Decisions, Value and Power

By Gareth Hoskins, Geography and Earth Sciences, Aberystwyth University

Looking back on the workshop last week one of the main things to strike me was our almost inbuilt assumption that heritage is good by default, that there should be more of it, and that we should (as our funders request) champion its utility in all sorts of different sectors and in different ways – to promote cohesion, well being, bring jobs, investment, reduce recidivism, encourage empathy and good citizenship etc. etc.

First, I’m wondering if heritage can and should bear the weight of this obligation and indeed when and why did we start speaking about heritage as something that has to be productive; that should made to work, and work harder in times of austerity? Does the direction of this expectation bias the positive, ennobling, affirmative and comforting kinds of heritage over the disruptive, upsetting, confusing and awkward bits of the past? As well as warming our hearts and making us feel proud, should heritage also be granted the capacity to make us feel bad, ashamed, fearful, and concerned about the current state of the world and our previous recklessness and/or ignorance?

Liz Svencenko’s work establishing the International Coalition of Museums of Conscience is a great example with the explicit intention to use histories of oppression to provoke discussion about contemporary human rights. For an example on how uncomfortable histories can be locally sidelined see Mats Burnstron’s discussion of Buckeberg location of the Third Reich’s annual harvest festivals between 1933 and 1937 which give a sense of the massive popular support for the Nazi party. In all these efforts, my general concern is whether the growing demands placed on heritage becomes a way of deferring our own responsibility and obligation to make the world better, more equal etc.

The second thing I’m wondering, and this echoes a phrase introduced by a fellow workshop participant, is whether the heritage system we have right now might be better described as ‘dysfunctional’ rather than ‘deficient’. Notions of blocking points or sticking points used to frame the workshop’s remit tend to carry with them negative connotations and assume that our efforts should be in trying to “free up” or “streamline” heritage decision making. This makes sense only if you buy into the idea that heritage is inherently good (egalitarian, consensus-driven, democratic) and that more of it would be better. If you hold a more critical view that heritage is a something that reflects and perpetuates powerful interests in all sorts of subtle and not so subtle ways then it would make sense to conceive of sticking points as useful, progressive, even emancipatory.

Rodney Harrison (2013) writes about a crisis of accumulation in heritage. He basically says there’s too much of it and that the rate of increase is unsustainable. Part of this is down to a kind of mission creep in a preservation sector that secretly longs for everything to fall under its purview and responds to critique with incremental rounds of inclusion. In the case of UNESCO, for instance, from its initial beginnings saving grand cultural monuments, to the subsequent inclusion of nature, to industrial history, working class history, multicultural history, intangible history… the solution has always been to extend the remit under a guise of being inclusive. Harrison doesn’t go as far as to say we should abandon heritage and list making altogether although there are some scholars that do just that. Michael Landzelius, for instance, in 2003 argued that the very term ‘heritage’ is unhelpful because it encourages essentialist thinking and notions of blood lineage, and entitlement that has so often been used to fuel and justify ethnic conflicts. He advocates a wholesale disinheritance and the subversive removal and relocation of historic buildings and objects. Instead, Harrison asks us “to forget in order to remember”; to regularly monitor and change that portfolio. Inevitably this means removing or at least finding another way to deal with heritage that applauds racism, sexism, elitism, colonialism and all the rest. The city of Berlin makes an attempt at this by breaking up the monumental form of some of Albert Speer’s buildings with strategically placed utilitarian road signs and mundane street furniture to try to deaden their symbolic effect.

Are there similar examples in the UK? Our current stock of heritage and examples of public memorialisation champions a set of messages that are often inappropriate. Monuments in every market town objectify women with depictions of naked mermaids and sirens and symbols of justice while strong fully clothed men have names, are real people and stand upright, tall and proud. Country houses celebrate wealth and colonialism and royal palaces cultivate our consent to a ruling elite who enjoy divine rights and benefit so much from the hereditary transfer of wealth. Similarly, industrial heritage might nod to worker exploitation and resistance but the emphasis so often ends up being perversely uplifting … about the dignity of the male worker, their triumph over nature, their technological ingenuity, the silent tolerance of hardship and their solidarity. The mission tends to be less about galvanizing people into action and more about securing tourism revenue and the part-time service jobs that come with it. These critiques have been made before by scholars and practitioners but they are still relevant and worth reiterating. My own work has explored similar themes on the silencing of the environmental; how industrial heritage so often presents mineral extraction as a heroic battle that took place in the past rather than something that continues today. It’s a tension that is really striking in Blaenavon and the Big Pit in Wales. A real success story on some measures. World Heritage recognition, lots of international tourists, a revamped commercial high street with book stores and coffee shops and some great and genuine and critical interpretation of the strikes and pit closures. But it’s almost as if the mining has stopped. The open cast pit operations all through the Welsh valleys are so frighteningly efficient these days that almost none of the wealth gets left behind.

So it is perhaps worth asking as part of this workshop whose interests are served by removing blocks and stops to heritage decision-making? Might our lubrication risk leading only to a more effective rolling out of the existing system? Might we be oiling the wheels of neo-liberal trickle-down economics that appropriates heritage as a front-line vehicle for gentrification?

If our goal is to make better heritage decisions we also, and I’m sure we will, discuss how “better” is defined and on who’s terms? Some technical questions might be: How has the application of such apparently objective listings criteria resulted in a portfolio so skewed to dominant groups and the messages they want to convey? Is there a bias in the very DNA of how we think about significance and go about trying to capture it? How, for example, do the formal architectural typologies we employ tilt the balance towards favoring one kind of building or another? There’s some fantastic work from the US by Barbara Little and Judith Wellman that shows how the peculiar quality of ‘integrity’ employed is often invoked by State Historic Preservation officers as a gatekeeper to control access to certain prestigious heritage lists. It means that the politics codified in the forms and technical protocols result in many kinds of women’s history, ethnic history and class history getting omitted and doubly silenced because they don’t tend to be as materially “solid” as the well kept remains of rich influential white men.

That takes us to the concept of value in the preservation and heritage sector, to the systems we employ to “detect” value, and how difficult decisions occur essentially because of disputes about value. I’m currently in the middle of my own AHRC research project comparing US and UK listing procedures to better understand how we locate value in the built environment and I’ve been finding Pierre Bourdieu’s work on cultural capital useful since he brings together concepts of value from political economy and aesthetic theory. I like the way he challenges the privileged status enjoyed by economics as a discipline that takes for granted the very foundations of the order it claims to analyze. I’m getting the sense that economics and business logics around value have the upper hand in the heritage sector. Even when we try to assert that there’s more to it, or we want to reject or resist commercial pressures, the vocabularies we use and the logics we employ are already corrupt. An example that comes to mind was the 2006 conference titled Capturing the Public Value of Heritage. I didn’t attend but an edited copy of the proceedings is on-line where Hewison and Holden (pages 14-18) set up what appears to be a quite reasonable and astute triangle of heritage values that gives equal weight to the intrinsic, instrumental, and the institutional. It struck me that the heritage object itself and its own inclinations to persist, or decay, or in various ways embrace or reject the meanings we inscribe upon it, does not feature as part of the decision making. While the latter two types of value are external to the object, even intrinsic value qualifies as value only in so far as it does something to us that we can recognize i.e. creates a human experience, prompts an emotional movement. Might there be other kinds of value that exist outside our own “value radar”? And should we not still accept that things have a right to exist even if they aren’t formally recognized by us as having value? Dave Clarke a UK geographer and Baudrillard scholar makes this point well when he calls value “a conceptual virus spread by modernity” that “accords to a logic of equivalence ensuring that everything can be evaluated and implying the desirability of annihilating everything that is valued negatively” (2010).

I think this problem in our use and application of value comes through strongly in the 2006 conference proceedings with its title “capturing value”. For me this “capturing” paints a picture of the heritage sector as something like an elaborate plumbing system improperly assembled by the experts so it leaks value out. The solution apparently – inevitably when framed like this – is that the public and politicians are brought in to find the leak and put value back into productive use. It reminds me of Franco’s totalitarian dream for Spanish irrigation where any drop of water that was allowed to enter the ocean was understood as a drop of water wasted.

Back in 1986 when Bourdieu published his essay on the forms of capital he mused about how it was odd that everything that escapes economics as a means of measuring quality (sophistication, aesthetic sensibility, cultural knowledge, taste, stylistic appreciation etc) was the virtual monopoly of the dominant social class. By now it seems that the logics of economics has so much orthodoxy that the dominant social class no longer even bother to keep up the pretence.

The second thing that surprised about the triangular model on the public value of heritage presented at the conference was how in all its reasonableness it advanced a transfer of power and influence away from heritage professionals. Instead of being seen as public servants, professionals and experts are set apart from the public as if acting in their own interests. Oddly, the same critique is not leveled at politicians because when explaining the heritage value triangle, Hewison tells us that there is a “democratic deficit” in heritage that might lead to “a real crisis of legitimacy”. Again, it’s clear who is singled out as being at fault. It is the professionals that are expected cultivate a more “authorizing environment”, and need to “re-validate themselves”. The published transcript of the proceedings make this position appear uncontested. Maybe there was an outcry in the room? Maybe everyone was seduced by the rhetorical force of the triangle diagram? Or maybe everyone was so worn down by the way market logics and entrepreneurial thinking have taken centre stage in the formation and delivery of public policy that model seemed appropriate and reasonable?

Thanks for getting though it all. I’m not sure this all adds up to a single coherent position. I’d welcome any comments, corrections about misconceptions, or requests for further clarity.


3 thoughts on “Decisions, Value and Power

  1. Hi Gareth, one of our hopes of the ‘why is decision making about heritage difficult?’ workshop was that we’d have the chance to test and explore our ideas with others and it’s wonderful to have such a thoughtful response to our discussion and research plans.

    One thing I’m always aware of is how critique as an academic orientation and museums and heritage fit together. Pretty neatly, in truth. One renews the other in many ways. As Tony Bennett writes in the context of museums, the claims made by museums ‘to be accessible to all and representative of all’ set off an ‘insatiable demand’ (1995). Or in heritage contexts the expansive constituencies of ’everyone’ and timeframe of ‘forever’, always calls forth claims of its failures. The history of academic engagement with museums and heritage has been pointing out the failures of museums and heritage to live up to their grand visions (by drawing attention to histories occluded; exclusions made; types of visitors missing) but then offering a re-imagination of how these political aims might be renewed and become ‘really’ for everyone. So it is completely necessary but also completely inevitable that ‘what’s wrong with’ and ‘what’s missing’ from the heritage record is pointed to – as you do here at two points in your argument. Indeed, it is critique itself – drawing attention to what isn’t included as heritage – which has led to the accumulative logic of ‘more heritage’.

    For me this is why the idea of ‘sticking points’ is helpful. I do completely take your point that it could tend towards mangerialism or even, you imply, evoke the fascism of the perfect system. But for me, the idea of ‘sticking points’ is a way of drawing attention to how the more than slightly bonkers political spatiality and temporality of museums and heritage – to claim to be ‘forever, for everyone’, to represent all, to be ‘on behalf of the public’ and in perpetuity – causes tensions, difficulties and awkwardness between professionals and others in the everydayness of practices. So this idea of ‘sticking points’ helps us understand why, to pick an example from my working life, it often proves so hard to work in a museum and co-produce an exhibition with a community group. This is very often the case because behind the difficulties of ‘sharing authority’ with particular people or groups is the professionals’ perceived need to also be faithful and accountable to this expansive constituency of ‘the public, ‘everyone’ and ‘forever’.

    I suppose one of my interests – and one of the reasons why I have found our idea of ‘sticking points’ helpful – is how the logics of both critique and heritage might undo themselves and create different pathways, rather than just inexorably renew each other. Harrison’s answer to the problem of infinite accumulation is another ‘more’, but (it is implied) the restricted ‘more’ of ‘more’ effort based on the judgment and selection of professionals. But might we not translate the demands for ‘more’ into a ‘more’ of abundance, a post-scarcity approach to heritage which means that professionals no longer need to be in the driving seat of the protection and selection of what needs to be ‘looked after’.

    ‘More’ in the sense of abundance also relocates the ‘where’. One of the problems with critique is it always tends to draw attention to where power is and assume that’s where it needs to be contested. That the political ‘main event’ is always defined for you, in advance. That the public square/ the museum/ the heritage list is where it has to happens because this is where the exclusions happen. But might we – our research project – over ‘rev’ the engine of critique-renewal constantly fueled by museums and heritage expansive claims (our ‘sticking points’) so they spill over and take us to many different places. Behind this is a different theory of how change happens, not through overturning the order in a central place predefined by those in power (like demonstrating outside the Houses of Parliament) but through interactions, conversations and in a million conceptual and material adjustments everyday.

    It’s obviously quite unfashionable to talk about consensus at the moment, both theoretically and in the museum practice literature. But when some involved in the alter-globalization movement talk about consensus decision making they are not talking about the emerging consensus of experts talking to each other (that Grayson Perry has described in relationship to art taste). And they are also not talking about everyone being nice and agreeing. They are talking about a process focused on generating spaces of equality and diversity (without hierarchy) where people can come together and decide together what to do and, at the same time, support agency for multiplicities of action and diversity of tactics. Crucially – and this takes us back to ‘sticking points’ – what make this different is that it is not about ‘everyone’. Consensus decision-making does not evoke a public, it doesn’t try and speak ‘on behalf of’ others, it is direct, you speak for yourself. A consensus decision-making approach to heritage, therefore, would mean that those interested and engaged could on various basis – in small groups; or linked to large organisations such as museums – come together to make plans. The conceptual shift here is away from the ‘sticking point’ of professionals making decisions ‘on behalf of’ everyone. But (and it is bit of a big ‘but’ which I’ve worried about elsewhere) it is absolutely crucial that ‘anyone’ can get involved. ‘Anyone’, instead of ‘for everyone’.

    The concern about the role of the professional – which you raise in relationship to the Capturing the Public Value of Heritage – is, of course, not unique to a heritage context. This has been widespread: from expert patient movements to the critique of research ‘on’ and not ‘with’ in Disability Studies (‘nothing abut us without us’). Being a ‘public servant’ has meant performing this task of proxy and delegated authority. However, decision making – where ‘anyone’ might participate – where knowledge and passion are shared and decisions made openly, consciously and with equality and diversity at the their heart – might decouple the idea of being ‘professional’ from this pretty impossible burden. After all, working ‘on behalf of’ such an expansive constituency, means legitimacy can become far too much a task of your own imagination. Validated primarily by peer networks of others tasked in the same way.

    But if we drop ‘forever’ and ‘for everyone’ and reimagine the spatial and temporal scales of accountability we might open up instead to ‘anyone’. We might recognize real not imagined networks generated around understandings of the past and future. Something like devolved networks of care, knowing and passion. Where engagement with the past, present and future is connected, rooted, abundant, alive and everywhere.

    Ironically it might be this which does renew our public institutions, by changing notions of accountability from being this impossible and overly-expansive imaginative act and making it real: becoming accountable to a diversity of specific people, specific places and specific issues. A kind of public horizontality? Or professionalism influenced by anarchist methods of association?

    So I think – reflecting the logic of a diversity of tactics – it is probably true that our use of ‘sticking points’ contains the potential both for the management of the existing system more smoothly and of critique, activism and resistance. It probably needs to hold this diversity to best reflect the diversity of motivations within our research team. But alongside this our use of ‘sticking points’ also contains the kernel of something which might, by removing or bending a spoke or two, spin off its axis the persistent cycle of critique-renewal which has defined museum and heritage practice and its research.
    Looking forward to carrying on talking, Helen

  2. “The conceptual shift here is away from the ‘sticking point’ of professionals making decisions ‘on behalf of’ everyone. But (and it is bit of a big ‘but’ which I’ve worried about elsewhere) it is absolutely crucial that ‘anyone’ can get involved. ‘Anyone’, instead of ‘for everyone’.”

    As an interpretation professional who is attempting to create a co-curated exhibition space, I couldn’t agree more! I can’t cite research and I’m relying on my own experiences here, but I’ve found that although ‘anyone’ is welcome to join the co-curate in part or whole, only those who feel that they have their own knowledge to offer, or are already engaged with the institution will take part and then they look to me as the perceived person with ‘know-how’ to guide them. A steer is given to get the conversation started but that ends up as the basis for the exhibition’s direction.

    I think the point I’m struggling to explore here is that it seems to me that some professionals want to shift from professional authority to consensus decision making but groups/people who want to take part – ‘anyone’ – don’t seem to want to embrace such freedom…not yet. Which perpetuates ‘anyone’ feeling like they can’t join in unless they have something to offer the professionals.


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

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