We’ve kicked off a new project here at York – The Heritage Jam – which has been kindly sponsored by our Department of Archaeology, with support from the Centre for Digital Heritage. The project aims to inspire innovation in heritage presentation and interpretation by bringing interested people (artists, designers, programmers, curators, illustrators, photographers, game developers, other creative producers, archaeologists, conservators, heritage professionals, educators, and anyone else) together in creative collaboration, working towards the production of new and different visual outputs. The concept is derived from ‘jamming’ events commonly held in the games industry, where ad-hoc groups meet for short, intensive periods of time to produce prototypes. Here, we’re looking to do the same with the range of media enrolled in the heritage industry, recognising that how the past is conceptualised – graphically, acoustically, haptically, olfactorily, vocally, and in other performative capacities – has a significant impact upon people’s understanding of themselves and of the world around them. It plays a role in how we value and care for our environment, the importance we assign to that environment, and how we build upon it for the future. Such representation not only affects public perception, but deeply shapes our research agendas, policy-making, protection and conservation programmes. To ignore it is to ignore heritage itself.
You can read more about the goals, vision and rules of the Jam on our webpages, as well as through Twitter and Facebook. And you can join in either remotely or in person via registering here.
The Jam has been in gestation for multiple years, the brainchild of my fantastic colleague Dr Anthony Masinton. When I arrived at York in 2012, Anthony mentioned the concept to me – I was immediately excited by it – and from there we began to draft a small-scale funding application to a major grant-giving body to bring the idea to light.
In its preliminary incarnation, however, that funding application was not at all successful. Its initial rejection was very hard for me to wrap my brain around because the project is an inexpensive one with a major potential return on investment. That return comes on multiple levels – from supporting creativity, cooperation, and development within the archaeology & heritage sectors themselves; to facilitating new ways for different audiences to interact with – and appreciate – these sectors. The casual dismissal that the project originally received made me despair, because if those people who actually give the discipline its visibility aren’t underwritten, the state of our field of practice overall seems quite ill-fated.
We had two sentences of feedback in our rejection letter (which, to be fair, is two sentences more than many people receive!). This feedback suggested that, firstly, our concept possibly had no relevance to anyone other than academics and professionals. And, secondly, that it was unclear how we’d actively engage the “wider public”.
I have to say that it was deeply saddening, on multiple levels, to read such criticisms. I have mulled them over for almost a year now, partly in conversation with colleagues of mine (thanks especially to the always stimulating Pat Hadley), and partly as a result of the funding that we eventually did achieve from York which has allowed us to launch the project and, therein, begin to consider whether it resonates with anyone at all.
I’m optimistic about the fact that, after a fairly soft debut less that two weeks ago, using only Twitter for the first 7 days to advertise the project, we’ve had a significant amount of interest in the Jam. Such interest has brought to the fore my concerns around the criticisms we received in our initial letter of funding rejection last year, because it was premised on a rhetoric that I consider to be essentialising and profoundly problematic. The notion that there is some singular “wider public” floating around in the world which we can engage if only we devise the most all-encompassing projects possible is now a pervasive one. And yet this conviction is frighteningly homogenising and deserving of deconstruction. It renders individuals into the meaningless ‘faceless blobs’ that Tringham (1991) so well interrogated nearly 25 years ago. It ignores effectively all of anthropological theory and practice which testify to the complexities within and between communities, and which have long complicated the idea of a uniform ‘public’. It also ignores a growing body of critique of the ideology that has come to consume public engagement, wherein – thinking through CCN+ – any sense of nuanced method and practice behind such engagement is eclipsed and often collapsed into little more than counting instances of delivery. As CCN+ have put it (in reflecting on the outcomes of a workshop on the discourses of public engagement), there is now a real “need to carefully identify communities not in relation to some sort of deficit (an assumption usually embedded in the rhetoric of public engagement) but in terms of [being] already connected and perhaps even meaningfully organized.”
My position is this: academics and professionals are, indeed, specific forms of public—they do heritage and they also participate in heritage; they have families and friends and networks of contacts outside their speciality areas who engage with heritage (or who may do so owing to such connections); they use multiple forms of media to advertise and comment on their practice; they are important epicentres of productivity for heritage because they are literally creative of it. In the case of the Heritage Jam, we’re seeking to bring together the very individuals who make it possible for many people in the world to see, experience and develop critical senses of awareness of heritage. They are by no means the only generators of visions/ideas about the past, but they are significant players in its various tellings, and as such, they are a public that deserves to be invested in.
More importantly, focusing on creative production is a worthwhile pursuit, because it necessarily draws together different publics—different specialists and non-specialists who make things or who circulate and consume those things. Visualisation and media (whether visual or not) are the intermediaries between many audiences; they are centrepoints, convergence points, in thinking, sensing, acting. Those who make these media are at the heart of such activity. They push ideas and knowledge out into the so-called “wider public” – their outputs are profoundly influential, be they games, film, exhibitions, TV, art, etc. So if we don’t invest in them and their creativity, we all suffer—our larger apprehensions of the world become more constrained; our recognition of possibilities and opportunities for change and experiment are curtailed; our sense of ourselves is limited. Without media and their many multidisciplinary creative producers, we’re left—literally—seeing and experiencing the same. And this is the flaw, as I see it, in much engagement work today: it reduces everyone to the same featureless mass and, in so doing, works at cross-purposes with the actual ethos of public engagement, wherein individuality and concern for the rights and capacities of every person are prioritised and respected.
We’re aiming to be specific in our engagement efforts with the Heritage Jam, and we’re setting in place short and long term evaluation efforts that will allow us to say something qualitatively meaningful about its efficacy on individual participants. We have a focused social media plan that we’ll post to our webpages in the upcoming weeks; and we’re monitoring our progress and will be presenting on it in the autumn, so others can pop along (date to be announced) to hear of our successes and struggles.
The Heritage Jam depends on an incredible network of people who are all now based here in York with me. They make my job phenomenally interesting; there’s honestly never a boring or uninspiring moment when we’re all together; and I feel truly lucky to be a part of such a galvanising and creative community. Massive credit, then, goes to Flo Laino, Gareth Beale, Colleen Morgan, Nicole Beale, Ian Kirkpatrick, Pat Gibbs, Tom Smith, Julie Rugg, and Neil Gevaux.
And thanks so much to the 50+ people who have already registered for the Jam: thanks for believing in the project, and for appreciating that public engagement can (and must, I think) be nuanced, targeted and cognisant of specific interested audiences that play centrifugal roles in our various understandings of heritage.
As we’ve noted on our website, The Heritage Jam believes that giving greater voice and recognition to creative practitioners is vital to supporting innovation, culture-building, and the sustenance of heritage and the historic environment overall. As we see it, it is a unique opportunity to have fun, while appreciating and reflecting on the power of craft skills. Most importantly, it is a chance to draw inspiration from the past to shape the future.
Please join us.
PS. Also keep your eyes on the Public Archaeology project which, as I understand it, has a similar spirit: “Public engagement and impacts will be defined by individual participants, but it is central to the project that meaningful public engagement can happen right down to the level of one-to-one conversations.” Some of my favourite people are involved, and it’s set, I believe, to make a major difference in how we value—and acknowledge the uniqueness of—different people, communities, audiences.
Tringham, R.E., 1991. Households with faces: the challenge of gender in prehistoric architectural remains, in Engendering Archaeology: Women and Prehistory, eds. J.M. Gero & M. Conkey. Oxford: Blackwell, 93–131.