Case Study: Arts and Humanities Small Grant Award

“This research is helping to define and establish my academic identity. It is a badge of honour that the grant was awarded by the RSE”

Project Highlight: Iona Primary School P5-P7 show off their artwork at the end of a workshop with Sally Foster and Stuart Jeffrey. Photo: Rod McCullagh

Background image by permission of Iona Primary School. Sally Foster is a Lecturer in Heritage and Conservation at the University of Stirling. In 2016, she received an Arts and Humanities Small Grant Award which enabled her, alongside collaborators Professor Siân Jones and Dr Stuart Jeffrey, to undertake a successful project centred on St John’s Cross, one of Iona’s most iconic monuments.


Please can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I’m a Lecturer in Heritage and Conservation at the University of Stirling, appointed in 2014 as the first of a growing team of academics specialising in Heritage as part of our Centre for Environment, Heritage and Policy. My background is in archaeology and heritage management.

Can you describe your project in no more than 50 words?

We examine contemporary perceptions of value and authenticity to establish how replicas used in heritage contexts actually ‘work’. Adopting rapid ethnographic techniques, our qualitative research explores the 1970 St John’s Cross replica. Famously described as a ‘thin’ place, Iona is in fact ‘thick’ with layers of meaning that illustrate both particular and general theoretical issues.

Did the RSE Small grant award contribute to the success of your research project? If yes, how did it help?

We could not have undertaken this research without the RSE funding. In particular, it enabled us to undertake our fieldwork on Iona, and to get our interviews transcribed. Based on our early successes in the field, we were able to ask Historic Environment Scotland to provide complementary funding.

What would you have done if you did not receive RSE funding?

I would have plucked up the courage to approach Historic Environment Scotland to see if they would have been prepared to fund the project in its entirety. It’s easier to say that now we know how useful the outcomes of our research ought to be to them. Beyond that, we had already exhausted the British Academy route (Reserve List at first application, no success at second).

What was your favourite part of the funded project?

That’s so difficult to answer, spending time on such a special place as Iona, and with each interview with islanders, visitors and heritage practitioners being a privilege and revelation. But I think the highlight will be the day workshop we undertook with P5-P7 at Iona Primary School in February 2018. This combined outreach with further research, because we realised talking to some adults just how important it was to also capture more of the childhood perspective. Working with children was a first for me, but my terror quickly gave way to undiluted pleasure, which is perpetuated when I look at the fantastic artwork the children produced that day. It has also given us important insights into what is important for them.

Were there any unexpected outcomes?

Iona is a tiny but very special place. The range and intensity of the different ‘gazes’ upon it means that we can offer a greater depth to our understanding of perceptions of value and authenticity than I had dreamt of. In parallel, I have been investigating the cultural biography of the Cross. I was amazed when the next-to-last person I interviewed said he had a cinefilm of the Cross’ creation and erection in 1970; the last person I managed to track down and interview was the artist who helped to create it. So, we have obtained firsthand insights from the past and present.

How did you disseminate your findings to your colleagues and/or the general public?

In the lifetime of the grant, we have established and regularly updated a project website. With support from the University of Stirling Communications, Media & Culture colleagues, and with his permission, in February 2018 we made Murdo MacKenzie’s 1970 cinefilm available on YouTube, with me interviewing him about it. We had built into our grant application, presentation of our preliminary findings on Iona and to Historic Environment Scotland in Edinburgh (March 2018), and this proved a very helpful way of getting useful feedback as well as disseminating our findings. We showed the film on Iona. But the first airing of the fieldwork results took place at a well-attended Our Islands Our Past conference in Orkney (September 2017). With support from Historic Environment Scotland, we added to the project a workshop with the Iona Primary School children (see above). We have produced and circulated postcards that advertise the project and where to find further information about it: these have been distributed on Iona, to targeted professionals and other stakeholders, and at conferences. Thanks to Dr Stuart Jeffrey, 3D models of carved stones produced during the course of the project, including by the Iona school children, are available online.

What do you plan to do now that the award has finished?

We have completed two articles for peer-reviewed heritage journals, International Journal of Heritage Studies, and Conservation and Management of Archaeological Sites and will produce popular versions of these for heritage / history / industry magazines. An abstract was submitted for the Association of Critical Heritage Studies conference in China in September 2018, and we spoke about our research in November 2018 at the University of East Anglia.

In terms of pathways to impact, discussions will continue with Historic Environment Scotland to explore how the results of the research can feed into their policies, practices and guidance and casework. With the St John’s Cross replica turning 50 in 2020, we will be approaching the Iona Cathedral Trustees who commissioned it to look at ways of marking this event. I am in discussion with Les Wilson about pitching a programme to BBC ALBA. Given the richness of the sources and the interest of the story, I am planning a semi-popular book about the biography of the Cross, provisionally entitled My Life as a Replica. This will be targeted at both the academic and (international) Iona markets, and the ambition (subject to securing funding for a graphic artist) is that this is a very visual product.

Would you say that the award was helpful in terms of progressing your career? If so, how?

This is the first piece of substantive original research I have been able to undertake since completing my PhD in 1989, changing career and getting a permanent academic post in 2014. Combining it with my first Research Leave, I have been able to learn new skills, and this research is helping to define and establish my academic identity. It is a badge of honour that the grant was awarded by the RSE.

Do you have any advice for anyone thinking of applying for an RSE Arts and Humanities Award?

1) Play to the Scottish Government’s desired National Outcomes but do not let this curb your creativity.

2) Plan for the intended impacts you want to have, and do not be shy to mix local with national and international ambitions. In our case the international impacts will largely be academic, while the non-academic impacts will be local and national.

3) We under-estimated how successful we would be and needed more resources, particularly for transcription. But there were also unexpected incidental costs, such as hiring a space to deliver our presentation on Iona, which we should have thought of.