Not decisions, but webs or ecologies

Susan Ashley, 1 December, 2013

I would like to offer a belated reaction to the Heritage Decisions team’s admirable workshop in October about ‘what makes heritage decision-making difficult?’ In a way these ideas are also stirred by Gareth Hoskins’ excellent comments on ‘Decisions, Value, Power’, and Helen’s remarks on that posting.

I came away from the workshop thinking about the way that heritage was positioned as a ‘thing’ by many participants. Gareth’s opening comment questioning whether “heritage is good by default, that there should be more of it” made me realise that my perspective of what is heritage might not jibe with others’: how can I get ‘more’ heritage since I perceive it as a sensibility or consciousness or process of understanding my relation to the past?

So I will say a few words about my understandings of heritage, and also its relationship to ‘thingness’ which inevitably come up in the practical world of heritage management. The antithesis of heritage-as-thing is heritage-as-process. This could mean a process of understanding, or self-awareness, or relationship-building, or ‘making’, or valuation – in reference to ‘the past’. My memory of my granny in its complexity is part of my heritage. My sense of that nation where I lived most of my life is also part of my heritage. These sensibilities are not things, but might coalesce within objects or places as holders of impressions. Here is where the ‘ecology of signification’ comes in [for Martin] – my life personally and as part of community radiates a web of significance. This is Clifford Geertz’s idea, who wrote “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it … an interpretive one in search of meaning (Geertz 1973, 5).” Looked at differently, each heritage ‘thing’ – whether artefacts or buildings or places – bears this ecology of signification that infinitely stretches back in infinite variety and relationships.

Which makes me wonder whether we should stress making ‘decisions’ or whether to emphasize building ‘webs’ or ‘ecologies’ (e.g. Capra, 2002)? I know this sounds so idealistic, and I suppose it is. But this scenario might take us away from list-making towards processes of knowledge-building like community mapping, academic research and amateur research. This would emphasise the benefits of ground-up programmes like Heritage Lottery, or consciousness-raising through curricula, or even TV shows like Time Team more so than designations by the Secretary of State and English Heritage. I loved your idea, Helen, of devolved networks of care, knowing and passion. The ‘sticking points’ here will be vastly different and less project-oriented, but just as fraught, no doubt.

My desire to emphasise heritage-as-process comes from experiences at heritage sites and museums where I always wished the excitement and inspiration behind-the-scenes did not die when frozen in an exhibit or finite programme. The end-product is not where ‘heritage’ happens, but that talk, conflict, negotiation that occurs before hand when we bring our ideas to the table. Think of Helen’s heritage workshop and that raw stimulation that seemed impossible to capture in a brief ‘presentation’! Our systems want products not process, and our funding is skewed accordingly. I saw this reflected in one workshop participant’s comment that lively collaboration in a university research project was not accepted as a suitable topic for an academic research paper.

The theory part here (apologies): The act of making a decision suggests a frame of mind, an outlook, an episteme that emphasises and values closure. I am forever writing papers with titles like ‘ideas on…’ or ‘examining…’ that offer little closure. This must be maddening for some seeking more scientific conclusions, and certainly the antithesis of the aims of a workshop on decision-making. Nancy Fraser’s recent discussions about the public sphere and what is considered ‘normal’ discourse, point out that ‘closure’ — the need for argument then decision-making — employs taken-for-granted assumptions about the how of participation, as well as the what and the who. Fraser calls for a “new grammar” of public sphere participation (and justice) wherein self-problematising would be the aim. She argues that public sphere discourses would treat every ‘closure’ as provisional, and subject to question, possible suspension, and thus to re-opening to new claims about the what, the who, and the how. This entangles discourse-rational approaches [that’s our current technical system of heritage which hegemonically represents everyone] and agonistic approaches on the other [the quarrelsome or ‘abnormal’ realm of anyone else]. Your invocation of social movements here, Helen, and their decision-making processes (criticised by mainstream commentators as lack of decision-making), exemplifies this division between ways of seeing the world and how to participate in the public sphere.

Capra, Fritjof. (2002). The Hidden Connections. London: HarperCollins

Fraser, Nancy. (2007). Transnationalizing the Public Sphere: On the Legitimacy and Efficacy of Public Opinion in a Post-Westphalian World, Theory, Culture & Society Vol. 24(4): 7–30

Geertz, Clifford. (1973). The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. New York: Basic Books.

Future proofing heritage decisions

A few weeks ago I was persuaded to watch a documentary called “Into Eternity”.  In contrast to my interest in all things historic my husband has an interest in all things future, especially when it comes to future energy needs.  The documentary was about a place called Onkalo, currently under construction in Finland and being built to contain and isolate nuclear waste for 100,000 years.  To put that in context the human species as we know it today is thought to have been around for 100,000 years, with the oldest cave paintings known being around 30,000 years old.

Settling down with my cup of tea I wasn’t expecting much, however I found my self drawn in, and especially when watching it in the context of the discussions we’d had a few weeks before at the first workshop.  It was also particularly precient after reading Tim’s post “Not for us in our present?”, discussing the intentions of the creators.  Part of the Onkolo project was considering the perception of the site for future generations, mainly from a safety point of view, but I couldn’t help pondering the implications and future interpretation of the site from a heritage viewpoint.  It seemed without knowing it they were making heritage decisions which needed to address all considerations for the next 100,000 years.

It was interesting to see the scientists, politicians and constructors of the facility wrestling with the philisophical question of how people would react to and value the site in the future.  Whether it should be allowed to be lost under the forest, will it continue to be documented, whether it should be marked on the ground and if it is marked how to do this considering that it has to be able to be interpreted over the next 100,000 years. 

The key thing which seemed to be lacking in the considerations was the understanding of inherent human curiousity.  One scientist noted that he would expect that if someone stumbled across a concealed entrance and found it blocked with concrete beyond they would understand that they shouldn’t go any further as it may be dangerous.  This was contrasted with an ancient stone with writing on which, once translated, said “do not move”.  The first thing the archaeologists did was move it!

What the documentary really brought home is that we have no idea what will be important over the next 100,000 years.  We don’t know what will survive (apart from nuclear waste!), we don’t know who will be around to appreciate it, what they will value and what their language or level of cogniscence will be.  Also we have no idea about what will happen between now and then.

It made me feel slightly arrogant about making decisions which dictate what is significant and what should be kept and protected.  It made me question who are protecting these things for and are we just putting off the decision for later generations?  How do we future proof our decisions?  Indeed do we want to, will our decisions about our heritage become part of the heritage of the things we are trying to protect?

Not for us in our Present?

Reading the obituary of the distinguished documentarist Michael Grigsby, who died recently, I was reminded of one of the principles I articulated in my book on the history of science films: the directors of the films I was studying made their works to communicate to people in their present, not to become historical evidence for us. Despite this, they are preserved in archives. Ian Christie’s account of Grigsby’s practice stressed how his subjects, including the Inuit, were also able to use the films to communicate their lives to others. In other words, for their present they did social and political work. But for us the status of the films is irrevocably different: they have become complex historical evidence of subjects, makers, techniques, business, representational conventions, and much more.

Similarly, in our first heritage decisions workshop, we discussed the example of some 19thc brewery buildings on the outskirts of Leicester which their owner had applied for permission to demolish. The Victorians who had these structures put up did so presumably because they saw a market in ales to slake the thirsts of the operatives of sock-knitting machines after long days at the loom. They were not setting out to make structures that would become old buildings to exercise our preservationist aesthetics and consciousnesses.

But there are people who make things specifically for those not yet born, who trade with posterity. The builders of monuments, for example, doubtless look beyond the fee they will charge for the design and production. Many artists may also reach out to create work that they hope engages with eternal concerns even as they labour within the terms, and using the materials, of their own particular times.

It is here that the power in heritage decision making is exercised, precisely in determining what is passed to posterity, action which creates a change in status of the thing preserved, the thing that becomes ‘heritage’. In a sense when we too make such decisions we do so for our present, because we want to enjoy the old brewery buildings ourselves. But we also have more than half an eye on those who will come after us: we make decisions using our values on behalf of those whose values we cannot know, and which may well be different; we do it in an attempt to prolong the salience of our own values.

Museum collecting is one of those decision-making activities. I feel that the social history curators of my generation have become much more ambivalent about this than our predecessors were. The older generations of more connoisseurial collectors would concentrate on the acquisition of a small number of items they considered to be highly significant. Social history curators collect stuff because it is commonplace and, when they can, they collect lots, in the hope of memorialising today’s quotidian. In the process, the status of the objects changes: rubbish becomes relics, perhaps.

But, as I have argued, curators are not the only people playing this game. Donors to collections also commit to faith in memorialisation and seek a place in posterity, either for their sense of what is significant or, sometimes, for themselves. In the collections of the Science Museum there are many examples. For instance, let us take the X-Ray set made by the radiologist Russell Reynolds (1880-1964) within a year of the discovery, and when he was a schoolboy. You can see it in our Making the Modern World gallery. In donating it to the Museum in 1938, he not only generously contributed a very early machine to the national collection, he also memorialised his own significance within the story.

But the different status of the preserved object, or building, or whatever, is more apparent than real, and it is fragile. Most museums make disposals; objects decay, become damaged, turn out to be duplicates, and are deaccessioned. Institutions can also come to an end, as happened with the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum collections,  thought to number more than a million items at the time of the death of Henry Wellcome, its founder: 90% of items that were once Wellcome Collection items are now elsewhere, often in many kinds of museums run under ideologies radically different from Wellcome’s eccentric brand of evolutionary anthropology. Perhaps 10% survives in the rump of the collection cared for by the Science Museum.

Even when objects are ‘safely’ in the collection, they are not necessarily preserved in ‘suspended animation’. Sometimes museums alter objects – the Science Museum for example used to like to section machines so that visitors could see the workings. Art galleries have often cleaned paintings in ways that have been judged controversial by some. And donors too have, often intervened in the status of donated objects. Reynolds, for example, opted to donate a ‘better’ and later X-ray tube of his own design to complete his early machine; a Platonist like many scientists, he had in mind the ‘ideal’ X-ray machine, better than any authentic example.

Reynolds’ piece of medical apparatus had an original meaning in the present of 1896; it was lent a new significance when the Science Museum agreed to accept his offer to donate – it became a historical artefact – and that status was rendered fluid again as he modified its component parts. Now Reynolds is long dead he no longer has control over the meanings that we attach to his machine. And our successors, and the successors of our visitors, in their present will attach new meanings to it that we cannot predict.

Heritage Decisions in the Media

This last week on UK television has featured at least two programmes covering heritage issues. On Wednesday, The Culture Show (BBC2) did a whistle-stop tour of various sites of contest and included historian Dr Richard Miles querying the very idea of heritage. On Thursday, the last in the series Heritage! The Battle for Britain’s Past (BBC4) illuminated the direction of policy after WW2. Meanwhile I have picked up on three stories surfacing in the printed media.

Adam Gabbatt (The Guardian, 21 March, page 23) focused on conflict in Memphis, Tennessee, over a park previously named after Nathan Bedford Forrest and now to be renamed. Forrest was a prominent 19th-century civic figure in Memphis, supposedly instrumental in bringing the railways to the city, served as a Lieutenant-General in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War (i.e. the losing side) and later became a city councillor and an early member of the Ku Klux Klan. Present day Klan members are opposing the change of name on the grounds that the council is ‘trying to erase white history from the history books’.

Mark Smith (The Guardian, 22 March, page 30) covered the story of Glossop Library in Derbyshire. The library is housed in the Victoria Hall, which was established through the patronage of Lord Howard in 1888 with a legal covenant that the land gifted to the town council should be ‘for the purpose of the erection of a public free library and public hall thereon’. The County Council wants to move its library out of the building, in trust to Glossop Borough Council, and build a brand new library at a cost of £2 million. A local campaign, Glossop Soul (Save Our Unique Library) opposes the move and wants the existing building to be modernised and kept in its intended use. Local opinion is divided.

Meanwhile in April’s issue of The Garden (magazine of the Royal Horticultural Society) there is an impassioned article (page 23) by Lia Leendertz in defence of public allotments. Some local authorities, strapped for cash as many are, seek to sell off publicly owned allotments to developers. They argue that this is in the wider interests of the overall community, while allotment holders are a minority of selfish, privileged individuals. The writer draws on the history of allotments to fight her corner, citing the 1845 General Enclosure Act. At that time some 615,000 acres of land were enclosed, while 2200 acres were converted into allotments for the poor (0.36%). There is (only arguably) less poverty and dependence on allotments, but these are ‘our last fingerhold on the vast tracts of land we could once call upon, carved off millions of acres at a time. No-one should be regarded as selfish for defending that’.

Heritage attaches to public park names, the products of a bygone era of gentry patronage and a long and unfinished battle over rights to common land. In each case a decision has to be made. In each case there are vociferous opponents and proponents and valid arguments on both sides. Heritage is an arena of cultural, social and political conflict, with underlying forces of change, both material and cultural. Who is to decide? Do the answers have to be homogenous? Should we sanitise history? Should what was decided in the past determine what we can do in the present and for the future?

Heritage is a Mess!

We made a great start last week in teasing out many of the fundamental issues facing the heritage sector, thanks to the three workshop cases with which we were presented. Making sense of it all is proving a problem. These are just a few rambling personal reflections.

I became increasingly aware of how messy the whole ‘heritage thing’ is and how we need to find a way that handles that mess creatively. It may not necessarily be the best idea to try to analyse, compartmentalise and control the mess, following normal managerial instincts. Sometimes it may be better to enable the mess to work itself out in its own way and to simply provide parameters within which that can happen, along with tools and guidelines to enable the process. That may be something that the ‘corporate’ side of the heritage sector will find very difficult to accept. Museum trustees and management, local authority planning and development teams, major funding bodies and national policy makers each have their own agendas and like their boxes to be ticked.

Which all raises the fundamental question – whose heritage is it anyway? That is probably the messiest part, unanswerable as the question may prove to be.

Another question that for me has grown larger since last week is – what relation does Heritage really have to History? At Bede’s World I threw into the discussion mix the seemingly odd statement: “Heritage is your friend”. Not surprisingly, stunned bemusement was the average response! For me it has a corollary to do with History, which I haven’t quite worked out yet.

In relation to the idea that ‘heritage means different things to different people for different reasons at different times’, which underlies the messiness mentioned above, ‘Heritage’ (with a capital H) tends to solidify the mess around some central, local and specific definition, which then becomes somebody’s job, career or purpose in life, even if there are some internal contests around this. In the same way that ‘community’ is generally regarded as a cosy, inclusive thing that solidifies into something exclusive, with boundaries round it, heritage can also become exclusive, more especially when it, too, becomes attached to community and identity, two of the most frequently quoted buzz words.

History on the other hand, drawing on its analytical and critical values, will tend to constantly question, challenge and maybe undermine ‘Heritage’, even as ‘History’ is drawn upon to justify heritage values. It’s an uncomfortable conundrum, another part of the mess and I’m not sure if it ticks anybody’s boxes.