Cataloguing the Common Ground Archive

Annie Price, Common Ground project archivist, tells us about the arts & environment charity’s archive, which is held at University of Exeter’s Special Collections.

The University of Exeter’s Special Collections holds many exciting and fascinating archives, including the archive of the influential arts and environmental charity, Common Ground. In August 2018, I embarked on a project to catalogue the charity’s extensive archive, which was completed in December 2020. The new catalogue descriptions will allow the archive to be more easily searched, accessed and used, both by the University’s staff and students, as well as external researchers.

Common Ground is an arts and environmental charity, which was established in the early 1980s with a mission to link nature with culture and use celebration of the everyday as a starting point for local action. The charity has raised awareness of a variety of environmental issues through its innovative projects, which have involved public participation, the commissioning of new artistic works, the organisation of events, the launching of new calendar customs, and the publication of books, pamphlets and leaflets. Many of the projects – in particular, ‘Parish Maps’, the ‘Campaign for Local Distinctiveness’ and ‘Apple Day’ – have proven to be highly sustainable, continuing long after Common Ground’s active involvement in them ceased. The Common Ground archive comprises a wide range of material created and collected by the charity in the course of its activities between 1982 and 2013, including project planning papers, correspondence, reports, financial papers, research material, press clippings, photographs, promotional material, and publications.

For me personally, the aspects of Common Ground’s work that really shine through the archive are project conception, public participation, and engagement through the arts. For each project there are project proposals and project planning notes, which reveal the thought processes and creative ideas behind Common Ground’s projects. The excitedly scribbled questions and ideas on pages of lined paper are particularly wonderful! All of Common Ground’s projects involved public participation to a certain degree, but my favourites are those that invited members of the public to share their own knowledge and experiences. Thousands of letters from people around the UK (and, in some instances, around the world) relating to projects such as ‘Flora Britannica’, ‘Orchard Observances’ and ‘Parish Maps’ provide fascinating insight into the relationship between people and the environment. And finally, the archive contains correspondence, photographs and publications relating to Common Ground’s collaboration with artists, sculptors, craftspeople, photographers, writers, poets, playwrights and composers. The directors of Common Ground understood that the arts are an effective means to engage and excite people about their local environment, and made a special effort to work with a wide variety of practitioners, including Peter Randall-Page, David Nash, James Ravilious, David Wood, James Crowden, and Karen Wimhurst.

The Common Ground archive has the potential to be used for research in a wide range of areas, including environmental studies, geography, literature, visual arts, cultural studies, sociology, and business studies. The archive may also be of general interest to anyone keen to know more about environmental issues, arts, culture, or their local area (the archive includes material relating to thousands of towns, cities and villages across the UK). We hope that this cataloguing project will enable the archive to be more easily and effectively accessed and used for research, teaching and pleasure.

You can explore the new archive catalogue online here. More information about Common Ground’s different projects and the archive is available via the Special Collections project blog posts and our online guide to the Common Ground archive. You are also welcome to contact Special Collections by email at for more information about the archive.

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