What’s heritage again? Anarchic publicness and other discussions at York’s Alternative History

We were sitting by the fire in the Golden Ball a few Wednesday nights ago for York’s Alternative History open meeting and Nick Smith was stuck, in a very productive way, on this question: ‘Nope’ (after I’d tried to say something incisive), ‘I still don’t get it…what’s heritage again?’

Martin and I had been trying to encapsulate the debates we’d had at the first Co-Design workshop at Bede’s World (13th and 14th March). The fundamental problem of definition was something Martin had raised earlier that day in his blog ‘Heritage is a mess!’ I think the sticking point for Nick was around about what makes heritage ‘heritage’ rather than just stuff and life and what makes ‘heritage’ different from archaeology or historical data (as Tara-Jane Sutcliffe helpfully put it).

Of course, this debate is completely core to academic debates in heritage studies (and has been the stuff of debate since the ‘heritage debates’ and Robert Hewison, Patrick Wright and Raphael Samuel in the 1980s and early 1990s) but the debate we had gave the question a slightly different complexion.

The discussion – not surprisingly, given around the table were revolutionary socialists, anarchists, libertarians and activists – was mostly focused on a critique of the institutional management and designation of stuff and life as ‘heritage’ and ideas about if, and how, to radically intervene in York’s history (something we’ve talked about a lot about since York’s Alternative History started last year).

So on the first point, it was noted by Steve Cox (who is currently working on developing an event for 2014 to radically question and contextualize the First World War ‘commemorations’) that institutional histories (in museums and such) like to smooth over class conflict. So this relates to the question of whether histories of protest and dissent are properly discussed in most museums? York’s Alternative History generally don’t think so in York – hence our recent Luddites event and last years ‘A Walk through Radical York’ led by Paul Furness.

On the second point an issue that has long exercised York’s Alternative History is whether we’re looking to mainstream radical history in York (see another of Martin’s blogs). For example, did we want to campaign for a blue plaque for the site of where the execution of the West Riding Luddites took place in January 1813 or was our more performative and also ephemeral cardboard and plywood placards, each carrying the name of an executed man, in some ways more powerful?

The Luddites commemorative placards 10 days on

Nick gave another example of this dilemma in terms of storytelling traditions in the Leeman Road area of York where his neighbours shared with him the explanation for the burnt bricks on his street (bombing during the second world war). Does this need to be remembered institutionally or is the chat and conversation in the street enough? John Bibby suggested that maybe we all should write our own DIY blue (or red and black as Mick Phythian suggested…) plaques for our front doors. In other words, as Nick put it, museums alone can’t do it, ‘history should be being done by lots of different people, in different ways all the time’.

I think this took us to a really key question for me which links the two issues around which the York’s Alternative History discussions circled and strongly related to debates at the workshop inspired by the work of Mike Benson, Kathy Cremin and John Lawson at Ryedale Folk Museum and now at Bede’s World. One of their very inspiring arguments is that museums come back to life when people can be given space to have ‘freedom of self’, to loosely work together to share and cultivate their own expertise and interests.

I’m very excited about Mike, Kathy and John’s approach but I also recognize that museums and archives have grown up around the management of the past for the present and future (and this is what I think ‘heritage’ refers to…) in part to achieve this more than slightly bonkers desire to keep stuff for everyone now and everyone in the future. The question for me, then, is (and I think this was also behind Nick’s persistent question) – is ‘heritage’ tied to the political logics of public-ness? Public-ness in the sense of the collective ownership of resources managed by professionals ‘on our behalf’? Is this the political price we need to pay for the logic of perpetuity?

The Luddites event we organized in January was one of the most moving experiences of remembering and engaging with the past-in-the-present that I’ve ever been involved in (I avoid ‘heritage’ there for Nick’s sake!). A museum may well not have been able to organize that – it didn’t need to…we in York’s Alternative History wanted to do it, so we did it. It was self-organized, it was horizontal, it was based on shared desire and ‘mutual aid’ of a small number of people and it gathered together other like-minded people. It was exactly what it needed to be. Is it important for either this quite anarchic event itself (the red and black flag was flown by some that day…) or for the West Riding Luddites themselves to be remembered in perpetuity? Was the ‘now’ of that January day enough?

And here is the biggy: is the very form of political association that created this event able or appropriate for dealing in perpetuity? Are self- and horizontal modes of organising necessarily and helpfully present-centred (as in these forms accountability lies to each other now)? Can self-organisation be relied on to value that which others, themselves self-organizing in the past, valued? Or do we need the public ethos of being ‘inclusive’ and ‘to consider everyone’ (however flawed in practice) to more dispassionately ‘manage’ (I use this word deliberately) all of disparate passions and values which make up our pasts and present?

The more libertarian self-organized radical feminist archives from the Women’s Liberation movement have nearly all come under some form of institutional care now. The last exception is the Feminist Library in London – and today’s feminists are working very hard to keep this alive. But for me this raises the question, to put the same issue in a different way, do we need public institutions to say this is important because it was important to people in the past even if fewer people now want to self-organize around it?

I think we probably need both…the energy of ‘freedom of self’ and association which is about what matters now (as the Luddites do to many of us) and some kind of public ethos (which should always work to be more democratic) which can manage more dispassionately and over a longer time period multiple and conflicting interests. So, and this is also basically where I’ve got to with my anti-cuts activism too (also a topic that has been hotly debated in York’s Alternative History), perhaps we need some kind of anarchic public-ness?


3 thoughts on “What’s heritage again? Anarchic publicness and other discussions at York’s Alternative History

  1. Thanks Helen, very interesting. All I’d comment is that I think a generation – at least – of social history curators have already seen it as their role to record in objects histories of dissent and histories ‘from below’; social history curators were not that different from the people in the ‘horizontal’ and self-organising manifestations you describe. So the difference would be not so much the people as the institution of the museum. I think we all believe that museums must be, and probably can’t help being, responsive to the social and cultural conditions of their times. But then perhaps dissent resists enrolment in settled institutions.

  2. Thanks Tim. Since you kindly posted this comment part of me has been tempted to make the argument that there is something here about how the web and the digital is (possibly, just possibly) enabling a more horizontal and maybe a wee bit less vangardist approach to developing histories. I’m not sure how far I’d follow this argument but one of the characteristics of this history-from-below movement remained about going-out-to-collect. It was about a small-ish group of radicals changing the world and it was about changing history as a discipline. Given (in terms of oral history) you had to probably book and borrow an expensive and heavy recorder for most of 20th century and (for material culture) to have your object or photograph collected was to have to give it way (as there was no digitalization), there is no question that there was a technological shaping to the possible modes of encounter with historians and institutions. But even as I make this argument I remember that the UK Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) pretty much began at a History Workshop conference and the earliest forms of history-making within the WLM (Amanda Sebestyen in Notes from the 10th Year) were done, controversially, to make sense of different approaches within the radical and socialist WLM continuum which precisely encompassed (though never in a simple way) that classic anarchist v. Trotsky tension between building alternatives now and building a revolution for tomorrow. So is this my point…?! History/heritage, a bit like vanguardist politics, could be said to be in constant danger of the ends being used to justify the means….

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