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.


Ideals and awkwardness: the form of the final decision

I hate getting consent forms signed. It’s something I’ve had to do a lot, whether for oral history projects, co-production projects in museums or as part of research projects. It’s awkward to say the least. I hand over the form and then there is no option but to kind of hover while the person I’ve worked with for months bends over the paper and signs it. Signing my life away, semi-joked one signee, as I hovered.

‘Do better, easier-to-read forms’, you say – thanks, yes, I have tried this. ‘Build better more transparent understandings before you get to the form signing bit’, you say – good idea and yes, I’ve tried that too. ‘Draw up the form together’ – yeap, done that too. That moment is still awkward.

It’s an awkward moment, as I’ve written elsewhere (Graham 2012a, 2012b) and with others (Graham, Mason and Nayling 2012), because all those small interactions which build relationships – all those moments of laughter and joking, the moving moments, the moments of misunderstandings or disagreements which have since been worked through – get somehow flattened out into a series of transactions, agreements over use and a signature.

But I’m pretty sure no matter how great the form, no matter how brilliantly negotiated the participation process and no matter how skillful the hoverer, that awkwardness is part of this moment. To focus on these improvements of form and process are important and must be understood in terms of ethics (as I’ll be discussing with Alex Henry and Aileen Strachan today at the Tackling Ethical Challenges Conference in Durham, see also Banks et al. 2012; Banks et al. 2014). But this awkwardness comes from something bigger. If it didn’t, you wouldn’t need the form. In fact, it’s politics which floods the scene.

An oral history or a digital story is a very personal thing. Yet the very reason it has been recorded is for public record and use. It is for use now. It is also, if accessioned into a collection, for use in perpetuity. As a result suddenly up pop many things which exceed me-the-form-carrier and you-the-signee. Between us suddenly appear (like a pop up book or the introductory credits to Game of Thrones) the museum, funders, indefinable others who might use or edit the recording; everyone now and everyone in the future.

And this is the big, tricky issue of ‘how should decisions about heritage be made?’ from my perspective. Heritage is personal and it’s public. It is owned by specific people and places. But its very transformation into ‘heritage’ has some kind of wider, public dimension. Some have noted this and have strongly argued that people’s memories, objects or practices and decision-making should just be theirs; they should be ‘accorded the right to decide’ (Waterton and Smith 2010 p. 11). Yet it is these same people who equally robustly point out how exclusionary public institutions are. Could it be that for ‘heritage’ to be diverse and to be inclusive, this shift ‘into the public’ has to happen? Is part of this a necessary recognition of heritage as only existing as it does because of public and civic purposes? Is this sense of a bigger purpose, beyond yourself and even your rights (Graham 2012b), necessary to make heritage ethically viable?

Perhaps heritage has no simply source of legitimacy, in other words. I hoover awkwardly because I personally can’t make it all alright. The form being signed is not just between me and you. I carry the form to you on behalf of yet-unimaginable others (everyone now, everyone in the future). And you sign it, maybe, possibly, recognizing a purpose bigger and beyond yourself (history, culture, humanity, perpetuity). This is different to research ethics, it is as if the act of signing over, of accessioning or depositing is a specific form of representational politics – a form of politics which seeks ideals of clarity and transparency and yet, and because of the constant limits of these ideals, feels always, personally emotionally fraught.

Flowing from this are questions I’ll be taking to our first ‘How should decisions be made?’ workshop in March; questions of the effect multiple and often imagined sources of legitimacy. Can I pay attention to how this awkwardness feels – what this feeling tells me about the dangers of appropriation, ownership and loss – and the demands of publiciness at the same time? More particularly how might an interpersonal ethics and politics (of association, of self-organization, of the horizontal) relate to a deliberately public politics of heritage? Trying to think both together is all very, but helpfully, awkward.