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Next week, I will take up a new post and in doing so, I will formally be leaving the heritage and museum sectors that I have worked in over the past years. From now on, I will be working in the further education and socio-cultural sector.

 

I will admit that when I first read the job advert for my new role, I paused to do some soul-searching. What would I be leaving behind? Would this include the very thing that I am passionate about – (cultural) heritage and its interpretation? Would I lose my own professional identity?

 

Somewhat to my surprise, the research into the sector and the institution that I would be joining brought me renewed clarity concerning my values in heritage and interpretation. It also gave me an immense sense of excitement. It started with the organising premise and raison d’être – enshrined in law, no less – of the German Volkshochschulen: to provide access to education for all. Breaking down barriers to access, inclusion, diversity: these are all principles that underpin the work of the sector. And not just on paper either. There are annual statistics, baselines and monitoring on the basis of which the claims are checked and the work is further developed. For example, I was thrilled to see courses offered in Turkish, and the number of collaborations that the Volkshochschule I will join is already doing – and has been doing for quite some time. Even ‘education’, which is a term I am not particularly fond of [1], is explicitly understood and described as the ability to acquire knowledge, to make an informed judgment about information provided, and to participate in and contribute to society. In fact, the overriding aim of the sector, and Volkshochschulen in particular, is to enable everyone’s participation in our democracy, not just understood politically, but culturally and socially as well.

 

All of that is what has been motivating me in my work at cultural heritage sites and in museums. I have never been focused on a site’s material or evidential values, and this goes for museum collections as well. On the contrary, I have spent the better part of my professional career arguing that sites and museums must be more than places for the presentation of expert knowledge, in the sense that it continues to be overwhelmingly defined, which is material or historical knowledge. I have supported the view that such expert knowledge too often not only exerts an undemocratic hegemony over heritage, but also misses the very values that turn something into heritage in the first place. My own focus has consequently always been on supporting (and understanding) people’s heritage work on the basis of my own and other’s research, particularly, but not exclusively from within critical heritage studies.

 

Engaging with the legal framework, strategies and practices for the further education and sociocultural sector in Germany has made me realise – somewhat ironically, considering my long-held stance – that I do not need to be working at a cultural heritage site or in a museum in order to maintain my focus on facilitating and understanding heritage work. Power over the management of the materiality on site is all that I will be losing in changing sectors. I believe I can live with that loss.

 

In fact, after the last three years, I feel a distinct sense of liberation. Particularly in Germany, there is still a long way to go before these values of participation, democratization and inclusion will be widely shared in the museum and heritage sectors. There are initiatives aplenty, but merely looking for example at the heated discussions at conferences about using simpler language in interpretive texts, or the need for the federal association to persuade museums to undertake visitor studies (!!) reveals that the institutional impact of these initiatives often remains rather limited.

 

Like I said, my focus is, always has been and always will be on people. I have never been in this to garner prestige for myself. The fact that some people are now telling me that in leaving a museum post I am losing status and ‘taking a step downwards’ just reassures me: I have made the right decision. Now I can focus on the work that I consider important and right, without having to endlessly defend it.

 

 

[1] The reason is that while even in formal pedagogy, the concept has evolved, in practice I find that there is still a hint of a one-way-street of (expert) instruction in quantifiable knowledge.

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I have left Britain and relocated to my native Germany. Most Brits nodded knowingly when I told them I was going back to Germany, telling me that ‘Of course, you want to go home’. And in many ways I have indeed ‘gone home’. But in nearly as many other ways, I have also lost my home.

 

The idea that ‘home’ is (solely, exclusively, even at all) the place of origin seems unjustifiably simplistic. I have spent nearly half of my life outside of Germany. Why should Germany automatically be more ‘home’ to me than the places where I deliberately chose to live? And yet, this definition of ‘home’ as ‘country of origin’ and, to a lesser degree, as ‘citizenship’ is widespread, not only in politics but also in the cultural sector. It fails to appreciate the complexity of ‘home’, and how intrinsically it is linked to people’s identity, their well-being, and their very lives.

 

That, to me, has been the true tragedy of the EU referendum debate in the UK. I didn’t leave Britain because of Brexit. Rather, I realised over a year ago that in the eyes of my chosen home, Britain wasn’t – and would never be – home to me at all. This clip, and the suppressed tears of the couple, should give everyone an insight into the impact of a country’s refusal to acknowledge that it is unqualifiedly ‘home’ to people that were not born there [1].

 

As I drove from Scotland back to Germany, I heard this poignant piece about ‘Heimat’, the German term that encompasses ‘home’. The professor [2] explored many different levels of ‘Heimat’ and how it is constituted; how it relates to where we are now, and how it can change and adapt. He suggested that ‘Heimat’ is ultimately about ‘feeling at home’, in his view mostly because of people, with place acting primarily as a symbol and anchor for that feeling, rather than constituting it per se. I would personally stress the role of place in certain instances a little bit more, based on my own experience, but nevertheless, as I was leaving one home further and further behind and approaching my old/new home, I thought that here was a way of thinking more dynamically about ‘home’ that was more appropriate and useful.

 

Germany has never ceased to be ‘home’ to me. But Scotland was also home. For many years, I knew more about Scottish and British history, politics and culture than I did German. I have adopted Scottish ways of thinking, I already miss tea and scones, and then there is that undefinable sense of connection to the Scottish landscape, the music, the dances and the stories, that perhaps more than anything else made Scotland home to me. However, I still scoffed at the suggestion that I should take British citizenship to secure my status in case of Brexit [3]. I am also German, in the stereotypical sense (inefficiency and being late drive me crazy) and in all the ways that Germany inspires me with its stories and landscapes and culture, and the fact that my own personal history started here. My point is that home wasn’t one or the other, it was both.

 

Policies and practices that stubbornly insist on a view of ‘home’ as rooted in ‘origin’ and ‘citizenship’ in the end will fail us. They divide people, and they reduce them to assumed traits that may or may not have any meaning in who they think they are and how they relate to where they live. We need something more complex. Today, we live in a world where people move around in varied circumstances, and we must acknowledge their right to ‘home’, and not simply their right to residence. If we fail to do this, there will be further repeats of what has happened in Britain to people like me [4].

 

 

Notes

[1] Please remember that these folks had come to Britain and still are in Britain perfectly legally. The fact that Britain to this day – more than two months after the referendum – still refuses to unambiguously grant their right to stay is frankly the starkest confirmation that the country still does not recognise their claim to Britain as ‘home’.

[2] At one of the universities in what will be my new home, no less!

[3] I never would give up my German citizenship, but as far as I’m aware I wouldn’t have had to. However, I resented that Britain asked such a huge step of me like becoming a citizen just to acknowledge my already evident commitment to it, and to give me security. It felt like being my German self who loves Scotland wasn’t good enough, and that a part of me was meant to be suppressed. I won’t have that.

[4] To push someone like me, who loved the place, spoke the language, earned her own money and was fully integrated, to the point where leaving seemed better than staying would be something I would really want to think about if Britain were my country. But then, that’s also very German of me.

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I recently heard a short description about an interpretive encounter that made me think again about the construction of heritage, the use of interpretation to represent that particular view of heritage, and the social structures that are expressed and recreated in doing so.

 

The anecdote concerned a guided tour with a school group [1]. Before I recount it as I was told it, I want to make it clear that the teller did not intend to give an in-depth account of the interpretation, and therefore I do not know the precise context in which the original story was narrated, or indeed how. The facts, however, are as follows: the guide told the school children that in the past, there existed the practice of tossing a biracial boy (in the retelling the term ‘mulatto’ was used) to danger, to see who in the attending group (I have strong reason to believe they were white men) could rescue him first. There was a black boy amid the school group who, upon hearing this, burst into tears. He then was told that this was ‘a long time ago’ and ‘obviously’ this ‘would not happen today’ (I think were the words used in the retelling).

 

Now, for a start, I’m simply going to assume that no guide would actually use the term ‘mulatto’ in public, in front of a school group, and in front of a black boy.

 

However, I can well imagine that if the guide did use the term, it was in the context of ‘the past’. For in the past, that’s what they would have called the child. And I can – sadly – imagine that somehow, that seemed to make it okay to use the term today in the retelling of the practice. As if the passing of time had purged the term of the disdain and discrimination it expressed back then: ‘mulatto’ comes from Spanish ‘young mule’. And clearly the people of the past had little more respect for the boy than they did for a mule as they endangered his life for their own amusement and sport [2].

 

Of course, that may have been the whole point of telling the story: to show up the racism of the past and analyse it unflinchingly so that we may understand the racism that is still happening today and build a better future for tomorrow. However, the fact that the guide apparently told the boy who cried that this happened a long time ago and obviously wouldn’t happen today, just doesn’t make me believe that that’s actually how – and why – the story was related. First of all, such racism obviously does happen today, so that clearly wasn’t part of the conversation. And while I understand why the boy would have cried no matter how the story was told, the fact that the other children as far as I know weren’t affected tells me that he was the only one who understood what was truly going on in this little ‘story’.

 

And what is this story? If it wasn’t shared to examine the inherent racism of 19th century Britain (as I believe the period concerned was) then why share it at all? I wondered: in what other context would anyone think it appropriate to tell this story? Again, I do not know the precise context of this piece of interpretation and how it came about. However, the fact that it was told in the first place and then subsequently rationalised as ‘a long time ago’, ‘obviously’ and ‘would not happen today’ suggests a view of an ultimately benevolent society that created something good from which we still benefit today [3]. This is the quintessentially sanitised past turned heritage. Only by willfully ignoring the darker aspects of history are we able to represent it as heritage that is universally claim worthy. By declaring that racist actions of the past ‘of course’ would no longer happen today, we deny the pain and hurt of that boy who cried upon hearing the story. We refuse to acknowledge that those very same structures of discrimination and disregard that are evident in the story are being recreated quite literally as we speak: we’re expecting that boy to share in our sense of benign heritage, when quite obviously all he heard was a shocking and frightening action that may have more resemblance to his everyday experience than we may be prepared to face.

 

Like me, your first reaction upon reading this example of interpretation may have been to pronounce that, ‘This is why you should have professional interpreters.’ And maybe we’re right, maybe the guide wasn’t a professioal – I don’t know. And yet, I think there is every chance that a professional interpreter by our standards may simply have chosen not to tell this story at all. But is this truly better? Is simply leaving out the nasty bits any more responsible or professional? Especially since a ‘professional’ very likely would have understood and represented the heritage overall in the same way: that this site was created by kind people for the benefit of others, and now we are benefitting from it too. The message: the site is worthy of our protection and all of us can (and should) enjoy it. And meanwhile, on our 21st century streets, the racism continues and black people die.

 

I am a firm believer in people choosing and creating their heritage, and this, I am well aware, sanctions the choice to ignore the racism and establish a rosy view of times (and practices) gone by. But I also believe that heritage can be exclusive and dissonant, with inherent representations and views that shape and influence our present and future, and not always in a constructive manner for all. I also believe that heritage is fluid – as we contest and debate it, it changes. And that is truly where I feel professionalism enters the equation. In professional interpretation we must be aware of these representational dynamics and do all we can to make them visible. This isn’t about preaching to a heritage community to change their views. It’s about opening doors for all to enter into heritage making in our shared world. I honestly believe that the particular site in the example can become great heritage for the young boy who was reduced to tears – but not on the basis on which we’re currently trying to goad him into buying into our story of kindly benefactors. Acknowledging and sharing that the past was wrong means we can reclaim the site on a different basis that works for all of us, not just those with the power to tell the story. Heritage, after all, is not set in stone.

 

Notes
[1] I want to point out here that the incident was shared with the express recognition that something had gone wrong and that advice should be sought on how to do things differently in the future. So that’s an all-round good thing.

[2] Just for the record, I make no distinction between the worth of the life of a mule and that of a human being. But I daresay those chaps did.

[3] I know I’m being vague here, but unfortunately any more details may identify the site in question, and that’s not the point of this post. It’s not a critique of a specific site, but an underlying approach that applies to many other sites also.

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After last month’s Interpret Europe conference on the topic, I have been pondering what the role of heritage interpretation is for the Future of Europe. This is not a review of the conference [1]; however, I want to share some of the questions and thoughts I’ve had.

 

What future?

The joke that Prof Dr Mike Robinson of the Ironbridge Institute (UK) made before giving his keynote speech encapsulates the real ‘hot topic’ of the question of heritage intepretation and the future of Europe for me. He joked that here he was, an Englishman, being asked to speak at a conference about the future of Europe. His keynote wasn’t in fact about the future of Europe [2], but in a way I wish it had been. I would have liked to see the question of Brexit being discussed prominently, to explore why people are questioning the idea of Europe, not only in Britain but elsewhere also, and how this criticism compares both to the ideal and the reality of this union of nations. In my view, understanding this has to be the starting point for any involvement of heritage interpretation in creating Europe’s future [3].

 

What role?

At several points throughout the conference, the ideal of Europe (peace, prosperity, common destiny, shared culture) emerged as an unquestionable truth, and its promotion the natural aim of heritage interpretation for the future of Europe. While unsurprisingly I personally agree with this positive view of Europe, treating it as a truth in a management practice such as interpretation ultimately dismisses the opposing viewpoints shared by too many. For that is what we are doing when we are proposing heritage interpretation as a tool in promoting this, our view of what Europe is. Instead, we need to really engage with why so many are questioning Europe, and represent that fully in interpretation. That is not to say that we cannot also state what side we, as management, come down on; just the opposite. I argue that being transparent and clear about our political views is what we urgently need in interpretation, and professional heritage work in general [4].

 

Any role?

I attended a short session on the European Heritage Label, and one of the discussions that emerged in the group was whether this was a bottom-up or top-down approach to deciding which sites get the label [5]. This prompted questions about whether this then imposed a certain interpretive focus, which would in turn force these sites into a narrative of a European history and thus identity. I wondered whether this will actually play a role in supporting that identity, or will it rather put people off and give more fuel to the notion that Europe suppresses national diversity? I don’t have an answer and it would be interesting to read some research around that (suggestions?). It may be a natural step of an ever-closer union, right after bringing down the borders and introducing programmes of exchange and collaboration, all of which definitely have helped create a stronger sense of Europe for me. I would be okay with that. However, I also noted that I felt far closer to the Belgians when I by sheer accident found out about the story of Ambiorix than when we were on the First World War battlefields, which clearly are a ‘shared’ place of European history and which are interpreted as such. Ambiorix, you see, is Belgium’s Arminius, although the Gallo-Roman Museum in Tongeren did not mention that, nor do I think I would have much appreciated if they had. Nevertheless, realising how similar some of our stories are really pleased me. It made me feel that we can understand each other, and that I and my folks can learn from the Belgians’ relationship to these histories, too.

 

Here’s to the future of Europe.

 

 

Notes

[1] Much of my conference, due to the sessions I picked and conversations I had, didn’t actually touch on this question.

[2] You can see the slides from his keynote here. He talked more about the future of thinking about cultural heritage, which was a good keynote to have at an interpretation conference.

[3] And I do not mean so that we can better persuade people of our view.

[4] I’ve spent much of my time since the conference writing another conference paper on just this topic. This is for the Challenging History conference later in the month.

[5] It seems that the answer to the question depends on one hand on the national nomination process, which can be different in each country that has signed up to it. Not all EU members have. On the other hand, there are the criteria which then are used by the EU panel of experts. That process will, I suppose, always be ‘top down’ to an extent, and for an official initiative such as a label I’m not sure I see an alternative.

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Next month, I will represent ICOMOS ICIP at the Voices of Culture Structured Dialogue on the Inclusion of Refugees and Migrants through Culture. In preparation, the organisers have posed three questions [1] for each participant network to respond to. As I collated the response from ICIP’s network, it’s been really interesting to revisit the various initiatives and writings I’ve come across over recent months, and read through what colleagues sent me. I’d like to share some of the thoughts and questions that have come up for me personally during this process [2].

 

Migrant doesn’t equal migrant

The term really is too often used to cover what are vastly different motivations for and experiences of migration. These groups cannot be lumped together. That they all ‘live away from their country of origin’ no more predicts their needs and desires than does having red hair for British people. It may seem a convenient segmentation, but it neither reflects reality, nor does it provide a helpful framework for thinking about migration and its demands on our professional heritage practices.

 

Living in an ‘Age of Migration’

The MeLa project spoke of an ‘age of migration’, and its final report notes that although migrations have always taken place, ‘due to improved possibilities for physical and virtual movement today they have grown in quantity, rapidity and complexity’ (p. 8). Migration today is constant, fluid and global, and it seems to me that this in particular necessitates a more differentiated understanding of, and thus professional response to, the specific type of migration we want to work with, if indeed we continue with this targeted practice at all [3]. But there are other questions too that arise from the idea of an age of migration:

 

Heritage Assimilation?

The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) in their publication Towards the Integration of Refugees in Europe (2005) notes that historically, states used a ‘strategy of assimilation’ regards third country nationals (p. 14). Through assimilation, ‘refugees’ values and norms would be substituted with values and beliefs of the host society’ (ibid). I wonder if many of our current professional heritage practices regards people from third countries are rooted in concepts of assimilation. In other words, as we offer guided tours for refugees and programmes where they can learn more about ‘our’, the ‘host’ country’s history and heritage, are we in danger of creating structures that ask newcomers to adopt this heritage and make it their own? [4] Is this also at the core of the following:

 

Fighting for resources

I read the suggestion in an article [5] that migrated groups are ‘in competition’ for representation in museums. Heritage here emerges as distinct parcels belonging to distinct groups, that my heritage isn’t your heritage, and if my heritage is represented that means yours isn’t. And of course to some extent that is how heritage works; scores of writers have noted the exclusive nature of heritage [6]. But could this also be more than a question of representation? Could this be the result of an ultimately assimilatory understanding of heritage, and one that becomes increasingly problematic in an age of migration: the idea that the ‘host’ heritage should and will stay the same, with newcomers expected to either buy into it or create their own, separate heritage in this new place? How would this all change if we adopted a different view of heritage altogether?

 

Heritage Integration?

The ECRE writes that integration (as opposed to assimiliation) is a ‘dynamic two-way process’ (see above, p. 14) that requires of both sides action and adjustment. What could integration mean then for heritage, and consequently professional heritage management? Would this be a kind of give and take between ‘old’ residents and ‘new’ residents, whereby they create a new, shared heritage, in which some common elements remain, and others change? While professional practices may necessarily have to start off with showing what heritage in the host society is like at the moment of arrival, do we then need practices that adapt and change as new heritage is created once refugees become settled?

 

The Integration of Refugees and Migrants through Cultural Heritage (Management) Practices

I suppose what I’m grappling with in all of the above – and I am not suggesting I have any answers here – is my deep dissatisfaction with current professional practices that compartmentalise and historicise migration and create a ‘migrant’ heritage that, while possibly represented, forever remains separate. If we are indeed in an age of migration (and I think we are) then this is not a sustainable path forward. Telling a balanced story, or ‘polyvocality’, as MeLa calls it (p. 25), is still in my view the best approach in interpretation to show all aspects of heritage, but this is not about inclusion, or more specifically integration, this is primarily about representation. To arrive at integration, we might need more – but that’s the part I’m not sure about yet. Thoughts welcome.

 

Notes

[1]

  • Question One: Which 5 recent initiatives in Europe (or elsewhere) best demonstrate the successful role of culture in promoting the inclusion of refugees and migrants? What have been the key success factors in these initiatives?
  • Question Two: What are the best ways to organize cultural activities to promote the inclusion of refugees and migrants – immediately on arrival (first six months), and in the longer term (after six months – the normal time limit for asylum procedures in the EU)?
  • Question Three: What are the 5 strongest arguments which can be made by civil society, on why and how to use culture to promote the integration of migrants and refugees? How should these arguments be framed, to justify investment in culture?

[2] This is very much one of these posts where I’m putting my thoughts out there to make sense of them. I’m fairly new to reading migration studies and migration/museum research, so bear with me and do point me to stuff you think I should consider.

[3] Although I would again argue against any segmentation on the basis of one attribute. Incidentally, so does MeLa’s report (p. 50).

[3] I want to quickly, and emphatically, add that I am not in the least devaluing those activities. Refugees in particular appear to find these very offers, of learning about the existing history and heritage in their new home, very helpful and important. It seems to be a way of familiarising themselves with this new place, to make sense of it, before they can even enter the phase where they can add their own heritages. I’m also intrigued by mapping projects, and tours that are guided by refugees, all of which actually may go a long way toward creating a new, integrated heritage, through connection to place.

[4] Small, S., 2011. ‘Slavery, Colonialism and Museums Representations in Great Britain: Old and New Circuits of Migration.’ In: Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge 9(4), pp. 117-128, p. 125

[5] See for example Waterton, E. 2010. Politics, Policy and the Discourses of Heritage in Britain. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 9.

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There is a tradition within interpretation that identifies having ‘love’ [1] or ‘passion’ [2] for heritage and/or for people as a desirable, if not necessary quality in interpreters. This goes beyond just a lively, engaging delivery. It is to genuinely ‘love the thing you interpret’, as well as the people who visit it [3]. For Tilden, ‘love’ was even the ‘single principle’ [4], which comes before all others.

 

Now, here’s my first confession: I don’t generally ‘love’ people. I ‘need’ people as an interpreter, because interpreting anything to the wind is rather pointless. But that merely makes people a necessary element of my job. And in doing my job well, I enjoy the feeling of having supported people in their personal heritage endeavour. Does that mean that I love them, with ‘understanding’ and ‘affection’ for the reasons for their ‘ignorance’ [5]? No. I simply consider it professional as an interpreter to be helpful and respectful toward people, and to not show them when I don’t like them (and yes, that happens too).

 

And here’s another confession: of all the places I’ve interpreted in my career to date, I can honestly say that I only ever ‘loved’ one. ‘Love’ here is my understanding of the term: as feeling deeply connected to and inspired by a place and the heritage associated with it. By ‘love’ I don’t mean Tilden’s premise that ‘love’ is the prerequisite of all possible ‘knowing’ [6] and that love is ‘reverence’ [7] – I would actually question both ideas.

 

Traditionalists may well suggest that I must have been a poor interpreter at all the sites I didn’t ‘love’ [8]. And it is true that for some of them, I did not care at all on a personal level. In fact, with a few I even wondered how on earth they could be heritage for anybody.

 

But. Interpretation is my job. I have respect for other people’s heritage. I care about doing my job well so that they, and others, can continue engaging with heritage, and take inspiration from it and each other to create and re-create heritage (or to discard it, if they so wish). If I’m passionate about anything then it’s that.

 

And to be honest, I actually think there’s an argument for not interpreting the heritage you’re passionate about. For example, I’ve never interpreted my own personal heritage, and I wouldn’t want to – because I know that my passion for it means it’s personal. That’s bound to either influence or hinder another person’s engagement with that heritage. They may feel overwhelmed by my obvious connection with or ‘ownership’ of that heritage, or they may sense that some lines of enquiry are less welcome than others [9].

 

For me, interpretation is definitely not a ‘way of life’ [10]. It’s a job that is governed by professional ways of working, and not by what I consider personal emotions like love and passion.

 

 

Notes

[1] Tilden, F. 1957/1977. Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, p. 94

[2] Beck, L. & Cable, T. 2002. Interpretation for the 21st century. Fifteen Guiding Principles for Interpreting Nature and Culture. 2nd edition. Champaign: Sagamore Publishing, p. 155. See also Association for Heritage Interpretation, nd. What is interpretation? Available online: http://www.ahi.org.uk/www/about/what_is_interpretation/ [Accessed: 28.03.2016]

[3] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 90

[4] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 94

[5] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 91

[6] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 92, quoting Thomas Carlyle

[7] Tilden 1957/1977, p. 93

[8] We actually got similarly high levels of satisfaction and engagement at all the sites – independent of whether I loved them or not. For my practice, therefore, ‘love’ apparently is not a determining factor.

[9] There are arguments too for having people of a certain heritage interpret it, yes. I’ve not quite decided yet where I stand on this, and I’m not aware of comparative research on what works best for ‘visitors’ and other communities associated with that heritage (do send some my way if you do!). From personal experience, I prefer the interpreter to not be a member of one of the heritage communities, although I still think the best (personal) interpretation happens when the interpreter is a non-member facilitating or supporting the exchange between members of the heritage communities and others. A recent issue of Legacy on Interpreting Idigenous Cultures had some really good thoughts and insights around this topic.

[10] Beck, L. & Cable, T. 2002, p. 158

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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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