Decisions about archaeological remains, decisions about rivers, decisions about decisions

I think that we make decisions about heritage all of the time, just most of the time we don’t even think about them as being decisions about heritage. For example, we look at buildings or cultural remains and we reflect upon them from our own points of view. It’s only when we are employed within the heritage sector that institutional constraints and employment roles begin to formalise and develop those reflections into decisions. It’s when those decisions are formalised and turned into management structures that things become interesting.

As a member of the landscape survey team at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS), I am part of a team that undertakes surveys of the Scottish landscape and we make heritage decisions as part and parcel of our daily working lives. These decisions range from identifying what a monument comprises; what is its age, its form and previous functions. We then think about how to record the monument, what form of words can best convey its form and function, how we should survey (and at what scale), how many photographs may be required and where does it fit within the lexicon of Scottish cultural heritage.

These decisions are then fed through a peer-review process, by way of a team with over 100 years of collective experience of archaeological landscape survey and analysis, and then a monument record is created in our on-line inventory (www.canmore.gov.uk). This information is then in the public domain. It is clearly labelled as to who created the original data, i.e. who made the decisions that led to the monument being identified and recorded. This then demonstrates that an archive for the monument has been created, which can then help underpin so much of cultural heritage research and management decisions.

In the more recent past, we have broadened our engagement to work with other organisations, local societies, groups and individuals. This has enriched the experiences of the field teams, by exchanging knowledge with local people and hopefully helped develop their skills and broadened their understanding of landscapes.
So, from my perspective the issues with ‘who makes decisions about heritage’ are threefold:

• We could all contribute to decisions about heritage
• We should recognise that the institutions that were set up to undertake heritage decision-making are the results of historical policies
• It is incumbent upon heritage professionals to recognise their current and future role, to enable people who want to contribute to the heritage-making decision process

I am currently starting a series of participatory workshops as part of a project called Source to Sea. This is an early stage scoping project, but the reason I am engaging broadly across and beyond the cultural heritage sector in Scotland, is that I am keen for people to contribute at a very early stage in shaping the potential for such a project. The project aims to research the cultural heritage of a major river system, in this case the River Clyde, from the upper reaches and out to sea. The engagement process will feed into a scoping paper, along with information gathered during field visits to different parts of the river system.

The process by which we arrive at the design of the Source to Sea project is one which aims to enable people to get engaged, contribute at an early stage and help develop a multi-disciplinary, multi-partnered project. This is both an exciting approach and one which brings its own challenges and sometimes can be of-putting because it is unusual in its breadth of engagement. I hope that it will be an opportunity for people to think a little differently, given that we are considering the river system in a holistic manner, but not necessarily aiming for 100% coverage for the geographical area. I hope we can make decisions about how we engage with a river system, such as what are the research themes that could be pursued, how do we undertake the research and what the possible results could be and the products and impact that the research can generate?

I look forward to this AHRC-funded research and hope that it can be enable me to develop my reflexive approach and through collegiate learning, develop research strands within the Source to Sea project…..

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