Everyday diplomacy

I’ve spent almost 6 months in total over the past year working on a series of major projects at archaeological sites (in Egypt, in Turkey, in Greece & partner countries — also more locally, in the Yorkshire Dales), whilst also delivering a number of related short-course and multi-week heritage training programmes (e.g., in Athens).

Reporting on the effects of a collaborative first-year undergraduate-led project at the site of Breary Banks in the Yorkshire Dales: https://www.scribd.com/document/330391856/Student-Work-UoY-Forum-41-Autumn-2016

From my perspective, the greatest success of these projects has been the camaraderie and solidarity created amongst their many participants (students, volunteers, staff, government representatives, other stakeholders, etc.). These positive connections between people — who were generally strangers to one another beforehand — have manifested in the most heartening of feedback, including confessions of personal transformation, evidence of sustained friendship and mutual support extending beyond the life of the projects / separate from their organisers, as well as official acknowledgement for our efforts.

Post from USAID’s Facebook page, celebrating the graduation of one cohort of Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities inspectors from our heritage training programme: https://www.facebook.com/USAIDEgypt/posts/1351541671565261

One’s gut instinct is to suggest we were simply and repeatedly lucky in having great folks turn up to collaborate with us. However, the reality is that collaboration is not necessarily very easy, and our favourable outcomes were achieved only through relentless hard work: long hours, much stress, conflicting opinions, emotional tensions, unpredictable external forces impacting on our efforts, and more.

I’ve been thinking a lot, then, about what’s at the core of successful collaboration. How do we enable strangers to come together over a very short period of time and achieve something meaningful together? How can we be inclusive and empowering of many perspectives, whilst staying focused and still meeting our deadlines? How do we resolve things when social bonds break down? Most importantly for me as an educator: how do we teach all of this to others? How do we tutor people in cooperation?

In an effort to grapple with such questions, I sought out Richard Sennett’s (2012) book Together: The Rituals, Pleasures & Politics of Cooperation. Although I’m not really convinced by Sennett’s appraisals of digital technologies, his larger case revolves around the craft skill that lies at the heart of cooperation. In other words, cooperation must be learned, practiced and honed; like any other skill, it is hard work — an “earned experience” (2012:13). This means it can also be taught — indeed, it needs to be taught, for as Sennett (2012:8-9) maintains, “modern society is ‘de-skilling’ people in practising cooperation…We are losing the skills of cooperation needed to make a complex society work.”

Sennett goes on, among other things, to make an argument about means to nurture “everyday diplomacy”: “the craft of working with people we disagree with, perhaps don’t like, or don’t understand” (2012:31). And I’ve subsequently been struck by both (1) the convergence of his ideas with those working in a variety of other sectors, and of course (2) the pertinence of his position given current world affairs. Dr Nicole Deufel recently gave a fascinating talk in our YOHRS lecture series wherein she cited the Convivialist Manifesto (2014), whose central focus is summed up in this excerpt (p.25, emphases mine):

“A healthy society is one that manages on the one hand to satisfy each individual’s desire for recognition, and accommodate the element of rivalry … and on the other hand to prevent that desire from degenerating into excess and hubris and instead foster an attitude of cooperative openness to the other. It succeeds in accommodating diversity — among individuals, groups, peoples, states, and nations — whilst ensuring this plurality does not turn into a war of all against all. In short, we have to make conflict a force for life rather than a force for death. And we have to turn rivalry into a means of cooperation, a weapon with which to ward off violence and the destruction it entrains.”

Deufel likens this position to Chantal Mouffe’s (2013) concept of agonistics and the agonistic struggle — what Mouffe (2016) describes elsewhere as:

…the very condition of a vibrant democracy. For the agonistic model the prime task of democratic politics is not to eliminate passions or to relegate them to the private sphere in order to establish a rational consensus in the public sphere, it is to ‘tame’ those passions, so to speak, by creating collective forms of identification around democratic objectives with the aim of mobilizing them toward democratic designs.

The heritage and museum sectors in general also increasingly acknowledge these matters of collectivisation and negotiation of potentially conflicting perspectives. In her new book, The Art of Relevance, Nina Simon (2016:116) touches on the subject when she writes, “At our institution, programs that emphasize bringing diverse people together are now more popular than those that serve homogenous groups.” She argues that these diverse people are:

“helping us to build a bigger room…the goal is to bring everyone further into one big room, a room where we are all insiders — even if that means a jumble of eclectic furniture” (116–117).

But the problem is that how we manage the full, big, eclectic room is less clear. We, as heritage practitioners, don’t necessarily have the skills to facilitate anything productive in here, and our supporting institutions aren’t often structured in such a way as to nurture these skills. Extending the argument of Suse Anderson (2016), one might propose that the participatory turn of recent years has only made the predicament worse — or, at minimum, maintained the status quo — helping merely to “sustain a closed sector.”

Sennett (2012:29), summarising the philosophical arguments of Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen (1993), notes that “human beings are capable of doing more than schools, workplaces, civil organizations and political regimes allow for.” This resonates, in my opinion, with the words of Susan Edwards (cited here) about her museum:

“our very organizational structure prohibits diversity, and…in order to embrace true diversity we have to change our organizations at their core. The aspects of traditional organizational culture (not just in museums) that prohibit diversity include things like the lack of value in collaboration (i.e. democratic participation), a culture of secrecy, siloed departments, and micromanagement and hierarchical structures. These structures are designed to keep the powerful insiders in control, and to devalue the contributions of the outsiders…I love the move towards participatory culture in museums, but also have seen that too often it happens out ‘on the floor’ for the visitors only, and the same practices are not applied to the staff in our organizations…I see my organization trying, but I think it will be a long road ahead to true transformation.”

We’ve been experimenting with how to nurture such transformation in my classrooms over the past few years, and I’ve been particularly impressed by the work of my Master’s students on my Museums, Audiences and Interpretation module. I posted about this on medium.com last year:

The cohort is very large (c.40 students) and we have only 2 hours of contact time per week and an expectation that graduates from the programme will be rapidly hireable upon completion of their degrees. To enable them to develop some of the skills that are indisputably necessary for a career in the heritage sector — e.g., cooperation and collaboration, creativity, ability to articulate oneself clearly and persuasively, public engagement, ability to manage conflict and resolve disputes among stakeholders—I task students with researching and writing group posts for medium.com. These posts are not assigned formal grades (although groups deliver in-class presentations about them, on which I give written feedback) and they are entirely self-coordinated: beyond providing loose instructions, I am not involved in any aspect of their development or publication. This non-involvement is essential to the task: control is held by the student groups, not by the instructor; and the project depends entirely on cooperation and self-led organisation.

The final group posts from the 2016 cohort were phenomenal:

The posts continue to be shared and discussed on social media:

And the anonymous student feedback was so very uplifting**:

“…great to have the Google Group and medium.com which allowed for freedom of discussion on relevant topics. Very sad that the module is ending!”
“I have found the module to be one of my favourite modules thus far. I really enjoyed the creativity it has allowed me.”
“This was the best module…It challenged what I thought of as Heritage and challenged heritage practice.”
“The use of Medium.com group posts was a great idea & produced some interesting articles.”
“I thought the use of Google Group and medium.com linked with the module was really stimulating to develop new ideas, discussions around heritage.”
“Impressed by the amount of energy, passion, commitment, rigour and thought and critique generated by the class. Great pedagogical framework, great combination of creativity and experimentation.”

[** Note that the medium.com task complements the students’ formative and summative assessments, alongside use of a private discussion forum hosted on Google Groups).]

Given this feedback, we’re applying the same model to this year’s Master’s cohort. So…

From Monday, 27 February 2017, seven groups of students (approx. 6 students per group) will post seven different articles to medium.com using the #YorkCHM2 hashtag. I hope you might take the time to read, annotate and comment on their pieces, or contact me directly to pass along your thoughts.

As ever, we are concerned to foster respectful, supportive, yet critically constructive conversations between many people who may have differing opinions, so please be generous but courteous in your engagements. Join us in our efforts to practice and hone cooperation. Join us in learning to build a bigger room — eclectic furniture and all.

ADDENDUM:

Check out the #YorkCHM2 posts for 2017 here:

360 exhibit — A vision for the future or a failure for museums? by Eva Heimpel, Amy Wright, Andrew Jarvis, Eleri Newman, Georgina Bois, and Angeliki Tzouganatou: a fantastic critical review of the concept of the virtual museum and its application by Google Arts and Culture in its ‘virtual Natural History museum’.

Stories Shaped by Space: Star Carr in the Yorkshire Museum by Mariko Abe, Sophia Mirashrafi, Thomas Hodgson, Anne-Marie Heuck and Sarah Mctiernan: a fascinating review of the Star Carr exhibition at the local Yorkshire Museum with especial attention paid to the effect space has on engagement with, and appreciation of, the displays.

The Scarborough Castle Diaries by Rachel Bateson, Yishan Chen, Aleen Stanton, Tom Reed, and Ryanna Coleman: five different takes on a visit to Scarborough Castle, prompting critical reflections on the social and emotional nature of one’s engagement with heritage

Five Senses in the Georgian Era: A Sugar Trip by Kirsty Wilson, Pardis Zahedi, Dion Rice, Jennifer Cooke, and Greg Judges: an evocative proposal for a new multi-sensory exhibition at York’s Fairfax House looking at the entanglement of sugar production, York’s sweets industry, and the trans-Atlantic slave trade

Bodies on Display by Ashley Fisher, Fiona Gibson, Nathan Bishop, Vivienne Cooling, Luke Towers, and Rachael Nicholson: a critical consideration of the varied forms of displaying human remains at cultural sites & their numerous ethical implications.

Exploring alternative narratives in York. The villains are about, come and seek them out! by Jessica Western, Lydia Loopesko, Lexi Baker, William Egan, Joseph Perry and Sophie Farmer: at once an exploration of some of York’s untold histories, as well as a proposal for a new visitor experience around the city, this article introduces us to alternative narratives that might help us rethink our understandings of York

York Castle Museum — Kirkgate: Costumed Vs. Written interpretation by Naomi Swain, Chien-Jyun Chiou, Ruth Yoxon, Henry Weeds, Kirsty Ryder, and Lauren Shelton: an overview of the successes and failures of costumed interpretation & other ‘immersive’ displays in the York Castle Museum