A systemic approach to heritage decision making? Not so much ‘complex’ as ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘cluttered’!

At MadLab in Manchester last week the Research Team and fifteen brave others, from as far and wide as Edinburgh, London, Aberystwyth, Preston and Huddesfield and who joined us for just this purpose, tried to do something hard and maybe a bit impossible. We tried to map and model ‘heritage decision making’ as a kind of system. We hoped to do this for the purpose of identifying ‘sticking points’ or ‘blocks’ in the system so we could focus on them in our Phase 2 research. And then to see these ‘sticking points’ as sites of challenge and, hopefully, change and ‘democratization’ even.

With enormous gratitude to Somang Lee from Scriberia who helped us visually interpret what we were thinking – this is what we came up with. Here is a separate blog which interprets the image a little for those who weren’t there.


There’s loads to say about this image and hopefully we’ll have an ongoing blog discussion about the workshop, the image and what it means for our Phase 2 research over the next few weeks but here are a few points from me just to get the discussion going:

Why we thought thinking of heritage decision-making as a system might help? But does it?
The words ‘mess’ and ‘messy’ came up a whole lot in our Phase 1, when we were designing the research. So did the word ‘complicated’. Or ‘complex’. This was one of the reasons we thought we’d experiment with ideas taken loosely from ‘systems thinking’. Because there are places where decisions about heritage are made in what appear to be a relatively locked-down bureaucratic way (such as listing of buildings – which is where we started in our workshop): which kind of fitted with the popular idea of ‘THE SYSTEM’.


Yet in other places it is much more messy (and this is not meant in a negative way), localized and contingent, with everything being in flux; from what is meant by ‘heritage’ to what can be seen as a ‘decision’. This aspect of our discussions fitted with a more specific focus on ‘systemic thinking’ which emphasizes paying attention to how people interact, when and in what ways and to how the boundaries between ‘heritage’ and other aspects of daily, social and political life are delineated.

Life and time passing which sometimes gets called 'heritage'

Life and time passing which sometime gets called ‘heritage’

So this is not ‘systems thinking’ as a ‘theory’ to be ‘applied’. But as a possibly helpful way of thinking that might reveal things we take for granted or can’t usually see, so they can be changed. To quote Danny Burns, one of our aims was to: ‘construct a “working picture” of the multiple systems that we inhabit both without and outside them, and then to identify opportunities to act within them. We can be in the interaction and influence it. We can be in the system and change it’ (2007, p. 33).

Probably what we accomplished last Tuesday was an indication of some of the systems going on within heritage contexts. One piece of feedback we’ve got is that it just looks like ‘confusion’ – which, actually, was one of our points! While there are specific ideas in the drawing I’d like to hold on to, in many ways that overall impression of confusion, ‘dysfunction’ (as Paul Manners has put it) and ‘clutter’ (as Mike Benson put it) is itself an incredibly useful and new conceptualization. That’s why there’s someone being sick over the side of the ‘stewardship’ ship…

But what are we going to do with this? Is the aim to streamline? To declutter? To free up? To psychoanalyze? Or heal?

What are these ‘sticking points’? And what are the dangers with the idea of ‘sticking points’?

So we aimed to identify ‘sticking points’ and we did. Abuse in the system (developers drinking wine). Closed systems of experts speaking to each other. The need to have a certain kind of expertise to be taken seriously. That to have influence you need to interact different in different ways in different parts of the ‘THE SYSTEM’, so to ‘speak’ a certain kind of ‘knowledge’ (to EH professionals, for example) and show passion (for politicians). We noticed that time and money ‘skew’ relationships. The different systems you get pulled back into when you collaborate with others from different contexts (love the bungee idea). The idea of stewardship (and delegated authority/act as proxy on behalf of others) and the idea of the future itself.

So one of our aims – as per the Burns quote above – might be to try and change these ‘sticking points’. Yet maybe dangers lurk here? Does unblocking or unsticking just mean making the system work better? This is a concern some of us (especially Martin Bashforth) have expressed from the first. This is why it probably matters what we aim to achieve, as noted above. Streamline, dismantle, free up, create alternatives to, heal… all have different political resonances. Knowing our team as I do, I imagine we will never agree precisely on the political aim of our research exactly. But might be useful to explore further our different motivations and imagined goals?

Can we use this in our Phase 2 research?

I hope so. The image as a whole as well as some of the sub-images, communicate some important ideas very strongly. For me a crucial question has always been about the types of democracy we are imagining. The simple system of listing we began with is one of representational democracy and delegated authority to professionals and ‘experts’ (a logic core to ideas of stewardship). But expressed here also are the political legitimacies generated by passion and protest (around Preston Bus Station). To explore these different ideas of decision making in Phase 2 we’re going to do a lot of different things.

Preston Bus Station

In Strand 1: we’re going to try understand decision making in lots of different projects, organizations and local areas. How do these four different locations – from local authority planning office, to the Potteries Tile Trail HLF project, to Bede’s World to RCAHMS Clyde project – shed different lights, offer different complexions, deepen, challenge, free up, ignore or escape from what we’ve mapped in this image?

In Strand 2: we are gong to experiment with more open and participative approaches to collecting at the Science Museum. But we’re going to do that through different logics of democracy; participatory and direct. For me a massive ‘sticking point’ for museums is the idea of ‘everyone’ and of ‘the future’. One of the issues with ‘everyone’ or ‘the public’ is that it is, in Michael Warner’s terms, a ‘social totality’. So working ‘on behalf of’ ‘everyone’ just pushes power back into professional hands as a function of this delegated right to ‘balance’ between people on behalf of us all. The man is maybe being sick over the side of boat because this responsibility often feels wrong and difficult to manage (I’ve talked about this in terms of ‘the consent form’ before on this blog). And also being bungeed between collaborations spaces with people from different backgrounds and home SYSTEMS might make you a little sick too. So instead of this problem of ‘everyone’, can we find ‘anyone’ processes – where anyone who wants to can get involved? And what would it mean to use passion as a source of legitimacy?

In Strand 3: we’re launching a grassroots public inquiry into something like (precise question still to be fixed) ‘is heritage good for York?’ We will try and understand more what this might mean through citizen journalism and public meetings and workshops and seek to intervene where we can. Can York’s history and heritage be crafted in ways to make a more equal and inclusive city? This will require a very deliberate widening of the boundaries of heritage as a system to include housing, marketing of the city, wages of tourist economy as well as how the city is represented in its museums and which buildings get listed (or not).

So the image we produce might well help. It has, I think, probably crystalized some things and made others less visible. But it’s an amazing start to Phase 2 and a very warm thanks to all who made it possible: Susan Ashley, Martin Bashforth, Mike Benson, Tim Boon, Karen Brookfield, Peter Brown, Danny Callaghan, Dave Carter, Richard Courtney, Kathy Cremin, Ruth Edson, Alex Hale, Sally Hartshorne, Arabella Harvey, Gareth Hoskins, Somang Lee, Robert Light, Bill Longshaw, Rebecca Madgin, Paul Manners, Hannah Neate, Rosie O’Neill, Jo Ward, Ruchit Purohit, Kate Slone, Sally Stone, Jenny Timothy, Rachel Turner.


One thought on “A systemic approach to heritage decision making? Not so much ‘complex’ as ‘dysfunctional’ and ‘cluttered’!

  1. Pingback: Not decisions, but webs or ecologies | How should decisions about heritage be made?

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