Radical Thoughts on Co-Design in Heritage Contexts

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.


5 thoughts on “Radical Thoughts on Co-Design in Heritage Contexts

  1. As a family historian with an obscure name and twenty years of practice, this was an interesting idea. Being unable, due to a brick wall, to follow my own direct line I’ve accumulated dozens of homonym trees in the hope of finding links. What this has revealed is a fascinating picture of the ups & downs of working class life with a number being transported and others voluntarily heading to the colonies whilst rural populations headed into the industrial towns.

    Co-design in an ICT sense was the outcome of my academic research which I continue to propose for all systems design. In the end it saves money. It’s all about openness and transparency too.

  2. Hi Martin,
    You raise some very central points: Firstly, it is absolutely right to question the official definition (as for example used by funders) of ‘community’. It seems to me that most often ‘community’ is defined geographically as the group of people who live locally. However, this does not at all capture the spread of the ‘heritage community’ who may not live locally, but who – for whatever reasons – have a heritage connection to a place. It is wrong to disregard their views, as many a site retains heritage value not because of locals, but because of – or rather for – those people that have left.

    Secondly, there is the question of ‘official’ history or heritage. The crux of the ‘Authorized Heritage Discourse’ lies in designation, as far as I can see, and with it in the organised management of sites by the authorities – arguably, this is where the expression of ‘official’ resides. In my opinion, much can be achieved at these sites by starting with inclusive significance assessments, in other words, starting the engagement with ‘public’ heritage values much earlier than at the presentation stages (way too late then). But there is much heritage outside of designated parameters, and I feel that communities already are free here to express their own values and manage and present heritage as they choose without the interference of ‘professionals’ (in fact, any time that people’s views are at odds with ‘official’ presentations this becomes obvious – just because ‘the professionals’ put something in place, doesn’t mean it silences everyone else). Inevitably, any such expression will itself become part of what you’ve called the ‘heritage offering’, but not one vetted by professionals (we have a few examples in my area).

    Finally, I hope we can prove you wrong with regard to the commodification of all outputs. It is certainly true that much has been made over recent years about valuing heritage in economic terms, and funders are very keen on this. However, there is also a lot about soft benefits of heritage in legislation and policy, and my personal feeling is that exploring this further (my own research deals with delivering benefits) will also provide key insights into how to engage with ‘the public’ on decisions about heritage.

    Thanks for an interesting post,

  3. Great post, Martin, and a timely one too, as the HLF announces new (or enlarged) funding streams for ‘community history’. Absolutely vital, of course, and potentially facilitatory for lots of projects across the country, but as you point out, we have to ask ‘what history’ and ‘which community’. We’ve been told for many years now, and even by the current government, that communities (and individuals) undertaking history projects can be an empowering or liberating process, and I’m always keen to drill down a little further into that policy shibboleth,to understand it a little more. As you point out, many groups not only have local ties, but they have very contingent and specific origin stories, and the individuals that constitute those groups (as you describe of yourself) have various motivations and back-stories. People come together to describe and explore the past for a wide range of reasons in disparate contexts, and as you say it’s difficult to just blanket them as ‘community historians’, shuffling local pasts and feeling empowered.

  4. Pingback: What’s heritage again? Anarchic publicness and other discussions at York’s Alternative History | How should decisions about heritage be made?

  5. Pingback: Co-design project: ‘What’s heritage again? Anarchic publicness and other discussions at York’s Alternative History’ | Helen Graham

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