Sunday, 6 November 2016

Heritage Theory and Practice Conference Summary, 5th November 2016

The Heritage Theory and Practice Conference was a one day event at Leeds City Hall, hosted by Leeds Beckett and Northumbria Universities. It focused on the practical applications of heritage theory (as the name suggests). I attended in my professional capacity; as a largely academic conference I hoped that there would be some commercial input, and that the practice element would contain elements that archaeologists and heritage practitioners at large could take away from the conference. As it was the first time this conference had been run, there was a wide variety of papers, focusing on a number of areas of theory and practices within the heritage sector.

Dr Bernadette Lynch provided the excellent keynote speech, reflecting on her time in Canadian institutions, opening her eyes to how different cultures perceive museum practices in positive and negative ways, but also how museums can be proactive in understanding different cultures. Sounds easy, but the reality of some of the issues museums face was demonstrated by her work as director of the Manchester Museum, where minority ethnic groups were openly invited to have their say on how museums work for them, which had some surprising results, particularly if you see museums as part of a "power-charged set of exchanges", which often manifest as political and social exchanges. She concluded that museums should be used as spaces for "friendly enemies", where you can have conflicting opinions and debate in a safe space, and criticising Scottish museums for not exploring Scottish-ness during the 2014 referendum.

The first session was titled Establishing Heritage, which had papers on the intangible heritage of women during the Upper Clyde Shipyards strikes in Glasgow (by Tara Beale), the Church Heritage Record (CHR) (by Rob Piggott), and the influence of heritage studies on designation practice for listed buildings and scheduled monuments (by Claire Price). This session was the one I was professionally most interested in as understanding the forces at work in defining our HERs allows you to think about what could be missed out- what about feminist heritage, for example? Often the HERs and the CHR (which both feeds into and uses the HERs but is used by the Church of England and the Church of Wales, some 16,000 entries to date) is biased towards the architectural records, rather the social significance of the entry; a hangover from when the first legislation for scheduled monuments was made in 1882 (The Ancient Monuments Act). There was also some discussion on to what extent the bureaucracy involved in church heritage records are dictated by the legality given to it by being a "servant of the state" (i.e. Historic England's position as a part of government).

The second session Participatory Approaches in Heritage Practice, with a presentation by the Bam! Sistahood project (by Rosie Lewis and project volunteers, The Angelou Centre), which looked at how a successful project focusing on ethnic minorities can be easily mishandled if it's done from a top-down approach. While museums can help with these projects, empowering minority communities by discovering their own heritage and presenting it in a unique manner that doesn't necessarily have to be recorded. The focus on training, sharing information and creating safe spaces for women have proved to be good ways of getting women from minority groups to come together and explore their own heritage in North East England. The other paper in this session was by Tara Beale on travelling show-people in Glasgow, and how their heritage has been preserved in a collaborative project with Glasgow museums, which also led to reinterpretation of a small number of the museums collections!

The third session, Rethinking Heritage, had a theory-heavy paper on the Museum as a deep map (by Adrian Evans). This explored architecture's relationship with landscape in the modern world (as a detached entity), and used this as an analogy with museum collections, with an implicit objectivity and variety of presentation and preservation techniques, including narrative. The most important aspect was how much you interpret an artefact- too much and you lose the mystery of the object. Too little and you risk  going into pataphysics and escapism (the science of imaginary solutions). The deep map allows a narrative to be built up as layers, thus you regain the identity of the object within it's locality. The other paper by Taras Nakonecznyj, focusing on his work with the Cockburn Association, Edinburgh's Civic Trust, and their attempts at promoting Edinburgh's architectural heritage to a wider audience using social media. With Edinburgh's cultural heritage being prioritised by the council, potentially threatening the historic aspect of Edinburgh and endangering it's World Heritage status, this could be an interesting case study for the rest of the UK.

The final session was Immersive heritage, which felt more like an outlet from the Annual Student Archaeology conference, with a mixed bag of quite fun and interesting papers, but with less of a critiquing theoretical focus. However, these works should be commended as they had no research frameworks to fall back on. There was a paper on ghosts by Alison Edwards, who argues that as a phenomena has been criticised too much for being a pseudo-science (with a top-down approach) and a number of valuable points can be taken away from her exercise (people who actively hunt ghosts themselves often do so as a reaction to feeling left out of mainstream heritage interpretations, much like minority ethnic groups) and the way ghost tours are marketed and organised could be used as a model for archaeology and heritage. However the statistical analysis of the tour was a little thin on the ground. Rhiannon Pickett presented her work in collaboration with the Nottingham County Gaol, where new research into the lives of the inmates and workers there allowed for an impressive overhaul of the interpretation of the museum, although there was conflict in what information should be on display to the public. The final talk of the day was given by Lisa Traynor, who looked at reconstructing the events of 28th June, 1914, when Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed by a bullet. The question she sets out to answer is "Could the archduke have survived?" (with body armour available at the time). She isn't trying to re-imagine the historical events but to see if the silk body armour at the time could have stopped a bullet from the weapon it was fired from (at 2 metres). The results will be released on BBC 4 in January 2017.

Overall this conference (which was free to attend) provided a good platform for debating current heritage issues in the UK. It touched on a number of pressing concerns and I feel I can take away points that will feed into my own commercial projects. While it was overwhelmingly academic in outlook, there were commercial archaeologists who made the effort to go and make sure that our voices were heard, and that relations between University researchers and professionals are healthy.

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