Ideals and awkwardness: the form of the final decision

I hate getting consent forms signed. It’s something I’ve had to do a lot, whether for oral history projects, co-production projects in museums or as part of research projects. It’s awkward to say the least. I hand over the form and then there is no option but to kind of hover while the person I’ve worked with for months bends over the paper and signs it. Signing my life away, semi-joked one signee, as I hovered.

‘Do better, easier-to-read forms’, you say – thanks, yes, I have tried this. ‘Build better more transparent understandings before you get to the form signing bit’, you say – good idea and yes, I’ve tried that too. ‘Draw up the form together’ – yeap, done that too. That moment is still awkward.

It’s an awkward moment, as I’ve written elsewhere (Graham 2012a, 2012b) and with others (Graham, Mason and Nayling 2012), because all those small interactions which build relationships – all those moments of laughter and joking, the moving moments, the moments of misunderstandings or disagreements which have since been worked through – get somehow flattened out into a series of transactions, agreements over use and a signature.

But I’m pretty sure no matter how great the form, no matter how brilliantly negotiated the participation process and no matter how skillful the hoverer, that awkwardness is part of this moment. To focus on these improvements of form and process are important and must be understood in terms of ethics (as I’ll be discussing with Alex Henry and Aileen Strachan today at the Tackling Ethical Challenges Conference in Durham, see also Banks et al. 2012; Banks et al. 2014). But this awkwardness comes from something bigger. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t need the form. In fact, it’s politics which floods the scene.

An oral history or a digital story is a very personal thing. Yet the very reason it has been recorded is for public record and use. It is for use now. It is also, if accessioned into a collection, for use in perpetuity. As a result suddenly up pop many things which exceed me-the-form-carrier and you-the-signee. Between us suddenly appear (like a pop up book or the introductory credits to Game of Thrones) the museum, funders, indefinable others who might use or edit the recording; everyone now and everyone in the future.

And this is the big, tricky issue of ‘how should decisions about heritage be made?’ from my perspective. Heritage is personal and it’s public. It is owned by specific people and places. But its very transformation into ‘heritage’ has some kind of wider, public dimension. Some have noted this and have strongly argued that people’s memories, objects or practices and decision-making should just be theirs; they should be ‘accorded the right to decide’ (Waterton and Smith 2010 p. 11). Yet it is these same people who equally robustly point out how exclusionary public institutions are. Could it be that for ‘heritage’ to be diverse and to be inclusive, this shift ‘into the public’ has to happen? Is part of this a necessary recognition of heritage as only existing as it does because of public and civic purposes? Is this sense of a bigger purpose, beyond yourself and even your rights (Graham 2012b), necessary to make heritage ethically viable?

Perhaps heritage has no simply source of legitimacy, in other words. I hoover awkwardly because I personally can’t make it all alright. The form being signed is not just between me and you. I carry the form to you on behalf of yet-unimaginable others (everyone now, everyone in the future). And you sign it, maybe, possibly, recognizing a purpose bigger and beyond yourself (history, culture, humanity, perpetuity). This is different to research ethics, it is as if the act of signing over, of accessioning or depositing is a specific form of representational politics – a form of politics which seeks ideals of clarity and transparency and yet, and because of the constant limits of these ideals, feels always, personally emotionally fraught.

Flowing from this are questions I’ll be taking to our first ‘How should decisions be made?’ workshop in March; questions of the effect multiple and often imagined sources of legitimacy. Can I pay attention to how this awkwardness feels – what this feeling tells me about the dangers of appropriation, ownership and loss – and the demands of publiciness at the same time? More particularly how might an interpersonal ethics and politics (of association, of self-organization, of the horizontal) relate to a deliberately public politics of heritage? Trying to think both together is all very, but helpfully, awkward.


5 thoughts on “Ideals and awkwardness: the form of the final decision

  1. Hi Helen,

    I was at the ethics conference yesterday in Durham you presented at, and although I wasn’t able to attend your session the importance of obtaining consent naturally came up. What’s interesting to me about your post – that the groups I was involved in didn’t discuss – is the permanent nature of what you’re asking consent for. When I ask for informed consent (and the associated awkwardness of that moment) I am, I suppose, only asking for temporary consent to associate a comment or narrative with an individual before it is anonymised and the participant is protected behind the shield of the research report. You’re asking for that piece or narrative to be associated personally for much longer. Perhaps that’s why most participants I’ve worked with are very casual about signing consent forms, almost seeing it as a hindrance to getting things done?


  2. I’ve read with interest Helen’s blog and Phil’s response and I question whether we are getting far too serious about how “touchy” people really are. I am reminded that though we seek written permmission to record and publicise in whatever media we use their oral/written/pictorial material-accepting whatever results we get from this owner contact – most people who support what we are trying to do quite enjoy the publicity provided it is not exremely personal. An elderly lady Emailed us, in response to questioning about using her past family names, that there was little point in anonymity because they had “gone” and it reduced the impact and importance of what someone in the past may have contributed to our heritage. We have found the only resistance-and it is very limited -to personal publicity is confined to us placing this on a web site because older people believe that anybody can use their information for unknown ends and they are unhappy about this. PADDY

  3. Hi Phil and Paddy,
    Many thanks for your very thoughtful responses. Yes, the very notion of informed consent implies just that – that it is for a specific purpose that the person can know about. As soon as the timeframe increases (from specific use to being collected to archived for public use) or if the scale of the stage increases (from a local exhibition to the web, as Paddy points out) then the dynamics of consent do change. Especially so when people are authoring their own contributions and will absolutely be named (and this is often the case in heritage projects). I suppose what I was hoping to draw attention to was the way there has been a shift in what museums value – from the taxonomic collection of objects to personal stories (with or without objects attached). And with this desire for personal testimony changes the dynamics of the relationship between the donor and the institution. My basic question is: How can we think about the relationship between the very clear ethical demands to have some control over your own personal story and the wider calls lines of legitimacy (everyone now, everyone in the future) evoked by the very idea of the museum as a public institution?

  4. The issue can be approached from a different perspective – that of the historian or sociologist encountering and using the data for purposes perhaps not originally envisaged nor intended. I have experienced this dilemma when handling personal data of WW1 servicemen and their families and it is a common problem when handling official data in the public domain that refers to named individuals. Even apparently innocuous Census data can reveal cases of bigamy, for instance. Amongst the WW1 data, I have discovered cases of desertion (both of the military and matrimonial kind), criminal behaviour, mental illness, venereal disease, accidental killing of comrades and graphic details of horrific injuries and their medical treatment – all with names attached to them and traceable to families through census and other data commonly used by family historians. How can you handle this when there is no-one to whom one can turn for ‘informed consent’?

  5. Pingback: A systemic approach to heritage decision making? Not so much ‘complex’ as ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘cluttered’! | How should decisions about heritage be made?

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