Within the Walls: Heritage Values and the Historic City

A Collaborative PhD project in the Historic City of York, UK

What is a ‘CDA’?

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The Within the Walls project team are supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) through CDAs or Collaborative Doctoral Awards.   CDAs bring Universities and non-academic organisations together to work on research that will have impact and long-term benefits on both sides.   Our project is a partnership between the University of York and City of York Council (CYC).

This is quite a new model for postgraduate research, both for Universities and for PhD students, and I keep being asked how it works in reality. In this post I’m going to give a little background to the scheme and also talk a bit about my experience so far.

In practical terms having a CDA means that Ed, Katrina and I each have a non-academic supervisor in addition to our academic one: for me on the archives strand this is Richard Taylor, the City Archivist, and for Ed and Katrina it is John Oxley, the City Archaeologist. As part of our research we’ll also undertake work based placements and projects with CYC, benefit from lots of in-house practical knowledge and be plugged in to a wider network of people who work in heritage in York.  In return CYC gives a small additional bursary to each of us on top of our grant to support our work-based research.

The AHRC launched the CDA funding scheme in 2005 (you can get an overview of the varied projects funded so far on their website), with the primary aim of encouraging Universities to collaborate and develop partnerships outside of academia.

The studentships also encourage and establish links that can have long-term benefits for both collaborating partners, providing access to resources and materials, knowledge and expertise that may not otherwise have been available and also provide social, cultural and economic benefits to wider society.

The University of York received its first awards in 2006 for projects in partnership with Harewood House and Castle Howard on country houses. Since then the Departments of History, Archaeology, Music, History of Art and Archaeology have had CDAs every year, in partnership with a long list of organisations, some local and some national.

English Heritage, the Yorkshire Film Archive, The Natural History Museum, The National Railway Museum, York Archaeological Trust, the Yorkshire Museum, the National Maritime Museum, Tate Britain, Glasgow Museums, Harrogate Borough Council, The British Museum and the National Gallery.

The topics have been diverse too, from ‘The Mesolithic and the Planning Process’ to ‘Shifting Perspectives on German Renaissance Art’ to ‘Picturing the railway passenger as customer in Britain: the Great Western Railway, 1903-1939’.


The CDA approach really works well for me.  I had always intended to return to University to do a PhD but over the years had also become really invested in my chosen career as an archivist.  Since 2010 I have worked for CYC as an archivist (and still do, two days a week) and  I was keen that any research I did should have potential impact for my profession and relate directly to the reality of archives work.  The CDA model gives me the best of both worlds: it allows me to undertake a vigorous academic study while at the same time relating it constantly back to the real-world organisation that I work for.

For example, I want to collaborate with community groups in York to identify what they value about archives, and understand how recognised heritage organisations can work with these groups to engage more people with their archival heritage.   The contact I have with CYC – as a researcher and a member of staff – means that I have access to work happening in real-time and can ‘get up close’, actually participating in things.  I will be delivering some elements of the Archives’ Heritage Lottery funded Gateway to History programme as my work-based project, the experience of which in turn will form a core element of my research. The task of building essential relationships with partners and accessing networks in the city has already been done for me, at the project development and bidding stage.

I don’t think CDAs would work for all researchers or for all research projects.  I suppose you could argue that collaboration complicates the research process because, depending upon on how active they are in the partnership, the non-academic organisation acts as another draw on precious time and already stretched mental resources.  While CDA students are free to follow their research wherever it takes them, none of the parties are disinterested and you have to serve two ‘masters’ coming from quite different perspectives.   In my case both my academic and non-academic supervisors have quite a clear sense of what they hope to achieve as a result of the research project, and are well aligned, but that won’t always be the case.  And the priorities and approaches of all organisations shift and change over time, which can impact on a 5 year part time PhD like mine.  Plus I imagine that work based projects can be a distraction if they’re not integrated fully into the research from the start.

All of that is outweighed for me though by the benefits, especially the potential CDAs offer for embedding research in new contexts and for demystifying and justifying academic work.  It’s a way of doing research ‘in the world’, right from the beginning.


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