First full day at the Association for Critical Heritage Studies 2016 conference

ACHS2016Luckily for me, as I live in New England, the third Association for Critical Heritage Studies (ACHS) conference is a relatively close drive to Montreal, Canada. I’ve had the privilege of attending the first full day of the conference and wanted to summarize my experience for the benefit of those who could not attend or are curious about the ACHS.

According to the conference organizers, there are 800 attendees from 51 countries, which is quite remarkable considering the recent genesis of ACHS. As I understand, the first conference in Sweden attracted 500 attendees, while the second conference in Australia attracted 300 attendees. I would imagine that the much higher number of attendees in Montreal is due to the proximity of the venue to people who wanted to attend, but I would also attribute it to the growing interest in the field of critical heritage studies.

The morning keynote by Lucie K. Morisset, Canada Research Chair on Urban Heritage at the University of Quebec, was poignant and thought provoking, especially in her description of “heritage is a demon,” because of the difficulty in conceptualizing it and the desire to control its meanings. Here were some of her more salient points:

  • Law: “Legal frameworks don’t fix problems” – in other words, simply forcing people to do something with heritage doesn’t fix the underlying reasons why the law was needed in the first place. Heritage is assumed to be real because “we don’t develop laws for things that don’t exist.”
  • Fragmentation: Heritage is often about differences and not commonalities, and these differences are everywhere and widespread. Heritage is defined by its fragmentation and contestation.
  • Narrative: “Heritage is an act of speech”, which is a way of saying that heritage manifests through narrative. Heritage is a performative speech act, or “perlocutionary”, which describes an attempt to advocate, motivate, and persuade people. “Heritage gets people to do things.”
  • Power: “Heritage is power.” Heritage practice is defined by “some people pretending to know more than others”, which is an allusion to the Authorized Heritage Discourse (AHD) and the control that experts have over the meanings of heritage.
  • Ontology: The “biggest demon” in heritage is that it is not about facts or truth, it’s about many other things, such as “feeling good.” It is a battle for who is right. There is an “ontological rupture between critical heritage studies and heritage.”
  • Solutions to address these issues: Consider heritage as an agent of change; free heritage rather than control its meanings; recognize that understanding heritage requires that we “overcome the demon of truth”; Authenticity needs to be redefined in a way that challenges power.

The difficulty with the individual paper sessions was in choosing which ones to attend as there were many very interesting choices. Here are some ideas from these individual paper sessions that I thought worth mentioning:

  • The actors in heritage consist of elected officials, civil servants, laypeople, investors/developers (economic catalysts), and heritage experts. Of all of these actors, most criticism focuses on heritage experts.
  • To what extent should laypeople be able to influence heritage decisions? (Open ended question.)
  • Volunteers who are involved in heritage civic organizations tend to be older, and outsiders (did not grow up in the community). In these organizations, volunteers who are heritage experts have the most power, even though the majority of volunteers are not in this category.
  • Heritage is inherently political and is therefore controlled by the state.

The evening keynote, by Michael Herzfeld, Professor of the Social Sciences at Harvard University, addressed the artificial dichotomy of tangible and intangible heritage, and its relationship to “tendrils of insubstantial thinking.” Herzfeld was particularly critical of heritage researchers because of their willingness to “be so vague” in defining heritage. Heritage terminology is, in effect, a “smokescreen” that evades the nature of people’s experiences, stories, and connections with the past. As with Morisset, he emphasized the narrative quality of heritage, but went further in equating words with the physical power of “bombs”, in reference to the philosopher J. L. Austin’s observation of the power of language. As such, “folklore is as material as the Parthenon.”

Herzfeld also advocated for a more critical position on being critical: “We must be willing to criticize not just critique” and in doing so, we need to make our efforts more concrete and less vague.

The diversity of people at the conference is impressive, with many perspectives present, although, as is usual with most academic conferences, the continent of Africa is under-represented. Curiously absent, however, especially because of the proximity of Montreal to the United States, are professors who teach in programs with historic preservation majors, although Americans from other academic programs are certainly present. There are only a handful of educators from these kinds of programs at this conference, which is quite telling about the relationship between historic preservation education and critical heritage studies: there’s not much interaction. My personal observation is that this may be due to a combination of a lack of awareness of the ACHS and/or critical heritage studies as a field of study, or a just a lack of interest in the human-centered aspects of heritage conservation. While I find this observation troubling, I think it speaks to the larger issue of the need to build a bridge between historic preservation/built heritage conservation and critical heritage studies.

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