How should heritage decisions be made?

Testing Research Design

Before we entered our research phase we wanted to test our ideas with other people – our interactions really helped us to see some of the blindspots in our plan, refine our thinking and adjust our approaches.

We tested our research plan through hosting a workshop in Manchester Digital Laboratory in October 2013 and, via an open call, invited others to join us. The workshop was based around a huge piece of paper and we worked with an illustrator to help us visualise heritage decision-making systemically.

We began with the apparently ‘simple’ decision-making process of a building being listed – as you can see in this sketch made in advance of the event.

Then – through a stepped process – we worked together to unpacked this ‘simple’ decision-making process and spun out from there the complexities and issues. The drawing became a shared point of connection as we went off in different directions to carry out our research.

The reactions to our research design from people at the MadLab meeting helped us to deepen and nuance our interests. Two academics, Gareth Hoskins and Susan Ashley, reflected on the workshop via our project blog:

Gareth Hoskins, Geography and Earth Sciences, Aberystwyth University.

Looking back on the workshop last week one of the main things to strike me is whether the heritage system we have right now might be better described as ‘dysfunctional’ rather than ‘deficient’. Notions of blocking points or sticking points used to frame the workshop’s remit tend to carry with them negative connotations and assume that our efforts should be in trying to ‘free up’ or ‘streamline’ heritage decision-making. This makes sense only if you buy into the idea that heritage is inherently good (egalitarian, consensus-driven, democratic) and that more of it would be better. If you hold a more critical view that heritage is a something that reflects and perpetuates powerful interests in all sorts of subtle and not so subtle ways then it would make sense to conceive of sticking points as useful, progressive, even emancipatory.

Susan Ashley, Arts, Northumbria University

The act of making a decision suggests a frame of mind, an outlook, an episteme that emphasizes and values closure. I am forever writing papers with titles like ‘ideas on…’ or ‘examining…’ that offer little closure. This must be maddening for some seeking more scientific conclusions, and certainly the antithesis of the aims of a workshop on decision-making. Which makes me wonder whether we should stress making ‘decisions’ or whether to emphasize building ‘webs’ or ‘ecologies’ (e.g. Capra, 2002)? I know this sounds so idealistic, and I suppose it is. But this scenario might take us away from list-making towards processes of knowledge-building like community mapping, academic research and amateur research. This would emphasize the benefits of ground-up programmes like Heritage Lottery, or consciousness-raising through curricula, or even TV shows like Time Team more so than designations by the Secretary of State and English Heritage.

Helen Graham, Museum and Heritage Studies, University of Leeds

We had a really good debate about this at the time on the blog. Both Gareth and Susan’s comments helped develop the way in which we then started to use ‘blocks’ and ‘sticking points’. Rather than see ‘sticking points’ as repressive, I was reminded of Michel Foucault’s idea that power is productive*. In this light, thinking of something as heritage is itself a sticking point; it can change your orientation towards it. heritage is a process which seeks to say ‘this is important’ but through this threatens to takes the object or practice out of life somehow. In this way, Gareth and Susan helped me see how crucial it was to consciously hold together the paradox of heritage in our research practice – the very processes which enable something to become seen as special have tended to make active engagement in its management a democratic challenge. Susan steers us away from decision-making and towards ‘webs’ and ‘ecologies’ which – along with the systems thinking we used in the MadLab workshop itself – allowed us to diagnose and articulate tactical paths forward; those of Act, Connect, Reflect and Situate we’ve shared in this booklet. In the end, we did find ‘decision-making’ useful because coming to think of something as heritage often does involve a moment of procedure, law, policy, professional management or public political appeal. ‘Decision-making’ also gave a hard edge to other terms often used such as ‘advice’ and consultation’. It also gave space for some completely alternative ways of imagining decision-making as localised and distributed, such as used in Bede’s World or in DIY cultures. However, the crucial shift Gareth and Susan helped us make is that it isn’t that the ‘sticking point’ can be unstuck, but that the democratic impulse of heritage lives through constant living, action, questioning and contesting.

*Michel Foucault (1978) History of Sexuality: Volume 1. London: Pantheon Books: 94.



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