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.


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)

Will co-designing and co-producing research lead to better, new and sustainable knowing?

Mike Benson, Rachael Turner and I are just on the train coming back from a workshop in Bristol. The workshop gathered together the nine projects funded, like ‘How should decisions about heritage be made?’, under the same AHRC Connected Communities Co-design Development Grant. As part of this programme there is another project (involving Robin Durie, Keri Facer, and Lindsey Horner) researching all the co-design projects. Which could be a little bit research-will-eat itself but hopefully won’t be because it’s going to ask some pretty fundamental questions. Basically:

Quality. Will the various co-design and now co-production processes lead to better research? Raising obvious questions of quality, who defines it, who judges it, and where are the different sites/places where quality might be judged (or ‘qualities’ as one member of the workshop put it).
Novelty. What’s new? Will co-design processes lead to new insights? Raising the questions of ‘new’ where and for whom.
Legacy. Will it matter that the project happened? Where and for whom?

One of the things we’re doing on our co-design project is exploring the sticking points in heritage decision making so we can see them as sites for challenge and change in our research. So this made me think – what are the sticking points in questions of ‘better’ research?

Quality is often tied spatially to academic peer networks. But in a more sticky way, quality is also often tied to the success with which research is ‘located’ (spatially and temporally) within other research through referencing and citation conventions (so research shows how it comes after, and builds on, others work and how the research is closer to some people’s work than others).

Novelty appears to reference the urgent or presented-centred but in research contexts is more closely linked to ‘distinctive’ or ‘original’ contributions. But – to turn to legacy – what makes something ‘new’ isn’t its immediate usability more that it proves its originality through being located within what came before. What makes research count as being ‘new’ is that it then creates a legacy for itself by entering the long histories and slow change of academic disciplines. A form of change which is implicitly read as ‘real’ and sustainable because the insights can be tracked – through citations – as ‘distinct’.

But these forms of quality, novelty and legacy as ‘location’ and ‘distinctiveness’ are challenged by co-production and really, more broadly, by the interest in the impact of research generally – this must make it necessary to think of…

Quality as contingent and multiple: Traditionally academic ‘quality’ is decided by a ‘peers’ (as in peer-review of journal articles) but clearly in our ‘how should decisions about heritage be made?’ project each of us have ‘peers’ from seminar managers in national organizations, members of our community or radical history groups, other people work in the same professional domain (conservation officers; archeologists; community development workers) and other academics (in history; museum and heritage studies; management studies). It’s a bit like we are all attached to bungees and will always get pulled back out from the group back to the other people we work with ‘back at home’. So we need to openly explore what would count as ‘quality’ research in our different homes, our different sites of accountability. And also, as part of this, break down ‘quality’ into more graspable things. I like the ideas of ‘resonance’, of what sticks, what can be adapted, changed and used.

Novelty as specific and having different ‘times’: A sense of newness will also be different in different places and needs to be targeted and tailored. In one of the discussions yesterday, Ann Light reflected on design research and its focus not on generalizable knowledge by in creating understanding which are ‘fit for purpose’– so fit to be used and adapted. This in contrast to traditional notions of research as authored, ‘original’ and ‘distinctive’.

Legacy as adaptability and assimilation: If we have these different spatial and temporal contingencies then there also needs to be an understanding of multiple legacies that are happening in different timeframes. Talking at the workshop, Mike, Rachael and I already believe our work together has shaped many other conversations we’ve since had with lots of other people . We played yesterday with the idea of virus, or spreading out. There are maybe two things going on here with different ‘times’:

Live and adapting: there’s the ‘live’ and adapting model where co-production happens throughout the project through multiple conversations and direct contact with us during the life of the project (which we would probably see as part of the constant shaping of our research not as dissemination). Success here might come from assimilation (and the project not being remember as such) rather than distinctiveness and separateness signaled by ownership, citation and tagging.

Mediation and distinctive: then the more conventional ‘mediation’ of ideas which has started through our project blog and continue through other written outputs throughout and at the end. These probably do need to be ‘located’ in the academic sense to be really useful – to build on what’s come before. The timeframes are different here too – for groups and practitioners this is maybe more urgent, for academic disciplines much slower and longer.

The key principle for me here is: if there are multiple peers, sites and timeframes then no one part of the network can stand it for or act as the explanatory key for the rest. If the research is considered good in one place, that doesn’t mean it’s good everywhere. The distributed accountabilities we have set up through the collaborative nature of our projects have to lead to distributed understand of qualities, novelties and legacies. This means that an academic judgment of quality should never be seen as final but nor should be a judgment made by any one of our community groups. However, the big question we will want to ask, and have asked of us by Robin, Keri and Lindsey, is whether keeping a wide range of sites (Heritage Lottery Fund, Science Museum, York Civic Trust, Heritage Studies, Management Studies, radical historians, local authority conservation officers, Urban Studies and archaeologists) in tension and in mind through our collaborative research makes for better interventions in each of the ‘homes’ and contexts to which our bungees are always pulling us back.