Recently, 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:
- The field is too standardized, codified, and motivated toward speed, efficiency, and compliance.
- The field needs to be more innovative and flexible; heritage practitioners should have the freedom to improve practice based on their experiences.
- 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.
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.