Led by Dr Nick Baron, The COREL Project (Curating Online Resources for Engagement and Learning) has been working with the Life Lines community group in order to develop an easy to use and accessible online platform for presenting textual materials. A work in progress, it is hoped that the final platform will enable the display of documents held by archives, libraries, museums or private collections. In the course of developing specifications and a prototype of the platform, the COREL project worked with World War One era documents contributed by Life Lines members as well as materials from the University of Nottingham’s Sir George Buchanan collection. As part of the co-productive elements of this project, Nick employed Culture Syndicates, a Nottingham based Heritage and Arts consultancy company. This was in order to assist with building the relationship with Life Lines and organising key activities like focus groups. I caught up with Nick and Charlotte Pratley, Director of Culture Syndicates. We discussed the contribution that companies like Culture Syndicates make to the co-production process between universities and community partners.
For Nick, companies like Culture Syndicates provide an invaluable service in acting as mediators between academics, heritage organisations and community partners. This can be in terms of negotiating the different project aims of each partner as well as understanding different conceptions of ‘impact’. Logistically, they can also be effective by suggesting prospective partners and acting as the convenors of activities such as meetings and focus groups. Nick also adds that companies like Culture Syndicates are additionally important in helping diverse partners find that ‘common language’ and mutual ground of shared interest which is essential to effective university and community collaboration. In acting as a third-way mediator, they have the potential to neutralise potential hierarchies of cultural power. In short, companies like Culture Syndicates can advise academics as to how best to communicate with community partners, while they can help community partners to be confident in articulating their views to academics.
Agreeing with many of Nick’s comments, Charlotte added that a challenge to co-production in practice can be the fact that, “Operating methods can be very different between community groups and universities, so academics need to work consciously, understanding that communities’ needs and ideas should drive the project. Failing to do so can result in tokenistic projects that can fulfil the impact agenda without creating meaningful change.” Culture Syndicates aim to provide this bridge between academics and community groups, making sure that essential practicalities for public engagement are in place. Whether that’s venue accessible parking or clarifying academic terminology ahead of public meetings. For as Charlotte notes, “Co-production is an exciting way of joining academic practice with community need and ambition, empowering communities to use the resources provided by universities.”