Profile: Dean Paton – on making heritage the next Big thing

Dean Paton

The heritage industry in the UK is big business. With an estimated workforce of around 328,000 and with heritage tourism bringing in around £18.4 billion annually, it seems that a career in heritage would be an accessible destination for many graduates. However, the reality for most is very different. Finding that dream job in a museum or heritage attraction is far more difficult than one would expect. In fact, many highly qualified candidates are increasingly finding themselves in low paying and unskilled jobs within the industry, facing a considerable lack of progression or utilisation of their skills. This absence of progression, and under-development of staff, seems to plague most museums and heritage attractions. However, there would appear to be no other alternatives for most individuals with a passion for heritage.

‘I was told time and again by seasoned professionals that I had to do things in a particular way, but I just had the self-confidence to do things how I wanted.Dean Paton is a former University of Oxford student who, in 2011, decided to start his own heritage company. This involved him taking his passion for archaeology out of the lecture theatre and into local schools. ‘It’s not about being the best academic, it’s about knowing how to effectively explain and communicate heritage.’ Dean formed his company, Big Heritage, after finishing his undergraduate degree in Archaeology from the University of Chester. ‘I was just trying to get the kids from where I lived interested in archaeology. I’m not from the most affluent place and archaeology isn’t something they’re exposed to.’ Dean’s fresh approach to outreach was received with widespread enthusiasm from teachers and students alike. This early feedback encouraged him to pursue more diverse methods of communicating heritage to the local community. ‘It’s all about engaging people in unusual ways. That’s when I realised it doesn’t have to be specifically about archaeology – anything involving heritage will work.’

I just had the self-confidence to do things how I wanted.

Since 2011, Big Heritage has grown exponentially. As well as continuing its successful educational program, it now also offers archaeological services, heritage consultancy and, most notably, manages a wide variety of under-utilised heritage attractions. Big Heritage’s first acquisition was the famous Chester Water Tower, which it re-opened in 2016, transforming the site into a ‘gory story of medicine throughout time.’ Big Heritage then made national news with its ‘man in the mask’ viral campaign, which involved a plague doctor roaming around the city of Chester, causing something of a stir amongst the locals. The campaign pushed Big Heritage into the national spotlight, increasing visitor numbers and highlighting the unusual approach that the company takes in bringing heritage to the streets; melding artefacts, outreach and social media to engage the public in innovative ways. ‘Artefacts are viewed and interpreted by their contexts, so taking them out and viewing them differently alters our interpretation and perception of objects. We’re here to shake things up and change the dynamic of the audience, which is all part of the fun.’

Big Heritage now employs 16 members of staff and manages a further 4 heritage sites in the North West, including the recent £1 million acquisition of St. Michaels Church in Chester. ‘We’re a non-profit and are not doing this to make money, we’re just trying to create the best heritage attractions we can for people in the community. We take these tired sites and inject our passion and energy into them.Big Heritage recently oversaw the re-opening of the Liverpool War Rooms, its biggest project to date, which has received widespread critical acclaim. ‘Again, we’re not experts on the Second World War, but we know how to communicate heritage and that is the point.’

We take these tired sites and inject our passion and energy into them.

Dean cites the importance of his first degree, yet his journey into the heritage industry came a little later than most. ‘I started my first degree in Archaeology at 24. I was running a pub at the time, but it wasn’t what I really wanted, so I decided to follow what I enjoyed most and that led me to study Archaeology. I had no idea where it would lead, but I just enjoyed it and followed my desires.’ Following his passions eventually led Dean to the University of Oxford in 2011, where he read for a MSc in Applied Landscape Archaeology at Kellogg College. ‘I was a part-time student which was great because it gave me the ability to set up Big Heritage. It was a wonderful experience and the course director, David Griffiths, was an incredible teacher who really helped support me throughout my degree. It was demanding work, but my time at Oxford was fantastic.’

Recently, Big Heritage again hit the headlines, hosting Europe’s first Pokémon Go festival, alongside Chester’s Heritage Weekend and in collaboration with Pokémon Go developer Niantic. Big Heritage, with the help of its new partner, Niantic, had pioneered yet another innovative method of engaging the wider community with history. Chester saw thousands of people participating in its festival as historic sites became ‘Pokéstops’, and it is thought that the event generated around £3 million for the city. ‘We would show kids how Pokémon Go can help them look at the historic landscape. It was an incredible event. Niantic’s next game is going to be Harry Potter so we’re currently working with them to see how we can incorporate the historic landscape into the game.’

To date, Big Heritage has won over 10 national awards, recently scooping the Outstanding Contribution to Tourism prize. Not having to interpret heritage through a traditional institution has been liberating for Dean and Big Heritage, but I wondered how he felt about not having to work with a traditional museum? ‘That’s the best thing about starting your own company and becoming your own boss – if you have an innovative idea, with the stroke of a pen you make the decisions and it’s up to the market to decide whether it’s any good or not.’ Luckily for Dean, the market has decided, and Big Heritage continues to go from strength to strength. Dean is also encouraging of anyone thinking of joining the industry and thinks that the key to success is rather simple – ‘communication and interpretation of heritage is my passion. If you’re a good communicator, that’s the key, and it will go a long, long way.’

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