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What does it mean to be Welsh?

Is Welshness about speaking the language, enjoying the picturesque peaks and valleys, the country's rich industrial heritage or celebrating St David's Day? For Dr Richard Marsden, Senior Lecturer in History, the answer is, it's complicated. But understanding Welsh identity could help tackle inequalities.

Dr Marsden and colleagues from the The Open Univeristy (OU)'s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences and the OU in Wales are embarking on an ambitious three-year project exploring modern Welshness. Wales Residents Engaging in Arts and Cultural Heritage (Wales REACH) will empower people in five Welsh communities to learn about local heritage through the creative arts and consider how it shapes their sense of identity. The OU Open Societal Challenges programme-supported, and National Lottery Heritage Fund Wales-funded project aims to build social cohesion, skills and confidence.

WALES REACH expands on the award-winning UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)-funded Blaenau Gwent REACH. The project supported a post-industrial community in the South Wales Valleys to make art, music, creative writing and film reflecting on their local area's rich and fascinating history.

"There is no single modern Welsh identity. It's fractured and contested. For example, Blaenau Gwent has a relatively low number of Welsh speakers, but among the country's highest proportion of people identifying as Welsh, rather than British," Dr Marsden explains. "There tends to be a powerful association between Welshness and language in the northwest, but people in the southeast, for example, may well identify more strongly with Wales' industrial heritage."

The OU team are collaborating with National Museums Wales, the Arts Council of Wales, Adult Learning Wales, disabled peoples' support charity Innovate Trust and six social housing associations on the project. They are currently working with these partners and the communities to co-design bespoke learning activities, events, and workshops. The programme will connect people with the heritage that matters to them through various topics, from archaeology, history, creative writing and fine art to digital design, photography, drama and music.

WALES REACH will culminate with an online and physical exhibition showcasing participants' creative works in the summer of 2026. Similar exhibitions at the end of the BG REACH project attracted more than 18,000 visitors.

"Connecting the OU to people and places inspires me," Dr Marsden says. "But it's not as simple as bringing an off-the-shelf lecture - we need to find a hook to get people interested. So, before we kick off the main part of the project in spring 2024, we're working with people in participating communities to understand their needs and co-design programmes they actually want to participate in. It's about doing with rather than doing to."

Each of the communities has a unique history:

  • Butetown in Cardiff is the oldest multicultural community in Wales.
  • The Port Talbot district, Sandfields, grew up around the local steelworks.
  • Pembrokeshire is a predominantly rural county shaped by agriculture.
  • Gwynedd has a high proportion of Welsh speakers and strong links with the slate industry.
  • The overlooked heritage of people with learning disabilities in South Wales

"Blaenau Gwent REACH demonstrated how bringing together and empowering communities to connect with their histories and heritage can significantly improve social cohesion and people's confidence and skills, inspiring some participants to return to education, or start their own community projects," Dr Marsden says. "Above all, however, it provided more evidence of the importance of access to culture and education in people's overall wellbeing. During a cost-of-living crisis and the poverty, mental health challenges and isolation it brings, Wales REACH will enable us to help even more communities to unite in a socially enriching experience."

He also hopes the research findings, when published after the project ends in 2026, will influence future Welsh Government policies tackling social exclusion. "Policymakers talk a great deal about civic nationalism – the idea that if you live in Wales and participate in society, you are Welsh. But if you don't see yourself reflected in this vision of Welshness, you don't engage, so you don't have a voice in the decisions that affect you. Wales REACH will help us explain the intersection between heritage and identity more fully than traditional interviews and surveys can. From there, we can identify ways to build a more inclusive society."

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