Glenis Williams, Outreach Officer at the National Trust has vast experience in successful community engagement. Her most recent work (part of the National Trust’s Whose Story? initiative) has involved engaging local British Caribbean and Muslim communities in interpreting the experience of two properties in the West Midlands, Charlecote Park and Wrightwick Manor. Part of the end result has been two beautifully produced booklets created in consultation with local people who share their thoughts on aspects of the visiting experience. ‘Caribbean Herbal’ is an enlightening guide to healing herbs, with photo portraits and healing tips. ‘Sacred Quran’ profiles local Muslim people responding personally to aspects of Wrightwick Manor through the verses of the Quran.
Both booklets are really well designed and I enjoyed reading them. In each booklet I found the people featured as interesting as the property itself. Please tell us a bit about the background to the booklets:
I have worked on many community cohesion and development programmes for over ten years and I have found that the best results happen when there is a genuine commitment and exchange of shared values from the start of any project. The booklets are intended to show a range of comments, thoughts and aspirations from local people. They highlight personal aspects about the participants and the rich diverse cultural life in which they are linked.
We all see the world in lots of different ways, and having the chance to develop new interpretation perspectives for a particular audience you are targeting is also the perfect platform to develop relevant pieces of work. Seeing yourself reflected in a place where you are under represented is often comforting and can open doors for communication, debate and learning.
How do the booklet projects relate to your ambassador project?
Our Community Ambassador has made links with Faith Forums, Libraries, and Community Organisations.
Who came up with the idea of the booklets and who are they aimed at?
The idea of producing a faith trail bespoke to Wightwick Manor came from the historical background of the Mander family values. The Mander family owned a paint and varnish manufacturing factory. Theodore Mander continued the family tradition of combining sound business sense with deep religious faith and a strong social conscience. He was a lay preacher and a deacon of his church, a prominent member of the temperance movement and was involved in many other organisations and charities. This for me was the starting point, looking at faith groups that would be inspired by the family values and lifestyle.
For the ‘Sacred Quran’ booklet, The National Trust worked together in partnership with a local organisation called Ulfah Arts. The booklet is aimed at Muslim audiences and faith groups. It offers an insight into ways in which we share similar values and enjoy special places of heritage.
How long did it take from first idea to published booklet?
Our first planning session started in August 2008 and ran to October 2009. Planning any new interpretation is a timely process, and this can be increased by the number of partners, internal policies and marketing and branding constraints. Internal and external planning, personal development sessions are crucial to this process, giving the participants time to research the property, making assessments and searching their own faith and values.
How does the book, ‘Caribbean Herbal’ fit in with the marketing of Wightwick Manor? Do you think it will have an impact on attendance or how people engage with the property and its gardens?
Wightwick Manor has been rebranded and is now called Wightwick Manor and Gardens. The layout of the garden is largely Edwardian, designed from 1904 and 1910 by T.H Mawson, one of the leading landscape architects of his day. The newly refurbished Edwardian kitchen garden gives us a range of opportunities to target new audiences through several new marketing opportunities such as the Grow your Own campaign within the National Trust and Dig for Victory.
Wightwick Manor has its very own original edition of ‘Gerard’s Herbal’, a remarkable publication which recorded plants and their properties from all around the world. This book sought to connect people and place in the shared benefits of plant healing. Gerard’s name is highly remembered for the contribution he made to botany, horticulture and herbalism. The books at Wightwick reflect wide ranging interests of two generations of the Mander family who embraced religion, natural history, the sciences, local history and politics.
Having a variety of options is always a good thing; giving people a choice encourages curiosity and interest. So we are also introducing garden taster tours where volunteers are developing short talks about the Caribbean herb garden. Some of the themes we have developed include; What is a Kitchen Garden?’, ‘A little taste of the Caribbean’, ‘There’s more to a cup of tea than Typhoo’ and, ‘Herbs used to make tea and their purposes’.
How did you find local people to take part and what was involved in the process of working with them?
Some of the participants came to our celebratory event – ‘Caribbean Tea Party’, where they signed up to become a volunteer. Others were recommended by friends, word-of-mouth, community newsletters and through Nelson Douglas, our Community Ambassador.
Engagement can be done in lots of different ways, this depends on who you are targeting and what you want to achieve at the end of the project. Some methods include; word of mouth, presentation sessions, AGM, Open Days, Fetes and adverts in community notice boards and newsletters. It also helps to work in partnership with organisations that already work with the target group you are trying to attract. You can arrange a meeting, advertise in the local press and attend an internal meeting.
We’ve developed guidelines to ensure that partnership agreements are set out clearly and everyone understands their commitment and responsibility.
All our partners are aware of what is involved and follow our process of volunteer induction, code of conduct and, where needed, references are given. It’s helpful to have this agreement signed during the planning stages. It gives each partner a clear understanding of expectations, barriers and what can be delivered within the framework of any given project.
Having the commitment of the property staff is also crucial to the success of any project, this helps with the transition of information since they know the capability and internal workings of the property so well. They also hold a rich bank of historical knowledge that is useful when developing new resources and new interpretation.
Susan K Pope, the author of Caribbean Herbal, says she found the process “…recharged my creative batteries to go forward with my latest children’s book”. What did other people get out of being involved?
People involved in the project have a real sense of pride and achievement, knowing they all worked together towards common goals. Everyone invited their family and friends to showcase events and they all received copies of the booklet. The project inspired participants to start growing their own and using herbs for teas and medical purposes. Also; the project featured in the African Caribbean Community Initiative (ACCI) AGM Conference and won an Award for Action in Conservation; Shaheen Ahmed, Artist in residence at Wightwick was able to include her work and is featured on the cover of the Sacred Quran booklet and Wightwick Manor and Gardens have a new faith trail that can be purchased.
It was also good to raise awareness that projects like this are happening within National Trust properties.
Tell us also a bit about the process behind ‘Sacred Quran’.
This unique faith trail has been developed as seen through the eyes of local Muslim men and women. The trail explores the relationship between faith, special places and lifestyle, helping to fulfil the National Trust’s long standing aspiration to be’ for ever, for everyone’
How did you invite the contributors to get involved with it? How did you find them?
We commissioned an organisation called Ulfah Arts, a Muslim group that already works with men and women from faith communities. This project has the potential to be replicated with other sectors of society that are under represented within heritage sites within the UK.
The contributors’ responses are often quite personal and passionate, intimate almost – what was the process of revealing people’s responses to Wightwick Manor and Gardens?
This again was a timely process; we arranged several research visits to Wightwick Manor and Gardens. We spent a lot of time looking and talking and enjoying the property before the work took place. These links were developed over six sessions.
How are you letting people know about the booklets and where can they be bought?
Both booklets can be purchased from the shop at Wightwick Manor for £3.50 each.
Our marketing strategy includes; Community Ambassador, Press launch, working with local Muslim organisations in Wolverhampton, website, radio interviews, word of mouth and Open Heritage Days.
What has been the public response so far to the booklets?
It’s early days yet as the main press release has only just been published, it may take some time, but I feel this is a publication that will work in attracting new audiences to visit Wightwick Manor and Gardens.
What did you learn personally from doing these projects?
Ensure that all aspects of any partner agreement is signed and clearly understood at the beginning of the project.
This has been a high level engagement project but potentially it can be sustained over the long-term at property level. This method works, and can be repeated in the same way, working with other groups that are under represented.