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.


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?