Dr Ruth Patrick, Dr Maddy Power and Dr Geoff PageEleanor Drew, Digital Heritage MSc student, Department of Social Policy and Social Work
^ Screenshot from the Covid Realities website, © Covid Realities, 2021 (all rights reserved)
Researchers from York and Birmingham developed a collaborative, participatory rapid-response research programme focused on exploring the ways in which the pandemic impacted on families living on a low income. Around 120 parents and carers took part in virtual discussion groups and shared their experiences with us through online diaries, which have been anonymised and made fully accessible through the Covid Realities website. This created a live archive of everyday lives at an extraordinary time. We have also created an open and informal space for the research community to explore the shift to virtual working and reflect on their experiences of the pandemic, facilitated by webinars and a blog series.
In March 2020, as the UK went into lockdown following the coronavirus pandemic, two University of York researchers (Dr Ruth Patrick and Dr Maddy Power) joined forces with Dr Kayleigh Garthwaite (University of Birmingham) to develop a rapid-response research programme. As researchers of poverty, social security, and emergency food aid, we recognised an urgent need to pivot research priorities towards a focused exploration of the ways in which the pandemic would impact on families living on a low income, who the existing research evidence suggested would face particular and significant pressures as a result of the pandemic. There was also a commitment to researching in collaborative ways and providing a space for the research community to explore - together - how to adapt research and working practices to the new context. As a research team, we had considerable expertise in participatory approaches; however, we had no experience of participatory research during a pandemic, nor did we have experience of participatory research using online methodologies. In light of this we were reliant on the limited body of research on the use of audio-visual methodologies in ethnographic and/or participatory research in guiding our approach. We also drew on expertise from individuals like Catherine Hale, who has done participatory online research previously.
From this collaboration came the Nuffield Foundation funded Covid Realities research programme, an innovative programme of research that is rooted in collaborative and open ways of working and researching. This is also a partnership with Child Poverty Action Groups. At the heart of this ambitious and innovative research programme is participatory, online research, with around 120 participants from families living on a low income across the UK. Parents have worked directly with the research team, taking part in virtual discussion groups and sharing their experiences through online diaries and responses to video-elicited ‘big questions of the week’. Through this methodology we have generated over 200 entries which we are sharing on our Covid Realities website, an openly- accessible, anonymised archive capturing everyday lives in poverty at an extraordinary and historically significant time. The archive can be used by researchers, students, journalists and members of the public.
This programme has prioritised participatory approaches, creating chains of dissemination that enable parents living on a low income to share their experiences and recommendations for change through high profile media appearances, meetings with parliamentarians, and other outputs. For example, participants were featured in week long coverage of BBC Radio 4’s flagship PM programme and further co-produced a zine sharing their everyday realities and aspirations for their futures.
^ Front cover of the Covid Realities zine, © Jean McEwan, Dr Katie Pybus, Tom Flannery and the contributors, 2021 (all rights reserved)
Another key element of the Covid Realities research programme has entailed creating an open and informal space for the research community to explore the shift to virtual working, and the particular ramifications for those doing research on poverty. To facilitate this, we set up a successful webinar series that has provided a space for researchers to document their methodological approaches and speak frankly about the ethical and varied challenges they have experienced. This has been linked to an equally popular blog series that has created a useful and important space for documentation and reflection on changing methods and approaches in unprecedented times.
The participatory nature of Covid Realities means that we have been often led by our participants. This has clear benefits in principle and in practice, but has led to some challenges. For example, we did not insist that people submitted demographic information. This reflected our participatory approach, but from online discussion groups we know this means we have a skewed view of who took part – racially minoritized women, and women with English as a second language were particularly unlikely to fill out demographic details. We also allowed participants to choose if they were happy for their diaries to be published on our website, or if they only wanted entries to be used in academic publications and reports. With the benefit of hindsight, this created a lot of complications and additional work – we ended up creating two pseudonyms for each diarist, so that their ‘research only’ entries could not be directly linked with their ‘published on the website’ entries. The practical benefits of this were small – all entries were pseudonymised anyway, with all identifying details further removed; so there was little to be gained from having two-level privacy. At the same time, this proved very complicated to manage – and some people appeared in write-ups with two names.
Overall then, this research programme has been underpinned by innovation and has critically privileged creating open spaces to share findings, involving diverse voices in chains of dissemination and facilitating a space for researchers to reflect on their experiences during the pandemic.
Romans at Home is a collaborative outreach project with Dr Colleen Morgan and York Archaeological Trust (YAT) which uses a multi-sensory approach to explore aspects of Roman life in York with people living with dementia. Open research has been at the core of this project as we have involved members of the local community, their carers, and charity groups as active participants. Through this collaborative approach we have created opportunities to engage with people who may not usually benefit from archaeological research and dissemination, in a relaxed and informal setting. The project has also produced a range of openly accessible outputs and resources whilst helping to form the foundations for future research and outreach in this area.
Romans at Home builds on previous archaeological research into the phenomenology of archaeological sites and museum experiences. For example, olfactory input (sense of smell) is known to be a powerful contributor to immersion; this has been well-explored through YAT’s famous Jorvik Viking Centre attraction, featuring the smells of Viking York within an immersive built environment. For our project, scents inspired by archaeological data collected from sites around York were combined with tactile artefacts from YAT’s archive and related replicas into a handling collection, designed to provoke sensory experiences. Following successful pilot sessions with a York-based care home, the aim is for this collection to be loaned to people living with dementia and their carers to be used alongside a synchronous virtual interpretation by YAT staff. The handling collection will be made available on request from the Jorvik Group and promoted through community groups and partners such as York Dementia Action Alliance and Alzheimer’s UK.
^ Residents taking part in handling session, © Eleanor Drew, 2021
The primary audience for the handling collection is people living with dementia, to provide opportunities to engage directly with artefacts and past lives within a familiar location under the guidance of trained interpreters delivering sessions via video conferencing. Although the sessions are facilitated by staff, they are principally participant-led, focusing on the sensations evoked by the objects and using those as prompts for discussion of broader topics. Through this open conversation with stakeholders (both the people living with dementia and their carers), we will improve our understanding of how these communities engage with heritage, which aspects and narratives are of most interest, and potential barriers to their involvement.
^ Artefact handling cases ready to go (source), © Dr Colleen Morgan, 2021
The handling collection will be closely documented and available for other researchers to engage with, perhaps with a wider audience in mind. A webpage will be created with downloadable materials related to the sensory experience and suggestions on how to recreate the experience with related, easily accessible materials (sage, olive oil, etc). These resources will be licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Licence and circulated via local charity networks including York and Selby Dementia Information Service, to ensure awareness and accessibility not only within residential care facilities but also for individuals and their carers living at home.
Elements of the experience which were prompted by COVID-19 restrictions (particularly the use of synchronous video rather than live in-person interpretation) have potential to increase accessibility and openness of future projects, by enabling communities who have not traditionally been able to participate in this kind of research: for example, people with physical or mobility impairments, or living in remote locations. By enabling remote engagement with research, it may be possible to attract a wider and more diverse group of participants.
While ideally more aspects of this research would be “open” there are sensitive ethical issues involved when engaging with people living with dementia. This research has passed an ethics review conducted by the Department of Archaeology ethics committee, which specifies that identities of people involved be anonymised as much as possible. The Romans at Home experience is intended to be intimate and palliative, rather than, for example, a Twitch stream or a Tik Tok video. Romans at Home demonstrates the balance between open research and consent-based, sensitive research in the Arts and Humanities.
Research into immersive experiences in heritage has largely focused on location-based engagement, particularly in reconstructed sites, with pre-determined narratives. By taking a more personal and participatory approach, allowing people to engage with the past within their own environment and direct the sessions based on their own interests, the narrative may be democratised. The open research practices incorporated into this project may form the basis for future work on self-led immersive experiences and engagement within the research community at York.
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