Are we “ensnared in the system of heritage” because we don’t want to escape?

EnsnaredRecently, I was reading through the papers from the 2013 Australia ICOMOS Conference in the journal, Historic Environment (vol. 27, no. 2, 2015). A couple of papers really struck my interest, especially the summary of this conference, published as “Does the Practice of Heritage as We Know It Have a Future?” by Sharon Sullivan.

The consistent theme of this summary is that heritage practitioners don’t do a particularly good job at understanding non-Western meanings and concepts. Moreover, according to this narrative, practitioners do not understand the meanings of laypeople in Western contexts either. Part of this disconnect is an overemphasis on physical remains from the past and conceptualizing tangible and intangible heritage as a dichotomy instead of related concepts. As Helen Lardner (cited in Sullivan 2015, p. 113), a member of the Australian Heritage Council, describes, “fixating on the material thing rather than the feelings it arouses” is done because it is “easier to conserve the object than understand the emotions.”

Think about this for a moment: Has historic preservation/built heritage conservation practice taken a kind of short-cut by avoiding people’s emotional connection to place? As social scientists — especially psychologists and phenomenologists — know, understanding place attachment is a messy, time consuming task. Our regulatory environment, which drives the majority of practice, conveniently rejects these emotional meanings, while making grand statements that such conservation activities are in the public good. While this approach made sense in an earlier era of authoritarian, rationalistic planning, today this positivistic approach is a failure on many levels. Surely, we can do better, considering what we’ve learned over the past 50 years about how people interact with, perceive, and value place? Or maybe not.

Indeed, maybe we really don’t want to escape from the objective security of positivism; such a paradigm offers a level of assuredness that post-modern approaches cannot match. Heritage conservation practitioners are, as Sharon Veale (cited in Sullivan 2015, p. 114) describes, “ensnared in the system of heritage, rather than in understanding and unravelling the social processes of its making.” But, by adopting this perspective, heritage conservation practitioners are forced to make an “argument for heritage [that] is largely self-referential” (ibid.). In other words, we do what we do because we have done what we have done before. This kind of tautology is rife in conservation practice, as Muñoz Viñas (2005) explores in depth.

Critical heritage studies, as an emergent field, offers the possibility of changing practice by fully recognizing the limitations of orthodox practice. But, to date, it has largely failed to engage with practitioners. Because built heritage conservation practice is driven by regulatory requirements that short-circuit critical thinking, Paulette Wallace and Kristal Buckley (2015, p. 47) describe practitioners as “disconnected” from laypeople and other professionals and “disassociated from their academic peers.” More specifically, Wallace and Buckley (2015, p. 52) make the following observations of built heritage conservation practice:

  1. The field is too standardized, codified, and motivated toward speed, efficiency, and compliance.
  2. The field needs to be more innovative and flexible; heritage practitioners should have the freedom to improve practice based on their experiences.
  3. Heritage practitioners and scholars need to engage each other to bridge the gap between theory and practice. Critical heritage studies scholars need to engage practitioners in their work and practitioners need to make a greater effort to be aware of the theoretical work in their field.

Nothing that Wallace and Buckley are advocating is new, but what is novel is the way that their three points are concisely integrated. Of note is that they are both practitioners and not academics, which is also unusual, given their perspective.

Part of my work in creating this blog and web site is to address the three points of Wallace and Buckley, among other issues in approaching the historic environment more holistically and engaging the social sciences in heritage conservation practice. Other practitioner-scholars, such as Ned Kaufman, Thomas King, and Jack Elliott, Jr. are making similar calls. But yet, my impression is that we are working as if we are all islands. How do we work more effectively, together, in bridging theory and practice to escape the system of heritage in which we have been ensnared? Here are some of my thoughts.

There should be an increased opportunity for built heritage practitioners, orthodox (fabric-based) academics, and heterodox (meaning-focused) academics to meet and discuss common issues. Conferences are the obvious tool for such collaboration, but they tend to focus only on tangible heritage or intangible heritage and are welcome to only practitioners or academics; I’ve never come across a built heritage conference that mixed all of these elements. What a wonderful and interesting thing that would be.

There needs to be a recognition that the regulatory environment is a fundamental barrier in bridging theory and practice and in integrating tangible and intangible approaches. With this recognition should come an increased focus on ways to address this problem.

Heritage, and especially built heritage, requires a transdisciplinary approach, which obviously requires people to think outside of the bounds of their discipline. Yet, conferences, publications, and research remain highly disciplinary and often cliquish with the same people only working with the same individuals under a common disciplinary umbrella. (I’ve often thought it would be illuminating to map out the relationships between heritage researchers as has been done with the Music Map project. For many of you, it would be easy to predict what this might look like.) Similarly, people in specific disciplines are often not aware of similar work in other disciplines. If you’re an anthropologist, it’s much less likely that you’ll look at literature in architecture, for instance. Similarly, if you’re in museum studies it’s unlikely that you’ll be looking at urban planning literature. In sum, too few people are reaching out across the disciplinary aisle to engage disparate colleagues (and their literature) in order to address the same topic. This leads to the next maxim:

The best and most effective tools of inquiry — regardless of their parent discipline — should lead research questions and practice problems in built heritage conservation. Today, this process is inverted: disciplines dictate the tools that are to be used, which means that potentially innovative and more effective approaches are often ignored because the architect is unaware of approaches in anthropology and the materials scientist is unaware of approaches in psychology, among other possibilities.

I have great hope in a future that could bridge the theory and practice divide in built heritage or else I wouldn’t have bothered to create this web site or this blog. But for those of you reading this post, I am calling on you to take uncomfortable steps into unfamiliar disciplinary territory, if you’ve not already. The risk of occasional failures is well worth the potential for better linking cultural heritage to human flourishing.

Works cited:

Muñoz Viñas, S. (2005). Contemporary theory of conservation. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

Sullivan, Sharon. (2015). Does the practice of heritage as we know it have a future? Historic Environment, 27(2): 110-117.

Wallace, Paulette and Kristal Buckley. (2015). Imagining a new future for cultural landscapes. Historic Environment, 27(2): 42-56.

7 thoughts on “Are we “ensnared in the system of heritage” because we don’t want to escape?

  1. Tom King

    Thanks for this post, Jeremy. Good to learn about these works. I wish, though, that thinkers on this subject, rather than just saying (correctly, I think) that the regulatory system sucks, could give some thought to how it might be made better. Or should we just not have a regulatory system? Let heritage stand or fall on — er — well, on what? Its own merits that it is somehow going to assert and defend? Its economic value to those with the power to save or destroy? Its good looks and charm?

    It seems to me that we do need regulatory systems, and they do need reform. It also seems to me that it ought not to be too hard to conceptualize HOW they should be reformed. We should throw out all our precious registers and lists and schedules, and simply ask ourselves, every time a decision has to be made that will affect the environment, “does anyone regard this environment as their valued heritage?” If so, we should work with those who value it to avoid, minimize, or otherwise mitigate the damage.

    But I’ve said this many times before, and folks nod and stroke beards and say “hmm, hmm,” and then go back to debating schedules and authenticity and other more comfortable topics.

    • Jeremy Wells

      I think the problem you’ve identified — people endlessly criticizing the system without offering solutions — is related to the disciplinary silos I’ve mentioned. A number of people who, like me, are interested in bridging theory into practice run into issues with peer reviewers who don’t “get it”. In other words, a peer reviewer may be well-versed in orthodox practice (e.g., an architectural historian or traditionally-trained preservationist) or in the social sciences (e.g., an anthropologist), but never both. If you put a solution in front of this disparate pair, the orthodox reviewer will reject your problem statement (usually because he/she is not aware of critical heritage studies scholarship) and the social scientist will fail to understand the need to be pragmatic in the application of methods, instead focusing on the minutiae of internal and external research validity.

      The problem is magnified when you put such a solution in front of peer reviews who might be from law, planning, and the social sciences. No one agrees with each other and your manuscript is delayed for years while you try to address conflicting advice and engage in a fruitless endeavor of trying to please everyone. (This is a situation where a strong journal editor can be very helpful, but in my experience most editors would rather let their reviewers do all the work.) In sum, we have an academic environment that is not welcoming to transdisciplinary solutions at best and outright hostile to them at worst. And, on the practitioner side of the fence, there are few outlets to probe solutions in depth. In addition, there is often the attitude from practitioners that “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” (in relation to the regulatory environment). Of course, this perspective arises from the fact that many practitioners don’t follow current scholarship in heritage studies. While it’s easy to “blame” the practitioners, we academics are guilty of hiding our research behind lots of paywalls and overly erudite language, so how can we expect everyone to “get it”? It’s a rather large mess, no?

      • Tom King

        Agreed, but another issue is that the people running the regulatory system don’t read the peer reviewed literature, or much of anything else other than “official” promulgations, so they’re not even aware of the issues. And a lot of academics, conversely, can’t be bothered to understand the intricacies of the regulatory system. So the institutions crank out students who are unprepared to deal with a regulatory environment that’s about 50 years out of date but whose handlers are VERY jealous of their prerogatives. And practice — at least within the regulatory system that, like it or not, is responsible for most of the jobs and funding — drifts farther and farther from thinking.

  2. Jack Elliott


    I would suggest that much of the problem can be understood in part via the sociology of knowledge which posits a dialectical relationship between person and society. That is all thought begins with the individual person which when once accepted within the social milieu becomes institutionalized with ambivalent results, in which society (certainly including bureaucracies) serves to propagate certain meanings while suppressing others. According to this, definitions of significance are initially—however accurately or erroneously—composed, and once codified in law or regulations then provide the foundations for bureaucratic operations. In so doing the meanings upon which the bureaucracy is based are promoted while challenges are excluded if not suppressed. Much of the motivation to exclude challenges comes from what I see as a xenophobia on the bureaucratic side, a fear of unseemly behavior that might call its raison d’etre into question. This fear would not likely be admitted though, not when they can simply respond that such considerations lie outside their purview so they need not be addressed.

    The problem derives to a large degree from the people who thrive best in the bureaucratic milieu and who tend to move to the top into places of control. These are best at maintaining the bureaucratic machinery which means maintaining financial flows and political support. The assertion that key definitions are flawed can be seen by them only as a threat to the status quo. If the flaws were particularly blatant and involving matters immediately discernible, then efforts for change could be successful. However, in the matter of significance/meaning we’re talking about something that requires thought, and the folks likely to raise these questions are so far and few in between that they can easily be controlled.

    And of course the matters at hand are philosophical and require some thought, not only on the part of the practitioner, but also on the part of the public for whom there should presumably be some inner resonance to justify all this government activity as suggested by phrases often loosely bandied about such as “historic properties tell us who we are, where we come from, and where we’re going.” Of course the problem arises from the modern mindset that wants to see all reality outside us as being detached and separate (a la Descartes) and the study of reality is based on the search for causal relationships between the objects (in this regard Walker Percy’s NEH Jefferson lecture “The San Andreas Fault of the Modern Mind” is helpful). Instead what is needed is a hermeneutic approach that looks to identify objects within their phenomenological context, which is to say, what meanings (in terms of truth, beauty, goodness, etc.) are they likely to express?

    You write that your “impression is that we are working as if we are all islands.” This is my impression too, although I don’t think that it derives from hermetic tendencies inherent in more thoughtful practitioners. Instead, at least from my experience, it derives from an inability to communicate with an audience not prone to philosophical musings and instead inclined to “just the facts” (I once gave a paper of a philosophical bent and was afterward accosted by a fellow who demanded “Where are the facts, sir?! Where are the facts?!”) or being disallowed to speak to fellow practitioners through lack of interest or bureaucratic manipulation.

    I’m certainly in agreement that “[t]here should be an increased opportunity. . . to meet and discuss common issues,” and this is why I’ll be coming to Raleigh in May albeit on a shoe-string budget. ‘tis a pity though that one has to travel seven or eight hundred miles just to engage in a discussion. This situation is in itself a leading indicator of the overall climate of thought, such that it is.


  3. Staffan Peterson

    A direct way to bridge the gap between theory and practice is increased civic engagement by academics. For example, scholars are seldom heard from in policy and decision making, despite gov. reaching out during public comment periods, in policy development processes, Sec. 106 consultations, etc. Here’s just one case where your theoretical insights could have a direct impact on an important heritage resources policy, right now:

    Another way for gov. and academia to speak directly to one another is for univs. to orient their graduate students to careers in government, rather than to increasingly rare teaching careers. It may come as a surprise that agencies eagerly welcome graduates and the fresh training and theoretical insights they can bring, because agencies themselves recognize the need. Other disciplines have been working closely to place grads in agencies for a long time, e.g. science, engineering, law, and many others. Humanities not so much. Changing the gov. from within is a real thing, as those who got us where we are have demonstrated. Sure, much of civic work is unsexy, unacknowledged, and at times downright boring, but it nevertheless can be very fulfilling and lead to a more enlightened consideration of heritage issues.

    • Thanks for the reminder, Staffan. I hope many will comment — note the April 4 deadline.

      And your broader point is well taken, too. Here’s one very specific suggestion for academics who might be interested in equipping their students for work outside academe: rather than spending your class time preparing nominations to lists like the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, look around and find a project that’s undergoing environmental review right now — a highway, a housing scheme, whatever — and have your students analyze its likely impacts on cultural heritage. Have them share their analysis with decision makers. The project review period probably won’t fall within a given semester or academic year, so you and your students may not be able to engage in the inevitable struggle to get your/their views attended to, but at least this exercise will give your students some idea of how “historic preservation” interacts with the outside world.

      • Staffan Peterson

        Tom – Great point. I used that very approach when I taught CRM, with good results. I reviewed many syllabi when developing my course and quickly realized that almost all CRM courses and CRM master’s programs I looked at were led by academics (archaeologists generally) who focused on the resource and not the practice, i.e. the “system of heritage”. MA programs should minimally require a lengthy practicum in a gov agency, consultancy, advocacy office, etc., and seek adjunct faculty with expertise in those areas of practice.

Leave a Reply