Author Archives: Alex McDonagh

About Alex McDonagh

PhD Researcher at University of Salford

Has the UN dismissed the heritage of women?

The UN has made Wonder Woman the Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women. The decision has not been without controversy as several UN staff staged a silent protest during the appointment. There are some positive aspects to the appointment. Wonder Woman is a widely recognised figure and may appeal to a wide audience and it is nice to see a female superhero being deployed in a positive campaign to raise the aspirations of women. However, there are some drawbacks that force us to question the value of Wonder Woman as a UN ambassador…. That seems like a very obvious thing to say, doesn’t it? Still, I think there are points worth raising here.

As well-known as Wonder Woman may be, she represents more specifically the United States. This much is clear from her original costume, displaying the colours and shapes of the US flag. As one of the UN staff protested, her costume is “pop culture imperialism”.  The close link to the US is in some regard appropriate because there are many empowered, successful women who have been nurtured there [e.g. Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, Beyonce, Harper Lee…]. But, on the other hand, the US is not exactly a champion for the rights of women. As just one example, it has a poor record on rights to paid maternity leave. If the empowerment of women needs to involve maternity rights, then Wonder Woman’s strong affiliation with the United States does her a disservice.

Wonder Woman battling enemies [Source: DC Comics]

Wonder Woman battling enemies [Source: DC Comics]

Indeed, such a strong association with the US implies that Wonder Woman is also sympathetic to US actions like the bombing of Yemen, the continued drone strikes in Iraq or the imprisonment of untried people in Guantanamo Bay. It suggests that the character is comfortable with the homogenising spread of American culture across the globe carried out by multinational corporations who suffocate local discourses and exploit workers and natural resources worldwide. These behaviours we might argue are more masculine than feminine; they resonate with the actions of a history of male leaders and a present context of male-dominated industry and epistemologies. They do not resonate with a history of women.

The heritage of Wonder Woman is at odds with the heritage of women.

Part of the heritage of Wonder Woman is the superhero’s origin story as an Amazonian Princess, Diana. Rather than being born from her mother, Diana is constructed from clay and the intervention of gods. As the daughter of the mythical Hippolyte, Queen of the Amazonian women, Diana has dwelt (for centuries) on the undiscovered Paradise Island.

For the Greeks, the Amazons did not represent female empowerment; at least not in a positive way. Their name ‘amazon’ meant ‘one-breasted’ – the women removed their right breast because it interfered with their spear throwing. The Amazons were created to represent what the Ancient Greeks saw as the danger of women. Women were seen as insatiable and uncontrollable. The Amazonian warrior women were symbols of the perceived disruptive nature of women. Amazonian society involved only women and as such was the antithesis of the Greek home and therefore a danger to the very fabric of Greekness. ‘Look at the mess women would make if left to their own devices,’ comes the message from the myth.

In this way we might question what the Amazonian heritage of Wonder Woman is meant to symbolise. There is clearly a message of independence, which may be harnessed to convey a sense of empowerment. But Wonder Woman’s empowerment is entirely without context. The character is a separate entity from contemporary society in all its forms and its heritage.

Wonder Woman through the decades [Source: DC Comics]

Wonder Woman through the decades [Source: DC Comics]

Clearly, a prominent problem here is that Wonder Woman is fictional. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect a fictional character to have a shared context with real people, especially when they occupy a world of fantastical powers and unrealistic plot developments. But she is more than merely fictional; she is a comic book superhero based on a fictional group of women and born from clay and divine magic. She is hyper-unreal. This is an important point because it means that Wonder Woman sidesteps history and this has ramifications for her relevance to women of the world. Diana of the Amazons has been outside of the world of people. She has no link to women’s suffrage, women’s literature or any feminist movements; no experience of domestic violence, patriarchal society or glass ceilings. The comic book character may have been reinvented and redesigned over the decades, but it is her beginnings as being separate from the modern world that are fundamental to her character. Although the MarySue points out that she may represent what women CAN achieve outside of a patriarchal society, her separation from a contemporary social context distances the superhero from the many millions of real, living women for whom the UN mean her to function as a symbol of empowerment. Women today are descendants of women through the ages, variously disempowered, empowered, wealthy, impoverished; what we might call a heritage of women. It is this notion that perhaps the UN’s decision has undermined.

In choosing to use a symbol rather than a real woman, the UN seems to have dismissed the role of women themselves in their own empowerment. This means dismissing the achievements and struggles of women through history, but also dismissing all living successful women. It seems as though the perspective of the UN is such that it could not conceive of a positive real-world female exemplar for women across the world.

Wonder Woman is a comic book simulacrum whose current incarnation is being used by Hollywood to peddle action, violence and sex. Despite the positive benefits of Wonder Woman potentially being the first queer superhero presented in film media (also discussed in the MarySue ), the character is still the subject of the male gaze. Her forms are still representative of a male-centric Western ideal of feminine beauty. She is thus a tool of Western Americanised media, moreso now than when she was created by William Marston. In this way, it is difficult to see how Wonder Woman can function as an icon of empowerment for women across all areas of the globe.

The very reason that there is a need for an Ambassador for the Empowerment of Women is intertwined with the narrative of marginalisation and abuse of women throughout history. This narrative is ongoing. It is surely crucial to acknowledge and address this narrative by highlighting how it has been perpetuated throughout the centuries. Instead of a comic book character, a real woman could use their voice to explain the challenges they have overcome and still face in their lives.

The ongoing heritage of women is a complex network that must be explored to understand how and why women are being prevented from playing an equal part both in global and local societies. The symbol of Wonder Woman is too shallow to engage with this complexity and the character’s own heritage and design history seems to me to reveal her to be unfit for the role of ambassador.

Imagining Charlotte Bronte

I recently visited the Brontë Museum in Haworth. It was fascinating and I will be returning. The whole place was a mixture of real and unreal.

There were rooms made up to look as they would have done based on diaries and accounts of the time when Charlotte Brontë was living. In some cases original wallpapers were revealed beneath the plaster or paintwork and their colours had been restored to give visitors a sense of their original effect. Objects, such as crockery and utensils, were arranged throughout the house and were sometimes the originals and sometimes those that would have been like the originals. These objects almost give the rooms the effect of being in use – in a frozen-in-time Mary Celeste museum kind of way.

Charlotte Brontë’s dress at the Brontë Parsonage Museum (Source: Brontë

Charlotte Brontë’s dress at the Brontë Parsonage Museum (Source:

In what we might consider to be the main room, Charlotte Brontë’s bedroom, there are glass cabinets set up in a museum-like style. Unlike some of the other rooms, it is not simulated as a bedroom, but instead works as a mash-up of museum and authentic wallpaper styled room. Various artefacts are on display. In the centre and standing in a glass case looms a dress of Charlotte’s. Without a mannequin it hovers as a reminder that the occupant has long since departed. Nearby, shoes embroidered using her dead sister’s hair sit in one case, along with a nightcap with glow-in-the-dark embroidery. Of course back in the 19th century, before the EU and its suffocating legislation, radioactive nightcaps used to be all the rage in England. Following recent political developments I suppose the British are free to reclaim their lost heritage and wear radium infused clothing any time they want. Fancy.

Nestled among notebooks also is a pair of Charlotte Brontë’s glasses. I crouched down low to look through the display case and therefore through the lenses of her reading glasses “directly”. I felt it significant to look through her glasses because it was something that she would have done herself. Even though I was looking through them backwards I felt as though I could almost be looking through them into Charlotte Brontë’s eyes. It is a romantic notion, but this is the closest I am likely to get.

The interior of the house was full of rich visuality, but the view out from the windows was also emotive. Beyond the garden, looking out towards the front of the house, the adjacent churchyard can be seen with impressive trees towering above rows of gravestones. There is little about this that feels fake. The town and churchyard are real places with real people living in our modern world. If you ignore the throngs of visitors being taken on guided tours, you might even be able to engage in peaceful contemplation.

All of the artefacts and the house itself raise many questions about the role of women, craft and history. The tangibility of everything is thought provoking and it is for this reason that I mentioned the museum to one of my students during a tutorial recently. I told them about the sister’s-hair-embroidered shoe, noting its link to their own research. “I have some photographs of the embroidered shoe,” I explained.

I looked on my phone, but I couldn’t find them anywhere.

After the student left I looked more carefully through my phone album. There was nothing. Then I recalled that photography is not allowed in the museum and my memories of this came flooding back. I had not taken any photos. Now I remembered that this was a relief in many ways. I didn’t have to worry about capturing anything. Instead, I could focus on seeing the museum and its exhibits and in many respects this felt liberating.

What is interesting about recounting the museum to a student was my assumption that I had taken photographs. It would appear that for me museums are so closely associated with the performance of photography that it has become interchangeable with my own mind’s eye. I didn’t take any photographs, but I perceived my own eyeball-only visual memories to be photography.

This makes me think of two ways in which digital photography features in my life. First of all, photographing objects and events has become so commonplace for me that it has become a default action that is integral to the performance of my life; from obsessively capturing every waking (and sleeping) moment of my children to my experience of, and my performance at, heritage sites and museums. As visitors we do perform at heritage sites and more recently the introduction of digital photography, especially the ease of its application through smartphones, has influenced this performance. Sharing those photos is easy, too, and so the museum visit is extended beyond the museum walls – this is perhaps no different to how traditional photography (or even just talking about a museum visit) extends the visit, but the effect is more instant. The integration with our lives is perhaps more fluid.

Secondly, this integration has become so effective that digital imagery appears to have become privileged in my own mind over my own mental imagery.

When speaking to the student and recalling Charlotte Brontë’s craftwork, the images that were conjured within my own mind were those created purely from my own body interacting and sensing the museum and its objects – direct phenomenological engagement with the museum. I visualised the museum objects without the mediation of technology. But when I recalled my visit, my assumption was that instead of remembering the actual objects I was in fact remembering digital images of the objects stored on my phone, or of the phone screen images while I was taking photographs. So confident am I in my own intentions to capture the imagery of my life that I was sure I had taken a photograph. More than this, even a non-existent photographic performance has somehow become more reliable to me than my own visual memory.

Perhaps this is not a problem, but I feel that it has implications for the reality of my experience – it has made me question what it is that I value from an experience. If my mind is referring to the digital capture as the reliable account of a museum visit then it seems that my mind is constructing a simulacrum of that visit – my mind is using the ‘unreal’ to create the ‘real’. A perfect example of Baudrillard’s ‘precession of the simulacrum’ where the ‘fake’ is coming before the ‘real’ thing and informing our interpretation of the real thing. It has made me consider practising greater mindfulness in the future if only because it felt liberating not to take photographs.

But of course the role of the digital image in this way is not much different from the role of the objects that we may find in museums. The crockery and kitchen utensils at the Brontë Parsonage Museum, for example, or the replica wallpaper; all these things are as fake as the digital image. Indeed, what I was seeking when looking through Charlotte Brontë’s glasses was mediated through a complex network of socio-cultural and historical contexts. It was a fabrication of my own imagination, but compelling and authentic to me nonetheless.

Money talks – but what about?

Over the past few weeks I have been taking notice of the European Referendum. Something clear, and for me quite irksome, about the Stronger IN campaign is its focus on money. It will be no news to anybody that the campaign has been focusing on the financial benefits of staying in the EU and of course it is an important aspect. Trade, commerce and business are a crucial part of how states function nationally and internationally. But crucial, too, are the cultural, ethical and moral aspects of its people – its heritage; past and continual. Although non-monetary elements of EU membership have not been completely ignored, the spotlight has been so brightly centred on financial arguments that any other aspect of the EU seems effectively dismissed. The approach correlates with what my research revealed about the role of digital media.

The government have tried to encourage people to engage with the Internet through a programme called Go On UK. Like the Stronger IN campaign, Go On UK focuses on money; in this case the financial benefits of digital literacy and Internet use. Digital literacy, argues Go On UK, will empower people by improving their job prospects and reducing bills using online accounts. Like the Stronger IN campaign, some non-financial benefits are mentioned (e.g. social and health benefits), but the main message is one of productivity. The financial narrative is backed by partner organisations who are on the whole linked to finance or business (e.g. Pricewaterhouse Coopers, BT). This seems to give clout to Go On UK’s argument – it legitimises the claims that digital skills can improve the finances of people by using reports compiled by these partners. This is much like how the Stronger IN campaign uses business executives, bankers and economists to argue that we are better off in the EU.

One of the problems with Go On UK’s angle here is that it ignores evidence that there are many who choose not to engage with new digital media and the Internet. One source provides evidence that many do not have an Internet connection based on a choice they have made rather than the cost of connection. Indeed, it is that very relationship between money and digital media that can cause a problem. Without an Internet connection, one is disadvantaged because gas and electricity bills, bank accounts etc. are now difficult to administer without access to the web. Even job searching and benefits now require online access. For many, then, the Internet may easily loom as a gateway to control from the establishment, utility companies and the retail industry. It is not hard to see how the Internet may be seen as removing one’s agency.

I would argue that Go On UK needs to deal with the ways in which online access and digital media present a threat to people’s lives. Communicating the relevance of the web in human, cultural and artistic terms may be a more successful approach and certainly less intimidating.

It is here that I find a parallel with the Stronger IN campaign. With such a heavy focus on money there seems little acknowledgement of the myriad ways in which the EU is relevant in people’s lives. Clearly, financial narratives are very relevant to the issue of the EU referendum, but there is much more beyond this that is seeing very little coverage by comparison. The coverage of this aspect on both sides of the EU debate has been described as scaremongering and we might argue that the Go On UK campaign’s approach is scaremongering, too. On the one hand we have “Use the Internet or you will be financially worse off” and on the other hand we have “Stay in the EU or you will be financially worse off”. The Stronger IN campaign equally fails to deal with the wider issue of how or why the EU may be perceived negatively. We might associate economics with the discourse of the established power structures; a discourse of the eliticised, based on positivistic epistemologies and modernist grand narratives. It is very hard to disentangle the discourse of economics from the financially untouchable – the corporations, banks and chief executives for whom a disruption of the status quo would be uncomfortable. In contrast, socio-cultural epistemologies may transgress against this established discourse of the powerful; how the EU has contributed to the development of UK culture, art, society; how it has protected places from decline; how it has protected the rights of humans and animals; how it has protected the rights of workers; how it protects our health.

Compounding its financial narrative is the visual design approach of the Stronger IN campaign. It employs hard straight lines with its ‘IN’ logo. It uses the term ‘stronger’. The colour scheme is red white and blue, which clearly references the Union Jack (although this combination of colour scheme and typeface seems also BNP-esque to me). These qualities clearly link strongly to a national identity of the UK and I can understand that fears of losing sovereignty are a key issue for the campaign. However, the design is uncompromisingly hard with no rounded lines or metaphor for culture or humanity. Indeed, I would argue that there is even something colonial about the design, harking back to propaganda designs of the First and Second World Wars. The simple blue of the map used in part of the Stronger IN campaign evokes the notion of established economic discourse. While a unifying colour may imply a unified group, the blue colour itself is associated with the Conservative party in the UK and speaks well as the dark blue of corporate suited men (mostly). There is no green of environment and no yellow of the EU stars. It homogenises the continent of Europe rather than reflecting the cultural melange of people and states. Overall the design approach loses the opportunity to talk to people in anything other than a voice of cold economics.

'Stronger IN' design suggests only cold economic narrative

‘Stronger IN’ design suggests only cold economic narrative

While I will be voting to stay in the EU, I have felt that the Stronger IN campaign is not representative of my own thoughts. Like the Go On UK campaign, I suspect that a more collaborative approach would prove a more effective way of conveying the benefits of EU membership. A ‘human’ approach that recognises the values of people and avoids alienating people through a money-orientated discourse of the eliticised minority.

Do closed museums mean lost stories and lost futures?

Savage cuts are underway at Lancashire County Council and one of the results is that five museums will be closed. Of course, owing to cuts in local government budgets, museums are under the threat of closure throughout the UK, but I live in Lancashire and so the loss of these particular museums is something I feel more personally. Their closure would directly affect my local access to culture. I have visited three of them with my family; one of them several times.

The narratives supported by these three museums are for me very important. The stories they tell are about everyday people from our history and this is valuable in itself, but there is also great relevance in these stories to modern political discourse.

The Museum of Lancashire in Preston demonstrates a progressive and inclusive approach to history and archaeology. It displayed the Silverdale Hoard until earlier this year. This was particularly notable because the museum aimed to show the public how the archaeological process works. Rather than display the hoard after it had been cleaned and polished, the museum displayed the coins and artefacts still dirty with the earth in which they were buried. It may seem trivial, but the effect here is on the one hand to educate the public about the process of archaeology as well as being open and honest about the subjective nature of archaeology – artefacts are not inherently valuable and meaningful; they must be cleaned, organised into types and categories. The museum, if only symbolically, offered the public a chance to take part in the archaeological process by forming their opinions about the artefacts before they are idealised by the professionals and their authorised heritage narratives.

The value that the museum places on the viewpoints of the public is illustrated further by the time line they have showing the history of Lancashire. This time line stretches from the prehistoric past to the prospective future of Lancashire and these futures are voiced by members of the public; the time line is populated as much by the imagination and hopes of the people as it is by events that are considered to be significant through history. In this way the museum drives home the message that our heritage is constructed by all of us and that the heritage we will share in the future will be created by everyday people. It promotes the idea that everybody’s history is important as well as the notion that everybody should be able to contribute to our cultural habitus. They are embracing Bourdieu and overriding the authorised heritage discourse all in one go (Bourdieu 1977; Smith 2006).

Another museum for the chop is Queen Street Mill. The place is extraordinary insofar as it tells us about what were the ordinary lives of mill workers in Briercliffe, Burnley.

Steam engine running at Queen Street Mill

Steam engine running at Queen Street Mill

The steam engine that drives the mill is fantastic. It gleams, it steams and it curves in beautiful arcs of mechanical movement. It drips and hisses and bangs. The engineer tends it dutifully and we can even get closer to it when he opens the gates. As visitors we can walk the length of the machine, or sit on a bench and enjoy the poetry of its motion. Disappearing into the wall, you can see the spinning shaft that powers the rest of the mill.

The weaving shed and 300 looms running from the steam engine at Queen Street Mill

The weaving shed and 300 looms running from the steam engine at Queen Street Mill

Downstairs you will find banks of machines spinning thread and weaving textiles. The weaving shed filled with rows of machines, featured in the film “The King’s Speech”, is as deafening and frightening as it is awe-inspiring and wonderful.

Along with all these physical reminders of our industrial past, the mills contain the stories of people. Stories of sexual favours required by women workers to get replacement shuttles. Stories of teeth being rotted by the oils on the shuttles, of mouth and lung cancers caused by the licking and the breathing in of the threads and their fibres. These stories are found in the museum through the voices of the staff, some of whom worked in the mills in recent decades and whose families are linked deeply to the building’s past. The rich narrative tapestry includes more than individual stories, involving scandalous histories of mill owners refusing to obey laws to change their shuttles to self-threading versions. In short the mill owners decided to profit instead of prevent cancer and disfigurement in their employees.

Similar stories can be found at Helmshore Mills Textile Museum. On my visit a young interpreter explained with skill how the workers near the water wheel would work in freezing temperatures and how the need for money saw local people selling their urine to the mills. The narrative, as at Queen Street Mill, is one of everyday hardworking people exploited.

It is noteworthy that none of the museums up for closure offer heritage narratives of the eliticised members of society. As examples, Gawthorpe Hall, Towneley Hall, Lancaster Castle will all remain open and strongly represent the monumental heritage of the aristocracy and royalty. It could be argued that the five museums earmarked for closure go against the Authorised Heritage Discourse of the traditional, the institutional and the powerful. The stories they tell do not fit with traditional historical narratives, but they are nonetheless real.

It is here that Queen Street and Helmshore identify an important narrative which is fundamentally relevant in the contemporary political landscape. Including the notion of the Northern Powerhouse.

I find it interesting that the government’s austerity has resulted in the destruction both of stories of the everyday people of the country and of the origins of trade unionism in the face of worker oppression at the hands of private industry. Is the idea of a Northern Powerhouse palatable in such a context? It is a curious approach to powerhouses that involves the choking off of culture from the people who would fundamentally supply their power.

It is difficult to see how such a removal of identity, of destroying opportunities to connect to our own local and national heritages, can be seen as emancipatory. The removal of these museums appears to go hand in hand with the privileging of the powerful few over the many; it appears to silence the voices of the past from which we might learn lessons to challenge the likes of zero hours contracts.

What sort of agenda are we able to discern from this?



Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice. Translated from French by R. Nice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Smith, L. (2006) The Uses of Heritage, London: Routledge

Heritage on a bus

I live in Pendle, Lancashire. If I travel into Manchester by bus I take a the X43 transdev route, entitled the ‘Witch Way’. The name comes from the dark history of the Pendle Witch Trials; a rich source of tourism for the area and a lot of fun at Halloween.

In recent years, the Witch Way buses have been rebranded. Gone is the full-moon silhouette of a witch on a broomstick and in its place is a young, blond, sexualised witch as though plucked straight from the 1960s ‘Bewitched’ TV show.

Witch Way Bus X43

Current Transdev Bus X43 ‘Witch Way’ [Photo: Robert Wade (flickr, Creative Commons: Attribution-non-commercial-sharealike)]

The bus company is, of course, trying to distinguish itself with a memorable image. I don’t expect transdev to think deeply about the history of the witch trials and the associated issues, but it does seem to me that the the current Witch Way motif is symptomatic of the heritage approach to the Pendle Witch Trials, not to mention the portrayal of women more generally.

The Pendle Heritage Centre offers a permanent exhibition which tells the story of the women accused of being witches. Interestingly, the display boards which tell this story do not make it clear who is narrating. The women are described as witches and reference is made to the magic they are said to have performed. These may be extracts from contemporary court reports, but they may have been written by the heritage centre. The effect is that there is no humanising discussion of the women (and men) who were subjected to anguishing ordeals of imprisonment and execution. The centre portrays them as witches. As part of the exhibit, a video production tells the tale of the trials with dark stylised images and atmospheric music, all narrated by Tom Baker’s deep voice of foreboding.

In some respects the exhibit offers the visitor a chance to interpret the history for themselves through a creative interpretation; since the curatorial voice is not identified clearly then the visitor may feel as though they can react as they wish. But here the theatrical and emotional aim of the exhibit is to create an aura of mystery and otherness; otherness of the past and otherness of the women who were persecuted. This approach skirts the horrifying issue of 17th century misogyny and instead almost normalises the masculine religious and social ideology of the time: as if to pass on the message: “there really was something strange about those women, so it’s not surprising that society acted against them in this way.”

It seems to me that the approach prevents visitors from seeing the event as a context for the current status of women in society: women’s intuition as mysterious power; the portrayal of domestic skills as arcane and their incompatibility with the ‘real’ world of work; perceived unstable and emotional reactions compounded by menstrual cycles; even the way that women hold their faces (as with recent online references to ‘resting bitch face’). And, of course most recently, the recent comments made by Sir Tim Hunt.

So, within this context, when I see the X43 and its witch-based motif, I see a veneer of commercialism, marketing and sexualisation; a male gaze echoing on through the centuries which denies the relevance of the witch trials to our world today.

Or am I being po-faced?

Monumental heritage privileged over human life

Yesterday evening came the news that Tadmur (ancient Palmyra) has fallen to Isis.

This article written by The Guardian addresses the disaster by explaining within the first paragraph that the ancient ruins in the city will face near-certain destruction. To be sure, this is an awful consequence and the meanings associated with the ruins will touch the lives and heritages of many people local and distant.

However, it seems to me far clearer that the greater tragedy of Isis’ victory will be for the people who live in Tadmur. Although Syrians living under Assad’s regime do not live peaceful lives, the victory of Isis is a dark event for the people of Tadmur. It is surprising that the above news article refers to the civilian population only in terms of acknowledging an evacuation and the UN’s cultural agency statement. The harrowing change of circumstance for the evacuated people of Tadmur, and for those who were left behind, is not explored in a breaking news headline. A monument may be in danger, but I imagine that any evacuated civilians may be most concerned about their homes and communities.

It is difficult not to see the fetishisation of heritage in the treatment of this news event. Monumental heritage may still be privileged over intangible and subaltern forms of heritage, but the privileging of a monument’s potential destruction over the death and destruction of human lives speaks of something more disturbing about Western values.

The news about Tadmur’s fall was brought to my attention via a news app on my phone. A notification dropped from the top of the screen with the headline “Syrian city of Palmyra falls under control of Isis”. The experience reminded me of the computer game, Civilization. Civilization has the player rule a nation against opposing nations. The player is made aware of world events, which include the fall of cities and city states, through notifications displayed at the side of the screen. These events are of interest to the player because they may affect the distribution of resources (natural or cultural). The game does not inform the player of any cost to human life.

Of course, Civilization is a game. If the dominant news issue of a war event is the danger to monuments rather than the death of civilians and the threat to survivors’ lives, what does this tell us about the cultural hierarchy we have constructed and the role of heritage within it?

Selfish Research

It is likely that feedback interviews have now been completed and there have been some really interesting observations about digital media, heritage, narrative – all sorts of things!

Yesterday’s interview brought up something which made me think about my approach. As with everybody else, I asked the participant if the Digital Towneley representation made them see the park differently at all. The answer was ‘no’, because they felt that they were so familiar with the park that they had already engaged with the themes that I seem to have identified in the stories and other data.

This might be a good sign because it may act as a validation in a way of the legitimacy of my interpretation. However, with further enquiry the participant revealed that they had themselves collected stories about the park; that they had been involved in a project for the park which aimed to capture something of its meanings.

I was suddenly struck with a sense of my own academic egotism.

Despite my aims through Grounded Theory and phenomenological archaeology, feminist and constructivist approaches (all part of an aegis which I hoped would ward off the dragon bias and of Authorized Heritage Discourse and traditionalism) somewhere and somehow implicit in my approach was the idea that I had the right tools for the job for the first time in the history of the world!

The selfishness of my position was thrown into relief. The aim of a PhD (or other research) to strive for unique contribution, and the desire of the researcher to be a trailblazer and unearth new knowledges, can blinker their viewpoint beyond the academy.

This participant with others had already been researching the park. Sure, they haven’t been investigating the effects of digital heritage, but I feel now like my approach to explore the park overlooked the idea that others may have already done this and done it well.

Now, how do I best learn from this experience?

Digital senses of space in the digital divide

I have been carrying out interviews to see what my research participants feel about the Digital Towneley website. These are just some thoughts about their feedback so far and some early analysis.

One participant who I have interviewed said that their experience of the site was just as a series of pictures of Towneley. They specifically responded to my question about sense of place and space to make clear that they did not experience any kind of “virtual experience”.

In contrast, others have so far indicated that a sense of geographical space is created for them in Digital Towneley, whether this is a ‘virtual space’ or at least an acceptable alternative for movement within the real-world park space. This has been mainly in relation to the map screen and this links for me to the way that de Certeau discusses viewing the city from above. The view is akin to a simulacrum, like Baudrillard’s ‘map’, because we do not understand a city by viewing it holistically but by experiencing it in person. Seeing the whole city from above is seeing a different object entirely. Kenderdine discusses the effects of the panorama and the georama in this sense and how it can allow viewers to feel as though they can “travel to distant lands, historic cities and imposing landscapes” (Kenderdine 2010, 308).  This is something which seems to be occurring (for some) with the map in Digital Towneley, since reactions and exclamations from the interviewed participants have implied senses of ‘travel’.

Map example from Digital Towneley with walking character in red.

Map example from Digital Towneley with walking character in red.

We might argue that these reactions are not exclusive to digital representations. After all, there is a tangible ‘real’ map in Towneley Hall foyer. This would also potentially have the effect of geographical omniscience or ‘travel’. However, the Digital Towneley map offers an interactivity (to an extent), represented both by the movement of the walking character and the hyperlink-like ability to see more about each location. This interactivity may offer a sense of embodiment felt by seeing the moving character walk across the map; the movement has been noted by several participants. It may also be that the ability to ‘move’ from the map to a specific location is a satisfying quality of the digital map – not only does it represent a place (like a sign on a conventional map) but it offers a ‘window’ through which to visit that place (which is admittedly another series of digital simulacra/signs).

But, as indicated above, for some the website just offered a series of images. There are different reactions to digital media. This has also been further highlighted so far by the reactions to the use of the website. The participants have varied in their levels of digital literacy and the physical contexts of the interviews have varied also. On top of this, the pretext for each interview has been very different. Some participants have looked through the website relatively thoroughly, while others have not even been able to access it. It is my aim through my choice and design of methodologies to address these contextual differences, but it seems clear to me at this stage that the evaluation of a digital phenomenon’s effect is as difficult as evaluating the effect of art or landscape. It is for this reason that largely commercial approaches to digital evaluation have (for me) fallen short of exploring the potential pitfalls and benefits of digital heritage development and impact.

It is no surprise that digital heritage will have varying effects on people owing to their various circumstances. One interesting thing so far (and of course my data is limited at this stage) is how digital literacy is not necessarily the main factor in terms of engagement with heritage memories or meanings using digital representations.


Kenderdine S. (2010) ‘Speaking in Rama: Panoramic Vision in Cultural Heritage Visualization’  in Cameron & Kenderdine (eds)  Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse

Does digital heritage curtail the multimodal ensemble?

Today I have been reading Jewitt (2013) and so learning about multimodality. Multimodal approaches are very relevant to my project because of the variety of ways in which we create meaning about heritage spaces. Multimodality refers to the many different modes we employ in the creation of meanings; e.g. spoken language, written text, image, gesture. Jewitt describes ‘multimodal ensembles’ which are the range of modes that an individual or group has access to. This is affected by their social context because this determines what modes are available or accessible.

The aim of my research project was to provide an environment in which the participants would feel comfortable using any mode they felt appropriate to express their understanding of the park. It is difficult to know if this was successful – perhaps something I can include as part of the next feedback sessions. Some visual media was offered and helped to determine the themes of Digital Towneley which is itself largely a visual media. However, various other modes may have been shortchanged. Visiting the park was an important aspect of this research because this involves many of the actions or performances which define the use of the park or the creation of its heritages. But does Digital Towneley do any of these modes justice?

Jewitt discusses the complex and intertwined nature of the modes within our ensembles and refers to Lemke, stating that it is the unique combination of these modes which can generate genuine creativity. Perhaps I am moving over old and tired ground here, but when I think about the multimodal ensembles of the participants in my research project I am anxious about their translation into a separate digital multimodal ensemble. The digitisation process, as we all know, can be very reductive. I think that this is something I am particularly aware of in the context of my research because I was individual who carried out the reduction.

However, the data created with the participants was initially reduced in what we might call a ‘traditional’ way through meaning condensation and thematic coding (among others). Effectively the same as digitisation. Fitting the data into the digital object, making it become Digital Towneley, was perhaps no different.

From a narrative point of view I am arguing in my thesis that the retelling of the participants’ stories in the context of Digital Towneley allows for the creation within the reader/consumer of their own perceptions and creations (Hawthorne 1997). I frequently return to Bourdieu’s habitus in this research. Our interactions with heritage spaces define our experiences while simultaneously being defined by them. Our multimodal ensembles seem to me very much related. It is their unique combination which allows for our unique perceptions, but the ensemble is transformed throughout. In this way the habitus, heritage and multimodal ensembles share a processual quality; there is no ultimate, just a lived experience of transformations and combinations (relativism alert!).

Jewitt’s article has allowed me to think about how I might gauge the impact of Digital Towneley (itself and the process of its creation) on the participants. Will their feedback during the final interviews indicate frustration at curtailment of their multimodal ensembles or might it indicate the discovery of new modes as new aspects of their ensembles?


Jewitt C. (2013) Multimodal methods for researching digital technologies in The SAGE Handbook of Digital Technology Research

Hawthorne J. (1997) Studying the Novel: an introduction (3rd Ed.)

National heritage, birthplaces and racism in democratic society

Last week The Huffington Post and The Daily Mail ran stories about the potential for marginal seats in the upcoming general election to be decided by voters not born in the UK.

The articles raise the issue of disenfranchisement from the political parties on behalf of non-UK-born citizens. However, to my mind, the headlines promote the concept of these groups being something unusual, alien or unfair in the voting system. The stories raise issues of national heritage and birthplace.

The stories have made me think about the nature of birthplaces. I feel an affinity with my own birthplace, I suppose, but when I try to explore this affinity it is difficult to define. I don’t visit the hospital where I was born. I consider the Forest of Dean to be my birthplace, but I never lived in the same town in which my birth took place. Why does my birth in a hospital somehow extend to a sense of belonging to places adjacent? Why does it extend to being West Country, English, or British? These boundaries are not indigenous to space; they are constructed by us.

The Ancient Athenians considered themselves to be born from a union of gods and the earth of the city, an autochthonous origin. These beliefs made for wonderful mythological tales, but they also created a strong sense of nationalism and contributed no doubt to both the political and physical isolationism of ancient Athens as well as their imperial arrogance. These things resonate, I feel, with the kind of imperialist xenophobic discourses offered by UKIP (and the desperate bandwagonning of mainstream centrist parties) who attribute some peculiar values to the concept of Britishness or nationality in general.

From an archaeological perspective we might see the notion of birthplace as defining our natures as a type of environmental determinism. This sort of positivistic approach to the nature of people and society leaves out the subjective aspects of humanity, the meanings that we create and recreate constantly as part of our lived experience.

For me, it is the being and doing in a place that creates real connection. This is what constructs heritage. There are of course intangible heritages which we associate with having been born in a particular place, but in what contexts are these valuable?

It seems to me that the stories linked above are aiming to displace the intangible meanings of our birthplaces; to miscontextualise them in fact. The knowledges that we gain from these birthplace meanings are not determinants of the legitimacy of our right to vote or the quality of the votes themselves. Our nation-based birthplaces are relevant to our voting system only insofar as our genders, ages and skin colour are. The intended absence of prejudice against them is a manifestation of the intended (idealised) equality of our system.

Each of these things is an important aspect of our personal and social heritages. The stories above do little to assuage the potential exclusion felt by non-UK-born voters; the headlines play upon the suggestion of their democratic illegitimacy and an outdated notion of an autochthonous British heritage. The heritage of democracy, which we create today with the aim of equal say and liberty, becomes sullied by the implication that the votes of UK-born citizens should carry more weight. I think that these headlines highlight the latent racism and peculiar sense of geographic superiority in our society. What do you think?