Innovation & Enterprise


UCL academic spotlight: Professor Rodney Harrison on UCL’s partnership with the National Trust

Rodney Harrison, Professor of Heritage Studies, talks about the mutual benefits of UCL’s strategic partnership with the UK’s largest heritage organisation.

Professor Rodney Harrison
Professor Rodney Harrison

  • Professor of Heritage Studies in the UCL Institute of Archaeology
  • Teaches on the MA Museum Studies and MA Cultural Heritage Studies
  • Co-Director of the UCL Centre for Critical Heritage Studies
  • Founding editor and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology
  • Previously worked at the Open University, Australian National University, the University of Western Australia and the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service

Building on a long-standing relationship

UCL has had mutually-beneficial links with the National Trust dating back over a century. But it’s really in the last three or so years we’ve been able to take those links to a deeper, more strategic level.

Personally I began working with the Trust over 10 years ago. As one of a number of heritage organisations I’ve been fortunate to collaborate with, the National Trust has played a vital role in several of my research programmes. Most notably, we’ve worked together on my Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded Heritage Futures research. And more recently on the follow-up project Landscape Futures and the Challenge of Change and the Black Atlantic Innovation Network.

In each of these, the Trust has been a crucial partner in helping to co-create change to heritage policy and practice. In particular, we’ve been pooling ideas for how we can do heritage differently in the coming years, especially in light of the climate crisis.

The value of collaboration

One of the biggest advantages of working with the UK’s largest heritage organisation is that our researchers have ready access to the Trust’s vast portfolio of sites, properties and collections. And it’s in these historically, environmentally and culturally significant, real life laboratories that we can go significantly further to develop and test out new heritage approaches.

We’ve been exploring everything from using the Trust’s sites to support vulnerable people, to exploring ways we can reduce the carbon footprint of the largest heritage construction projects.

They're also an organisation that’s perhaps been thought of as being somewhat conservative, but are actually pretty radical in their thinking. As a research focused organisation, they’re committed to engaging with academics to help them think more expansively about what it is they do.

They also particularly appreciate the diversity of our expertise here at UCL. We’ve been working together in the usual heritage areas like archaeology. But we’ve also been able to move beyond the obvious points of connection into areas like energy performance, issues of ecological and social justice, and culture and health. And it’s this richer, interdisciplinary work that often reaps the biggest and more interesting rewards from a partnership perspective.

Taking things in a more strategic direction

One of the main differences that’s come about since our more formal partnership is that there’s now this very clear strategic underpinning to our work together. 

In my case, a lot of the work I’ve been doing with the Trust has focused on adapting to, and mitigating against, the effects of climate change. This work has recently informed the new Council of Europe Guiding principles for an integrated culture, nature and landscape management.

It's this kind of European-wide policy work that takes the impact of what we can achieve together beyond an individual property or park. By co-creating ideas, we can facilitate change at a national if not international policy level. And that’s hugely rewarding, to know that the work we’re doing is likely to influence heritage practice for years, if not decades, to come.

Support from UCL Innovation & Enterprise

Of course, there’s plenty happening outside of the research itself to make a partnership of this scale and significance run smoothly. Much of the actual negotiation was supported by the Business and Innovation Partnerships team in UCL Innovation & Enterprise.

They’ve been instrumental in helping us to shape the new agreement. They’ve supported us with all the practical aspects relating to drawing up contracts. They’ve also helped us to map out how the partnership will evolve over the coming years, with more secondments and other knowledge exchange initiatives being planned.

In particular, having the team’s expertise to call on took the technical and legal side out of the equation for me. As a result, we’ve been able to focus more of our time on our teaching and research, and on expanding existing partner relationships, as well as developing new ones.

Embracing partnership opportunities

I think academics can perhaps find the idea of working with an external organisation or practitioners somewhat scary. Not surprisingly, because it does require speaking a different language, and their objectives may be quite different to ours. But actually, in my experience, the benefits of this type of collaboration far outweigh any challenges.

One of the things I value most about engaging in partnership work is that I'm constantly challenged to communicate what I'm doing in a way that helps me to truly understand its value.

Secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, is that lots of radical, interesting ideas come about from our work outside of academia. So partnerships can be incredibly generative, which inspires me to want to go further and do more as a researcher.

As for how to make the most of this kind of opportunity, it’s crucial to build trust on both sides and also to see the relationships as something that require a long-term investment. But nonetheless, the ones that will last tend to be the ones that are worth investing in, precisely because they end up being very significant.

Listen to Rodney talk about the latest climate change and heritage issues, including work undertaken with the National Trust as partners, as part of the BBC’s Green Thinking series.


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