New publication: “Are We ‘Ensnared in the System of Heritage’ Because We Don’t Want to Escape?”

Jeremy C. Wells. (2017). Are We ‘Ensnared in the System of Heritage’ Because We Don’t Want to Escape? Archaeologies: Journal of the World Archaeological Congress. DOI 10.1007/s11759-017-9316-8

This paper explores why heritage practitioners continue to embrace the objective security of positivism, building on Sharon Veale’s (cited in Sullivan 2015:114) observation that we are ‘”ensnared in the system of heritage, rather than in understanding and unravelling the social processes of its making.” Specifically, built heritage conservation/CRM practice is too standardized and motivated primarily by speed, efficiency, and compliance; the field is not innovative or flexible; and heritage/CRM practitioners and scholars do not engage with each other. The field needs to recognize that the regulatory environment is a fundamental barrier in bridging theory and practice and in integrating tangible and intangible approaches. Lastly, understanding heritage requires a transdisciplinary approach that is altogether absent in most aspects of theory and practice. Possible solutions to these issues will be offered, including the idea of reenvisioning the nature of “heritage conservation.’”

Link to online full text.

4 thoughts on “New publication: “Are We ‘Ensnared in the System of Heritage’ Because We Don’t Want to Escape?”

  1. Thomas King

    Ah, Jeremy, how nice it must be to live in academia, able to expound on such topics without ever, ever having to do anything practical about them.

    Look, we live in a world of politics and economics that assigns very little value to stuff like preservation, and gives little or no power to those who are enamored of such stuff. In this environment we preservo-bureaucrats have done — well, some of have tried to do — the best we can, sometimes with useful results, sometimes not. You seem to think that things would be improved if we in the preservation biz would just act more like post-mod critical heritage scholars. I doubt if that would be helpful.

    Like it or not, we have to live in the world we’re in, and maneuver among the political forces that operate there. I invite you, and others of your persuasion, to get real; imagine yourself as, say, chair of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation or head of “cultural resources” in the National Park Service. WHAT WOULD YOU ACTUALLY DO to advance toward the laudable goals you espouse?

    • Jeremy Wells

      Point taken. I think most of us in higher ed are guilty to some degree of idealized, ungrounded thinking, but my hope is that I try to at least limit the amount of time with my head in the clouds, so to speak. Given that the audience of the NR Bulletin is Ph.D. historians, I used language that ought (?) to be understood quite clearly by them. But, at the same time, I likely distanced many people who have no idea what “positivism” is. The need for academics (and professionals) to modify their language to be better received by a specific audience is something that you write very strongly about in your books, and is spot on. CRM practitioners are well known for burying their audience in jargon and making arguments purely from authority and obfuscation. Academics are certainly guilty of this as well.

      Do I know what the ultimate “solution” is to empower members of communities to control the destiny of their own heritage? No. But I don’t think anyone else does either. I do know that lists, like the NR, need to go away as they give a false sense of security in the management of heritage. But we need to be able to ask questions, within our spheres of influence, that hopefully will engage others in defining the problem and exploring ways to facilitate more grass-roots efforts. The “post-mod” explorations are exactly that: ways to try and understand this awful mess that we call reality. The problem is that some of these explorations go so far into relativism that there is no possible solution. Again, I try (I think?) to achieve a kind of a balance between these explorations and pragmatic applications. For instance, in the preservation planning studio that I teach, I do expose my students to these theoretical concepts, but they have to take these ideas and ground them in a very real world experience. This applied teaching requirement and my own practice background from CRM/preservation planning are, in a sense, my anchors to the real world. But, I feel that sometimes it’s OK to go into more theoretical explorations to understand the problems better, or in some cases, to be able to connect to other fields that have never even considered working in CRM/historic preservation.

      The understanding/recognition/treatment of heritage will continually be marginalized and ignored unless all of us in the field can make more effective bridges to regular people, to practitioners, and to academics. Excluding any one group seems counterproductive at best and will alienate others, at worst. (In such a small field, we need a lot of allies!) For instance, I wrote a short essay in Max Page’s book, Bending the Future, that is clearly targeted at everyday people and attempts to understand what is “historic” about places from their perspective. And an upcoming chapter I wrote on my work in Brazil reflects on my experience using community-based participatory research as a way to empower communities to identify their own problems and create their own solutions. In this work, I explicitly stood in the sidelines as a facilitator and did not lead processes and didn’t impose my ideas about what valid knowledge is on the participants. On the other hand, an essay I wrote back in 2007 analyzing international conservation charters is drenched in deconstuctivist philosophy and would likely only appeal to a narrow group of academics. And an essay I just published in the Archaeologies journal looks as heritage conservation from the lens of state control. These are polarized positions, but again, I think to be effective in this strange field of ours, people need to be able to switch perspectives readily to understand as many stakeholders as possible. (And, somehow, in the process, not lose yourself.)

      I do know that the legal frameworks upon which about 75% of the paid work in heritage conservation is done in the US are fundamentally flawed because of problems in the way that administrative law can and cannot be implemented. I think you’ve already hit upon the solution: if a community says that their heritage is important and should be saved, then those with power (e.g., government) should respect their desire. But, this is such a gross oversimplification of reality that it too, is unworkable because some people’s property rights will be imposed upon and not everyone agrees what is and is not “heritage”. Rather than using a model of consensus, which is a mostly a myth, we ought recognize heritage for what is it: conflict. The meanings of heritage are born of and sustained by conflict. Again, referencing your own work, a lot of our solutions should be framed around things like negotiation and conflict management.

      • Thomas King

        Seriously, Jeremy, you think that “the audience for (any) NR Bulletin is PhD historians?” In what universe do you live? In my experience, the vast majority of people who read and interpret NR Bulletins have at most MAs, which are not often in history. And anyone who would design something like an NR Bulletin with historians of ANY kind as the target audience is engaging in navel-gazing. Things like NR Bulletins need to be understandable to the engineers, government executives, and politicians who are (or whose lobbyists and constituents are) affected by such things.

        I suppose this is what set me off about your piece — because I do rather take it personally. When you snipe at Bulletin 38 for taking an etic approach, for heaven’s sake what kind of approach do you think it COULD have taken? We didn’t write it to make tribes and other communities, or academic historians, feel good, we wrote it to influence government executives and other decision-makers, who like it or not are NOT inside the cultures that value traditional cultural places.

        It’s the old issue: do we want to write stuff that makes us feel comfortable and virtuous, or do we want to write stuff that makes a difference? You seem to be promoting the former, and I think that’s sad.

        And by the way, I do not “now” recommend that people not nominate TCPs to the Register; I have NEVER recommended that people nominate TCPs to the Register, except where doing so will (maybe) actually accomplish something, and one had better be pretty damned sure that it WILL accomplish something, because it’s a costly, irritating exercise in bureaucratic nonsense. As it has always been, and since 1971, thanks to Richard Nixon, it’s been unnecessary.

        • Jeremy Wells

          Hi Tom — to clarify, I indicated that historians at the NPS were the intended audience of my comments, which is very different than had I written that the audience of the NPS Brief *was* historians. Two different things. The idea here being that it’s a fair assumption that there will be historians involved in making the edits to the NPS Bulletin, hence the interest in addressing these individuals. I realize that the intended audience of the NPS Bulletin itself is (theoretically) the general public, but again, it will be revised/rewritten by a very different class of individuals. I agree 100% with all the things you are indicating about readability and easy to understand language. Yes, please roundly chastise anyone who would actually place the word “positivism” in the NPS Bulletin.

          By the way, you and I understand that Bulletin 38 was written from an etic perspective, but I doubt that the majority of those who try to use the bulletin in practice approach it this way. I entirely understand the difficulty in trying to adapt something like the NR into a tool that could be used by Native Americans, for instance, so, yes, the only approach you could have used was an etic one. Certainly no personal offense intended as had I been in your shoes, I doubt if I could have done any better, given the circumstances.

          Thanks for the clarification that your stance on nominations has always remained in the position of never recommending them. Sorry for any confusion on my part.

          Let me know if you’d like to continue this discussion offline sometime. I’d like to understand more about your concerns and to see if we can create a middle ground someplace. Again, my perspective on this is that the field is so small, we should be working on ways to bridge divides, if at all possible. And I’m ready to take full responsibility that I’m as guilty as anyone in unintentionally creating these divisions, but I hope I can learn from past errors, so I’m willing to listen and try and understand.

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