The Hero Project

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: English Studies


The Hero Project (THP) aims to initiate a national conversation about the figure of the hero. Using a widely disseminated web-mounted survey to take the temperature of the nation, we will ask the British public: who are our heroes today? Who were our heroes? Our intentions are four-fold. First, to establish the features or achievements of a person that contribute to their status as 'hero.' Second, to examine whether or not hero status is historically contingent. Third, to explore the way in which the historical selection of heroes can be seen to have assisted in the formation of ideas of national and community identity. And finally, to pose the further question: are heroes found or made, the latter leading to the fascinating issues: (how) can we build a hero? And how might hero-creation help to shape our futures? Working with two prestigious partner organisations, in the form of the Royal Geographical Society (London) and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (Edinburgh), our cross-disciplinary team based at Newcastle, Aberdeen and Birmingham universities will undertake an integrated programme of research and dissemination activities to explore and analyse the hero figure past, present and future. The Hero Conference - a major international, cross-sector conference, to be held at the RGS in Summer 2015 - will bring together academic, public sector, charity, military and commercial participants to debate the hero figure, and its relevance to today's organisations and audiences. The accompanying 'Heroes of Exploration' exhibition will draw attention to the RGS's holdings, and the role of that organisation in shaping and archiving exploration heroics across the decades. At the SNPG, we will complete archival research and provide a new path through the collections via 'The Hero Trail' - a leaflet aimed at engaging the strategically important 16-24 age group. The research team will also complete journal articles on hero topics in our own areas of research, and mentor a Research Associate in doing likewise. Gathering further collaborators and interested parties across the year of the award, we aim to consolidate 'hero studies' as an important and engaging new field of research, with enormous potential for follow-on and spin-off projects.

Planned Impact

- Academic fields including history, literature, politics, social sciences, war studies, philosophy and art history with an interest in 'hero studies,' a field we aim to consolidate and define (see 'Academic Beneficiaries')
- Public/third sector organisations including art galleries, museums and archives, seeking to find new ways to attract audiences, and to guide them through their collections
- Military organisations/those with responsibility for managing military reputation in civilian life
- Charitable organisations connected to the military and post-conflict fundraising, including Help for Heroes, Walking with the Wounded, Royal British Legion, Royal British Legion Scotland, the Royal Scots Club etc.
- Education policy units and thinktanks seeking new ways to engage students in literary, historical, and political studies
- Other governmental organisations seeking to explore discourses of Britishness via analysis of British people's heroes, with a view to policy-making or outreach to particular constituencies
- Commercial organisations tending to use heroism as an advertising trope/means of engagement, including (for example) The North Face, Berghaus, Burberry and Bremont chronometers
- PR companies representing a range of organisations, seeking to use the hero figure to attract and persuade audiences

With the hero a topic of contemporary public debate (see 'Case for Support' and 'Pathways to Impact'), 'hero studies' has potential impact beyond academia. Our partner organisations will assist us in exploring the value of the hero figure in 'slicing' existing archives and collections in major cultural institutions, and in attracting new audiences to engage with those institutions (see 'Academic Beneficiaries'). Co-I Nataliya Danilova's work in analysing the public portrayal of the hero figure by military/charitable organisations will offer a critique and analysis that will benefit her own field of politics/war studies, but it will also be of interest to her subjects of study. She will build connections with these organisations over the course of the year of the award. Those organisations may learn from our survey the characteristics of heroism most valued by British people today - potentially useful in positioning their own 'heroes' to drive donations and voluntary work.
Given the exploratory nature of the award, those areas of impact are the team's focus. However, 'hero studies' has two further areas of substantial potential impact: education, and outreach/marketing. One way to organise the contemporary curriculum for politics, literature and history is a focus on hero figures (and a critique of the notion of the hero). Governmental or independent educational thinktanks and policy-makers might, if briefed on our survey findings, make use of our statistics in curriculum debates. Governmental and commercial organisations, and the PR companies that support them, will also be able to make use of our findings regarding present hero figures, the ability of certain heroes to 'survive' or retain standing across the generations, and the role of heroes in establishing a national or community identity. For example, The North Face's team of present-day athletes, used to advertise their products, could be supplemented by a 'legends' team of past explorers and adventurers, who might appear in advertisements in order to make further statements about the brand.

The scope of THP is restricted in order to ensure feasibility in the one year of the award, and we focus on potential impact for academic and cultural institutions, and the engagement of new audiences in the collections of our partners. However, the further constituencies listed above can easily be briefed regarding the new data set that emerges from our survey, and many sub-projects and impacts are possible within those fields. These might in turn contribute to our own further activities if follow-on funding is secured.


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Danilova N (2019) The politics of heroes through the prism of popular heroism in British Politics

Title No Heroes Any More? 
Description 'No Heroes Any More?' is an online, interactive exhibition showcasing the newly digitised collections of the National Galleries of Scotland, designed in collaboration with the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, and students from five Scottish schools. The exhibition is aimed at the 16-18 age group, of strategic interest to the NGS at this time. The exhibition is designed to exploit two pathways of engagement: 1) it can be used by teaching staff to initiate discussion and online/in person exploration, and 2) it can be accessed by young people who come to it outside the school environment, through our social media and on-site promotion materials (at NGS venues). The exhibition aims to encourage an analytical approach to the artistic presentation, maintenance, and modification of heroic reputations in a range of different media. In response to the 'Care for the Future' theme, it take a particular interest in the way that heroic reputations have changed across time. In testing and consulting with groups of school students, we have found that our images initiate conversations about: body image, terrorism, the military, political structures, 'everyday' heroes, sports people, celebrity culture, identity and self-belief. Polls and pop-ups will register the responses of our visitors, and store data anonymously. The site has been designed professionally, using feedback from a young person's panel. It will launch in April 2017. (Note: this element was originally intended to be a simple 'trail' leaflet for the SNPG. Through school collaboration, we were able to scale up to this more ambitious project. 
Type Of Art Artistic/Creative Exhibition 
Year Produced 2017 
Impact Tbc - launching April 2017, as noted above. 
Description Our work with Scottish schools (via the outreach team of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery), and our analysis of YouGov data and the use of the term 'hero' in newspaper databases from the late nineteenth century to the present day, has led to the formulation of our 'No Heroes Any More?' online exhibition. This will launch in April 2018 (see outputs, listed as 'creative exhibition.') The launch of the exhibition has been delayed by the (unavoidable) re-design of the National Galleries of Scotland website, including the digitisation of their collections. Our online exhibition will form a (separately designed and data-aggregating) section of this new website. Students and staff involved in piloting anticipate the exhibition enhancing the curriculum across subjects including history, art history, and personal/social education. We will collect data from website interactions, as well as soliciting feedback from teaching staff at our partner schools. The project has also provided a model to the SNPG for the combination of their newly digitised collections, and their work with young people. A student feedback panel not only guided our design work, but also provided new perspectives on the images we selected, with their assistance. The 'hero' issue is one that the Gallery plans to use again to initiate discussion with young people and (potentially) to guide the hanging of a new gallery display. The Hero Project's collaboration with the Gallery made possible these perspectives and plans.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Education,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural

Description Heroes Conference 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Two day interdisciplinary, inter-sector, international conference held on the topic of 'Heroes' at the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), London. Panels were formed of academics or curators/museum professionals, while the audience was a mix of academics, curatorial and archive staff, and interested members of the public, including those from charitable organisations with an interest in the 'hero' topic. The conference included a prototype exhibition, 'The Heroic Body on Expedition,' using holdings from RGS-IBG Collections. Authors and playwrights joined us to talk about writing heroes (or anti-heroes) in their own work. The conference was summarised in a post on our project blog, and has been written up by our Research Assistant Dr Sarah Evans for publication on the AHRC 'Care for the Future' research strand's website. As a result of this conference activity, we are now holding a 'Heroism and Portraiture' day for museums/galleries/archives professionals, to be held at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, 25 May 2016.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015