Theatre as knowledge exchange|The Peoples Platform|Merthyr Tydfil

Photography by Jon Pountney

The People’s Platform was an event we held in Merthyr on 16th June. It was a piece of immersive theatre, held in a social club, with performances based on data from research we have been doing since 2013.


Performed to an audience of at least 200, sitting on round tables to facilitate discussion, it was developed as a finale to our case study within our project, Representing Communities, in collaboration with POSSIB: Lleisiau mewn Celf/Voices in Art. The research looked at how the arts can help construct different types of knowledge on health and wellbeing, and whether or not arts-based knowledge can be used by policy makers as a form of evidence. And, in relation to The People’s Platform, how arts can facilitate knowledge exchange between community members, policy makers and service providers to contribute to better understandings of health and wellbeing.


The show was co-created by local residents, the team at Cardiff University, and a number of other collaborators:

  • POSSIB: Lleisiau mewn Celf/Voices in Art is a bi-lingual arts project with whom we have collaborated a lot over the course of the project. POSSIB partnered with us to commission National Theatre Wales TEAM for the show.
  • National Theatre Wales, through their TEAM programme, was always going to deliver the show; they were identified in the original funding application as supporters of the research. We wanted to base the show on their Assembly model, which is described as a ‘performance debate’.
  • Common Wealth Theatre: after meeting Rhiannon White, artistic director and co-founder, we knew we wanted her to direct the show. I went up to see one of Common Wealth’s shows in Bradford, and left feeling mesmerised. It touched my senses and emotions in a way that no other theatre had done before, and I wanted our show to do the same.


I had also met writer Kelly Jones about her previous work in Merthyr and her interest in our work, so we asked her to come on board as a dramaturg. Her role was to act as a conduit between the data and Rhiannon’s creative direction. With some extra funding, we brought Charlotte Lewis on board as a director for a newly established Young Company with pupils at Pen Y Dre High School.


We knew that by involving NTW team and Common Wealth it would be an excellent piece of art, and that was really important; it had to be excellent, otherwise people wouldn’t be moved by the messages in the data. But that also meant relinquishing control and ‘trusting the process’ as Rhiannon kept saying to us. She was right, of course, but it was an unsettling journey nonetheless!


We wanted a hook for policy makers to feel that the event was something worthwhile to them, so we linked it to the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act as a lot of our data spoke to the 7 goals of the Act.


We had collected data through interviews, focus groups, and a range of visual and creative methods during the three years of research. We really wanted these to be reflected in the show as far as possible, but the range of voices, themes and issues was so broad that it sometimes seemed like an impossible task. In terms of the process we worked Kelly, Rhiannon, Charlotte and a huge team to devise the show. The directors held weekly workshops with the young company and a group of working age men at 3Gs Development Trust to explore the themes and content for the show, and to develop their confidence to get them ready to perform.


Alongside the workshops, Kelly came to our office and looked at the data in all its forms – interviews, drawings, video interviews, poems, music and film – and wrote a series of monologues from it all.


There were points where we felt the inter-disciplinarity of the collaboration quite intensely, and where our priorities clashed. We’ve referred to ‘logics of representation’ when we’ve talked previously about the priorities held by different players in a single project, and it’s the same here. Our own logic of representation was one of maintaining the integrity of the data, and representing it as plainly and as ethically as possible. We didn’t want it to be abstracted too much, or turned into metaphors that people might have to work hard at to understand. We wanted the show to reflect real life. The logic of representation for Rhiannon, Kelly and the creative team was about creating a powerful and coherent piece of art, and although they knew the data was important, their first priority was integrity for the art. For participants, the logic of representation sat with their own personal experience, and being able to represent that within the theatrical context.

For 5 days leading up to the show, we were in rehearsals with the creative team, professional actors, devisors and community members, some of whom performed in the show. Devising consisted of group work, with actors working together and with the community to come up with ideas for each scene, working with the script that Kelly had written and Rhi had edited. Scenes were performed to everyone and everyone had the chance to contribute to the creative process. Having had no experience of theatre production before, it was amazing to see what a collaborative and supportive process this was.


The power and conviction of the show was incredible.





There were a few key moments that really touched us, and made it completely worthwhile. At one point, one of the community members who had found it difficult to articulate himself during rehearsals, said his line with such emotion that he got a spontaneous round of applause. At another point, during one of the monologues, the actor, who had been cracking jokes as part of his monologue, said “I’ll end with this last one – what do you call a room full of people who can actually make a difference?” and after a moment of silence one of the audience members called out “us” – it doesn’t sound like much, but at the time it was golden.


We’re still trying to make sense of what happened at the people’s platform, and how to take forward the energy and spirit of the night. We were overwhelmed by the people that came to the show, including the children’s commissioner for Wales, Baroness Kay Andrews who wrote the report on poverty and culture, representatives from the Welsh Assembly and Welsh Government, the chair of the Arts Council and several Arts council staff, representatives from NTW and the national theatre of Malta, community development workers, local leaders of the community and of course people living in north Merthyr. We’ve been contacted by Baroness Kay Andrews and Dawn Bowden, the AM for Merthyr, both of whom want to carry on the conversations with us. We’re planning to do some debriefing with participants as soon as we can, to go through the table cloths and post it notes, and decide what might happen next. We have already met with Welsh Assembly colleagues, who have already begun to use our work as an example of how to do engagement, and it is informing their engagement strategy for the coming term. We will be going back in the autumn to discuss the potential for further work with the Assembly.


taking inspiration from the men of merthyr

DSC_5135 Earlier this year, in March, Cardiff University sponsored the Half Marathon World Championships, offering support to hundreds of people in the Cardiff city region to train up and take part. My boss did it, from scratch, along with her daughters, and along with a very special group of men from Merthyr. Some of the men (well, one) had run marathons before, but the vast majority had no previous experience of running. Some didn’t own a pair of trainers. But they turned up each week for training, yoga, pilates, the lot. They went down to Cardiff and did the race, and they wanted to do it again.

I didn’t take part in the World Championships; the thought of training through the winter was too much for me. I had done a few leisurely runs with some mum friends in the village I live in, but had promptly stopped as soon as the clocks changed in October and it got too dark to be fun any more. The men, and everyone else who ran in March, carried on – through the wind, rain, sleet and snow of winter.

When the race was over, I felt a huge wave of pride and admiration for the men. I was working with them on a different project which was happening at the same time (The People’s Platform), so I knew how much effort was going into their training. I felt their glory in the weeks and months afterwards, and I wondered if I could ever do what they had done. I wasn’t the only one in our team to be inspired; three of us agreed to run the Cardiff Half together.

I’m running to raise money for Making Minds, an arts and mental health voluntary organisation that I’ve been on the committee for since it began a few years ago. We’re a tiny group of volunteers, and we have no income other than what we bring in ourselves. In every aspect of my life, I feel how profoundly the arts and culture can have a positive impact on wellbeing. My work with the men (and the women, older people, young people…) in Merthyr has been one example of how that happens. And although I’m still learning exactly how transformations occur, I know that they do.

I’ve always had a guilty feeling that I don’t contribute as much to Making Minds as I’d like to, so I’m stoked to be able to do this for them. If I do actually make it round, I’ll have the men to thank for inspiring me to do it, and for showing me the power and strength that lies within us all.


Photo credit: Jon Pountney

Thinking about photographs in research: 5 concepts

This blog post has been adapted from the introduction of my PhD thesis. I explored the contribution that photography and visual data can make to understandings of the mental health hospital environment, so first I looked at how photographs were talked about and understood by other scholars. I found that photographs have been conceptualised or used in 5 ways:

1. As pieces of evidence
2. As symbolic
3. As socially constructed
4. As springboards for debate and understanding
5. For political activism

1. Photographs as pieces of evidence
One of the most famous contributions to ‘realist’ theory on photography comes from Susan Sontag, for whom a photograph is an extension of, or surrogate for, its subject. In her 1977 book, On Photography, she draws a sharp distinction between ‘art’ and ‘photography’, arguing that whilst an easel painting represents or refers to a subject, photographs are part of the subject and allow us to predict, manipulate and decipher behaviour. This realist view takes as its starting point the assumption that the viewer is a rational subject undertaking a disinterested study of an (external) nature or society; Sontag separates information from experience, arguing that photographs provide an independent type of knowledge. She uses words like ‘report’, ‘coveted substitute’, ‘trace’ and ‘footprint’ to describe photographs, maintaining her view that photographs are “pieces of evidence in an ongoing biography or history”. We can see evidence of this realist perspective if we look at how photographs were used in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As part of the attempts to systematically document, categorise and understand the differences between humans, photographic archives of prisoners, asylum patients and deviants were collected. These archives were used to construct measures of normality whereby one’s ‘inner’ traits could be mapped by external features such as jaw angle or nose length. Photographs, in this example, were perceived to provide independent information regarding certain groups.

Case Study: Photographs of patients at Surrey County Lunatic Asylum
Dr Hugh Welch Diamond took photographs of patients in 1856 at Surrey County Lunatic Asylum. Diamond believed firmly in photography as a clinical aid to treating, understanding and representing mental illness. Backed by an article in the 1859 Lancet which described photography as the ‘art of truth’, this was indeed a popular discourse surrounding photography at the time, and was supported by psychiatrists who preferred the use of visual data to that of verbal description.

Case Study: Photographs as Data: An Analysis of Images from a Mental Hospital.
Authors: Dowdall, G.W. Golden, J.
Published: 1989
Journal: Qualitative Sociology. Vol 12, issue 2, pp. 183-213
This study explored institutional life in Buffalo State Hospital. Three hundred and forty-three photographs were sampled from a larger collection compiled from various sources including the hospital’s Director of Public Information, former staff members, annual reports, medical journals, newspaper archives, historical archives, book dealers and major photography collections. Whilst they acknowledge that the photographs are lacking in direct contextual support, the authors construct their photographs as unloaded reflections of reality. They draw a distinction between the photographs in their collection and ‘investigative photography’ which they say can be loaded with negative connotation. Instead, they compare their visual data with what they call ‘mental health photography’ i.e. media images of mental health, which they feel are “…literally snapshots of ‘the full round of life’”. In other words, the photographs are said to present an accurate and unbiased visual account of institutional life, an assumption that is highly problematic!

2. Photographs as symbolic
Whilst they remain an important contribution to photographic theory, Sontag’s essays offer little insight into the uses of photography in research as method or data. Roland Barthes, however, also seen by some as a realist, sheds some light on how this can be done. Barthes developed a specific and detailed method of visual semiotics in order to analyse photographic images. Barthes is concerned with two layers of meaning: the denotative (what/who is being depicted) and connotive (what ideas and values are being expressed and how). For him, the denotation of an image is simple and there is no need for a complex analysis; the photograph is merely depicting what was in front of the camera (in this way his view resonates with Sontag’s). Connotation, however, is a more complex level of meaning which looks at wider concepts and discourses being signified in the image.
Semiotics has been used in order to interpret photographs in mental health research, although the method has not been reported with much clarity.

Case Study: Facades of Suffering: Clients’ Photo-Stories about Mental Illness.
Authors: Sitvast, J.E., Abma, T.A. and Widdershoven, G.A.M.
Published: 2010
Journal: Archives of Psychiatric Nursing. Vol 24, issue 5, pp. 349 – 361.
This study from the Netherlands focused on the meaning of mental illness and suffering. The authors used semiotics to interpret photographs taken by service users. Each image was interrogated in terms of perspective, tone, setting, focus and themes. They then used Barthes’ approach to unravel the symbolic meaning of the image, understand this symbolism in relation to its context, and to provide information on the function this served for the participant.

3. Photographs as socially constructed
Some researchers adopt a social constructionist position and argue that all knowledge is contingent and there is no such thing as the ‘truth’. Researchers taking a social constructionist position within visual research highlight the importance of the motives of those behind the camera as well as other factors shaping photo-taking. Several studies that use photographs taken by research participants therefore include some form of narrative in order to give meaning to the images. The work of Gillian Rose is important here; she argues that although photography has been seen by many as a technology enabling us to record the way things really look, this is a construction of photographic meaning. Rose identifies three sites of meaning within images: production, image and audience. Constructions of photographic meaning have been influenced by structuralist and post-structuralist theory, including semiotics, discourse analysis and psychoanalysis. Rose offers a review of these approaches, discussing them in relation to issues such as what images do, how they are looked at and how they are embedded in wider culture.

Case study: Visualising a safe space: the perspective of people using mental health day services.
Authors: Bryant, W., Tibbs, A. and Clark, J.
Published: 2011
Journal: Disability & Society Vol. 26, issue 5, pp. 611-628.
In this study the researchers used participant-generated photography to look at the social environment of a mental health day centre. Photographs were constructed as illustrative of experience and the authors used the interplay between the photographs, the photographer and what was photographed to inform the analysis. In this way, Gillian Rose’s sites of meaning (production, image and audience) were examined to give the images meaning. Some photographs were metaphors, for example a photograph of a strawberry patch represented opportunities for self-help. The authors noted that most of the photographs required detailed explanations of their meaning, which points towards a social constructionist ontology of photographs.

4. Photographs as springboards for debate and understanding
Sometimes photography is used as a catalyst for discussion or to disrupt how certain issues are understood. Two ways ways in which this can happen are through photo-essays and photo-elicitation. Studies using photo-essays tend to be heavily focused upon the visual image as evocative or contemplative, aiming to capture attention from its audience. Photo-essays might be presented in an exhibition, online or as a book.

Case Study: Home at a Forensic Mental Health Unit: A photographic essay.
Authors: Heard, C. P., Tetzlaff, A., O’Brien, D., Borecki, R., Client ‘A’ (anonymized), Client ‘B’ (anonymized) and Client ‘C’ (anonymized).
Published: 2011
Journal: Photographies Volume 4, Issue 2, pp. 229-260.
This study involved service users and staff taking photographs of a forensic mental health hospital which were created into a black and white photo-essay. There was no narrative or words provided by the photographers about the photographs; the point of the photographs was to provide a visual context for “contemplative thought and discussion” of the lived environment of a forensic mental health service. The focus was on the field of reception (the audience) rather than the field of production (the photographers).

Whilst the focus for photo-essays is on contemplation and provocation, photo-elicitation is more about using photographs to stimulate discussion about a particular topic. Sometimes photographs are provided by the researcher, and other times participants take their own photographs. The images are then often used in individual interviews or in focus groups to elicit verbal data from participants. There is a growing body of theoretical and empirical literature relating to the use of images in this way. John Collier, Douglas Harper, Jon Prosser and Andrew Loxley are worth looking up for introductions to and examples of photo-elicitation.

Case Study: Images of recovery: a photo-elicitation study on the hospital ward
Authors: Radley, A. and Taylor, D.
Published: 2003
Journal: Qualitative Health Research. Vol 13, issue 1, pp. 77-99
This study involved giving cameras to patients on two wards (surgical and medical) in a hospital. Patients were asked to photograph 12 things that were significant about their stay in hospital. The photographs were then used in interviews where patients were asked to explain each photograph’s focus, and the memories and feelings each one evoked. This verbal data was then interpreted alongside the images during data analysis.

Roland Barthes provides some theoretical insights into how photographs can work to arouse contemplative thought or provoke discussion. In Camera Lucida (1981), his only works entirely devoted to photography, Barthes introduces two concepts – ‘studium’ and ‘punctum’ – to suggest ways in which photographs are interpreted. Studium refers to the interpretation of a photograph from a culturally informed standpoint. As Barthes explains:

The studium is that very wide field of unconcerned desire, of varied interest, of inconsequential taste … To recognise the studium is inevitably to encounter the photographer’s intentions, to enter into harmony with them, to approve or disapprove of them, but always to understand them … for culture (from which the studium derives) is a contract arrived at between creators and consumers.
Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida, 1981

In relation to photo-elicitation, studium can be seen as how people talk about photographs they have taken, or how they respond to photographs provided by researchers to elicit discussion. Barthes’ second concept is that of punctum, which he describes as a “sting, speck, cut, little hole”; a more emotional reaction to a photograph which escapes signifiers and is not able to be coded. The example Barthes gives is the repellent nature of Andy Warhol’s “spatulate” nails in a photograph by Duane Michals where he covers his face with his hands:

spatulate nails

The feeling of repulsion that Barthes experiences when he looks at Warhol’s nails is nothing to do with understanding or an intellectual reading of the image, which would be the concern of the studium; it is a purely affective reaction to the image. Barthes also refers to the punctum of Time. For example, for Barthes the punctum of Alexander Gardner’s Portrait of Lewis Payne (1865), who was photographed whilst waiting to be hanged, lies in the simultaneous past and present tense of the image. In the photograph Payne’s death is imminent, yet in ‘real’ time he has already died. Barthes captioned the photograph “He is dead and he is going to die…”

Lewis Payne

5. Photography as political activism
Photography has been used in order to advance political agendas and to empower groups whose voices may not usually be heard. Photovoice is a technique used by health professionals and health promoters, as well as researchers, which is based on the idea that community education can empower people, creating ‘critical consciousness’. In Photovoice projects community members are encouraged to share their experiences in order to identify the structural, cultural and political conditions contributing to community concerns or problems. This method encourages community members to become ‘experts’ of their experiences and their local area, and aims to elicit responses from groups that may otherwise not be heard by policy makers. The purpose is to empower community members to address issues by identifying assets and inhibitors in the local area, or by identifying important people, places and events with photography. Related to this, several authors claim that Photovoice has the potential to engage participants in community matters when they usually would not be, again eliciting responses about the local community. This is done through community exhibitions or meetings, where local decision makers are invited to listen to the presentations of participants and view their photographs and stories.

Case Study: Flint Photovoice: Community Building Among Youths, Adults, and Policymakers
Authors: Wang, C., Morrel-Samuels, S., Hutchison, P., Bell, L. and Pestronck, R.L.
Published: 2004
Journal: American Journal of Public Health. Vol. 94, issue 6, pp. 911-913
This project, based in the town of Flint in Michgan, US, worked with youth groups, adult groups and policy makers. Participants were asked to take photographs of their community around issues they felt were important to them. Policy makers were involved to provide political will and support, but also participated in photo-taking. Participants chose their favourite photographs from those they had taken and wrote ‘freewrites’ to accompany them. The groups met discussed their photographs and freewrites together and identified common issues they felt strongly about as a group. These concerns were then shared with policymakers, community leaders and the media at invited forums, and the dialogue between community members and community leaders led to a number of material benefits for the community. These included a new Youth Violence Prevention Center and the renewal of funding for Genesee County Programs.

Researchers have used this technique with families and children, communities, youth, aboriginal women, breast cancer survivors, older adults, and people living with HIV/AIDS, but there are very few examples of Photovoice being used with mental health service users within the hospital environment. This may be due to the highly regulated nature of the mental health hospital environment. Although in part shaped by discourses of participation and public involvement, the mental health hospital remains an environment where institutional changes take place within bureaucratic, professionalised processes which service users may be involved in but that they do not lead. Opportunities for grass-roots political activism may therefore be less likely in this context than in other contexts.

In summary, there are a number of positions that can be taken when using photographs in research, depending on the questions being asked and the type of data that is collected. Photographs can be interpreted as pieces of evidence which reflect the ‘real’ world; as containing culturally significant signs or codes; as socially constructed pieces of data whose meaning is contingent upon a range of factors. Or, they can be used as a catalyst for contemplation, understanding and discussion of a topic, or for social action. I am sure there are also other ways that photographs can be theorised or used – have you used photographs in your own work and do you have a different perspective?

Merthyr: a family day out

I had never visited Merthyr prior to starting work on Representing Communities, and indeed when I told people what I would be doing, I was warned to “be careful” and to not leave my car unattended in the Gurnos, the estate which comprises a large part of our case study area of North Merthyr in the project. When I first visited Merthyr town centre, I was not blown away with its beauty; it is small with a few key buildings and many closed shops. It was very quiet and seemed a bit like my own home town of Gainsborough in Lincolnshire: nothing special.

However, eighteen months have now passed. Last weekend I took my family for an afternoon out in Merthyr. Two weekends ago we did the same. We went to Redhouse (read about the first time I visited it here) and bumped into a local historian and musician I’ve been working with in the research. We went to Canolfan Soar for lunch, where I have often had coffee or lunch with community partners. I am planning to bring my 4 year old daughter to Dowlais Primary school next week to see their Christmas play. It’s Frozen, so I know my daughter will love it, but it was actually the teacher’s suggestion to bring her along. The class at Dowlais Primary I have been working with is wonderful, and my daughter already knows all about them because I came home with pictures and Christmas cards that some of the pupils had made for me.

We don’t live particularly close to Merthyr, in fact we are far closer to Cardiff. But I find myself choosing Merthyr as a place to visit on weekends rather than our capital city. Why? Why choose Merthyr over the bustling excitement of Cardiff? Here’s why:

On our last trip to Merthyr, my partner and our two small children visited a Christmas Fair in Penderyn Square and Redhouse.


Parking was free, as it has been every Saturday in December in all council-run car parks in Merthyr. By comparison, we went to Bute park in Cardiff yesterday and had to pay £2.00 for ONE HOUR in the car park. In Penderyn Square we saw some entertainers, bought some Christmas presents and the children chose a Christmas tree garland each from the craft stalls inside Redhouse. My daughter got a dog made out of a balloon for free, and the garlands were 50p each. Ice skating was £1 each, compared to £9 / £6 for adults and children at Cardiff’s Winter Wonderland.






The fair was quite small and whilst it was busy, nobody was in a rush or getting stressed. Instead of getting withering looks when our 2 year old decided to have a tantrum inside the craft fair in Redhouse, one of the elderly stall-holders smiled at him as he outran us and then flailed around on the floor.

Having looked around the craft fair, we made our way back to the car (which was less than a 5 minute walk; important when you have 2 and 4 year olds on their little legs!) and on the way our daughter pointed to a church with a huge reindeer sign outside it. It was another craft fair. By this time my partner and I were gasping for a coffee and a sit down, but we went in anyway. I almost denounced my atheism when we walked into a warm, spacious room with coffee, cake, face painting, and various children’s activities. The children made Christmas crackers and cards while we sat down on the sofas sipping our coffee and thawing out. It was heaven.





We had change from £10 and had thoroughly entertained our children who had made beautiful home made Christmas cards for all the grandparents (50p each), Christmas crackers (with hat, joke and present for 50p each) for Christmas day, had their faces painted (50p each) and been fed and watered (£1 each). Whilst I do love our capital city, £10 would have got us parking and a sniff of a coffee in Cardiff, and we all would have been completely stressed out from the crowds of people, noise, shops and mayhem. I have lost count of weekends where we’ve started off going for a “nice day out” somewhere and we’ve ended up seeking refuge in the nearest Harvester, totally exhausted, drained and skint. Merthyr just isn’t like that.

For me, Merthyr beats Cardiff for a family day out any time of the year, not just at Christmas. Apart from Redhouse, Canolfan Soar and the town centre, there is Cyfarthfa Castle, the Blue Pool, Bike Park Wales and the Brecon Beacons just a little further up the A470. People are friendly, and you don’t feel like you’re being ripped off all the time. What more could you want?

The complexity of researching ‘representation’

Dr Nostromo (aka Dr Martin O’Neill) recently blogged about the legacy of post-industrialism in terms of health inequalities, using the case study area I am working in as an example. How post-mining communities are represented, especially in the context of austerity, is a highly relevant and contentious topic. And, for the people living in places such as Merthyr, it is an emotional topic. In 2010, Sky News recorded a piece called “A Town Like Merthyr” in which Jeff Randall described Gurnos as having a ‘stench of decay‘. When I began talking to people in Gurnos – 3 years later – about how their community is represented, almost every person I spoke to mentioned how much that programme had hurt and angered them. But it is not an isolated incident. A local community worker told me he receives more press enquiries from newspapers and television programmes than he can cope with. Residents in Gurnos have received leaflets asking them to take part in a programme about being on benefits, and a major TV channel is filming right now in the area. I heard stories that in the past programme makers have lured people to be filmed by giving them free alcohol, and that the nicer parts of the community have been deliberately left out of shot in favour of barbed wire and boarded up houses.

So how has the community reacted? Some have made their own films in response to programmes such as Jeff Randall’s despicable portrayal of Gurnos and Merthyr. Message from MerthyrMerthyr Views and Two Sisters are films made by young people wanting to put forward a more balanced and ‘realistic’ representation of their community. Some wrote to the local press. But many feel powerless over the way that their community is portrayed.

To lump all residents of Gurnos together to call them ‘the community’ is of course misleading; there is considerable diversity and people have moved to Gurnos from many other countries including The Philippines, Portugal, Poland and Ireland to name a few. There are also gypsy/traveller populations who have settled into bricks and mortar in the area. There are internal divides between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Gurnos, which relate to the two distinct phases of building that took place in the 1950s and 1970s. This is not an homogeneous community, which makes the issue of representation even more complex. Being an academic exploring representation, and wanting to work with residents and artists to produce new representations, this is both exciting and daunting. Our project is about using the arts and humanities to represent the lives, histories, experiences and health and wellbeing of people living in communities which are constructed as ‘deprived’ and which may experience stigma. But although we would like our project to have a positive impact on the area in terms of producing representations which are grounded in the experiences and priorities of local residents, I am mindful of our status as ‘outsider’ academics and the delicacy of the relationships we are beginning for build. How will our influence and stake in the project shape the end result? How will we work with local groups and individuals as well as artists, historians and organisations in a way that enables us all to be represented in the way we choose? Are we doing co-production? How can we mitigate against any potential harm that the project might cause?

One approach which seems to be working for me is to establish relationships with other projects happening in North Merthyr, rather than attempting to start from scratch. The POSSIB project is one of these, whose aims and methods are similar to ours. The POSSIB project looks at how the arts can help people to have a say over public services and, ultimately, improve their health and wellbeing. We are working with POSSIB on a storytelling project with primary and secondary schools in North Merthyr starting this week; they have come up with the idea and recruited the schools. We have helped to develop creative ways of capturing a baseline assessment and will incorporate some evaluation of the storytelling project (for POSSIB) into our ethnographic methodology. In this way, we hope to avoid any duplication of existing projects, and to avoid inflicting ‘project fatigue’ on the groups we work with. Importantly, we want to build on the assets and priorities of the local area, which is why the partnership with POSSIB works so well. It is part of a Lottery-funded programme, MAGNET, led by Voluntary Action Merthyr Tydfil (VAMT), a local organisation aiming to support the Third Sector in Merthyr and to create a healthy civil society. POSSIB itself is led by Canolfan Soar, a bi-lingual arts organisation comprising Theatr Soar which ” offers a stage to a community, a resource to realise ambitions, and a space where the professional and amateur can captivate an audience“. VAMT, Canolfan Soar and Theatr Soar are some of Merthyr’s finest assets so working in partnership with them is one way we can deliver the project in a way that respects and capitalises on the existing good work that is taking place.

Have you researched ‘representation’? I would be really interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences in this field, and any advice you’ve got!

A new arts centre for Merthyr

I went to the opening of Redhouse this weekend in Merthyr town centre. Formerly the derelict and boarded up Old Town Hall, the imposing building has been transformed into an important piece of cultural heritage for the town which will hopefully become the source of pride and stature that the Old Town Hall once was. It has been turned into an arts centre with magnificent exhibition spaces, a cafe and computer suites for Merthyr College film students. The capital development and creative programme of Merthyr Tydfil Old Town Hall has been funded by the Welsh Government, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council in association with Miller Argent, CADW & the European Regional Development Fund. 

I took my 4-year old daughter Cerys with me to the opening. As it was St David’s Day, Cerys insisted on dressing in traditional Welsh costume of a pink fairy outfit complete with Welsh flag.


It was a lovely sunny day and, as we drove up the A470 (the dual carriageway from Cardiff up to Brecon), the snow-topped mountains in the background looked stunning. The Welsh Valleys are simply beautiful, it is undeniable. We got to Merthyr and found somewhere to park relatively easily, and walked to the main street where Redhouse is. I have walked past it many times since starting a project in Merthyr in July last year, but it looked so different without the boards and scaffolding I had become used to. It is a huge ‘Terracotta Palace‘, as Richard Davies has called it in his film about the history of the building and the development of Redhouse:


Inside, the building is beautiful. The dragon mosaic in the entrance porch has been wonderfully restored as has a huge stained glass window which you see as you climb the stairs:


ImageIn the front exhibition rooms, Redhouse has made visible the people that contributed to the reconstruction of the building, including carpenters, joiners, electricians, plasterers, builders, project managers, artists and administrators. The exhibition is called Heroes and Villains: The Story Continues…


I thought this was a really nice first exhibition; as Cerys asked me “when did these people die mummy?” I realised we aren’t very good at remembering everyday people who are making things happen now.

But for me, the most memorable and show-stopping part of our visit was the exhibition of banners made by each of the wards in Merthyr. Led by Head for Arts, this project enabled members of each community to create their own representation of place. The 20ft banners were hung vertically in the central atrium space enabling visitors to wander through them:




I love the Gurnos banner, which an inter-generational knitting group contributed to by creating a knitted version of the community centre which was then digitally captured to create the banner. Banners have been an important expression of identity and protest in South Wales’ history. This year is the 30th Anniversary of the UK Miner’s Strike, an incredibly important event in South Wales’ industrial, political and social history which people can remember vividly and which affected families who remained in the area long after industry died.

The South Wales Miner’s Library in Swansea has a collection of original banners used in the strikes, and we hope to bring them back onto the streets alongside contemporary representations such as the banners that were made for Redhouse, as well as other banners made by school pupils in North Merthyr, the case study area I am working in. As part of the AHRC’s Connected Communities Festival, we have applied for funding to showcase our research. If successful, we will develop a ‘mobile exhibition’ with the community groups and artists we have met during the research. Part of this will consist of a banner march down the Taff Trail to Cardiff Bay (the Taff Trail is a path running by the River Taff which was the waterway connecting Merthyr to the rest of the world). Local historians and musicians will revive the old union songs with groups of school pupils, and help them to create their own song to march to. We won’t be able to us the original banners in Redhouse that I love so much, but we may be able to reproduce them on a smaller scale, with poles so they can be carried on the march. We will find out at the end of March if we have the funding to do the mobile exhibition, so fingers crossed!

Redhouse, with its clock symbolically working once more, breathes fresh air into Merthyr town centre. Unlike out of town developments like leisure parks and health parks, it brings the promise of new facilities to the people of Merthyr without expecting them to travel far to get there: it is right in the town centre. Having said that, it remains to be seen if people from outside the city centre will travel to town to visit Redhouse; transport is an additional expense and can be a barrier for many. Perhaps the history of the building itself, and the role it once played in the political identity of the town, will set it apart from new-build developments. Redhouse represents the town as being full of pride, hope, aspiration and confidence, in contrast to the discourses of failure and hopelessness often felt to characterize communities where there is high unemployment, poor health and low educational outcomes. Whilst these social ‘problems’ remain, Redhouse brings some much needed attention to the assets and glory also contained within this important Welsh town.

Some tips for academics who want to influence government

I recently attended a fantastic course at the Institute for Government, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, called ‘Engaging with Government’. A range of brilliant speakers came to share their expertise and ‘insider’ knowledge with us, including Matthew Taylor, Wayne Martin, Stephen Aldridge, Phillippa Helme, James Stringer, Emma Norris, Jane Tinkler, Catherine Haddon, and Ian Lyne, as well as Institute for Government bods Jill Rutter, Nadine Smith and its founder, David Halpern.  I learned more about government in the first five minutes than in my entire 33 years on this planet.

We were told a lot about how government and policy making works, both in theory and practice.  In my naivety, some of it was quite a shock to me, especially in relation to the sometimes whimsical nature of policy making and department creation; see the Institute for Government’s 2010 report ‘Making and Breaking Whitehall Departments’ for a guide to this. The apparent lack of credibility of qualitative and arts-based data as ‘evidence’ was also somewhat depressing for me, as a qualitative social scientist doing arts and humanities research (I’ve written a more ‘ranty’ blog about this which I’m wondering whether or not to publish).  But, despite this, I was heartened by the many and varied routes through which my research might influence policy making.  I’ve listed some of the most helpful tips below:

  1. Don’t diagnose a problem if there is no possible solution – whilst we might do a fantastic piece of research gathering some really meaningful and in-depth data about the issues and problems facing a particular group, community, place or institution, if there is no possible policy solution then some say there is little point wasting our time trying to get government to listen.
  2. Be persistent – it took the RSA six years to have an impact on pensions policy; sometimes it is simply not the right time for your research to have an influence, even if what you have done is excellent. Wait a few months, try a different group/committee/civil servant, re-package your stuff differently. The ‘window of opportunity’ model of policy influence dictates that the streams of policy, problems and politics have to converge before a ‘window’ can open, but it is at that point that research can be very influential.
  3. Build your networks – linked to the previous point, taking time to build relationships with the key people, groups and organisations that will help you to have influence is essential, because then once your ‘window of opportunity’ opens, you are connected enough to take full advantage of it.
  4. Think widely about how you can have influence – this is linked to the previous point. Providing ‘evidence’ is only one way of research having an influence on policy. I have come to the conclusion that the perception of evidence is very narrow indeed in the world of government; most people simply discount qualitative research as anecdotal or ‘nice for a bit of context’ (and that is before you even start talking about the possibility that the arts and humanities might serve as forms of evidence!). But as Emma Norris points out, it’s not all about providing evidence. Maybe your research could have an influence on shaping narratives of policy issues, over time.  Wayne Martin also pointed out that it’s not always the cutting edge research that has an impact.
  5. Listen to the people you want to influence – We’ve worked hard on our research and we want to tell the world what we found out, and because of this we can sometimes be too much in ‘broadcast’ mode and not enough in ‘listen’ mode.  By listening to the people we do end up talking to in government, we’re more likely to say something they think is relevant and worth listening to.  If you are lucky enough to get half an hour with a person you want to influence, don’t spend all of that time talking; ask about their current priorities first.  Empathy and sensitivity to current bonds and conflicts between people in government can also help towards knowing who might be the right person to approach.
  6. Work with local government – if something works on a local level, central government is likely to notice. With the extent of cuts in local authorities, now is the time for innovation and working differently, and the feedback loops are shorter in local government.
  7. Be on top of the policy process and anticipate opportunities – what does the delivery landscape look like for your policy area? Who are the key influencers? When are the next upcoming debates? Which select committees is your research relevant to and can you set up an email alert for it? See for information on select committees. Which bills are being drafted and discussed? If you know the answers to these questions then you can identify a plan of action. See for information on draft bills.
  8. Be ready to act fasthave short, punchy articles prepared on various different aspects of your findings that you think might crop up at some point. For example, part of our AHRC project is about community responses to how certain places are portrayed in the media. I should really write up some of our emerging findings into a short report that could be sent off at the drop of a hat if I hear that this is being discussed by policy makers or politicians. I got the impression that snippets are fine: one headline and then a few key points, preferably presented with nice (info)graphics with boxes and what not. This helps to position yourself as a “useful conduit”, as Wayne Martin suggested to us.
  9. Be brave – Philippa Helme encouraged us to be brave about giving oral evidence at the scrutiny stage of policy making. She said that good communicators with something interesting to say at the right time are likely to get picked. Evidence does need to be tailored to whichever committee you are speaking to, and oral evidence is more likely to have influence than written evidence, which just gets put on the website.

The course was very London-centric and there was no information about devolved policy contexts. So the tips are relevant to the UK government. I met two other researchers from Welsh universities and we have decided to put together a funding proposal for a series of policy networking / training events focusing on the Welsh Government and the Assembly. If you are interested in being involved in this, let me know!