Mapping Contemporary Art in the Heritage Experience

A creative practice-led research collaboration between major UK heritage partners that considered the impact of artist commissioning in heritage sites. The project’s aim was to produce a better understanding of this significant but under-researched area of the visual arts.

The project

The project had three main objectives:

  1. To map the trajectory of contemporary visual art in heritage sites in the UK
  2. To understand how artists engage with the heritage context in the creation of contemporary art for heritage properties
  3. To analyse how contemporary artworks commissioned for these contexts are received and consumed by heritage property visitors.

Mapping Contemporary Art in the Heritage Experience (MCAHE) was an interdisciplinary research project led by staff at Newcastle University in collaboration with the University of Leeds; as well as the following project partners: National Trust, The Churches Conservation Trust, English Heritage, Arts&Heritage, Contemporary Visual Arts Network, Arts Council England.


To meet these objectives, the project addressed a series of research questions gathered under three key themes: Creation, Consumption, Exchange.


  • How do artists engage with heritage contexts and narratives within the creation of commissioned artworks?
  • What are the conceptual and practical challenges of creating site-specific works for a heritage property context?
  • Do such commissions generate new creative approaches and artistic strategies that might impact on artists’ future practice?


  • How, and to what extent, does contemporary art add to the audience experience of heritage and what potential benefit does it bring for the host organization, the property staff and volunteers?
  • How does the encounter with artwork in a heritage context impact on audience and staff appreciation of, and interest in, contemporary visual art more broadly?


  • What is the current landscape of contemporary arts in heritage practice in the UK and how might knowledge of this practice be mapped and shared across interested communities in the arts and heritage sector?
  • What are the criteria for evaluating the contemporary art and heritage experience from a producer and audience perspective?
  • What are the key issues or barriers for commissioners, artists and audiences engaged in or wishing to develop this area of practice?

The commissions

The ‘Creation’ strand of MCAHE centred on the development of six new artwork commissions for four heritage properties in North East England: Cherryburn and Belsay Hall in Northumberland; Gibside in Gateshead; and Holy Trinity Church in Sunderland.

Taking four of the commissions as case studies the research explored in detail, how contemporary artists engage with heritage narratives at these sites and how these heritage properties (their staff and volunteers) became active participants in this process.

The project commissions were as follows:

  1. Susan Phillipz at Belsay Hall
  2. Matt Stokes at Holy Trinity Church
  3. Fiona Curran at Gibside
  4. Andrew Burton at Gibside
  5. Marcus Coates at Cherryburn
  6. Mark Fairnington at Cherryburn

Cherryburn – Mark Fairnington, Walking, Looking and Telling Tales, 2018

Cherryburn is a small farmstead situated near Stocksfield, eleven miles west of Newcastle upon Tyne. Owned and managed by The National Trust, Cherryburn is the birthplace of the famous British artist and naturalist Thomas Bewick (1753-1828). Bewick is Northumberland’s greatest artist: a wood engraver who revolutionised print art in Georgian England. Today he is best known for his book, A History of British Birds (1797). Set in a tranquil position with views across the Tyne Valley, Cherryburn is still surrounded by the natural world that inspired Bewick’s work. The site comprises Bewick’s tiny birthplace cottage, a farmyard and a traditional 19th Century farmhouse – the later home of the Bewick family. The farmhouse is now a museum and print room with a collection of Bewick’s wood blocks. It also houses a library and an exhibition about the artist’s life.

Developed in collaboration with the National Trust, the artist’s brief for the MCAHE Cherryburn commission focused on the character and vision of Thomas Bewick. It invited the commissioned artist to make a new temporary artwork which responded to Bewick’s life and legacy, exploring the impact of his work on society during his lifetime and reflecting on how that might manifest itself today. Two artists were selected to make works in response to the Cherryburn brief, Mark Fairnington in 2018 and Marcus Coates in 2019.

To develop his project for Cherryburn, Walking, Looking and Telling Tales, painter Mark Fairnington traced a series of walks around Northumberland and the local area, recording the landscape and conversations with people he met along the way. From these walks, Mark produced a series of sketchbooks and painted landscape miniatures that explored Bewick’s countryside from a contemporary perspective and made connections with Mark’s own family story. To complete the project Mark created an installaton of the paintings in the panelled ‘half parlour’ of Bewick’s birthplace cottage. Mark’s installation was on public display at Cherryburn from 2 June – 4 November 2018.

Download the Walking, Looking and Telling Tales leaflet for further information.

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