Since October… an ‘how should decisions about heritage be made?’ project update

Since October last year when we – with 15 others – all met at MadLab and created the drawing below, the ‘How should decisions about heritage be made?’ research team have been off in different configurations and different parts of the UK working on different mini projects as part of our three Inquiry strands. Following our first co-analysis workshop and before we hit the Connected Communities Festival in Cardiff, we thought we’d take a quite pause for reflection and do a bit of an update. You can see an overview of the project so far in the booklet we’ve produced for the Festival. Heritage Decisions booklet

Our overall research aims and questions were:

The research aims we devised in Phase 1

The research aims we devised in Phase 1

Our research questions

Our research questions

Following our Manchester workshop – where we tested our ideas with 15 other people – we’ve been working on our three Inquiry strands.

The illustration we came up with at the Manchester workshop to explore a 'systemic' approach to heritage decision making

The illustration we came up with at the Manchester workshop to explore a ‘systemic’ approach to heritage decision making

Inquiry Strand 1: ‘from the inside’
Our Inquiry 1 was focused on four of the practitioners in the team – Alex Hale RRCHAMS); Jenny Timothy (Conservation team, Leicester City Council), Mike Benson (Bede’s World) and Danny Callaghan (Potteries Tile Trail) – having a chance to reflect on their own places and practices with other people they work with.

Some of this work is still a work-in-progress, however, a lot of activity has already taken place. For example, Rebecca Madgin (University of Glasgow) is currently conducting interviews with key people related to RCAHMS/ScARF’s From Source to Sea project. Rebecca is also working with Jenny Timothy (Leicester City Council) on the analysis of a specific planning and conservation project in Leicester. The following two summaries aim to give a flavour of what we have been working on:

Source to Sea
Alex got creative with Lego and other things in Lanark as a way of engaging local people in mapping the Clyde and it’s significance to them. A pop-up event in Lanark on Saturday 7th December 2013, gave both the HLF-funded Clyde and Avon Landscape partnership and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland an exciting opportunity to engage with local people and to find out what aspects of their surroundings they are really interested in. The event aimed to create a neutral space on the Lanark High Street, in the Tolbooth, where people could explore and map their connections to the landscape around them, which has been shaped by the River Clyde.

The workshop event used a range of techniques to enable people, from Lego to community mapping techniques, to illustrate, articulate and describe their connections to the surroundings, in particular the River Clyde and its course. The event enabled people to share ideas and discuss opportunities, in an informal environment, about how they want to contribute to the understanding and valuing of the local historic environment, through the forthcoming Source to Sea programme. Rebecca Madgin (University of Glasgow) is now working with Alex to reflect on how this project might illuminate decision-making processes.

Lanark residents discuss their views of the Clyde with Alex Hale

Lanark residents discuss their views of the Clyde with Alex Hale

The Potteries Tile Trail
Danny Callaghan (Independent Consultant), Karen Brookfield (Heritage Lottery Fund) and Helen Graham (University of Leeds) have met three times in The Potteries (Stoke-on-Trent) during the last 12 months. Our study visits and conversations coalesced around the following interrelated themes:
• Heritage Lottery Fund – influence and support for grassroots led activity
• Activist, DIY and community heritage

The starting point for this inquiry was a project called The Potteries Tile Trail – a community and crowd sourced virtual collection of tiles and architectural ceramics that can be found in buildings and public spaces throughout Stoke-on-Trent. The lead partner was the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society and it was funded by an HLF All Our Stories grant. Danny developed the proposal and delivered the project. Karen had strategic responsibility for the All Our Stories programme at a national level on behalf of HLF. This created a fascinating opportunity to explore and reflect on the programme from both macro and micro perspectives.

HLF have played an important role in encouraging and enabling grassroots led heritage activity over the last 20 years. Danny and Helen both identified valuable projects that simply would not have happened without the support of HLF. Many activist and community-led projects have been made possible by the HLF via small grant programmes such as All Our Stories.

Danny and Helen have both played facilitator roles that involve working across professional and community boundaries. A new breed of heritage activist has evolved and is often behind community-led projects and related funding bids. Key characteristics include passion, energy and an instinct for taking action about things that matter (to them) – sometimes – regardless of any kind of formal ‘permission’. A key skill is the ability to create new networks for action or a coalition of the willing, (as Danny calls it). This involves identifying key individuals both within and without institutions with a shared interest and finding ways to work together. If needed it is also about taking positive direct action and cutting through official processes to make things happen.

Strand 2: ‘experimenting’ at the Science Museum / Collaboratively collecting electronic music
Tim Boon (Science Museum) has been working in a research cluster with Richard Courtney (University of Leicester) and Helen Graham (University of Leeds). Since December 2013, this experimental project has collaborated with a group of musicians and electronic music fans David Robinson, John Stanley and Martin Swann who were all involved in the Science Museums’ collaborative Oramics exhibition, and Jean-Philippe Calvin from the Royal College of Music.

Over six sessions, the group have worked together explore two dimensions. The first has been the more practical task of working out how to recommend items for the Science Museum to collect, and five cases-in-principle for specific electronic instruments have now be accepted by the Museum’s collections board. The group collaborated on a partnership event called Synthesizer Bingo as part of Science Museum Lates. This involved each group member making a 1 minute ‘pitch’ about which synthesizers should be acquired by the Science Museum and why. The audience was then asked to vote for the one they felt had the strongest case for inclusion. The second aspect of the project has been to use first task as a means of exploring the political and philosophical questions raised by institution’s decision making about collecting material culture. Key issues that have emerged to date include:
• How do certain collections suggest their own communities of interest as decision-making constituencies?
• How might the ‘future’ of material culture be seen in its use rather than its protection?

Strand 3: ‘From the inside’

York: Living with History
The York-based contingent – Martin Bashforth (York’s Alternative History), Peter Brown (York Civic Trust) with Helen Graham – generated a project termed ‘living with history’ aiming as exploring ‘heritage’ and its decision making within the complexities of whole city. We’ve been asking:
• How are decisions about how to manage York’s heritage and history made?
• Who makes these decisions and what factors influence their decision-making?
• What is known about how ‘heritage’ intersects with other policy initiatives and areas? What is the relationship between heritage, tourism, ‘economic development’ and poverty? How does the medieval beauty of York affect the cost of housing?
• Which histories get counted in heritage decision making and which don’t? (e.g. Local Plan Heritage Topic Paper). What kinds of histories of York are not often publically recognized? How might richer understandings of York’s past help us work together to imagine York’s future?
• What might a more ‘democratic’ decision-making process look like? How might individual and group’s knowledge and passion become connected with institutional and policy decision-making? How might more connected approaches in turn help illuminate further how ‘history’ and ‘heritage’ affects York?

Since beginning a number of other people have become directly involved in driving the project. Paul Furness, local and radical historian and Lianne Brigham and Richard Brigham, who are administrators for the York Past and Present facebook group.

Paul Furness leads one our alternative history walks to open up debate about heritage and the city.

Paul Furness leads one our alternative history walks to open up debate about heritage and the city.

Together we’ve been creating a range of different spaces for explore these issues working up from:

1 to 1 conversation (people who were interested, meeting for a cup of tea)
Stalls in public spaces
Live Inquiry drops Ins at the Library
History menus in Jorvik Café
Social media and media
Walks/ history events
Public events focused around key forthcoming ‘decisions’ (Stonebow House; Castle Area)

A key principle of this – in keeping with our systemic thinking and systemic action research perspective – has been to try and make space for different perspectives, cross boundaries and create conversations and connections between people who wouldn’t usually meet.

A key finding so far has been enabled by the systemic thinking approach. We noted through the conversations, stalls and drop ins the strong sense of decision makers being an anonymous ‘they’ and decision-making processes as mysterious and transparent. At the same time, in the conversations with decision makers (professional and elected), there is an equally strong sense that everything is transparent and it’s easy to get involved (as it can be if you look in the right place) and feel, like public servants UK-wide, somewhat under attack and suffering from a lack of productive engagement from the public.

Yet one very productive way forward at reimagining the connection between interest, knowledge and dynamism in York and official decision making came out of one of the project’s Live Inquiry Drop Ins. Lianne and Richard were there, as were a number of other people who’d heard about the project via the facebook group, and John Oxley, the City Archeologist came along. From this discussion – and Lianne and Richard’s frustration at not being able to get access to buildings to photograph them before they are demolished or changed – the idea of public documentation of buildings being sold/developed by the council emerged. This was piloted on 12th June at the Guildhall site with the Hutments – military wooden huts behind the Guildhall – with aims to extent this to the building itself in the autumn.

Emerging ideas
At the end of May we met in Stoke for the first of our two co-analysis workshops. From this a few key themes have emerged:

Meta-questions about our co-design process – positive and negative – as offering insights into politics of heritage.

Our project aim, as a co-designed research project, was to draw on the different and multiple perspectives in the group as a means of collaboratively developing a research project which would produce insights into ‘heritage’ and decision making. Yet, over time, it has become clear that the very way in which we’ve worked together – the form of co-design and co-creation – has itself generated crucial insights into the politics of heritage. There has been productive, if sometimes slightly painful, tensions set up by the desire to be accountable to each other within the relational space we have worked to create and the accountabilities in our daily lives which extend from friends, fellow activists and people we know and work with, line managers, management boards and trustee boards of local and national oragnisations, funders, policy makers and disciplinary academic peers.

There has been a certain flow and emergence of our group dynamics which have supported insights around heritage as a stream of life and the significance of human connection in decision making. But there have also been what we’ve come to call the ‘bungee’ moments. These are moments (most prevalent around lunchtime of the second day of our workshops!) when ‘we’ are jerked back into our daily accountabilities and which very effectively illuminated the felt and lived power of the institutional and political structures the project is seeking to challenge and question. The question we need to work through next as a project team is how we might self-consciously use the co-design group process – both ‘the flow’ and ‘the bungee’ – to land our ideas in a way which speak across our networks of accountabilities; the very network of accountabilities that will need to be adjusted, pluralized and re-directed in order to enable the flow of a more democratic heritage.

I’ and ‘I’nstitution / DIY and official structures / coalitions of the willing
Many of the practices of the team – and many of the projects that we’ve conducted under the banner of the Inquiry Strands – have been about creating networks between individuals, community groups, funders, researchers, interested professionals and/or elected officials. One clear theme is to understand better how these networks work. One way we’re approaching this is through Richard Courtney (University of Leicester) leading a strand of reflective work drawing on understanding governance not as vertical (just trustee boars to councilors or central government) but as networked and including a much wider range of people, including individuals each of us knows.

Structural and relational / constituencies of knowing and caring
As part of thinking through how individuals and institutions relate, a key concern is clearly emerging around the interrelationship between structures (such as museums, local councils, funders) and ‘relational’ approaches to working together. Some of us emphasis strongly the power of the relational and how ‘heritage’ need to emerge from us, together in the present; others would emphasis the power, utility and sustainability of institutions and other structural means of organizing and managing heritage. An issue we’re going to work on is how to reimagine how the two might relate. One way we’ve been imagining it is that certain collections/buildings or areas – such as electronic music at the Science Museum or the Guildhall in York – set up their own constituency of people how know about it and care about it. How might this break down the problem of ‘everyone’ as a too-big constituency for heritage – one of the sticking points we diagnosed in our Phase 1 design? How might thinking institutions as offering the ambition of long duration and sustainability through concretizing objects within buildings and funding structures, be related to a future emerging from the present?

Our final co-analysis workshop will be at the end of July when we’ll aim to work through these issues. We will also be doing some in depth work with the Heritage Lottery Fund to see how some of these issues might feed in to their thinking and future planning. Finally, we will host an open workshop to share our ideas – and especially to invite back the people we worked with last October at MadLab – to discuss and test once more our ideas.

Hope to see you in Cardiff – our stall is D15 in St David’s Hotel!

Strand 3: York Living with History

Yesterday we launched the York strand (‘Strand 3′) of the ‘How should decisions about heritage be made?’ project. We’re calling it Living with History and are treating it like a Public Inquiry into how heritage and heritage decisions affect the lives of people in York. Below is Martin’s account of the event hosted by University of York’s Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past.

Reblogged from York’s Alternative History

Martin Bashforth

Thanks to the hosting by IPUP (Institute for the Public Understanding of the Past), the meeting yesterday evening was a huge success. There were about 50 people who turned up. Martin set the context by showing what YAH has been doing, how we like to engage with the public and how we might be about ‘dissent’ but that it emerges from mainstream society.

Helen introduced the Living with History project, which is concerned with how heritage fits into the decision-making process, how that process works and how we ( i.e. the general public in York) might improve that. How can we make good decisions out of complex and messy issues and what would count as a good decision?

Using pending decisions to be made about the buildings at Stonebow House, she stimulated a lively debate and multiple conversations around the room. We will be able to use the ideas generated in getting this project off the ground in a bigger way. Many thanks to the generous participation of those who came along.

In the interests of transparency, what follows is the unedited raw data generated from the flip charts at the end of the meeting, expressing concerns about the Stonebow site itself, the values and issues involved, and concerns about how decisions are made:

What would go back?
Story of site and architecture
Why not suitable letting?
Is it useful?
It’s an example of its type?
Parts in use e.g. York Music Scene – where would they go?
Affordability for users
Opportunity for something new e.g. green space
What is the current allocation on York City Plan?
Are decisions therefore limited?
What consultancy has there been?
There is a different York constituency involved – is this perceived negatively?
Who values it?
How is it valued?
How is value measured?
It is difficult to get people involved until too late
There are 300 community organisations offering a potential way in to effective consultation
People are directly involved – what do they want?
It is not just about buildings
What about housing needs
There is a sense of a ‘democratic deficit’ in that the consultation processes adopted appear alien and false (i.e. not actually listening, just going through the motions)
What was there before and why was it changed?
What is the relationship of the specific site to the wider locality

Proof positive, if it were needed, that, as YAH tries to highlight – past, present and future are live issues and go beyond mere ‘preservation’ into the daily lives and concerns of people here and now. There will be more to come. Watch this space!

Science & Music Collecting Project

VCS3 10321487 edited

Forte Piano? Casio VL-Tone? Electronium? Stratocaster? Revox?

What musical objects might be added to the Science Museum’s collections? Are you up for a participatory investigation?

The Science Museum is looking for people who know about and are passionate about music, musical instruments and the technologies of music to collaboratively develop ideas for the museum’s collections. Decisions about what to collect have traditionally been taken by curators, making judgments about the importance and significance of objects and whether they can tell a good story. In this collaborative collecting project, we want to experiment with broadening-out the kinds of expertise, ways of knowing, cultures, sub-cultures, memories and experiences which inform the Science Museum’s collecting decisions.

Between January and May 2014, ten of us will work together to get to know the existing collections and procedures and then to conduct research and make a series of recommendations for items that might be added to enhance the music collections. The project will work on two levels – there is the task at hand of developing these recommendations. Alongside this we will contribute towards a wider research project ‘How should decisions about heritage be made?’ by asking: What makes a good and legitimate decision in terms of museum collection? Who should be involved? How might different claims, expertise and contributions to museums be democratically enabled?

We’re hoping to collaborate with people with a wide range of motivations, interests, experiences and knowledge so we’d like you to write 300-500 words offering one of the following:

An object you think might be added to the Science Museum collections and why.
A story of your involvement in the music or music technology scene – what insights might this offer
Your response to the question ‘what would a democratic museum look like?’

Applicants will need to be able to attend five, monthly, meetings in London. Reasonable travel expenses will be covered.

Closing date: Tuesday 17 December at midnight

Send to:

The ‘How should decisions about heritage be made?’ project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and coordinated by the Centre for Critical Studies in Museums, Galleries and Heritage at the University of Leeds.

For further information about the project see:

Arts & Humanities Research Council

Not decisions, but webs or ecologies

Susan Ashley, 1 December, 2013

I would like to offer a belated reaction to the Heritage Decisions team’s admirable workshop in October about ‘what makes heritage decision-making difficult?’ In a way these ideas are also stirred by Gareth Hoskins’ excellent comments on ‘Decisions, Value, Power’, and Helen’s remarks on that posting.

I came away from the workshop thinking about the way that heritage was positioned as a ‘thing’ by many participants. Gareth’s opening comment questioning whether “heritage is good by default, that there should be more of it” made me realise that my perspective of what is heritage might not jibe with others’: how can I get ‘more’ heritage since I perceive it as a sensibility or consciousness or process of understanding my relation to the past?

So I will say a few words about my understandings of heritage, and also its relationship to ‘thingness’ which inevitably come up in the practical world of heritage management. The antithesis of heritage-as-thing is heritage-as-process. This could mean a process of understanding, or self-awareness, or relationship-building, or ‘making’, or valuation – in reference to ‘the past’. My memory of my granny in its complexity is part of my heritage. My sense of that nation where I lived most of my life is also part of my heritage. These sensibilities are not things, but might coalesce within objects or places as holders of impressions. Here is where the ‘ecology of signification’ comes in [for Martin] – my life personally and as part of community radiates a web of significance. This is Clifford Geertz’s idea, who wrote “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it … an interpretive one in search of meaning (Geertz 1973, 5).” Looked at differently, each heritage ‘thing’ – whether artefacts or buildings or places – bears this ecology of signification that infinitely stretches back in infinite variety and relationships.

Which makes me wonder whether we should stress making ‘decisions’ or whether to emphasize building ‘webs’ or ‘ecologies’ (e.g. Capra, 2002)? I know this sounds so idealistic, and I suppose it is. But this scenario might take us away from list-making towards processes of knowledge-building like community mapping, academic research and amateur research. This would emphasise the benefits of ground-up programmes like Heritage Lottery, or consciousness-raising through curricula, or even TV shows like Time Team more so than designations by the Secretary of State and English Heritage. I loved your idea, Helen, of devolved networks of care, knowing and passion. The ‘sticking points’ here will be vastly different and less project-oriented, but just as fraught, no doubt.

My desire to emphasise heritage-as-process comes from experiences at heritage sites and museums where I always wished the excitement and inspiration behind-the-scenes did not die when frozen in an exhibit or finite programme. The end-product is not where ‘heritage’ happens, but that talk, conflict, negotiation that occurs before hand when we bring our ideas to the table. Think of Helen’s heritage workshop and that raw stimulation that seemed impossible to capture in a brief ‘presentation’! Our systems want products not process, and our funding is skewed accordingly. I saw this reflected in one workshop participant’s comment that lively collaboration in a university research project was not accepted as a suitable topic for an academic research paper.

The theory part here (apologies): The act of making a decision suggests a frame of mind, an outlook, an episteme that emphasises and values closure. I am forever writing papers with titles like ‘ideas on…’ or ‘examining…’ that offer little closure. This must be maddening for some seeking more scientific conclusions, and certainly the antithesis of the aims of a workshop on decision-making. Nancy Fraser’s recent discussions about the public sphere and what is considered ‘normal’ discourse, point out that ‘closure’ — the need for argument then decision-making — employs taken-for-granted assumptions about the how of participation, as well as the what and the who. Fraser calls for a “new grammar” of public sphere participation (and justice) wherein self-problematising would be the aim. She argues that public sphere discourses would treat every ‘closure’ as provisional, and subject to question, possible suspension, and thus to re-opening to new claims about the what, the who, and the how. This entangles discourse-rational approaches [that’s our current technical system of heritage which hegemonically represents everyone] and agonistic approaches on the other [the quarrelsome or ‘abnormal’ realm of anyone else]. Your invocation of social movements here, Helen, and their decision-making processes (criticised by mainstream commentators as lack of decision-making), exemplifies this division between ways of seeing the world and how to participate in the public sphere.

Capra, Fritjof. (2002). The Hidden Connections. London: HarperCollins

Fraser, Nancy. (2007). Transnationalizing the Public Sphere: On the Legitimacy and Efficacy of Public Opinion in a Post-Westphalian World, Theory, Culture & Society Vol. 24(4): 7–30

Geertz, Clifford. (1973). The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. New York: Basic Books.

York’s History From Below Workshop

Here’s our first little foray in the third strand of our research (which we decided last week to title ‘York is Changing’) – if you’re in York or there abouts be grand to see you!

York’s History From Below
Clements Hall History Days
2.15-3.45, Clements Hall, Art Room
Organized by York’s Alternative History

York has an official history. You can see it in our museum displays, on the plaques on the city’s walls and in the Visit York advertising. This York is a place of Romans, Vikings and Railways, of benevolent Quaker employers, of lovely medieval streets and of chocolate and tea shops. But we know there are many other Yorks and many other histories.

To explore ‘York’s History From Below’ this workshop will ask some cruical questions:

· Which histories does York remember? Does the ‘official history’ hold dangers for York as a city today?
· Which histories should we remember?
· How can we change York’s public histories? How might more plural sense of York’s history lead to a more inclusive and equal city today?

York’s Alternative History is a group of local people aiming to ‘put the politics’ in York’s histories and heritage. We are interested in radical histories of York and interested in the political implications of how York manages its ‘heritage’ today.

This workshop is also linked to the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded research project: How should decisions about heritage be

Decisions, Value and Power

By Gareth Hoskins, Geography and Earth Sciences, Aberystwyth University

Looking back on the workshop last week one of the main things to strike me was our almost inbuilt assumption that heritage is good by default, that there should be more of it, and that we should (as our funders request) champion its utility in all sorts of different sectors and in different ways – to promote cohesion, well being, bring jobs, investment, reduce recidivism, encourage empathy and good citizenship etc. etc.

First, I’m wondering if heritage can and should bear the weight of this obligation and indeed when and why did we start speaking about heritage as something that has to be productive; that should made to work, and work harder in times of austerity? Does the direction of this expectation bias the positive, ennobling, affirmative and comforting kinds of heritage over the disruptive, upsetting, confusing and awkward bits of the past? As well as warming our hearts and making us feel proud, should heritage also be granted the capacity to make us feel bad, ashamed, fearful, and concerned about the current state of the world and our previous recklessness and/or ignorance?

Liz Svencenko’s work establishing the International Coalition of Museums of Conscience is a great example with the explicit intention to use histories of oppression to provoke discussion about contemporary human rights. For an example on how uncomfortable histories can be locally sidelined see Mats Burnstron’s discussion of Buckeberg location of the Third Reich’s annual harvest festivals between 1933 and 1937 which give a sense of the massive popular support for the Nazi party. In all these efforts, my general concern is whether the growing demands placed on heritage becomes a way of deferring our own responsibility and obligation to make the world better, more equal etc.

The second thing I’m wondering, and this echoes a phrase introduced by a fellow workshop participant, is whether the heritage system we have right now might be better described as ‘dysfunctional’ rather than ‘deficient’. Notions of blocking points or sticking points used to frame the workshop’s remit tend to carry with them negative connotations and assume that our efforts should be in trying to “free up” or “streamline” heritage decision making. This makes sense only if you buy into the idea that heritage is inherently good (egalitarian, consensus-driven, democratic) and that more of it would be better. If you hold a more critical view that heritage is a something that reflects and perpetuates powerful interests in all sorts of subtle and not so subtle ways then it would make sense to conceive of sticking points as useful, progressive, even emancipatory.

Rodney Harrison (2013) writes about a crisis of accumulation in heritage. He basically says there’s too much of it and that the rate of increase is unsustainable. Part of this is down to a kind of mission creep in a preservation sector that secretly longs for everything to fall under its purview and responds to critique with incremental rounds of inclusion. In the case of UNESCO, for instance, from its initial beginnings saving grand cultural monuments, to the subsequent inclusion of nature, to industrial history, working class history, multicultural history, intangible history… the solution has always been to extend the remit under a guise of being inclusive. Harrison doesn’t go as far as to say we should abandon heritage and list making altogether although there are some scholars that do just that. Michael Landzelius, for instance, in 2003 argued that the very term ‘heritage’ is unhelpful because it encourages essentialist thinking and notions of blood lineage, and entitlement that has so often been used to fuel and justify ethnic conflicts. He advocates a wholesale disinheritance and the subversive removal and relocation of historic buildings and objects. Instead, Harrison asks us “to forget in order to remember”; to regularly monitor and change that portfolio. Inevitably this means removing or at least finding another way to deal with heritage that applauds racism, sexism, elitism, colonialism and all the rest. The city of Berlin makes an attempt at this by breaking up the monumental form of some of Albert Speer’s buildings with strategically placed utilitarian road signs and mundane street furniture to try to deaden their symbolic effect.

Are there similar examples in the UK? Our current stock of heritage and examples of public memorialisation champions a set of messages that are often inappropriate. Monuments in every market town objectify women with depictions of naked mermaids and sirens and symbols of justice while strong fully clothed men have names, are real people and stand upright, tall and proud. Country houses celebrate wealth and colonialism and royal palaces cultivate our consent to a ruling elite who enjoy divine rights and benefit so much from the hereditary transfer of wealth. Similarly, industrial heritage might nod to worker exploitation and resistance but the emphasis so often ends up being perversely uplifting … about the dignity of the male worker, their triumph over nature, their technological ingenuity, the silent tolerance of hardship and their solidarity. The mission tends to be less about galvanizing people into action and more about securing tourism revenue and the part-time service jobs that come with it. These critiques have been made before by scholars and practitioners but they are still relevant and worth reiterating. My own work has explored similar themes on the silencing of the environmental; how industrial heritage so often presents mineral extraction as a heroic battle that took place in the past rather than something that continues today. It’s a tension that is really striking in Blaenavon and the Big Pit in Wales. A real success story on some measures. World Heritage recognition, lots of international tourists, a revamped commercial high street with book stores and coffee shops and some great and genuine and critical interpretation of the strikes and pit closures. But it’s almost as if the mining has stopped. The open cast pit operations all through the Welsh valleys are so frighteningly efficient these days that almost none of the wealth gets left behind.

So it is perhaps worth asking as part of this workshop whose interests are served by removing blocks and stops to heritage decision-making? Might our lubrication risk leading only to a more effective rolling out of the existing system? Might we be oiling the wheels of neo-liberal trickle-down economics that appropriates heritage as a front-line vehicle for gentrification?

If our goal is to make better heritage decisions we also, and I’m sure we will, discuss how “better” is defined and on who’s terms? Some technical questions might be: How has the application of such apparently objective listings criteria resulted in a portfolio so skewed to dominant groups and the messages they want to convey? Is there a bias in the very DNA of how we think about significance and go about trying to capture it? How, for example, do the formal architectural typologies we employ tilt the balance towards favoring one kind of building or another? There’s some fantastic work from the US by Barbara Little and Judith Wellman that shows how the peculiar quality of ‘integrity’ employed is often invoked by State Historic Preservation officers as a gatekeeper to control access to certain prestigious heritage lists. It means that the politics codified in the forms and technical protocols result in many kinds of women’s history, ethnic history and class history getting omitted and doubly silenced because they don’t tend to be as materially “solid” as the well kept remains of rich influential white men.

That takes us to the concept of value in the preservation and heritage sector, to the systems we employ to “detect” value, and how difficult decisions occur essentially because of disputes about value. I’m currently in the middle of my own AHRC research project comparing US and UK listing procedures to better understand how we locate value in the built environment and I’ve been finding Pierre Bourdieu’s work on cultural capital useful since he brings together concepts of value from political economy and aesthetic theory. I like the way he challenges the privileged status enjoyed by economics as a discipline that takes for granted the very foundations of the order it claims to analyze. I’m getting the sense that economics and business logics around value have the upper hand in the heritage sector. Even when we try to assert that there’s more to it, or we want to reject or resist commercial pressures, the vocabularies we use and the logics we employ are already corrupt. An example that comes to mind was the 2006 conference titled Capturing the Public Value of Heritage. I didn’t attend but an edited copy of the proceedings is on-line where Hewison and Holden (pages 14-18) set up what appears to be a quite reasonable and astute triangle of heritage values that gives equal weight to the intrinsic, instrumental, and the institutional. It struck me that the heritage object itself and its own inclinations to persist, or decay, or in various ways embrace or reject the meanings we inscribe upon it, does not feature as part of the decision making. While the latter two types of value are external to the object, even intrinsic value qualifies as value only in so far as it does something to us that we can recognize i.e. creates a human experience, prompts an emotional movement. Might there be other kinds of value that exist outside our own “value radar”? And should we not still accept that things have a right to exist even if they aren’t formally recognized by us as having value? Dave Clarke a UK geographer and Baudrillard scholar makes this point well when he calls value “a conceptual virus spread by modernity” that “accords to a logic of equivalence ensuring that everything can be evaluated and implying the desirability of annihilating everything that is valued negatively” (2010).

I think this problem in our use and application of value comes through strongly in the 2006 conference proceedings with its title “capturing value”. For me this “capturing” paints a picture of the heritage sector as something like an elaborate plumbing system improperly assembled by the experts so it leaks value out. The solution apparently – inevitably when framed like this – is that the public and politicians are brought in to find the leak and put value back into productive use. It reminds me of Franco’s totalitarian dream for Spanish irrigation where any drop of water that was allowed to enter the ocean was understood as a drop of water wasted.

Back in 1986 when Bourdieu published his essay on the forms of capital he mused about how it was odd that everything that escapes economics as a means of measuring quality (sophistication, aesthetic sensibility, cultural knowledge, taste, stylistic appreciation etc) was the virtual monopoly of the dominant social class. By now it seems that the logics of economics has so much orthodoxy that the dominant social class no longer even bother to keep up the pretence.

The second thing that surprised about the triangular model on the public value of heritage presented at the conference was how in all its reasonableness it advanced a transfer of power and influence away from heritage professionals. Instead of being seen as public servants, professionals and experts are set apart from the public as if acting in their own interests. Oddly, the same critique is not leveled at politicians because when explaining the heritage value triangle, Hewison tells us that there is a “democratic deficit” in heritage that might lead to “a real crisis of legitimacy”. Again, it’s clear who is singled out as being at fault. It is the professionals that are expected cultivate a more “authorizing environment”, and need to “re-validate themselves”. The published transcript of the proceedings make this position appear uncontested. Maybe there was an outcry in the room? Maybe everyone was seduced by the rhetorical force of the triangle diagram? Or maybe everyone was so worn down by the way market logics and entrepreneurial thinking have taken centre stage in the formation and delivery of public policy that model seemed appropriate and reasonable?

Thanks for getting though it all. I’m not sure this all adds up to a single coherent position. I’d welcome any comments, corrections about misconceptions, or requests for further clarity.

A systemic approach to heritage decision making? Not so much ‘complex’ as ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘cluttered’!

At MadLab in Manchester last week the Research Team and fifteen brave others, from as far and wide as Edinburgh, London, Aberystwyth, Preston and Huddesfield and who joined us for just this purpose, tried to do something hard and maybe a bit impossible. We tried to map and model ‘heritage decision making’ as a kind of system. We hoped to do this for the purpose of identifying ‘sticking points’ or ‘blocks’ in the system so we could focus on them in our Phase 2 research. And then to see these ‘sticking points’ as sites of challenge and, hopefully, change and ‘democratization’ even.

With enormous gratitude to Somang Lee from Scriberia who helped us visually interpret what we were thinking – this is what we came up with. Here is a separate blog which interprets the image a little for those who weren’t there.


There’s loads to say about this image and hopefully we’ll have an ongoing blog discussion about the workshop, the image and what it means for our Phase 2 research over the next few weeks but here are a few points from me just to get the discussion going:

Why we thought thinking of heritage decision-making as a system might help? But does it?
The words ‘mess’ and ‘messy’ came up a whole lot in our Phase 1, when we were designing the research. So did the word ‘complicated’. Or ‘complex’. This was one of the reasons we thought we’d experiment with ideas taken loosely from ‘systems thinking’. Because there are places where decisions about heritage are made in what appear to be a relatively locked-down bureaucratic way (such as listing of buildings – which is where we started in our workshop): which kind of fitted with the popular idea of ‘THE SYSTEM’.


Yet in other places it is much more messy (and this is not meant in a negative way), localized and contingent, with everything being in flux; from what is meant by ‘heritage’ to what can be seen as a ‘decision’. This aspect of our discussions fitted with a more specific focus on ‘systemic thinking’ which emphasizes paying attention to how people interact, when and in what ways and to how the boundaries between ‘heritage’ and other aspects of daily, social and political life are delineated.

Life and time passing which sometimes gets called 'heritage'

Life and time passing which sometime gets called ‘heritage’

So this is not ‘systems thinking’ as a ‘theory’ to be ‘applied’. But as a possibly helpful way of thinking that might reveal things we take for granted or can’t usually see, so they can be changed. To quote Danny Burns, one of our aims was to: ‘construct a “working picture” of the multiple systems that we inhabit both without and outside them, and then to identify opportunities to act within them. We can be in the interaction and influence it. We can be in the system and change it’ (2007, p. 33).

Probably what we accomplished last Tuesday was an indication of some of the systems going on within heritage contexts. One piece of feedback we’ve got is that it just looks like ‘confusion’ – which, actually, was one of our points! While there are specific ideas in the drawing I’d like to hold on to, in many ways that overall impression of confusion, ‘dysfunction’ (as Paul Manners has put it) and ‘clutter’ (as Mike Benson put it) is itself an incredibly useful and new conceptualization. That’s why there’s someone being sick over the side of the ‘stewardship’ ship…

But what are we going to do with this? Is the aim to streamline? To declutter? To free up? To psychoanalyze? Or heal?

What are these ‘sticking points’? And what are the dangers with the idea of ‘sticking points’?

So we aimed to identify ‘sticking points’ and we did. Abuse in the system (developers drinking wine). Closed systems of experts speaking to each other. The need to have a certain kind of expertise to be taken seriously. That to have influence you need to interact different in different ways in different parts of the ‘THE SYSTEM’, so to ‘speak’ a certain kind of ‘knowledge’ (to EH professionals, for example) and show passion (for politicians). We noticed that time and money ‘skew’ relationships. The different systems you get pulled back into when you collaborate with others from different contexts (love the bungee idea). The idea of stewardship (and delegated authority/act as proxy on behalf of others) and the idea of the future itself.

So one of our aims – as per the Burns quote above – might be to try and change these ‘sticking points’. Yet maybe dangers lurk here? Does unblocking or unsticking just mean making the system work better? This is a concern some of us (especially Martin Bashforth) have expressed from the first. This is why it probably matters what we aim to achieve, as noted above. Streamline, dismantle, free up, create alternatives to, heal… all have different political resonances. Knowing our team as I do, I imagine we will never agree precisely on the political aim of our research exactly. But might be useful to explore further our different motivations and imagined goals?

Can we use this in our Phase 2 research?

I hope so. The image as a whole as well as some of the sub-images, communicate some important ideas very strongly. For me a crucial question has always been about the types of democracy we are imagining. The simple system of listing we began with is one of representational democracy and delegated authority to professionals and ‘experts’ (a logic core to ideas of stewardship). But expressed here also are the political legitimacies generated by passion and protest (around Preston Bus Station). To explore these different ideas of decision making in Phase 2 we’re going to do a lot of different things.

Preston Bus Station

In Strand 1: we’re going to try understand decision making in lots of different projects, organizations and local areas. How do these four different locations – from local authority planning office, to the Potteries Tile Trail HLF project, to Bede’s World to RCAHMS Clyde project – shed different lights, offer different complexions, deepen, challenge, free up, ignore or escape from what we’ve mapped in this image?

In Strand 2: we are gong to experiment with more open and participative approaches to collecting at the Science Museum. But we’re going to do that through different logics of democracy; participatory and direct. For me a massive ‘sticking point’ for museums is the idea of ‘everyone’ and of ‘the future’. One of the issues with ‘everyone’ or ‘the public’ is that it is, in Michael Warner’s terms, a ‘social totality’. So working ‘on behalf of’ ‘everyone’ just pushes power back into professional hands as a function of this delegated right to ‘balance’ between people on behalf of us all. The man is maybe being sick over the side of boat because this responsibility often feels wrong and difficult to manage (I’ve talked about this in terms of ‘the consent form’ before on this blog). And also being bungeed between collaborations spaces with people from different backgrounds and home SYSTEMS might make you a little sick too. So instead of this problem of ‘everyone’, can we find ‘anyone’ processes – where anyone who wants to can get involved? And what would it mean to use passion as a source of legitimacy?

In Strand 3: we’re launching a grassroots public inquiry into something like (precise question still to be fixed) ‘is heritage good for York?’ We will try and understand more what this might mean through citizen journalism and public meetings and workshops and seek to intervene where we can. Can York’s history and heritage be crafted in ways to make a more equal and inclusive city? This will require a very deliberate widening of the boundaries of heritage as a system to include housing, marketing of the city, wages of tourist economy as well as how the city is represented in its museums and which buildings get listed (or not).

So the image we produce might well help. It has, I think, probably crystalized some things and made others less visible. But it’s an amazing start to Phase 2 and a very warm thanks to all who made it possible: Susan Ashley, Martin Bashforth, Mike Benson, Tim Boon, Karen Brookfield, Peter Brown, Danny Callaghan, Dave Carter, Richard Courtney, Kathy Cremin, Ruth Edson, Alex Hale, Sally Hartshorne, Arabella Harvey, Gareth Hoskins, Somang Lee, Robert Light, Bill Longshaw, Rebecca Madgin, Paul Manners, Hannah Neate, Rosie O’Neill, Jo Ward, Ruchit Purohit, Kate Slone, Sally Stone, Jenny Timothy, Rachel Turner.