Are Heritage Conservation Practitioners Just Objects to Critique?

TheThinkerThe need for respect and inclusivity in critical heritage studies

In 2012, the Association of Critical Heritage Studies (ACHS) was formed at an inaugural meeting on the subject at the University of Gothenburg. For the first time, researchers in heritage studies came together under the same roof to discuss the future of this field. According to an editorial in the International Journal of Heritage Studies by Laurajane Smith, over 500 people attended, which is rather impressive. Since then, ACHS has met in 2014 and is now planning a meeting in Montreal for 2016.

The rise of ACHS is indicative of the growing interest in a more democratic view of what heritage — of all forms — is and how it should be treated. In many ways, it is a validation of the ideas that David Lowenthal documented in his seminal book, The Past is a Foreign Country (1985). It is a welcome and needed addition to the field of heritage conservation. On the other hand, it appears that for the ACHS, heritage conservation practitioners have a rather narrow, marginalized role to play in the work of this organization.

The manifesto

In the 2012 meeting of the ACHS, Gary Campbell and Laurajane Smith penned a “manifesto” for the nascent organization and invited others to respond. [November 5, 2015 update: the ACHS just updated their web site and I corrected the link pointing to the manifesto; curiously, any indication of the authorship of the manifesto has now been removed and there is no mention of Gary Campbell or Laurajane Smith. The text of the manifesto appears to be unchanged.] I recently re-read this manifesto and would like to take them up on the offer. Their manifesto is in blue and my comments are in regular text.

Association of Critical Heritage Studies Manifesto (by Gary Campbell & Laurajane Smith)

This is a preliminary manifesto – a provocation – presaging the creation of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies and its initial conference at the University of Gothenburg in 2012. We want to challenge you to respond to this document, and question the received wisdom of what heritage is, energise heritage studies by drawing on wider intellectual sources, vigorously question the conservative cultural and economic power relations that outdated understandings of heritage seem to underpin and invite the active participation of people and communities who to date have been marginalised in the creation and management of ‘heritage’.

So far, this sounds like a great start — just because we’ve doing things the same way in built heritage conservation for many decades doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be questioning what we do in order to be more democratic and inclusive. But what is the implied dark force that is perpetuating static ideas and marginalized meanings? Why is it not mentioned specifically?

Above all, we want you to critically engage with the proposition that heritage studies needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, which requires the ‘ruthless criticism of everything existing’.

These are strong words from Marx, which if I interpret correctly, means that the orthodox values used in heritage conservation could ultimately be destroyed and entirely rebuilt. But why is such “ruthless criticism” needed, especially in light of the possibility that some existing values/systems/ideas might be compatible with this inclusive vision of heritage? Could this be an overreaction? Keeping in mind that people and not abstract entities have values, how should the people who hold these orthodox values be treated — with respect or contempt or perhaps they should simply be ignored? Moreover, who are the people that hold these values that must therefore be destroyed? What happens to them?

Heritage is, as much as anything, a political act and we need to ask serious questions about the power relations that ‘heritage’ has all too often been invoked to sustain. Nationalism, imperialism, colonialism, cultural elitism, Western triumphalism, social exclusion based on class and ethnicity, and the fetishising of expert knowledge have all exerted strong influences on how heritage is used, defined and managed.

This is a good summary of a long tradition in heritage studies literature describing heritage as a political tool. Those who control the meanings of heritage have power. There is probably no greater example of this than the brutality that ISIS has unleashed on Middle Eastern antiquities. The next sentence, however, brings back the theme of the dark entity, hanging in the background of these statements. Who or what is “fetishing expert knowledge”? Who is engaging in “social exclusion”? Who are the missing actors?

We argue that a truly critical heritage studies will ask many uncomfortable questions of traditional ways of thinking about and doing heritage, and that the interests of the marginalised and excluded will be brought to the forefront when posing these questions.

Indeed, you often know when you encounter “truth” when it is accompanied by discomfort because it implies that change is needed. Difficult questions are often the very ones that most need to be asked. But, again, what dark force is “marginalizing” and “excluding” people?

The study of heritage has historically been dominated by Western, predominantly European, experts in archaeology, history, architecture and art history.

Absolutely. Not only is this statement quite true, but many heritage conservation programs in higher education perpetuate this value system for movable and immovable heritage. One could argue that students’ critical thinking skills are short-circuited when a professor provides them with a doctrine which implies all the questions have already been answered.

Though there have been progressive currents in these disciplines they sustain a limited idea of what heritage is and how it should be studied and managed.

Especially in built heritage, social science research methods — the very methods most suitable for understanding people’s relationship with their heritage — are not used, taught, or considered. The previously mentioned dominant disciplines in heritage conservation — (public) history, architecture, and art history — are also not particularly known for their strengths in using empirical evidence for contemporary people/place relationships or using social science research methods.

The old way of looking at heritage – the Authorised Heritage Discourse – privileges old, grand, prestigious, expert approved sites, buildings and artefacts that sustain Western narratives of nation, class and science.

Laurajane Smith first introduced the AHD in her book, Uses of Heritage (2006). It was remarkable for encapsulating how heritage experts — e.g., historic preservationists, preservation architects, historical interpreters, preservation/conservation planners — “sideline” the values of everyday people and, instead, reinforce their own professionally-taught value system, which is often positivistic and incapable of accommodating sociocultural values. Now that the AHD is mentioned, could this “dark force” be the very experts described by the AHD who are the heritage professionals that are paid to conserve the historic environment? Are these individuals the target of the “ruthless criticism” mentioned earlier?

There is now enough sustained dissatisfaction with this way of thinking about heritage that its critics can feel confident in coming together to form an international organisation to promote a new way of thinking about and doing heritage – the Association of Critical Heritage Studies.

In doing so, the conferences and the association can build on and promote existing critical innovations and interventions in heritage.

Generally speaking, the ACHS is a very welcome development and it is good to see these questions being answered under a larger umbrella that helps to bring people from different disciplines together.

What does this require?

  • An opening up to a wider range of intellectual traditions. The social sciences – sociology, anthropology, political science amongst others – need to be drawn on to provide theoretical insights and techniques to study ‘heritage’.

Yes, this is the crux of my argument on this web site — that the social sciences should be a core component of research and practice in the historic environment. If we assume that heritage conservation should benefit people then we ought to understand how heritage benefits people!

  • Accordingly to explore new methods of enquiry that challenge the established conventions of positivism and quantitative analysis by including and encouraging the collection of ‘data’ from a wider range of sources in novel and imaginative ways,

Certainly there needs to be more qualitative research into people/place questions because of its focus on understanding. But who is responsible for promulgating “the established conventions of positivism and quantitative analysis”? Is this unspoken force the heritage conservation practitioner?

  • The integration of heritage and museum studies with studies of memory, public history, community, tourism, planning and development.

Today, many museums — especially historic house museums — are slowly dying for lack of attention and visitation. The relevancy of museums to a dynamic cultural life of a community is an essential question. Just as with built heritage conservation, museums could better serve the public by understanding the sociocultural values associated with these places, why people would want to visit them, and how they can become part of a community’s life. We increasingly have quantitative data from heritage tourism (e.g., dollars spent), but lack much understanding on the relationship people have to museums.

  • The development of international multidisciplinary networks and dialogues to work towards the development of collaborative research and policy projects.

Clearly, the creation of the ACHS is a key component to helping achieve this goal and is most welcome. It would be useful to see ACHS become involved in policy organizations, such as UNESCO and ICOMOS, to better effect this goal.

  • Democratising heritage by consciously rejecting elite cultural narratives and embracing the heritage insights of people, communities and cultures that have traditionally been marginalised in formulating heritage policy.

The dark force arises yet again. Who is promulgating the “elite cultural narratives”? Heritage conservation practitioners?

  • Making critical heritage studies truly international through the synergy of taking seriously diverse non-Western cultural heritage traditions.

Indeed, this is an essential task in an increasingly global society that is slowly erasing cultural differences and reinforcing dominant, Western traditions.

  • Increasing dialogue and debate between researchers, practitioners and communities.

Now, for the first time, practitioners are mentioned! At least they are acknowledged, as their actions are a constant, unspoken thread throughout the manifesto.

  • The creation of new international heritage networks that draw on the emerging and eclectic critique of heritage that has given rise to Critical Heritage Studies.

Again, the creation of the ACHS is a welcome event that ought to help catalyze improvements in how we understand (and practice?) heritage conservation.

Where to go from here

In summary, while I think that the manifesto identifies many needed areas of focus, its almost complete lack of recognizing the role of the heritage practitioner (e.g., paid professionals) in perpetuating a system that it wishes to “ruthlessly criticize” is a significant problem. At a minimum, it is disrespectful to practitioners on many levels — by treating them as mere objects of study — and implying that they are the problem with the system. I find this omission of a class of individuals quite remarkable given the ideas behind the manifesto of respect for more inclusive forms of knowledge and democratization of the heritage sector.

Simply put, the manifesto ought to recognize the role of practitioners in heritage conservation along with how they can be involved in helping improve the system. Critical heritage studies is an applied field that should involve a bridged approach between theory and practice. As I see it, this manifesto pretty much ignores the practitioner and over-emphasizes theory. Is ACHS only concerned with theory? Moreover, what’s the point of critiquing everything that’s wrong with orthodox heritage conservation without a desire to fix the system? Such an improvement demands the participation of the very experts that this manifesto maligns. The manifesto ought to embrace experts as part of the solution rather than as an implied problem that somehow will go away on its own. As it is now, my concern is if the ACHS will deepen the existing theory/practice divide in heritage conservation rather than help to erase it.

To borrow a phrase from one of the authors of the manifesto, as I see it, the “elephant in the room” is the regulatory environment. Many heritage conservation professionals would like to see their practice be more inclusive of a people-centered approach, but existing laws, statutes, and rules make this impossible, if not illegal. Clearly, the manifesto needs to address the regulatory environment in some way and also reach out to legal scholars, such as people from the new legal realism movement.

As a last note of hope, I think the people-oriented focus of critical heritage studies researchers has great promise for addressing the question of the exclusivity of heritage practitioners in implementing an improved way to mange our heritage. But, a first step is to recognize the non-inclusive stance that the ACHS appears to be making through this manifesto.


3 thoughts on “Are Heritage Conservation Practitioners Just Objects to Critique?”

  1. Great to see this being debated, and hopefully you will be at Montreal to continue the discussion. As one of the authors of the Manifesto I suppose I am in a good position to reply…

    The Manifesto was/is a ‘provocation’! By using the term ‘ruthless criticism’ I echo Marx’s critical spirit ( “If we have no business with the construction of the future or with organizing it for all time, there can still be no doubt about the task confronting us at present: the ruthless criticism of the existing order, ruthless in that it will shrink neither from its own discoveries, nor from conflict with the powers that be.” Letter to Ruge). Stirring stuff.

    The ‘dark forces’…? The Illuminati perhaps? No, not really, but the inertia of some forms of expert knowledge and the institutional gravity of national and international agencies is hardly a state secret (yes, I am talking about you ICOMOS, and you too UNESCO…and is that you English Heritage and the National Trusts in the corner…).

    The manifesto does mention practitioners, and indeed some of the angels of its better nature actually come out of progressive practice, not just academia. The thing of it is though to challenge traditional practice with the,insights drawn from these progressive innovations, and, in provocative terms, confront practice with a vigorously emerging academic critique.

    Two observations.

    First up, if you (or anyone really) don’t think that your practice is implicated in the critique of traditional practice, as you are doing something new and interesting (and you seem to be), then there is no need to be defensive, as you are pissing out of the tent, not in to it!

    Second, the response from practitioners the world over to the Manifesto and the ACHS conferences has been very positive. I know this as the buggers keep turning up to the conferences! But…let’s face it…for every Neil Silberman there are x number of the un-reconstructed. The latter don’t like the Manifesto as it ‘disrespects’ them. Tough.

    The Manifesto doesn’t have hidden depths (hidden shallows perhaps?!) as the objects of its critique are not an obscure sub-text. It is an invitation to join a conversation which is not predicated on the sensibilities of ‘the establishment’ – and as such ‘practitioners’ of all stripes are not just welcome but an essential audience of the Manifesto and the ACHS.

    1. Gary,

      Thank you for your response to my post, which is very much appreciated. While I did take a bit of a tongue and cheek approach to my critique of the manifesto, I do stand by the assertion that practice and practitioners need to be front and center in the manifesto as well as the activities of ACHS. And, yes, I will be at the conference in Montreal — I am very much looking forward to it!

  2. Pingback: The rest of the Association for Critical Heritage Studies 2016 conference | Conserving the Human Environment

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