Category Archives: Heritage Musings

My thoughts on heritage-related topics

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?

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?

Digital Museum Fictions

I’ll give a spoiler alert for this post because, although I have no intention of giving away important plot elements, I am going to talk about Interstellar and I don’t want it to be ruined for anybody here!

I really enjoyed the film on many sci-fi levels, but I was surprised to come across a museumified house in the later part. The house was very much like a heritage centre with screens showing video interviews with contemporaries of the house and the era it was meant to represent. What I thought was interesting was that the portrayal of this house was so easily recognisable as a museum.

The house which formed the museum was recognisable as a 21st century house (in the film a late 21st century house, perhaps) although the museum was present in a 22nd century context. The intention may have been to demonstrate a particular museum style to a 22nd century audience. There are current examples of this, such as the Victorian gallery at Salford Museum and Art Gallery which attempts to display its artefacts and artworks as they would have been arranged in a Victorian context. This cabinet of curiosities approach is an interesting way of showing us how museums used to be, but it does run the risk of invoking all the power structures and biases of (in Salford’s case) the Victorian era; without adequate explanation, the visitor will find their engagement with the exhibition limited to a bygone representational context, preventing alternative perspectives on the artefacts or multiple interpretations.

The Interstellar house museum is surprisingly low-tech. Video screens are pretty commonplace today and of course there are a number of more sophisticated media options now available. If Christopher Nolan orchestrated that museum representation specifically then it would seem that his message is that museums will not use much in the way of digital technology in the next few decades. It seems more likely that the museum representation had less attention paid to it than the rest of the film  and, as such, perhaps we can say that perceptions of museums from outside the heritage industry are that museums are not actually very progressive. What does it mean if it seems realistic to a Holywood production team that museums of the future will not incorporate interactive screens, holograms of previous occupants or virtual tour guides?

On the other hand, there is much to be said for the phenomenological aspect of the museum in the film. The house is there to be experienced; walked through, smelled, heard, seen. Nonetheless this is quite traditional, with rope barriers reminiscent of National Trust houses. The interpretation, I feel, is closed and restricted by traditional museological approaches. The subjectivity of the video interviews on display seems to offer little when the subject matter of the house, and its significance to its previous owners, isn’t expressed or interpreted beyond simple display.

It seemed to me that the absence of digital media engagement was a signifier of how far we have yet to go for people to feel digital technology has a legitimate place in museums.

What do you think? Is it just a film?

Digital Reminiscences

Duke Nukem 1 (image:

Duke Nukem 1 (image:

The fast developing festive season has been making me think of Duke Nukem. Duke Nukem is a computer game in which the player controls the eponymous character in his struggle to defeat Dr Proton. It is a simple platform game that was released in the early nineties which, as the long nights drew in at the end of a winter term, is when my best friend handed me a blue floppy disk with the first levels on it. I played the game a lot.

What has this got to do with heritage? Well, there are two aspects that I would like to talk about here.

Doom (image:

Doom (image:

Firstly, for me the memory of playing Duke Nukem includes my spatial awareness of the levels. As I explored the levels I learned where things were. The layout mapped itself out in my brain and I was aware of the larger space of the level even though the screen only showed a small section. A little later, I found a similar experience with the game Doom. Again, the levels were learned through exploration. Even though both games were linear such that their events were strictly scripted and therefore replicable, I found the sense of place and space to be realistic.

This, I think, is owing to the way in which we are allowed to explore the limits of the environment created in the games. I hesitate to use the word ‘freedom’ because games are very restricted environments for the player. However, in many ways these restrictions mirror the real world where we find many barriers, whether physical or social. By being allowed to manipulate the avatar (which is of course just a graphical representation of computer code) the human player is able to explore the extent of the environment and to learn the ‘shape’ of the virtual world they explore. Many games allow this sort of exploration, but there are others which do not. The Lucasarts adventure games were, for example, excellent stories which created convincing and hilarious senses of place, but they weren’t able to create senses of space because their worlds were constructed of separate scenes which did not always seem to link together in a logical way spatially. Similarly, I find this with films. While a film may create very effective emotional connections with characters or give the viewer a convincing sense of cultural place, a sense of space cannot be achieved to any great extent (even with 3D) because the viewer is not able to explore the limits of the world themselves.

In this way, I see that games have an important role to play in the expression of heritage and culture. Even if they are not really ‘interactive’, the effect of manipulating an avatar or similar is an effective way to simulate using spaces for the human player. A video played at a heritage centre or an interactive information screen of artefacts at a museum can be excellent ways of conveying information about various elements of culture. However, a game may allow the user to develop a sense of space and so explore the idea of more subjective aspects of history, culture and the environment. Such an approach may allow the player the chance to apply their own perspectives onto heritage and so help to widen the audience and perhaps democratise accessibility. Of course, there are still issues of representation, since some group or body will be responsible for the creation of any game world and this can bring along plenty of complex power issues.

The second element of gaming that I would like to talk briefly about is the socially constructed nature of the technology. I looked forward to playing computer games (and I still do, when I have the time). Being reminded of Duke Nukem and the time of year brought back memories of getting home from school with the light fading and settling safely and warmly in front of the family computer to zap some monsters. Even learning to use the computer at a software and a hardware level provided me with a positive learning experience. The computer and the role of computer games in my life are positive memories linked to a happy childhood. As such it seems likely to me that I have followed a course bound to result in a positive opinion of gaming technology.

Moreover, the content of the games were accessible to me because I fit neatly into the target demographic. While I could never completely identify with the macho alpha male characters, my own youthful ignorance meant that there was very little which excluded me from engaging with these games. The same may not be said for others for whom violence, androcentricism and sexism (among many other flaws) may have been offensive. On the one hand I feel that this is being addressed by some game developers and the wider accessibility of the independent games market, but on the other there are still serious issues for the games industry to tackle; not least of which the continuing (and in my view worsening) sexualised representation of women in games and gaming advertising campaigns which are akin to newspaper and magazine pornography.

These issues call into question the equalising nature of the digital environment. With a gaming industry hostile to women (again, among others) it seems unlikely that the public will broadly accept the use of games as a method to help develop heritage or historical meanings; for some there would always be a concern about the agenda of a gaming approach given the associations with the gaming industry. But perhaps the use of games in museums and heritage centres would somehow influence representation in gaming – certainly if it turned out to be popular.

Is this possible? What do you think about the role of games in heritage and history?

Pendle Hill

Pendle Hill all frosty

Pendle Hill all frosty

Last month the frost visited and crisped Pendle Hill with a white coating. It was pretty. I enjoy seeing the hill from various points throughout Pendle and find it a comforting landmark as I return home from work or longer trips away. Its prominence makes me think about the impact of landscape on us; how it subtly becomes part of our subjective interpretation of the world. When I worked in the nearby town of Nelson I used to enjoy seeing Pendle Hill standing tall behind the library as I walked down Market Street. The hill is no Mount Olympus, but I still had to lift my head to take in its horizon. That particular viewpoint seems to highlight the size of the hill, but it isn’t just the physical magnitude of the landmark that makes it so effective.

Symbolically linked with the trial of the Pendle witches and an important aspect of Pendle’s tourism, the hill represents the history and heritage of the area. It is woven into the discourse of life in the region with a local saying suggesting that if you can’t see Pendle then it’s raining and if you can see Pendle then it’s about to rain. From the top you can see for a considerable distance, with many claiming to see as far as Blackpool Tower – perhaps I’ve not had lucky enough weather…

View from Pendle near the bottom

View from Pendle near the bottom

Its impact as a feature of the landscape is, I think, enhanced by its accessibility; it is a steep climb, but achievable by a wide range of people. The hill works as a common ground for conversation because you’ll be hard pressed to find somebody who has not climbed it once. As a consequence there is shared use of landscape and spatial heritage, but also of corporeal heritage; while I am reticent to imply concepts of common sense based on the body (all of our experiences are different, affected by society, culture, history etc.), we nonetheless feel that we have a common frame of reference as our bodies tend broadly to be similar. For me, to learn that somebody else has climbed Pendle is to be sure that they have been to the same place as me and also that they have learned some of the same things that I have.


View from the slope of Pendle

View from the slope of Pendle

We feel the work in our thighs and in our lungs as we climb and we see the effect of these exertions in our perception of the landscape or the world – the fruit of the climber’s labour is to see, hear and feel all the things about being on a tall hill that you don’t feel at the bottom. Some of these things are sensual: the wind on our skin or in our ears; the view of the towns and villages. But there are also intangible elements associated with these, such as the concept of space and the awareness that we gain of being within a landscape. The view demonstrates geographical context for us; we perceive ourselves at once to be both in one place and not in the neighbouring places that we see. It is one of the most fundamental othering effects of phenomenology; a simple reminder of the multiplicity of the world and of reality.

From the top of Pendle

From the top of Pendle

De Certeau discusses the hyperreal effect of viewing a city from above, how we feel as though we are seeing the city as a whole; it’s essence captured for us in one vision. But we are unable to see the detail of the functions and lived experience that make a city real. So it is with the view from Pendle Hill. What we see is simplified, like a map of the land reduced to the distant Yorkshire landscape, the towns on Nelson and Colne and the misty horizon towards the west coast. This hyperrealised representation is not a bad thing. It is a beautiful and different perspective.

And afterwards, when we reach the bottom with tired legs and hungry bellies, there are even more subjective experiences to be enjoyed in the Barley pubs.