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Posts Tagged ‘European Association of Archaeologists’

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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