Using historical research to increase visitor engagement at the
Our research shaped a major reinterpretation project at Quarry Bank in Cheshire, providing new insight into the lives of its residents during the Industrial Revolution. This led to significant growth in visitors and inspired research collaborations at National Trust sites across northern England.
- Research shaped a £9.4m reinterpretation project at Quarry Bank.
- Visitor numbers increased by 53% (2015–2020).
- Forged long-term partnerships between universities and the National Trust.
The challenge of bringing Quarry Bank’s history to life
Built in the late eighteenth century, the National Trust’s Quarry Bank is an important heritage site: an industrial community comprising a cotton mill, owner’s house and purpose-built housing for mill workers.
In 2015, the National Trust began a £9.4 million project to reinterpret Quarry Bank for future generations of visitors and identified the need for research expertise to bring historical events and details to life.
The University of Manchester’s Professor Hannah Barker joined the project as its Historical Advisor. Using insights from her research into the early Industrial Revolution, Barker directed a large-scale reinterpretation to bring the experiences of residents and workers to life in new ways.
Transforming historical storytelling
Professor Hannah Barker
Hannah Barker is Professor of British History at The University of Manchester.
Professor Barker’s research changed the way the historical story of Quarry Bank is told. Previously, visitors mainly learnt about the owners of the mill and the production of cotton. Now, they are more actively invited into the lives of families who lived and worked on the estate during the Industrial Revolution.
The reinterpretation draws on Professor Barker’s research – funded by the Economic and Social Research Council – into the role of small businesses in the economic growth and social transformation of late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century England. Her research examines the lives of people involved in trade and the buildings they occupied, which were spaces where commercial and domestic life took place under the same roof.
The National Trust project opened up a worker’s cottage that was previously closed to the public. Visitors can now explore the cottage and discover how family members used its constrained spaces in their working and domestic lives. For the first time, members of the public can gain insight into the unwritten rules of behaviour that governed life in these spaces and how breaking the rules could risk the breakdown of household relations.
Enhancing visitor and volunteer engagement
“Working with the National Trust has injected more excitement into being a historian. It has made me work with people that I wouldn’t normally work with and look at history in a different way.”
Professor of British History
The University of Manchester
The new interpretation has changed the way visitors respond to Quarry Bank. The focus on lived experience, particularly living conditions and past meanings of home and family, has strengthened visitors’ emotional engagement with Quarry Bank’s past residents. Visitors now spend longer at Quarry Bank and increasingly make repeat visits to the site.
Barker created detailed guidance and led training sessions for National Trust staff and volunteers, who play a key role in interpreting the site for the public. Staff and volunteers have been empowered and enthused to share this new knowledge with visitors. One staff member commented that Barker’s resources provided the “foundation of the stories that we […] tell” about the site.
In practical terms, the project has made a key contribution to the financial viability of the site. Between 2015 and 2020, Quarry Bank’s visitor numbers increased by 53%, with increased onsite spending also recorded. These factors will help to fund future investment in the conservation and maintenance of this site of major historical importance.
Embedding research collaboration at the National Trust
The Arts and Humanities Research Council funded a second project, led by Professor Barker, which linked researchers and National Trust teams across the north of England.
Drawing on the models of working at Quarry Bank, the project developed toolkits to support effective collaboration between researchers and the National Trust. The toolkits have been rolled out nationally.
The project has helped to forge new long-term partnerships between the National Trust and universities, with a focus on supporting postgraduate research. To date, these partnerships have led to six PhD studentships, 12 postgraduate student placements and major research funding awards with a value of approximately £1.4 million.
Between 2018 and 2019, pilot initiatives inspired by the work at Quarry Bank led to an increase in annual sales turnover of approximately £20 million in the Trust’s northern region.
Collaborate with us
We develop partnerships and opportunities with experts across disciplines, services, and facilities, to support innovation and business growth.
- Family and Business During the Industrial Revolution (open access book)
- Visitors can now explore the cottage (National Trust website)
- Toolkits to support effective collaboration between researchers and the National Trust (National Trust website)