Elizabeth Robson

Elizabeth Robson is an interdisciplinary researcher, working with qualitative, participatory research methods. She completed her PhD at the University of Stirling in 2021. Her doctoral research, conducted in collaboration with Historic Environment Scotland, explored the contemporary significance of historic places and the impact they have on society 

Host HEI: University of Oslo, Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History 

SFC Saltire Emerging Researcher project: ScotlandNorway Knowledge Exchange: The Social Values of Heritage 

This project saw Elizabeth Robson, who recently completed her PhD at the University of Stirling, undertake a 3-month exchange to the University of Oslo (UiO) in Norway. The exchange focused on shared research interests in the role heritage plays in society – in particular, questions of identity and memory – and the methods used for understanding and reflecting this in heritage management. Hosted by the Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History, Elizabeth was able to connect with a multi-disciplinary network of researchers through the Heritage Experience Initiative, a priority project of the UiO Faculty of Humanities that aims to develop critical heritage research in close cooperation with the heritage sector. During her exchange, Elizabeth also collaborated with staff at the independent Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research to explore how her research findings from Scotland compare with heritage management policies and practices in Norway. The project supported knowledge exchange and extended academic networks conference sessions, seminars and workshops with students, researchers, and heritage practitioners.  


My Saltire exchange to the University of Oslo (UiO) was my first visit to Norway and it was both exciting and a little nerve-wracking to embark on a three-month residential trip to an unknown city – albeit one only a couple of hours flight from Scotland. My exchange established a new relationship between the University of Stirling, where I had completed by PhD, and UiO – a link fostered by the Universities’ mutual partner, the Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage Research (NIKU). Since completing my PhD, I had been working at the University of Stirling as a Research Assistant on an international project called ‘Deep Cities: Curating Sustainable Urban Transformations through Heritage. The project is led by NIKU and it was colleagues from the project team who helped connect me with the Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History at UiO and the mentor for my exchange, Professor Per Ditlef Fredriksen, Head of Research and Deputy Head of the Department

Although Professor Fredriksen and I had not met previously, when speaking online ahead of my application, we both felt the Saltire scheme offered a valuable opportunity to explore our common interest in heritage and the role it plays in society. His extensive research experience in fields including critical heritage studies, memory studies, and the relationship between archaeology and anthropology, linked strongly with my interests and academic background. My PhD in heritage was focused on methods for understanding and evidencing the social values associated with the historic environment (how it contributes to people’s sense of identity, belonging, and place), and drew on my academic background in social anthropology and professional experience in community development. 

Professor Fredriksen was also instrumental in initiating the Heritage Experience Initiative(HEI), a multi-disciplinary project investigating the contemporary significance of heritage, run by the Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History at UiO. The HEI aims to develop critical heritage research in close co-operation with the heritage sector, a way of working that mirrored my collaborative PhD experiences with Historic Environment Scotland. My research fitted well with the overall thematic focus of the HEI and we agreed that participating in the HEI network of researchers and professionals, in particular the working groups on ‘Heritage and Identity’ and ‘Heritage, Time and Memory’, would be central to my exchange. One of the outputs from my doctoral study was a practitioner toolkit and the exchange provided an opportunity to see how this resource and my PhD findings, developed based on Scottish case studies, translated into a different national context 

Georg Sverdrups hus on the UiO campus, venue for the Nordic TAG meeting (image credit: Elizabeth Robson)

I arrived in Oslo at the start of April to find it surprisingly sunny and dry – no need for the winter boots and gloves that I had packed! My first month coincided with UiO hosting a meeting of the Nordic TAG (or Theoretical Archaeology Group), which I was able to attend, convening a session with colleagues from the ‘Deep Cities’ project and presenting a paper. The conference involved participants from across the Nordic states and beyond. Our session, which focused on the intersection of archaeology and urban theory, included representatives from Danish, Italian, German, and Spanish universities, as well as UK and Norwegian institutions. After the event, Dr Ana Pastor Pérez and I wrote a blog reflecting on the Nordic TAG meeting and the Deep Cities session. The conference proceedings were a useful orientation to how academics were framing contemporary experiences and community participation vis-a-vis disciplinary expertise and knowledge – questions I was also able to explore during a seminar with graduate students on the UiO Heritage Archaeology module 

 

Monastery wall, Gamlebyen, Oslo (image credit: Elizabeth Robson)
Archaeological interpretation panel, Middelalderparken tram stop, Gamlebyen, Oslo (image credit: Elizabeth Robson)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Being based in the Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History brought many interesting opportunities; from participation in the departmental seminar series (both as a presenter and attendee), to advising on projects exploring or impacting on the contemporary significance of heritage, to a guided tour of the archaeological remains of Gamlebyen, Oslo’s medieval old town. Once I was ‘on the ground’ in Oslo, it was easier to follow up on workshop invitations and introductions, and my diary for the three months rapidly filled with a range of seminars and networking events. Chatting to other exchangees, I was reassured to hear that their project plans were also evolving in response to emerging interests and, at times, moving in unexpected directions. Being able to touch base regularly throughout my exchange with the SGSAH Saltire cohort was really helpful. Although most of our contact was virtual, it was great to meet Ben Redman in person on a very sunny Saturday morning as he passed through Oslo on his way to Tromsø. 

Social Value of Heritage workshop, hosted by NIKU (image credit Siân Jones, reproduced with kind permission)

I was fortunate that in the last month of my exchange several colleagues from the University of Stirling (academics and doctoral students) were in Oslo visiting NIKU. Quite apart from being lovely to see them, this meant it was possible for my supervisor, Professor Siân Jones, and I to run a workshop for heritage professionals and researchers on the Social Value Toolkit that had resulted from my PhD. This day-long event included colleagues from NIKU, UiO, the Directorate for Cultural Heritage (Riksantikvaren), and the Institute of Transport Economics. We were able to share the theoretical approach and talk through some of the practical case studies to illustrate the process, all the while discussing participants’ own experiences and reflections. 

This was the first time we had run a workshop of this type and it was extremely interesting to hear how the social values of heritage are being discussed and addressed in the Norwegian context. There has been a shift in the UK and in Norway towards the ‘democratisation’ of heritage. Heritage practitioners in both countries are having to respond to tensions between established heritage narratives and changing demographic and social contexts, with new forms of connection and engagement with heritage, and an increasing emphasis on local identities and community benefits. It was apparent from the discussions that there are some common challenges when it comes to putting policies for increased public participation into practice, including: 

  • Responding to multiple community values and values that differ from each other and from professional interpretations. 
  • The role of volunteerism in public participation and effectively diversifying who participates.  
  • The changing roles of professionals and working across different types of knowledge and expertise.  

The workshop confirmed that there is a growing interest in this area of research and that our findings are of relevance beyond Scotland. It also provided a basis for on-going discussions about future collaborations and the application of the methods described in the toolkit. 

 

Oslo Opera House (image credit: Elizabeth Robson)
Bjørvika waterfront, Oslo (image credit: Elizabeth Robson)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I left Norway at the end of June, most people were heading off on summer holidays. I was returning to Scotland to take up a post-doc position as a Research Associate at the University of Glasgow, but my Saltire connections have travelled with me and I have continued to reflect on my experiences. I expect lessons and outcomes will continue to emerge over the coming months, if not years, but it is already clear that the exchange has enriched my scholarship, exposing me to new ideas, people, and literature. Pre-pandemic I had visited other institutions, but the Saltire exchange was my first chance to spend an extended period based in a University outside the UK, offering a fantastic opportunity to extend my networks and share my research with new audiences. In addition to what I gained, I hope I was able to contribute to the academic life of the Department and the HEI network. The relationship between UiO and the University of Stirling has already given rise to at least one joint initiative, with Stirling students invited to participate in the HEI student conference this autumn.  

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my colleagues at UiO, University of Stirling, and NIKU, for all their support before and during my exchange. I am also very grateful to SGSAH and the Scottish Funding Council for enabling the Saltire exchanges to take place.  

The city of Oslo viewed from Gressholmen Island (image credit: Elizabeth Robson)

 Connect with Elizabeth

Email: e.m.robson@stir.ac.uk

Twitter: @lizmrobson