By Dr. Seren Griffiths, Senior Lecturer, History, Politics and Philosophy, Manchester Metropolitan University.
As an archaeologist the prospect of being ‘locked down’ poses challenges for lots of research – traditional fieldwork like the type that Dr Ben Edwards and I do most summers is not possible.
Instead, I’ve been concentrating on the public archaeology aspect of my research. I have just published a paper on public archaeology in Wales, based on consultation with archaeologists working across Wales. The link to the paper is here https://intarch.ac.uk/journal/issue55/1/index.html. I also took part in the fifth Public Archaeology Twitter Conference on Friday 29 May 2020 to talk about these issues; you can see my twitter paper by following #PATC
This research examined what constitutes best practice in public engagement in heritage. Working with colleagues, and reflecting on my own research, I identified a series of common values that professionals engaged with public archaeology and public heritage felt were central to best practice.
In our research, we defined public archaeology and heritage as occurring in the world: negotiated, contested, ethical, and diverse, but work that makes explicit reference to the context of practice.
Importantly, although often people think that public archaeology or heritage practices emphasise the social value attached to specific places in the historic environment, members of the public often value a ‘multi-sited’ approach especially in a digital age. In a digitally distributed, international world, geographical proximity to a particular place may not be the most essential criteria in assessing why people determine places to have social value.
Indeed, the processes and media through which public archaeology is undertaken can be as important to the people doing it as the places at which it takes place. In this sense, we can think of public archaeology as a form of ‘intangible heritage practice’, that creates cultural heritage value because of the relationships between a community – whether focused on a locality or forming around a site or network of sites.
We argue that best practice is created through networks of relationships and intangible practices, and especially those that are allowed to develop over time, that emphasise benefits to participants, and that work with a network of partners and organisations. Critical to best practice is the ethical treatment of people, and the safety of people involved, but after this the most important aspect was the creativity and enjoyment that projects offered. Public heritage and archaeology needs to be fun!
Places where public archaeology is undertaken clearly have value as the nexus of activities, but a recognition of the value of the responsive, creative, relationships that facilitate public archaeology are as important as discourses on the conservation and curation of places in the historic environment.
Because the best public archaeology practices creates social value in the historic environment through networks of individuals, communities, and professional and volunteer practitioners, the effective curation of the historic environment requires funding, time and resources to support the inclusive relationships that make public archaeology. Even further, there is the wider political context of the production of other forms of social value in Wales, beyond archaeology. For example, the Wales Government’s national strategy of Prosperity for All, which emphasises the social value attached to healthy and active lifestyles. Public archaeology has significant potential to support these themes, both in terms of physical fitness and the effective pathways to good mental health that have been explored in other public archaeology projects. Integrating national policy themes of healthy and active lifestyles would provide another means for public archaeology to generate social value beyond an appreciation of the historic environment, and could be productively explored in the future if such projects could be effectively resourced.
The research that this was based on was undertaken before lock down, and the current, terrible Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. In the context of the horrible aftermath of this virus, the future of public engagement with the historic environment may seem trite but, its importance is actually very significant. The value of public archaeology, as a form of heritage discourse, is as ‘archaeology in the world: negotiated, contested, ethical, and diverse, but work that makes explicit reference to the context of practice‘. It is as much about the kinds of societies that we wish to create in the present as it is about seeking to better understand the past.
Public engagement with the historic environment reminds us of the enduring qualities of creativity and ingenuity that represent some of the best aspects of humanity from time immemorial. Of course, aspects of the historic environment can also demonstrate some of the worst human traits, including subjugation and violence. But, in times like these, when we face crises and unprecedented uncertainty, the historic environment also matters because it provides us with a connection to human societies across time.
The historic environment represents all of our common human inheritance, and provides us with a connections to human societies that have gone before. It reminds us of the enduring, essential qualities of being human. In this sense, heritage is transcendental.
Public heritage, and the relationships that people make doing it, matter, now as much as ever.