we had begun to film and edit Sunday Services to share on our website so we were able to transfer those new skills across to the project. When restrictions allowed, we were also able to film the lectures within areas of the building which were not accessible to the public enabling us to create a richer context.
Whilst more staff time had to be spent on recording and producing the video lectures, this balanced out the time that would normally be spent marketing and promoting the lectures if they took place in person. It also gave us the flexibility of releasing the content at a time which was suitable for us — we have held on to a few of the videos to release as part of our legacy engagement.
Filming for a virtual lecture at Hereford Cathedral. Image courtesy of Hereford Cathedral ©
Enhancing our events programme
One of our key events that we take part in each year is Heritage Open Days, and as restrictions lifted during the summer, we were able to hold an in-person event. We had been very cautious when it came to planning the day to ensure that it was Covid-secure by introducing a very small capacity on tours, essential pre-booking and a smaller volume of events during the day to minimise visitor crossover.
Whilst restrictions were relaxing, we were very aware that a lot of people still did not feel comfortable mixing in public and felt much more at ease to remain shielding at home. Accessibility has been very prominent in the delivery of the Eastern Cloisters Project and we wanted to make sure that our events didn’t leave people feeling excluded who weren’t able to leave their homes. With this in mind, we also arranged for all of our events to have a parallel online activity for individuals to join in from home. Again, the content was simple — we produced a video tour of the cloisters, pdf downloads for our creative trails and shared content via Instagram stories.
We were incredibly grateful that we had planned this digital content as part of our day as, 48 hours before the event, government guidance around gathering together in groups changed. We had some cancellations from attendees who felt less confident about attending an event and we were able to invite them to join us digitally instead.
One of the most valuable things that we learnt delivering a heritage project during a pandemic was the value of embedding a digital approach within our engagement programme. At first we were a little fearful of ‘digital’ and worried about the extra work it would create for a very small team, but when we were forced to bring digital into the project, the positives far outweighed the negatives. As well as being able to reach different audiences, we were also able to strengthen existing relationships with partners, including our funders, and help to keep the project in the public eye.
The key thing was to understand our limitations as a team and make sure that we didn’t overstretch ourselves. The digital solutions didn’t need to be difficult, high tech or expensive — we just needed to think from a different perspective to generate content. The experience of creating new ways of connecting digitally during the project has been a really valuable opportunity for us to develop our skills and think about working in new ways. We were also really pleased by the way in which offering a digital strand to our programme enabled us to open up the project in a more accessible way and share our experiences with individuals who weren’t able to visit us in person.
With the Eastern Cloisters Project now completed, we are taking the lessons learnt and seeing how we can apply them to wider cathedral life. The possibilities for digital development moving forward are huge which is why we are very grateful for securing a place on The Lab strand of the Digital Heritage Lab. Working with Katie Moffat, our appointed Digital Skills Mentor, we are now critically examining our digital priorities and where we want to devote our time in 2021 with the plan of creating a digital strategy to share across the organisation.
The Eastern Cloisters Project is supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund.
With additional support from The HB Allen Charitable Trust, The Jordan Foundation, Noel & Nienke Manns, Allchurches Trust, The Tanner Trust, Howard Bulmer Charitable Trust, The Alfreda May Phillips Charitable Trust, Hereford Cathedral Perpetual Trust and the Trust’s friends from Austin, Texas.
Hereford Cathedral is one of 60 organisations currently taking part in The Lab strand of the Digital Heritage Lab funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
The Digital Heritage Lab is a project managed by the Arts Marketing Association (AMA) in partnership with Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy, One Further and the Collections Trust and funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of the Digital Skills for Heritage initiative. It is a free programme for small and medium sized heritage organisations seeking to develop their digital capabilities and capacity.