Until 2000, I would have given little thought to this subject. Beginning work in a national museum prompted me to think critically about how history was presented. I only had the vaguest notion that something was not quite right, mostly a sense that the majority of visitors seemed passive, more interested in surviving their ‘heritage experience’. From 2003, exposure to critical thinking about heritage at the Public History conferences organised by Hilda Kean at Ruskin College pushed me to think more deeply. In the final years of my job, working with a team trying to re-design the whole museum display and interpretation from the ground up brought these early thoughts into sharper focus. The project was cancelled when funds failed to materialize. Two years’ work by design, curatorial and archive staff went down the pan. In recession Britain finance for heritage is vulnerable, even for national institutions. The prospect of this ever being reversed seems doubtful.
Meanwhile, I began exploring what this might mean in relation to projects of a more personal interest. At the International Public History Conference at Ruskin in 2005, I presented a paper entitled ‘Absent Fathers, Present Histories’, which explored the creation of personal archives in the family history context, how these crossed over with public records, and their potential significance to wider cultural and social history research. The published paper floated the idea of family historians, collectively self-organised, using their own family longitudinal studies to explore aspects of popular experience, without the direct intervention and leadership of academics and professionals. In this instance, I suggested the potential of such research to illuminate the ‘absent father’ syndrome during the 20th century in ways that would be beyond the capacity of standard academic research. The concept of ‘radical family history’, as I perhaps mistakenly called it, was born.
What I was proposing had its parallel in the recent phenomenon of local ‘Radical History’ groups – in South London, Bristol, North-East London, Nottingham and, in 2012, both York and Derby. Each of these groups has its own distinctive character, borne out of its particular origins. The South London group developed history walks, exploring forgotten or marginalised aspects of local history. Bristol Radical History group arose from a small group of friends in a left-wing football club who set out to challenge the public history of the city and their project blossomed into probably the most successful example. The North-East London group organises monthly talks that explore aspects of marginalised history from all round the world from a radical perspective, using the skills and knowledge of its own membership. Nottingham seeks to emulate Bristol. Derby developed around the public recognition of local radical WW1 peace activist, Alice Wheeldon. York arose initially to explore the plethora of different radical political, cultural and social movements in the City of the last 50 years – but was then motivated to challenge the official interpretation of York’s history when the Council launched its York 800 jamboree.
Perhaps this socially and politically radical approach sits uneasily with the concept of ‘co-design’ in heritage work. I suspect, though may learn differently, that this involves partnership working on heritage projects between history and heritage professionals on the one hand, and ‘representatives’ of local communities on the other.
In Laurajane Smith’s book , Heritage, Labour and the Working Classes, Paul Schackel explored the debates in Chicago around official commemoration of the Haymarket Massacre of 1886. He described a ‘struggle for an inclusive official memory’. One problem was how to commemorate the civilian casualties and executed ‘martyrs’ at the same time as the police casualties, when there were two quite separate memory cultures behind each. My feeling is that any movement towards ‘an inclusive official memory’ can only sanitise those aspects of history where memory is fiercely contested on political, class, ethnic, gender or other grounds. Alternative, subaltern viewpoints in such a framework are in danger of being co-opted into what Laurajane Smith has dubbed ‘the Authorised Heritage Discourse’ and thereby neutered.
York Alternative History recently commemorated the execution in York of seventeen West Riding Luddites in January 1813. Should there be a permanent memorial, who should decide, and what form should it take? Would it not simply be sucked up into the general ‘heritage offering’ of the city? Would this not be more likely the case if the process surrounding the project was co-designed, given the likely predominance within such discussions of heritage institutions, Council departments and unrepresentative voluntary groups such as the Civic Trust? How strong would be any non-institutionalised voice in this process?
That thought links to a personal project. My wife and I, as an inter-disciplinary team combining artwork and history, have been developing an idea centred on an item of family history, but with wider ramifications. We wish to involve museums and archives in south-west Yorkshire, alongside local history groups, education institutions and the wider community. Such work would require public funding, perhaps from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Unfortunately, we are not heritage professionals and do not live in the community of interest – we are geographical outsiders and our attempts to engage have been, not rebuffed, but ignored completely. We are prompted to ask: what is ‘the community’, who constitutes that community, who can speak for it and how can it be mobilised? This issue surely goes to the heart of any discussion around the logistics of co-design.
Finally, perhaps the deep underlying problem is that we live in a capitalist society, within which the pressure is for all outputs to be commodified and a price placed upon them. How might it be at all possible to engage in public history in a non-commodified way? A problem for institutions, professionals and private individuals alike and a seemingly eternal problem for creative activists.