Heritage interpretation in the wild

I regularly apply different media in my professional practice to enhance, complement or otherwise facilitate novel interactions that could not be generated in the absence of these media. In recent years, much of my practice has begun to gravitate around hands-on training — training other professionals internationally, training university students at all levels (undergraduate, Master’s, PhD), training my own colleagues — in creating materials and spaces for public engagement, particularly engagement with heritage and archaeology. Working in collaboration with many others, I’ve discussed the nature, rationale and impacts of such work in various places (see, for example, discussion of my Twitter applications here, blogging here, filmmaking here) and I’ve been acknowledged by my students and colleagues for these efforts.

Two #yorkchm2 Master’s students testing one of @TWAMmuseums’ mobile apps in Newcastle, UK, February 2016.

As I was originally educated in anthropology and archaeology, my overall intent in this practice has been to open up and push on the boundaries of our understandings of cultural sites. These sites might be archaeological excavations, or traditional museum spaces, or expansive cultural landscapes (including whole cities), or online environments, amongst many other things. My interest is in how different types of media might be enrolled — independently or in combination — to make us pause, question, champion, revere, challenge, or otherwise actively participate in such sites. Their media might include guidebooks, printed signs and standard glassed-in displays of artefacts. Equally, they might include light installations (see Hilary Orange’s fascinating reflections on the subject), or smellscapes (see Stu Eve’s Dead Man’s Nose), or related multisensory experiences (see Dennis Severs’ House for a unique example), or mobile applications and any other number of web and social media-based productions.

These media might be used to purportedly transport you back to the past, or they may be applied in more ‘anarchic’ fashion (to borrow from Frank Vagnone and Deborah Ryan) to shake up our very understandings of that past, and of how it can act on the present and future.

I run a particularly relevant course at the University of York which is concerned with exploring such issues around heritage interpretation: the Master’s level module ‘Cultural Heritage Management 2: Museums, Audiences and Engagement’ (#yorkchm2). Students on this course generally go on to work in the cultural sector — in large organisations like the British Museum or National Trust, or in local museums, non-profit agencies and small commercial heritage/archaeological consultancies. In many cases, they take up jobs that entail managing and presenting cultural sites to various demographics. As such, our classes together aim to be focused on considering (or actually experimenting with) media for management/presentation, and on deconstructing notions of which sites/subjects actually merit such management/presentation.

Moreover, because my students’ jobs are usually outward-facing and demand relatively high visibility (in the sense that these students become responsible for drawing visitors to cultural sites, and/or they are directly accountable to many interested parties who have a stake in these sites), I have increasingly sought ways to expose them to this wider world through their coursework.

This means that rather than produce a series of assignments that are purely theoretical or are read and contemplated by me alone, we seek to engage with other heritage practitioners and larger publics now — through assessed work that is directly linked to existing institutions/sites, through an in-class Google Group where we learn to critique current, professional practice with one another (note that there are nearly 50 students on the module), through Twitter where some of us share our course-related experiences with a broader online audience via the #yorkchm2 hashtag, through fieldtrips where we test and evaluate media for cultural organisations (last week we worked with Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums’ John Coburn, assessing the Hidden Newcastle and Tributaries apps), and through medium.com where for the first time everyone from the class will be involved in synthesising some of their thoughts on the course’s themes.

Screenshot of one of our #yorkchm2 Master’s student’s communications with Birmingham Museums in relation to her formative course assessment

The programme is structured, then, to increase confidence in communicating with one another in class before moving outwards to interact with others beyond the walls of the classroom. Similarly, because heritage practice is always a collaborative activity (and hence teamwork is an imperative professional skill), key components of the course are oriented around group activities. Coupled with the use of social media like Twitter and medium.com, this programme has a riskiness to it — i.e., it situates us (to quote from the anthropologist Barbara King) on the ‘wild side’ of engagement. We are put immediately in the position that confronts every expert in the field: standing at the front lines of communicating and negotiating effectively with a multitude of stakeholders. From my own standpoint as the course instructor, too, it is risky, because you can never know if anyone will actually contribute, nor in which ways they might contribute.

Professionally and pedagogically, however, I think such riskiness is a necessity. Jesse Littlewood, one of the few academics of whom I’m aware who uses medium.com in teaching, puts it simply: “To understand participatory culture and content, one must actively participate.”

Indeed, to work in heritage today is to be at the heartbeat of participatory culture, so the methods we’re using here are essential.

I draw inspiration, as well, from those interested in cultivating discovery, criticality, creativity and empowerment through pedagogy (see, in particular, the Digital Pedagogy Lab). In this context, to quote from Sean Michael Morris,

Student agency arrives in the form of open inquiry, which relies on learner autonomy at a foundational level. This is not just the teacher constructing opportunities or scaffolding for agency, leading the students to discover that they have certain, limited ownership of their learning. Student agency is an assumption built into the pedagogy, and comes from an integral trust of learners’ capabilities.

From next Monday (22 Feb), you’ll get a chance to peek into our classroom, so to speak, as we deploy medium.com to expose you to some of our efforts. Each week, during our lecture sessions, we approach the subject of heritage interpretation from a different angle, engaging with provocative topics and often drawing outside audiences into our discussions. Yesterday, for instance, our guest speaker Dr Sarah May asked us to question what it means when we proclaim that we are protecting sites ‘for future generations.’ Who are these generations? Will they actually know what we’ve attempted to protect for them? Would they even want it? And how far into the future are we talking: 10 years; 100 years; 100,000 years?

From next week, however, we are going to mix things up. Rather than be driven by questions and topics defined by myself and our guest lecturers, students on the module will take control of the conversation. Using the hashtag #yorkchm2, seven groups composed of 6–7 students each will post to medium.com on a course-related subject of their choice. These groups will have done the work outside of classroom hours; they will have organised the topic and its presentation on their own; and their posts will not be formally marked (although I’ll give written feedback to everyone).

Preview of one #yorkchm2 group’s medium.com post

The success of this project, then, depends entirely on trust, on learner autonomy, on courage and vulnerability in the pedagogical process. I hope you’ll read these posts, contribute your thoughts, and follow the path of discovery that all of us on the module are following. Not only will this path introduce us to corners of heritage interpretation that we may never have considered before, but so too will it confront us with the wilds of public engagement. These wilds may be risky and challenging, but they are unavoidable — sitting, as they do, at the very core of our professional practice.