Heritage is about what we value: places, buildings, objects, memories, cultures, skills or ways of life. So why can it be so hard to get actively involved in heritage decision-making?
Heritage becomes defined when decisions are made: what to preserve, what to show, what to think of as worth celebrating and sharing. In our research project we explored how such decisions could be opened up to democratic participation.
A Participatory Research Project
The ‘How should decisions about heritage be made?’ project formally began when fourteen of us gathered at Bede’s World in Jarrow in March 2013. We were brought together by an innovative pilot scheme developed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities programme. The Connected Communities ‘Co-design and Co-creation Development Awards’ scheme sought not only to enable collaborative research between researchers, policy makers, practitioners and community groups but to actively enable the collaborative development of a research agenda, from its earliest stages.
While we all had in common a shared interest in heritage and decision-making, the team was formed deliberately to draw into dialogue people from different backgrounds, positions and approaches. As you will see by how we describe ourselves, we are all situated quite differently in relationship to heritage and its decision-making processes. Some of us are leaders and shapers of policy, organisations or thinking; others of us are practitioners hoping to do good work within structures we don’t control; others of us are university-based researchers seeking to find connections between thinking and doing; some of us are activists for our own histories and heritage. Many of us fall into more than one of these categories. The aim was to use our collective experiences, perspectives and positions to create a research project which might explore how to increase participation in heritage decision-making.
The word ‘participation’ is everywhere in museums and heritage. Shifts in legislation, such as the Localism Act (2011), are just formal articulations of longer trends towards seeing individual people and groups – once imagined as an undifferentiated ‘the public’ – as active players in shaping their culture and places.
While the word ‘participation’ may often be evoked, there are number of specific challenges we’ve sought to engage through our research:
• What participation is: The meaning of ‘participation’ is often opaque and is often used far too loosely to describe attendance at events, volunteering or consultation – we wanted to tie participation to the sharper and more specific idea of ‘decision-making’.
• Where participation happens: Participation is too often limited to a range of established practices (such as small display interventions) and to silos (for example, museum learning teams) – we wanted to think about participation systemically within whole organisations and places.
• How participation feels: ‘Participation’ is often seen as hard, painful and characterized by conflict, owing to the inequalities and exclusions it seeks to breach – we wanted to draw out the human and social ways in which we can all feel more able to influence things that matter to us.
• The politics of participation: Although celebrated in some quarters, ‘participation’ remains politically contested. Questions often asked are: Can direct public engagement, with decision-making, deal with complex information? Can participation be scaled to involve more than the ‘usual suspects’? – we have sought to address criticisms of participation through articulating more fully our practices and through modelling alternatives.
Political questions, practical pathways
In this project we’ve tried to tread useful and practical pathways through these persistent challenges – this booklet shares the collective know-how of the team. We worked together in two distinctive ways. Some of the insights shared in this booklet are derived from reflecting on innovative work already undertaken by practitioners in the research team, other insights have been generated by the research experiments conducted throughout the project. Our purpose is to show how participation in heritage decision-making can be increased from wherever you work or live and whatever your position – professional, researcher or someone who cares about your own culture and place.
Our key ideas are:
- Act: Make change from where you are
- Connect: Cross boundaries and collaborate
- Reflect: See your work through other people’s eyes
- Situate: Understand your work in context
These approaches are not meant to be seen in a linear way, nor as a simple cycle. They are more akin to different modes of being that could to be taken up as and when needed: sometimes you can’t see enough to situate your work without acting and seeing which walls you run into and sometimes you can’t connect without seeing your work another person’s eyes first.
In writing our end of project booklet and developing this website we’ve had an imagined reader in mind – you. You probably already care about participation in heritage and try lots of different things to make it happen. So this booklet is less about us disseminating research or telling you what we found. It is more an invitation to a conversation – so we can share what we’ve learnt in ways which might help you reflect on your own work. But we also offer it as an invitation to dialogue, in the hope that we can ultimately also learn from you as we develop these ideas in our own work and in future projects.