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Posts Tagged ‘communal value’

 

A project that I’m working on at the moment had me think again about how we conceptualise ‘heritage’, and how our particular concepts and approaches are fermented by funding processes and dare I say the industry that has evolved around them. The project is what we in the sector in the UK call ‘a Heritage Lottery project’, which indicates not only the main funder (the Heritage Lottery Fund, or short HLF) but also a particular process that their funding programmes set in motion. So for an HLF project you’ll have a team of specialist consultants, including business planners (us, in this case), an architect and their whole support team, an interpretation planner, and an activity planner. It was the activity planner who began to worry that this project didn’t have enough ‘heritage activity’, at least for HLF.

 

The project is a historic pool, claimed to be the oldest of its kind in the UK if not in Europe (we’re talking just over 200 years old). The site is incredibly steep and tight, making space a precious commodity. After one of the most extensive market appraisals that I’ve ever done, we as business planners concluded that there was neither need nor a financially viable basis to create anything other than facilities that support a restored pool operation. We know HLF very well, so we still envisaged interpretation and activties, but both integrated into the wider pool infrastructure with a light touch without building special facilities. We’re satisfied that HLF will be happy. But that’s not actually my point.

 

What made me pause was just how much we’re focused on providing these things – interpretation, activities – when quite possibly they are not needed at all. It’s a pool. It’s an old pool, granted, but it’s still a pool. When I read through comments that stakeholders made previously, I find people’s fond memories of swimming in the pool. Not 200 years ago, but within their lifetime – the 1960s, 70s, before it closed. Quite possibly (they don’t say) there is indeed an awareness of, and a sense of connection to the people that have swum in the pool before them, stretching all the way back to the 19th century. After all, amazingly the infrastructure that’s there has largely remained unchanged –while you swim, you can still imagine it’s the 19th century.

 

But actually, you may not want to. You may just enjoy to be swimming in a really pretty environment.

 

I am convinced that even if we provided not one word of interpretation, and not a single ‘heritage activity’, the pool, once opened, would still be ‘heritage’ to people – and become heritage to others as well. And this may or may not have anything to do with how old the pool is, or the fact that it is considered to be architecturally significant.

 

Here’s the thing: if HLF weren’t involved in this, as long as the building substance is respected (the pool is listed), we probably wouldn’t have this conversation at all. In fact, one of the comparators we looked at (not quite as old, but almost) was restored and redeveloped by a private company. There is no ‘heritage activity’ here, and only the briefest of nods to the site’s history in a few historic and restoration pictures online. And yet it is clear how much people value that pool and what it has become, judging by its popularity.

 

I’m not really making a ‘heritage industry’ critique here, although it pains me to admit that one could. I’m also not suggesting that whatever interpretation and facilitated, non-swimming ‘heritage’ activity is implemented will be anything less than excellent. And it is also true that some of the stakeholders would have built a whole block of buildings just to accommodate a vast historic exhibition and a dedicated education space. So it’s not just ‘us professionals’ that may be adding artificial layers to heritage [1].

 

I think for me this project is really driving home the point about thinking differently about heritage. Heritage is not the building. It’s not what we add on to it to ‘communicate’ it as heritage. It’s also an example of not managing heritage, but managing and providing the infrastructure that allows people to continue to create their heritage: in this case, by swimming in this pool. This was one of the things that really emerged for me from my visitor research: infrastructure was what was important, more so even than any form of what I used to think of and advocate as active facilitation. I’m not sure yet how far one way or the other my thinking will go as I continue to mull this over, but if there were nothing else to this project than the restoration of the pool so people can swim there again, I would feel I’ve done good work as a heritage professional.

 

 

Notes

 

[1] There has been the suggestion that people are so accustomed to the ‘Western’ way of thinking about heritage (experts, need to educate) that they’ve absorbed it too. Not all – there are plenty of case studies from ‘the West’ that show alternative views of heritage.

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Yesterday, John Jameson [1] and I hosted a roundtable discussion at the conference of the European Association of Archaeologists. We wanted to explore with participants what the challenges are of moving away from expert values and expert management, toward a recognition of individual and community values. Community engagement and community archaeology have been around for a while, but the questions remain about the effectiveness of existing practices. The fact is that most formal management structures still favour experts and their values, from designation decisions to site management. Legislation and policy may for a decade now have placed greater emphasis on community and intangible values, and the desire to involve ‘the public’ and ‘communities’ in all areas of heritage management. But are we really making room for this? Or are we still primarily concerned with our own objectives, be they management or conservation? In this post, I summarize a few key points from the discussion.

Volunteers

Opportunities for people to volunteer were raised as ways of engaging people, and sharing power. The key is to make sure that opportunities are truly open. So for example, there is a difference between looking for volunteer ‘scientists’ or ‘researchers’ – the former is likely to unnecessarily exclude people again right from the start, whereas many more may feel able to be ‘researchers’ when given the necessary support.

Volunteer projects were also noted as having potential for true power-sharing, although we accepted that the set-up of such projects should be bottom-up to avoid being stage-managed by professional managers. That in itself can pose challenges: it requires that volunteers step forward with ideas. Alternatively, some ideas may be suggested by the ‘experts’ to be further developed by volunteers. One colleague shared an example of a volunteer-shaped project (after they had been invited to do any project of their liking), and noted that while they did indeed make all the decisions they lacked some key knowledge and experience, which meant that the final product was not able to reach its intended audience (in this case, international visitors, to whom the group had wanted to present their site – they hadn’t really known how to think about the needs of those visitors).

Which brings us to the next topic the group discussed:

The interplay between experts and non-experts

The example above led to a discussion of whether there is a place for expert support for volunteers and communities. With a little input from an audience and interpretation specialist, the group might have been able to finetune their project. The danger is of course that experts take over. And some things we think we ‘know’ may not actually be all that crucial. A colleague from Italy shared a very successful example of an entirely volunteer-led project, that included guided tours which flaunted many a best practice principle. And yet, with local enthusiasm and a true love for both the site and the local community, they appeared to capture and share with their groups a real sense of place. Our discussion ended on the feeling that experts should be only one voice among many.

Dealing with diversity of values

Colleagues from Historic England shared experiences on presenting the new interpretation at Stonehenge. Contemporary view points were heard, through the long-going monthly ‘Pagan Roundtable’. This also highlighted some challenges of working with communities: while we tend to think of them as a homogenous group, the Pagan groups for example are far from that. There are many different viewpoints and practices, which share little more than a label (‘Pagan’[2]) and an interest in the site. The challenge therefore becomes how to reconcile the different views, and in fact, professional facilitators were used at some stages. That, indeed, struck us as a key aspect of working with a diversity of heritage values.

What is important to people

The Historic England colleagues also shared that feedback from general audiences at Stonehenge suggested that what they wanted was to have enough information about the latest thinking, even where it is contradictory, to ‘make up their own minds’. For me, that was very interesting to hear, as it mirrors what my own research especially in Germany has found. At Stonehenge as at my study site, it seems to be information, uncensored, both based in accepted science and other viewpoints, that visitors want in order to form their own picture. This, we thought, may also be an approach then to deal with diverse heritage values, since in representing all of the different perspectives we are not priviledging one (and particularly not the expert ones).

What professionals do matters

Our discussion also touched on the symbolism that our actions as professionals take on – and how people react. This came up as we discussed bilingual signs in Scotland, but also Wales and Ireland. One question was whether the use of the ‘native’, non-English language had any relation to the sites in question. The general (British) feeling was that it wasn’t about the sites: it was about the wider culture, and its recognition and support for it by the organisation in charge. Ignoring the native language therefore could by many (even non-visitors) be seen as an affront – even if the site has nothing whatsoever to do with the culture that spoke the language [3]. Again, Historic England colleagues shared that for years, the organisation’s name was not used in Cornwall alongside the logo, for the pure reason that people kept scratching it out (after all, it’s not ‘English’ heritage over there, it’s ‘Cornish’). Now, the organisation will use Cornish alongside their logo, and we wondered whether that would have an impact on how people felt about the sites, and Cornwall, and their language [4].

And the conclusion?

We noted two key things that were important in beginning to truly shake up an over-emphasis on experts in heritage management. One colleague pointed out that what is required is negotiation and faciitation, which needs to become part of the heritage professional’s skills set. John also made the very good point that all approaches should be team approaches, which include communities. I would, after a chat with a colleague following the roundtable, add that giving a human face to an organisation is also important: getting to know communities, both geographical and dispersed, and having an on-going dialogue, much like Historic England have done for years with the Pagan Roundtable. It’s harder to ignore one another’s views when you’ve worked with each other for a while [5].

Notes

[1] John recently retired from the U.S. National Park Service and is now an assistant editor of the Journal of Community Heritage and Archaeology. He is also currently helping to lead efforts in South Carolina to create, manage, and interpret a city-owned archaeological park.

[2] This label actually sparked an interesting discussion itself.  John, as an American, felt that using the term ‘Pagan’ would not be acceptable over there, while over here, that is the term that, well, Pagans themselves choose.  It raised that question though of how we ‘frame’ communities. That framing can say a lot about us to those communities. Similarly, the label used by the communities themselves may give rise to all sorts of views in ‘us’.  What did you think when you heard ‘Pagan’ and ‘Roundtable’?

[3] I’ve worked in both Scotland and Wales, and with the requirement of using Gaelic and Welsh in interpretation. I’ve always felt that this use was almost a reclaiming of those histories that were imposed on the ‘native’ culture by others, mostly England. Nothing more powerful than having Welsh interpretation at one of King Edwards’ (the Englishman’s) castles all over Wales.

[4] Cornish would be a ‘revived’ language; apparently there are very few speakers left, none of whom were raised in the language.

[5] I’m fully aware of the difficulties in this. So many heritage projects are funded for only a couple of years, for example, and I know from my own experience that staff turn-over can be very high, particularly in smaller organisations. Building and maintaining relationships is tough in these circumstances.

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Last week, three high court judges dismissed an application for judicial review and thus paved the way for Richard III’s remains to be buried at Leicester Cathedral.

There are three key things that strike me about this whole process.

The Authorized Heritage Discourse at work
The basis for the applicant’s claim (that they are relatives of Richard III) was portrayed in the media as ‘tenuous’, and thus often, I feel, ridiculed. The reality is of course that this was the only way their – or anyone else’s – views would even be considered: they had to prove what’s called ‘locus standi’, or ‘sufficient interest’ [1]. Why? Because the decision on where Richard III’s body would be buried had already been made even before anyone knew they had found him. This was in the Exhumation License, and the decision was ultimately that of the University of Leicester.

 
That the university should have the decision-making power on this is in itself a result of the AHD: although it was the Richard III Society who initiated the whole excavation journey, it was the university that applied for the exhumation license, because (so the judgment) ‘an application for an archaeological license such as this would normally be made by an archaeologist who could satisfy the MoJ [Ministry of Justice] that he had the skills necessary to meet the terms of the licence’ (paragraph 43). In other words, the structures put in place are such that from the start experts are privileged in the process and given decision-making powers. Leicester Council, who was of course also involved, would have wanted a public consultation, but withdrew the suggestion upon objection from the university (paragraph 57). Why the university should object to the public having a say is anyone’s guess.

 

The inconvenience and challenge of public consultation
The desire for a public consultation was the core of the application, and a key reason why it was rejected. The applicants couldn’t define the limits to this public consultation: who would be consulted? Everyone? According to the court, this is ‘entirely open-ended and not capable of sensible limit or specificity’ (paragraph 156). Now that raises real issues for the idea of ‘public value of heritage’, which features so heavily in national and international policy. I quite agree that we may not already have the procedures and methods in place to capture this value properly, and this case has highlighted that. In fact, the judgment also considered various guidelines on human remains published by English Heritage (experts), the Department of Media, Culture and Sport (experts/bureaucrats), and the Church. Neither, apparently, indicates a practice of consultation. Other policies and guidelines, such as English Heritage’s Conservation Principles, at least in theory rely heavily on public consultation, for example on communal value. If practices are not embedded or well understood, then the sector really needs to start thinking about this properly. At the moment, it looks a bit like lip-service, and reduces ‘the public’ to prove locus standi, which clearly, as this ruling has shown, is difficult and can easily be dismissed as tenuous.

This, then, brings me to my final point.

 

We care because it’s Richard III
The one thing that not one single article that I’ve read about this has mentioned is what the wishes of Richard III himself might have been. He is truly being talked about like an object, or as Hewison in his book The Heritage Industry described it, a product and commodity. Quite openly there is mention of the ‘tourism income’ that having his body will bring, to the point where Leicester’s tourist promotion company apparently agreed to pay for part of the excavation costs (paragraph 38 of the judgment). I find that very troubling. Without wishing to cause offense, I see no difference in this than if a soldier who fell in Afghanistan today were buried there. I know that many will refer to the distance in time. But to this I respond that the reason we even care about these remains is because, well, they’re Richard III. And that makes him a specific human being, to whose life we owe respect. Would he have wanted to be buried in the place where he was killed in battle? Or would he have preferred to be buried where he spent his life, was happy and loved, wherever that place might be [2]? What we do know is that the only time Richard III spent in Leicester, according to the council’s webpage (accessed today), was once after his coronation as king, and then for the battle in which he was killed.

This raises another issue that must be considered even if you don’t agree with my moral argument above. By burying Richard III’s remains in Leicester they will become completely de-contextualized. Yes, you can talk about the Battle of Bosworth, and of course, the battlefield already has a visitor centre. There is nothing else in Leicester that illustrates the story of Richard III’s life and his historical time, one of the most important periods in English history. Indeed, you are left with that Richard III short break that Leicester now offers, and a self-guided walking leaflet around sites that have only the most tenuous links to the man himself, relating only to the last days of his life. Even with the forthcoming Richard III visitor centre, in terms of interpretation and heritage, that seems a missed opportunity [3].

Note
[1] For this and the following see the full text of the ruling here.
[2] I’m not an expert, but according to Wikipedia and other sources, he grew up in Yorkshire, ruled in the North of England for most of his life, his son is buried in Yorkshire, the people of York loved him, and his wife is buried in Westminster.
[3] Of course people will still travel to Leicester Cathedral, and they’ll probably visit the Richard III visitor centre as well. Where else can they go now to pay their respects if that’s how they’re connecting to him? Quite many will also simply enjoy the sensationalist story of the discovery of ‘the king in the car park’. Will it be sustainable once the novelty has worn off? We’ll see. I daresay most people will still nip up to Yorkshire, where the whole of the story is rooted and comes alive through buildings and sites.

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