Heritage and Healthy Societies Conference: Impressions

I spent last week at the Heritage and Healthy Societies Conference, hosted by the Center for Heritage & Society at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I tend to go to practitioners’ conferences, so this was great with its mostly academic focus on research. Here are a few impressions I brought home with me [1]:

The healthy diversity of the human past
The first keynote speech was by Michael Herzfeld of Harvard University. There were a lot of great sound bites in it, and the one that struck a particular chord with me was a “celebration of difference”. Relating to heritage, and particularly heritage management, this is the acknowledgement that people will have different views about what is heritage and how it should be managed. Professor Herzfeld advocated a healthy debate, and where this does not bring consensus, this should be recorded – for example on site in the interpretation. Importantly, the debate must be open to everyone ­– not just ‘the experts’. He also pointed out that what constitutes ‘the public’ changes all the time. This highlights to me the absolute need to continue research into the public so that we have a current understanding who the public are at any given decision point.

The audience as witness
Raina Fox, an MA student at Brown University, USA, gave a really interesting paper about ‘survivor docents’ at the Japanese American National Museum. ‘Survivor Docents’ are people that have personal experience of the forced incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII. Today, they lead visitors on guided tours as a form of ‘truth telling’, a term, if I remember correctly, that comes from restorative justice. This is also the theoretical framework that Raina uses, something which I found very intriguing. In this account, the museum is a form of reparation: in my own words, an officially granted space for survivors to share their memories and effectively give their testimony. The audience becomes a witness to this testimony. Raina’s research focuses on the docents, so we don’t know how the audience responds and what impact this particular form of interpretation has on them. But I’m really interested in this theoretical approach of thinking about museums as official spaces for justice, where a society works through issues of guilt and atonement, as well as reconciliation and reparation.

Connectivity Ontologies
This was a key point in the second keynote speech of the conference by Rodney Harrison of UCL [2]. In a nutshell, this is the view that humans and the natural world all participate in life processes. The traditional boundaries between nature and culture are dissolving in “heritage’s ontological turn”, which also challenges the view that only humans bring meaning to heritage. This is also a challenge to a view of ‘intangible’ heritage as, in my words, pure meaning, and somehow completely separate and independent of material aspects. Heritage thus “has little to do with the past but with practices concerned with assembling the future”, a view that consequently also embraces change since “places may change their role”. This raises interesting questions about conservation practices. As far as I’m concerned, connectivity ontologies provide a really intriguing way of thinking about heritage that encompasses and transcends the tangible/intangible divide and offers an approach that is not backward-looking and conservationist.

Structural Violence in Heritage
This was a fascinating paper by Erica Kowsz, an MA student at UMass Amherst, looking at Authorized Heritage Discourse as structural violence. Her case study was of an Indigenous archaeological site in British Columbia. There were several points that intrigued me, starting with the definition of ‘community’ – the local community was the people that lived there, having moved there relatively recently – not those whose site this actually was historically. Now, the local community (and my notes are a bit sketchy on this so I may get the facts wrong) did do what we might consider ‘the right thing’ – they opposed the development of a road once the site was discovered, and went about having it excavated, recorded and protected. However, they didn’t contact the people whose ancestors had actually lived at the site, and buried their dead there. Once these folk found out, a conflict began, and with it the structural violence. In short, they were denied any say over the site because the experts wouldn’t define them as a tribal group according to law. So not only had they suffered historically, by having been expelled from this land, now the law (well, in 1956) declared them extinct, and this disenfranchisement continued by ‘expert assessment’. They didn’t fit in with the  heritage structures and practices in place, and so they remained excluded.

I’ll stop here although there were many more inspiring papers that I’ve heard. I also presented my own on some preliminary findings from my doctoral research, called ‘Identity Work at Heritage Sites: A Stepping Stone to Intercultural Understanding and Peace?’ You can listen to it by downloading the presentation here.

[1] All of the following is based on my understanding of what people said and in my own words. I did write down some ‘quotes’ and these are in quotation marks. The quotes are as verbatim as I could manage without recording the presentations – but I may well have gotten the occasional word wrong.
[2] I have the immense fortune to have Rodney as my secondary PhD supervisor.


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