How should heritage decisions be made?

Key ideas

The following four ideas are the distilled version of our collective thinking – we see these ideas as derived from both the social learning approaches of the project (we learnt constantly by talking with each other) and the experimental action undertaken. You could think of them as forms of ‘know how’.

Each idea expresses practical ways of operating within complex systems – through the power of ‘acting’, ‘connecting’ and trying to ‘situate’ yourself and your work within wider systemic connections and disconnections. We use the idea of ‘reflect’ to draw attention to how important it is to stop and think – but also, and this was the big benefit of the research project itself, to see your work in relationship to others and learn through conversation and dialogue.

Act: Make change from where you are

Through the idea of ‘act’, we wanted to challenge the way ‘heritage’ can be defined by professionals ‘on behalf of’ the public, and then managed ‘for everyone’ and ‘for future generations’. This is dangerous because it is as if the needs of the unknown future are privileged over those of the known present. Because of this ‘heritage’ can often seem to be someone else’s responsibility or, if you do want to take responsibility, it can seem as though you need to wait for people in decision-making positions to initiate, to validate or to give permission.

Danny Callaghan, The Potteries Tile Trail

Action not words. Individuals and small groups of people can and do make a difference – sometimes a highly significant one. You really don’t need permission to act in most situations. Frankly, if something matters to me I do something (usually practical) about it. Creativity and lateral thinking are powerful weapons in your battle. Your energy and passion are highly infectious – your actions may be socially contagious. You too can lead heritage decision-making in your area.

Connect: Cross boundaries and collaborate

Here we wanted to encourage people to make connections with others who share your interests and to develop networks across institutional boundaries. All as a way of humanizing decision makers and getting beyond a divisive ‘them’ and ‘us’ mentality.

Tim Boon, Science Museum

I had a slow ‘lightbulb moment’ in the co-collecting project. In Oramics to Electronica, the previous collaborative electronic music project, I had stayed on the museum side of the museum-participant divide. There mine had been a role something like MC. In the co-collecting project by contrast I became much more of an equal in the group. Sure, I was still ‘the man from the Museum’, but the alchemy of the process enabled me to become co-music geek with the others. By the time John, Dave and Martin offered to organise the synth bingo session, a public event we divised, it really was, I think, a participation of people with equal input and status. The implications for curatorship could be profound.

Reflect: See your work through other people’s eyes

One of the most powerful outcomes of our research project – and its collaborative design – was the chance for us to reflect on our own work and become more self-conscious about our approaches and choices. This was made possible through individual conversations between team members and the powerful effect of learning from each other – and now carrying each other’s voice in our heads.

Martin Bashforth, radical family historian and York’s Alternative History

Diversity was present in the Heritage Decisions group itself, opening up the potential for greater collective wisdom. After the first workshop in Jarrow, the event which for me most captured this quality was the workshop in Manchester, where we invited in an equal number and equally diverse range of ‘critical others’ to reflect and comment on our work up to that point. I continue to absorb and reflect on the intellectual impact of that workshop. Apart from that, the deepest influence has come from one-to-one discussions with team members, each of whom has helped me appreciate different viewpoints and perspectives in ways I could never have expected.

Situate: Understand your work in context

We used ‘thinking systemically’ as a research methodology. We also found this technique useful for reflecting on our own practice and activism and for planning action and connection. Basically, if you can see how formal structures and informal networks fit together, then you can start to notice key people and key levers for increasing participation in decision making.

John Lawson, Storyteller, Loftus, Kathy Cremin, Hive and Mike Benson, Bede’s World

We believe that folk engage with heritage everyday probably, in truth, in spite of, and not because of, heritage professionals. If we use the metaphor of heritage as a river that flows everyday then one choice is to contain the river and constrain its possibilities and box off opportunities. However, for us, it is the ecology that sustains the river, which is critical. The more streams that feed into the river, big or small – all carrying stories all playing their part in making the river flow – the better. Then the river, and its ecosystem flourishes and begins to sustain the places and spaces through which it flows.

© Copyright Leeds 2017