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.


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.

Ta, da! Our answer to the question ‘why is decision making about heritage difficult’?

Last Tuesday thirty of us worked together – at the ‘Why is decision making about heritage difficult?’ workshop – with the amazing Somang Lee from Scriberia to try to deepen and expand our idea of heritage decision making through ‘systems thinking’ and then to identify ‘sticking points’ which might act as a focus for challenging and creating change throughout the rest of our Phase 2 research project.

These were the steps we went through:
1) We began with the ‘listings’ system as an example of an apparently simple or ‘very structured’ decision making process.
2) We then worked in groups to challenge and ask questions of this ‘simple’ system.
3) We then all mapped decision making in the places we live and work (all much more complex and imagined in much less linear ways that the listings’ process).
4) We then identified ‘sticking points’ – things which get in the way of open, transparent and engaged decision making.

This is what we came up with…we’d be interested in any and all reflections on the image both from those at the workshop and others.

Our workshop image explained (well. a bit)

Our workshop image explained (well. a bit)

What makes heritage decision-making difficult? Workshop – call for participants

Blue plaque question mark

What makes heritage decision-making difficult?
Workshop, Manchester, MadLab
15th October 2013, 11-4pm

• How are decisions about heritage made where you live or work?
• What are the tensions or difficulties that come up in heritage decision-making?
• What are your experiences of ‘participation’ in museum and heritage contexts?
• What might make heritage decision-making more democratic?

We’re a group of people who care about heritage, coming from different perspectives and with different roles – from grassroots organisers to planners, funders and researchers. We were funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to work together between February and May this year to co-design a research project that would get to the crux of something we were all finding difficult – how decisions about heritage get made.

After four months months of head scratching, we think we’ve come up with a useful framework for enquiry into this topic and have secured further funding for a 12 month action research project.

As we kick this second phase of the research off, we’re really keen to test our thinking with others working in this area and to start by trying to make sense of the ‘blocks’ or ‘sticking points’ in decision making about heritage. We’re running a workshop in Manchester on 15th October and would love people to join us to develop our thinking.

When we were working together to design the research project, we noticed that difficulties and tensions in decision making often come up around:

• questions of expertise and quality;
• definitions of what counts as ‘heritage’;
• the responsibility of stewardship;
• the desire to work ‘on behalf of’ everyone, the public or the future.

In the workshop we will all work together through a few different activities in order to push further our framing and conceptualising of these issues. We will:

1) Map and visualize decision-making in all of our projects, organisations and places.
2) Work on real life examples where these ‘blocks’ or ‘sticking points’ emerge (and we’ll ask all participants to suggest examples).
3) Delineate further the some nubs or cruxes of these ‘blocks’ or ‘sticking points’ which the action research will seek to investigate and address.
4) Identify some success criteria for the research – how will we know when we’ve made progress?

We have a very small budget for travel but can cover local travel expenses or make a small contribution towards those travelling from further afield.

To express your interest, just email us by 30th September with your answers (no more than 500 words in total) to two questions:

1) Can you give an example of a heritage decision you’ve been involved in?

2) Why are you interested in thinking about decision making?

Reply to: Helen Graham,

Looking forward to hearing from you,

‘How should decisions about heritage be made?’ Research Team

For more information about our project see our blog:

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?