Capturing archival impacts for the Research Excellence Framework

About the project

The North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University used the ‘Calling Blighty’ series of filmed messages sent home from servicemen (and a few women) in the Far East during the Second World War. These films were made between 1944 and 1946 to screen to audiences of their families back in their home towns, essentially to improve morale.  The archive’s project set out to reconnect as many families as possible with their relatives, and to recreate the screening for them – first in Manchester, then in Sheffield, and Birkenhead.  This was achieved through a dedicated website, database (over 900 messages) and well-targeted publicity.

A journal article and a short documentary film were created by filmmaker Professor Hawley at Manchester School of Art. The high profile and effectiveness of the public engagement and outreach activities drew the attention of the university’s Research and Knowledge Exchange (RKE) team who were assembling material, evidence and case studies for submission to the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2021.  Taken together with the underpinning research, RKE identified the project as a good impact case study.

Challenges and opportunities

Not being familiar with the academic language of the REF is a challenge – we know exactly what to do with the archive film in order to create a successful outreach project, but it is difficult to express the success in terms of the impact of the underpinning research when we had already delivered the activities.  The university’s RKE team continues to lead us with support for the necessary evidence gathering and evaluation, which is invaluable.  The author of the underpinning research has now retired from the university, but remains involved in the extension of the outreach activities. This complicates the lines of communication, but is manageable.

Opportunities have come through the RKE team’s small grants towards developing impacts within their many case studies. Using the established model, we were awarded funds to support another event in Birkenhead, and a further event which is currently being planned in Brighton and will add reach to the case study.


To date, 140 families have found a relative and many more have been looking. Five screenings have been held (with a total audience of around 600), and a Channel 4 documentary about the project was first shown in 2016 and repeated several times since.  The outcome in terms of becoming an impact case study for the REF is that the work is valued highly by the university, where it is recognised for its quality and reach. This is a valuable advocacy tool within our parent body.

For the families who found a relative among the men sending messages home, there was the huge emotional impact of seeing and hearing them as young men, and being able to share that with their extended families (Australia, Canada) as some did not return from the war and the short clip was the first time some family members had seen them at all.  Often, the discovery was made during genealogical searches and was entirely unexpected since no mention had ever been made of a film at all.

Lessons learnt

From a starting point which was a bit ‘cart before the horse’ in terms of academic research, to the realisation that becoming a REF impact case study comes with benefits, it will hopefully be easier in the future to think of how any new project might be shaped from the outset, without losing its focus.

Finding the right academic partner is key – one with the credentials and the star-rated research track record required for the REF (which none of us film archivists here has). A partner who already knows and understands your work and collections is great, but is always keeping an eye open for new research requests which can be enriched by the archive’s full involvement in shaping the outputs, rather than simply making material available for study.

The process is ongoing – there is ample time to develop the case study for submission.  This will go well provided that the RKE team continues to offer the guidance and support needed to ensure the evidence gathered is expressed in the correct language for the REF submission.  They are aware that even the most erudite academics can find it difficult to relate the activity to the underpinning research in the way which highlights the impact.  It is easy to become distracted by enthusiastic testimony, but this does not count as evidence of impact.

Advice to other archive services

If the objective is to strengthen the case for recognition of your collection’s value and advocate for support from within the university, find the right contacts in the RKE equivalent and get some guidance – all the HE institutions will probably be working to the same ends.  They may be able to match you with a researcher to mutual advantage, or if you are already have something in progress, find out early on what they would need to evidence the impact at an appropriate level and gather the evidence to fit.  (We find ourselves trying to retrofit with this example.)

Future development

The ‘Calling Blighty’ project model will ideally continue to be delivered (subject to resources) one place at a time, until all the surviving issues have been presented to their local audiences.  This will probably take some years and extend beyond the period of the current REF, but may be eligible for a future REF.

More information

Project coordinator: Marion Hewitt, Service Manager and Public Engagement Fellow