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Making marks, changing values: The contemporary significance of graffiti at historic sites


Project Description

Although many heritage sites have examples of historic graffiti, until recently it has not generally formed an integral part of interpretation or research. However, the public response to English Heritage’s recent Richmond Castle Cell Block project, its work on graffiti at Deal Castle and other EH initiatives such as the recording of graffiti at Conisbrough Castle, has shown clear public interest and research potential. This project, focused on the north of England, would form a continuation of research undertaken at Richmond Castle and start drawing together earlier work on graffiti within EH’s estate across the region. It will create a typology of graffiti types from sites of all periods. It will also, for the first time and through a participatory approach involving curators working alongside contemporary graffiti artists, examine historic graffiti from the perspective of contemporary ‘mark making’ activities. This part of the project will also therefore address key social inclusion agenda, creating opportunities to work with non-traditional audiences, now increasingly valued within the heritage sector and specifically defined in EH’s Corporate Strategy.

This studentship feeds directly into EH’s research strategy by working to better understand the national picture and by developing assets which could be used to inform interpretation, such as a catalogue of graffiti in a region and a transferable research framework. By better understanding both the historic and contemporary significance of graffiti it will also inform conservation practice. The research is thus a crucial and timely intervention in a significant debate on recording historic graffiti, assessing its significance and taking values-led decisions on their retention/removal.

Historic graffiti can provide information on past lives, and the use of and values attached to particular spaces over time. Working alongside contemporary graffiti artists can help us to build new interpretations, and see these historic spaces and their graffiti from different perspectives.

Research questions fall into three categories. First, there is a human aspect to the unofficial and unsanctioned act of creating graffiti and the appropriation of a small part of a building by ’mark making’. The project will ask:
- Why do people create graffiti?
- What can this tell us about the lives of people in the past?
- What does this tell us about the changing attitudes of visitors to heritage sites and the changing attitudes of custodians of these sites?

Second, the project will address questions of value, which tie into heritage protection, resilience and recording:
- At what point, and why, do graffiti become an important historical record as opposed to vandalism?
- Which graffiti are worthy of study and preservation? Here we will question whether and how graffiti could be used to create a value hierarchy based on style or age, for example.
- What is the value and significance of graffiti? Who values them and why?
- What methodologies should we employ to research these inscriptions?

Third, graffiti also has the potential for new stories which might not be discoverable through more conventional methods such as historic buildings recording:
- What diverse stories do graffiti tell?
- How can these be interpreted and presented to members of the public?
- What common themes can be found across graffiti at heritage sites?
- How do graffiti affect or impact the historical and spatial narrative of the space?

Together these questions will help the project answer the central questions, being (1) why graffiti matter and to whom, and (2) how understanding graffiti and the processes by which they are made can help better inform their future management and wider appreciation.

Funding Notes

A Collaborative Doctoral Partnership studentship between the University of York and English Heritage
Starts 1st October 2019
3.5 year award
The award pays tuition fees up to the value of the full time home/EU UKRI rate for PhD degrees as well as full maintenance for UK citizens and residents only. The value of the maintenance stipend is to be confirmed; however is expected to be around £15,559.
Due to restrictions on the funding this studentship is open to UK/EU students who meet the residency requirements set out in the UKRI Conditions of Research Council Training Grants. View Website

How good is research at University of York in Geography, Environmental Studies and Archaeology?

FTE Category A staff submitted: 18.78

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

Click here to see the results for all UK universities

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