Just how big is the Big Society?

I nipped across to Snibston Discovery Museum this morning with my good friend and fellow tour guide Lynne, for a morning of talks about funding community heritage projects.

The event kicked off with an introduction by Peter Lewis – leader of Leicestershire County Council and, coincidentally, my first ever creative writing tutor back in the day at Loughborough University, when I was still a young scrap of a thing working towards a BA in Literature and dreaming of being a teacher.  It became clear, as he read his speech, that someone else had written it for him.  He ad-libbed quite openly.  ‘Ah, same old Peter!’ I thought.

“History belongs to everyone, not just professors!” people have said to me in the past and this thought resonated with Peter reminding us that volunteer historians have always been at the heart of the collection of history.  I used to worry quite a lot about my lack of a history qualification when I first became a museum volunteer, but have come to realise it’s not really a big issue.  So much of our own town’s history would’ve been lost to us, in fact, if it weren’t for the rectors, the journalists, the teachers, the librarians, who collected scraps of old stories and hearsay from the townsfolk around them and scribbled them down for posterity.  How wonderful to see that phenomena happening still, albeit in a modern form, on the brilliant ‘Remember Loughborough’ Facebook page.  If you haven’t seen it yet, go take a look.

Next, Museum Development Officer Emma Buckler gave us a run-down of the support on offer to heritage organisations from Leicestershire County Council, followed by a presentation from Nikki Henning, Chairman of Diseworth Heritage Trust, of the funding they’ve accessed over the years for a variety of truly inspiring local projects, large and small.  I’ve never been to Diseworth Heritage Centre but it’s on my list of places to visit this summer and I look forward to seeing the digital representation of the church from Saxon through to modern times.

By the time Sarah Finch of the Heritage Lottery Fund had finished telling us of the various heritage funds available to projects and how to apply for them, I was gung-ho and ready to download an application form that minute.  Until, that is, someone pointed out that the funding that’s on offer makes no provision for salaries for the organisation carrying out a project.  They can claim money for professional services from book-keepers, publicists, external experts, but nothing by way of income for the people actually coordinating the work.A quick look round the room confirmed what I already knew: other than myself and my friend Lynne, everyone else there was retired.  Everyone else there has been freed from the need to earn a wage to pay for their daily bread.  And with my pot of redundancy money almost empty, that, unfortunately, doesn’t apply to me.  I can have as many ideas as I like for engaging my local community with their heritage, but without a salary to pay my bills, the projects themselves will be out of my reach to set up.  The Big Society, it seems, is only interested in people who can afford to do all the work for free.

So as another, more experienced attendee said to me – “Welcome to the world of community funding!”