IHR Public History Seminar: cultural heritage research, 7th November

Following a very positive and promising start to the new Public History Seminar with Rebecca Conard’s talk on civic engagement last month, we’re delighted to have Professor Alison Wylie of the Departments of Philosophy and Anthropology, University of Washington and Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, University of Durham, speaking on the topic ‘Negotiating the past: Collaborative practice in cultural heritage research’.  Responding will be Dr Laura Peers of the Pitt Rivers Museum and School of Anthropology, University of Oxford.

The seminar will be held on Wednesday 7th November in the Athlone Room (102) of the Senate House, University of London, at 17:30 and followed by a drinks reception. All are warmly welcome.

Archaeology has seen a major sea change in the last few decades as any number of stakeholders, especially Indigenous, Aboriginal, and First Nations descendant communities, demand accountability to their interests, their conventions of practice and conceptions of cultural heritage. What are the implications of this for archaeological practice? Internal debate in North America has been dominated by anxieties about the costs of response to these demands: the focus is on high profile examples of research opportunities lost and professional autonomy compromised by legal constraints and by intractable conflict. All too often this obscures local initiatives that illustrate what becomes possible when practice is reframed as a form of intellectual and cultural collaboration. In the case of collaborations with Native American communities, the archaeologists involved describe innumerable ways in which their research programs have been enriched, empirically and conceptually. I explore the legacies of community-based collaborative practice in archaeology, focusing on their implications for procedural norms that govern the adjudication of empirical robustness and credibility. I argue that conditions for effective critical engagement must include a requirement to take seriously forms of expertise that lie outside the research community.

 

The ‘endless rustle of the in-tray’: finding time for historical thinking

Rohan Butler served as the Foreign Secretary’s historical adviser from 1963-82 and was one of the leading figures in the civil service’s post-war experiment in incorporating historical perspective into the business of policymaking.  His neat and evocative phrase ‘the endless rustle of the in-tray’ (cited by Peter Beck in his illuminating study of these experiments, in the the Treasury and Foreign Office, 1950-76) points to the difficulty of finding time for long view, big issue thinking when operational demands always seem to take precedence.  This means that in times of crisis (Butler was writing about Abadan), the need for ‘action under pressure’ cannot accommodate the considered thinking necessary for good decision-making.

The institutional culture of the government department – and the broader civil service – seems from Beck’s description (based on extensive archival research) to account in large measure for this operational mind-set.  But are we any better at “resisting the rustle” now, in universities, in businesses and other organisations?

Doing this blog is one way I try to step back and look for perspectives and connections that I’d otherwise miss.  And I struggle to find the time to do so, even though my express purpose is linking history with political and public life!  So sitting down and writing this now means consciously blocking my ears, knowing that the to-do list is growing as I type.

Self-help books often recommend setting aside some time on a regular basis for doing more strategic thinking (don’t turn the email on, ignore the phone etc.)  But such good intentions are unlikely to last.  And my sense is that keeping historical thinking going means making it part of “business”.  We often think that “diarising” something is a way of signalling its importance and securing its status in our lives.  But I think that tends instead to compartmentalise it, making it separate from our lives: moveable, interchangeable, containable.  In policy, this would entail integrating historical forms of enquiry into the broader process by which policy is developed, rather than seeking historical “evidence” as a bolt-on (if at all).  I think this approach has wider relevance too.  At its simplest, it could just be asking historical questions about how an issue’s emerged or the context for a decision.

But for now, the ear-muffs must come off…