Sounding Out Wells: sonic postcards for heritage and environmental engagement

Lead Research Organisation: Open University
Department Name: Faculty of Arts and Social Sci (FASS)


This project, 'Sounding Out Wells', will employ and develop an innovative art-based methodology to capture and represent the voices of coastal communities, articulating the issues they face and bringing these to the attention of policy-makers and the wider public with the aim of improving public engagement and consultation in environmental and coastal management planning. The project develops a series of sonic postcards reflecting the heritage and environment of Wells-next-the Sea past, present and future.

Sounding out Wells (SoW) explores the sonic history and heritage of Wells next the Sea on the North Norfolk Coast. Sound artist Rebecca Lee and the SoW team will work with volunteers and school groups to produce a set of 'sonic postcards' for permanent exhibition in the newly constructed Heritage Centre at Wells Maltings. These will use existing oral testimony sound archive along with new recordings made specially for the project. SoW will contribute to building a distinctive role for the Maltings as a cultural hub and develop the environmental agenda at Wells Maltings which will create a public forum to debate local responses to climate change and sea level rise. Speaking to issues past, present and future, the Wells 'sonic postcards' will directly address this agenda of environment and coastal change..

Sonic postcards are created from segments of recorded oral testimony and interview material combined with environmental sound recordings, locally performed, created and relevant music and data transformed into electronic musical sound. These are woven into short compositions of 5-10 minutes as items of focused listening which tell a specific story, but also pose questions which encourage listeners to think and reflect on issues and themes. SoW will develop a new methodology enabling volunteers to work with a professional sound artist in order to create together new sonic postcard sound artworks.

The North Norfolk coast consists of low-lying sandy cliffs, dunes, mudflats, creeks, fresh and saltwater marshes. It is subject to regular inundation from storms resulting in a vulnerable changing and increasingly volatile coastline and coastal margin. The consequences of climate change have resulted in increases in the incidence and power of storm events, rising average temperatures and rising sea levels. The Norfolk coast is an important bellwether in terms of coastal vulnerability in relation to sea level rises. The area has been called a major and significant UK laboratory in terms of coastal adaptation and climate change. Facing up to these challenges will concern people of all ages. SoW contributes to this developing environmental agenda by inviting volunteers and schools groups to think about how the coast is changing and how local heritage and experience can help us prepare and plan for the future.

In summary the Sounding out Wells project will:

- Develop a series of 'sonic postcards' reflecting the heritage and environment of Wells past, present and future;
- Explore the potential of the existing Oral archive at Wells Maltings, enhance it with new recordings and create new sound-based displays grounded in issues of coastal change;
- Develop a new collaborative methodology involving schools, volunteers, local groups, and facilitators working with sound artist Rebecca Lee;
- Create debate and discussion relating to the human and environmental challenges faced by Wells in the future and which speaks to the Wells Maltings developing environmental agenda.

Planned Impact

The Sounding Out Wells (SoW) project is a collaboration between the Open University, Wells Maltings (WM) and the Norfolk Coast Partnership (NCP) who undertake statutory planning for the Norfolk Coast Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). The main direct beneficiaries are Wells Maltings, the NCP, local publics in the Wells area and visitors to WM Heritage Centre (WMHC). Wider and longer-term benefits will develop from dissemination of the project sonic engagement methodology set out in a Good Practice Guide (GPG) as a resource for regional and national third sector organisations such as the National Association of AONBs, museums, libraries and associated local history groups, and for arts engagement practitioners wishing to use sonic postcards in public engagement. SoW will involve community groups, volunteers and local schools working with sound artist Rebecca Lee, SoW and WM staff to devise and create new sonic exhibits and resources for the WM Heritage Centre.

The project supports WM plans to utilise their oral history archives, build on their heritage offer and further the newly developing WM environmental agenda. The project works with WM and NCP to pioneer the use of sound art works in the form of 'Sonic Postcards' to engage local people of all ages with the environmental issues and challenges created by contemporary coastal change.

SoW will directly benefit WM by creating a display of ten sonic postcards as key new additions to the WMHG. In addition, the project will explore the currently underutilised Wells oral history archive and make this more readily available for future use. SoW will create a searchable database catalogue that will enhance the research/resource potential of the existing content and create a home for the new oral testimony recordings generated through the SoW project. SoW will deliver a freely available digital searchable database plus digitisation of the audio recordings enabling Wells Maltings to meet a growing need for access to these resources from research inquiries relating to this material.

Building capacity for WM will also be advanced by training Wells Maltings staff and key volunteers in audio recording and interviewing techniques and by developing an accessible technique for making sonic postcards. This will be set out in the accompanying GPG and will provide a legacy for creative collaboration when funding ends. The project will help build outreach and dialogue between the newly refurbished Wells Maltings, residents and visitors by encouraging and inviting participation across a wide range of publics including schools, local societies and local sound artists.

SoW will benefit participating community groups, volunteers, local schools and also visitors to WMHC through an imaginative engagement with the history of Wells using the medium of creative sonic heritage. It will also enhance access to the oral history archive. Sound Artist Rebecca Lee and WM Outreach and Learning Manager will work with local schools, giving teachers and students the skills and resources to undertake investigations and make reports using sound recording techniques and equipment. The process of making the sonic postcards, and their display (exhibited at WM and elsewhere) provide an opportunity for local people of all ages to discuss and consider coastal change and give voice to their concerns and hopes for the future.

In turn this will further benefit the developing public engagement strategy of the NCP with coastal planning for the AONB. The SoW Coastal Futures public event will discuss concerns, hopes and visions for the future of Wells and feed directly into AONB and shoreline management planning. The GPG will be free to download as a resource for public engagement. It will be taken to the National Association of AONBs annual conference and feed into current national debate around greater public engagement in the shoreline management process.


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