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 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.

A Sociologist’s perspective on the Value of Heritage and the Challenges in the Decision-Making Process

As a sociologist I am interested in the ways in which people perceive their lived environment and the impact this has on their identity. The built and natural environment within which people dwell is an important factor in maintaining peoples’ sense of place and their physical and emotional well-being. Within this, people expect and indeed deserve to have a built and natural environment that provides public services, businesses, and public spaces that supersede functionality, but contain an intangible aesthetic that enlivens and enriches their sense of place to provide a basis for their identity. Much planning history in the UK has been orchestrated by architects, designers, and local and regional authorities whose vision is often alien to the people for whom it is designed to benefit. This has meant that towns, villages, and cities have been designed upon people rather than in dialogue with their interests and desires. Therefore, many people feel that the places designed for them to live and work lack integrity, emotion, and a deeper understanding of the ways in which they live their lives. In addition, residents and communities have felt the often negative and unintended consequences of otherwise well-meaning planning decisions. Think of tower blocks and housing estates designed to perpetuate community that inevitably became sites of crime and fear for many residents. Underlying a good deal of planning decisions is a sense of paternalism where the professionals know what is best for the people that are to live and work in their designs. This signals an inequality in the power to influence decision making in terms of planning, but where does heritage figure in all of this?


Heritage has conventionally been viewed as the way in which elements of the past are preserved and conserved so that examples of past successes and failures can withstand the test of time. In the UK context ‘heritage’ emerged as a way in which elites could ensure that the monuments and artefacts signalling their power and values were to be preserved in the face of revolution and social unrest. Traditionally then, heritage has been a small ‘c’ conservative ideal to protect the tangible aspects of the past from being re-evaluated, re-articulated, or at worst destroyed by the masses! But is this really so true today and does it mean that there is not a more universal and enlightened role for heritage in the contemporary context? My sociological research to date tells me that there is certainly more to heritage than the preservation of elitist notions of value, and that ideas of the past are central to the way many local communities articulate their identities in an ever globalising world. What has become of interest to me in this respect is the plurality of sites that individuals and communities use to signify their heritage, and the plurality of meanings attributed to places by different groups of people. I’m always reminded of the decision to retain and renovate the Gasometers in East London. These icons to Victorian industry fell into disrepair and were due for demolition; however, their presence on the local landscape as a means to identify the area from afar or as a common sense means to locate oneself in the area meant that they were cherished by local residents. The power of the local attachment to what are essentially storage containers for fossil fuels was enough to convince local decision makers that they should be preserved and the values invested in them by locals respected. They are now key sites for urban sightseers from across the globe – the meanings, local, national, and global, are entirely different from the functional principles embedded in their original purpose. Heritage is then less about the meanings and values of the past, it is a way for us to use how we think and feel about what’s in the present to be taken into the future. Value is something not inherent in old things, but something that can be realised in the future if we find an anchor for it in the present.


This rather romantic articulation of heritage is not without its challenges. I see four main challenges that emerge from this perspective that inform my own understanding of how decisions over heritage should be made. The first is that, whilst it is an attractive idea to put the users of the built and natural environment in the driving seat of decisions it does obscure the vitally important role that professional architects, planners, and custodians of heritage play in planning sustainable environments. Much like bureaucracy in general, these roles are there for a very real reason despite those outside of them viewing them with indifference, cynicism, and often contempt! I don’t see decision-making in this context to be a matter of two groups with divergent interests and unchangeable power dynamics – I view them as a possibility for dialogue and an exchange of perspectives, for what planners may lack in local understanding they make up for in their institutional and historical know-how and vice versa with lay people.


The second challenge is perhaps more contentious and difficult to prescribe a solution for in advance. The challenge is that whilst my general perspective on heritage encompasses plurality and diversity there is not often an even playing field between divergent perspectives. This is especially true where elements of heritage are desired to be preserved due to an historical association with the ascendency of one group over another, or when one group wishes their values of a particular site to remain dominant over all others. These can especially be true for sites that mark Britain’s imperial past, for some these may be nostalgic reminders of triumph over adversity, for others they may mean the domination and colonisation of their ancestry. This is where heritage can become explicitly political, but this challenge should be embraced and not circumvented and obscured. For heritage to play a vitalising role in local communities it needs to be inclusive, open, and democratic. A fundamental outcome of this democratisation of value is that it will sometimes be messy and wrought with argument. I would argue that a life devoid of challenge and argument is a boring life not worth living! If we are to be passionate about heritage we must embrace the contentious and emotional ways people engage with it in decision-making. It is in doing so that we enact a liberal, tolerant, and inclusive society.


The third challenge is how we can ensure that marginal and minority voices are recognised within heritage decisions. Heritage is important in this respect because it can play a legitimating role for values and identities that have been hidden or have been marginalised over the course of national and global history. A great example of the ways in which heritage has opened up to non-traditional voices is through celebrations like Black History Month or Notting Hill Carnival. Whilst these are very well known and obvious examples they have created a space within which the identities that were subject to British history have been able to define themselves in their own terms. As commonwealth migration has become a historical fact rather than an aspect of immediate social relations, the possibility to incorporate identities historically viewed as ‘outside’ British identity have finally come home to roost. This is also notable in the Museum of London, where oral histories of migration and urban unrest, characteristic of the 1960s – 1980s is represented not simply as an ‘other’ history, but central to British history and identity – and represented as such in their permanent exhibition of the Story of London. As already established, heritage holds the potential to be polysemic, in that it can signify a plurality of meanings, in this way it can be as inclusive as we make it – it’s not just about the incorporation of commonwealth migrants from the Caribbean its about East African Asians, Irish migrant labourers, refugees from the 1956 uprising in Hungary, Afghan refugees, and the myriad of other migrants all of whom have their own meanings and values of what is important about their particular story and the ways in which it relates to the fabric of the built environment in which they now dwell. Furthermore, there is an opportunity to continually build upon Britain’s rich tapestry of migration to include all groups and individuals into the heritage paradigm who for whatever reason, intended or out of necessity, find Britain their home.


In this regard, the final challenge also extends upon my concerns raised in the second challenge, which is how do we confront ideas that may counter a liberal, tolerant, and multi-cultural idea of heritage? These are ideas that seek not simply to respect former glory, but to resurrect it as an antidote to what they view as ‘reverse colonisation’. This is a very difficult problem with which to engage, but not a difficult problem to counter. It is about being explicit about the rules of toleration and inclusivity, whilst the values of history may be many and plural, they do not extend as far as a moral relativity. It is through making decisions about what constitutes heritage in an inclusive dialogue that helps sustain these rules and ensures that ideas that value extreme intolerance through jingoism and chauvinism are not valued in the present and therefore play no role in our collective civic future.


I began this piece from the perspective of a sociologist and I would like to end with what heritage does to the sociological imagination itself. For many, scholarly endeavour is a passive activity that takes place outside of the society from which it is manifest. However, through an interest in heritage – in terms of its meanings and practice – it becomes a way to re-socialise scholarly activity and to engage with society in a way that promotes citizenship, inclusivity, a better understanding of the present, and a more nourishing future for all…It is therefore a means by which sociologists can be both scientific and normatively engaged with the wider society.

Radical Thoughts on Co-Design in Heritage Contexts

Until 2000, I would have given little thought to this subject. Beginning work in a national museum prompted me to think critically about how history was presented. I only had the vaguest notion that something was not quite right, mostly a sense that the majority of visitors seemed passive, more interested in surviving their ‘heritage experience’. From 2003, exposure to critical thinking about heritage at the Public History conferences organised by Hilda Kean at Ruskin College pushed me to think more deeply. In the final years of my job, working with a team trying to re-design the whole museum display and interpretation from the ground up brought these early thoughts into sharper focus. The project was cancelled when funds failed to materialize. Two years’ work by design, curatorial and archive staff went down the pan. In recession Britain finance for heritage is vulnerable, even for national institutions. The prospect of this ever being reversed seems doubtful.

Meanwhile, I began exploring what this might mean in relation to projects of a more personal interest. At the International Public History Conference at Ruskin in 2005, I presented a paper entitled ‘Absent Fathers, Present Histories’, which explored the creation of personal archives in the family history context, how these crossed over with public records, and their potential significance to wider cultural and social history research. The published paper floated the idea of family historians, collectively self-organised, using their own family longitudinal studies to explore aspects of popular experience, without the direct intervention and leadership of academics and professionals. In this instance, I suggested the potential of such research to illuminate the ‘absent father’ syndrome during the 20th century in ways that would be beyond the capacity of standard academic research. The concept of ‘radical family history’, as I perhaps mistakenly called it, was born.

What I was proposing had its parallel in the recent phenomenon of local ‘Radical History’ groups – in South London, Bristol, North-East London, Nottingham and, in 2012, both York and Derby. Each of these groups has its own distinctive character, borne out of its particular origins. The South London group developed history walks, exploring forgotten or marginalised aspects of local history. Bristol Radical History group arose from a small group of friends in a left-wing football club who set out to challenge the public history of the city and their project blossomed into probably the most successful example. The North-East London group organises monthly talks that explore aspects of marginalised history from all round the world from a radical perspective, using the skills and knowledge of its own membership. Nottingham seeks to emulate Bristol. Derby developed around the public recognition of local radical WW1 peace activist, Alice Wheeldon. York arose initially to explore the plethora of different radical political, cultural and social movements in the City of the last 50 years – but was then motivated to challenge the official interpretation of York’s history when the Council launched its York 800 jamboree.

Perhaps this socially and politically radical approach sits uneasily with the concept of ‘co-design’ in heritage work. I suspect, though may learn differently, that this involves partnership working on heritage projects between history and heritage professionals on the one hand, and ‘representatives’ of local communities on the other.

In Laurajane Smith’s book , Heritage, Labour and the Working Classes, Paul Schackel explored the debates in Chicago around official commemoration of the Haymarket Massacre of 1886. He described a ‘struggle for an inclusive official memory’. One problem was how to commemorate the civilian casualties and executed ‘martyrs’ at the same time as the police casualties, when there were two quite separate memory cultures behind each. My feeling is that any movement towards ‘an inclusive official memory’ can only sanitise those aspects of history where memory is fiercely contested on political, class, ethnic, gender or other grounds. Alternative, subaltern viewpoints in such a framework are in danger of being co-opted into what Laurajane Smith has dubbed ‘the Authorised Heritage Discourse’ and thereby neutered.

York Alternative History recently commemorated the execution in York of seventeen West Riding Luddites in January 1813. Should there be a permanent memorial, who should decide, and what form should it take? Would it not simply be sucked up into the general ‘heritage offering’ of the city? Would this not be more likely the case if the process surrounding the project was co-designed, given the likely predominance within such discussions of heritage institutions, Council departments and unrepresentative voluntary groups such as the Civic Trust? How strong would be any non-institutionalised voice in this process?

That thought links to a personal project. My wife and I, as an inter-disciplinary team combining artwork and history, have been developing an idea centred on an item of family history, but with wider ramifications. We wish to involve museums and archives in south-west Yorkshire, alongside local history groups, education institutions and the wider community. Such work would require public funding, perhaps from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Unfortunately, we are not heritage professionals and do not live in the community of interest – we are geographical outsiders and our attempts to engage have been, not rebuffed, but ignored completely. We are prompted to ask: what is ‘the community’, who constitutes that community, who can speak for it and how can it be mobilised? This issue surely goes to the heart of any discussion around the logistics of co-design.

Finally, perhaps the deep underlying problem is that we live in a capitalist society, within which the pressure is for all outputs to be commodified and a price placed upon them. How might it be at all possible to engage in public history in a non-commodified way? A problem for institutions, professionals and private individuals alike and a seemingly eternal problem for creative activists.