Debate and Dissent in UK Heritage

Last year the Heritage Alliance began a series of debates about Heritage ( ). They are streamed and live tweeted and made public in many ways to stimulate discussion and engagement with key issues in Heritage for the UK today. So I eagerly anticipated the first one, on the Future of Heritage. But it wasn’t a debate. There was a broad topic (the Future!) and a panel of speakers, who mostly agreed with each other and had been chosen for their prominence rather than for their position on the issue. I was disappointed and moaned on Facebook. A Swedish colleague took me to task saying that at least there was a tradition of public debate in the UK. In Sweden, he argued, public disagreement was so frowned upon that such a debate would never be considered. But my excitement for the rest of the debates in this series was diminished because what I had hoped for was a forum where some of the contentious issues in Heritage would be discussed, disagreements explored, not another where the ‘partly line’ was confirmed.

The most recent Heritage Counts ( presents research which demonstrates that Heritage contributes to well being. But what was the null hypothesis in this research? Was there serious consideration that Heritage may have a negative effect on well being? The research quantifies an effect that we want to promote (which is how Heritage Counts works). Its great for pointing politicians at, great for encouraging support for Heritage. But not so great for improving the way that Heritage engages with well being. To improve our practice we need critical approaches, we need debate.

Full disclosure. I used to debate as a hobby. I was a competitive debater as an undergraduate. I stopped because I found the requirement to take any side of an argument, combined with the habit of listening to other people with the purpose of picking holes in their argument, was corrosive to my well being. But it has left me with respect for laying out (at least) two sides of an argument clearly; for explicitly criticising ideas deemed so well agreed that they seem obvious, for considering whether we may be wrong.

So I was thrilled when Sarah Howard and Tara-Jane Sutcliffe proposed a House Style debate on social engagement in archaeology at the TAG conference this year ( There was a real motion. “This house believes that archaeology should NOT be instrumentalised.” They asked for speakers to declare a side. It was even a motion I cared about!

It was a very successful session and the organisers should be really pleased with themselves. The speakers applied themselves to the topic and all the papers were good, some were excellent. I left the session inspired to do more to work with my own community. The session was well attended and audience discussion (when there was time for it) was lively, well informed and useful. But it wasn’t really a debate. While the discussant before lunch called for a division on the motion, by the end we could see that there was no point voting. On the essential question, we all agreed.

There were a number of reasons that the debate aspect didn’t work out. Firstly, the definition of the motion shifted from paper to paper. I was the first speaker and tried to define the terms. But of course, the other speakers had written their papers already so these definitions had little effect. Both major terms of the motion had potential for confusion. I defined archaeology as being the analysis and investigation of material culture to tell stories about the past. But there were many other definitions in operation. The definition of Instrumentalisation was so variable and non-explicit that some people became irritated

The last paper of the day introduced a very clear definition from Hamilakis (2004, 289).

“instrumentalist procedure, that is, something that delivers knowledge, information and skills which have a distinctive, easily definable, measurable and quantifiable character, which can be assessed in a direct way”

Although Hamilakis is referring specifically to pedagogy here, using this tighter definition it may have been possible to find more speakers in favour of the motion. The speakers who had agreed to speak in favour of the motion were largely taking devil’s advocate positions. While there was one paper critical of the unregulated activities of community archaeology groups – there was none seriously suggesting that archaeology shouldn’t serve a social purpose. And yet… there certainly are archaeologists who think little of archaeology that consciously serves a social purpose, particularly if it seeks benefits for its participants. Even the broader categories ‘community archaeology’ and ‘public archaeology’ or often seen as less prestigious than their professional and academic counterparts. So where were these people? Where, indeed was Hamilakis, who has published against instrumentalisation and who was at the conference?

Contentious conference sessions often end up preaching to the choir. So many times I have discussed the way that sessions trying to integrate subdisciplines by demonstrating their centrality to the discipline end of emphasising silos. Even when a ‘community archaeology’ session is framed as a debate, those who see community archaeology as less valuable can’t be bothered to come and tell us so.

Next year’s TAG conference has the theme of Diversity. I shall be trying the debate format again, so watch this space.

Hamilakis, J. 2004 ‘Archaeology and the Politics of Pedagogy’ World Archaeology 36(2): 287-309


12 thoughts on “Debate and Dissent in UK Heritage

  1. Interesting article. Another problem with the sort of argument presented by is that it only focuses on the benefit of heritage and fails to consider any of the counter-arguments that might be put by people who are not quite so interested in heritage.

    For example, it is not particularly difficult to show that the implementation of some Heritage Policy contributes to inter-generational inequality and severe economic loss. This is well defined, especially from an economic point of view (where existing Treasury papers can be used to quantify the losses).

    Of course, I am also arguing from a slightly devil’s advocate position: The subject is very emotive, so discussion is usually best avoided.

    • Interesting point. Clearly English Heritage won’t commission work that shows Heritage contributing to intergenerational inequity (or any other inequity) but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done. There is a growing number of Heritage studies programmes in UK academia that does produce some more critical work. its a matter of that becoming better understood.

      I can’t agree with you that emotive subjects are best not discussed (as you’ll know if you read other posts on this blog I think the main value of Heritage is that it allows an emotional connection) I am passionate in my belief that Heritage can be a force for good in society, but that is because it is culturally powerful. That means it can be used for a range of social purposes, including increasing inequity. I’d argue that is the main purpose it has been put to thus far and we have a long road to recover from that.

      thanks again for your comment

      • I can’t agree with you that emotive subjects are best not discussed

        Ah.. see what you mean. I meant to explain that people who are excluded wouldn’t necessarily want to engage in emotive arguments.

        For an example of an exclusion, at the S17:3 conference yesterday, when discussing the the social and environmental value of archaeology (and trying to expand on the idea that archaeology might become more inclusive), the speaker starts with the phrase “The archaeological resource must be valued for its intrinsic value.”

        This phrase sounds well argued. But replace the word “archaeological resource” with “teapot” and it still makes sense. And a teapot doesn’t necessarily have much in the way of intrinsic value to anyone other than teapot collectors.

        So by introducing this initial wording, and introducing an emotive assumption that the audience could firmly latch on to, the speaker has immediately excluded everyone who isn’t an archaeological enthusiast (or a teapot collector). The speaker then goes on to confirm this view by saying “It is clear, however, that it also has wider social and environmental value to individuals…”.

        From the point of view of anyone who had turned up to find out why archaeology is important (as in the first speaker’s question “Does archaeology as a discipline need to justify its existence?”), they would now be wholly excluded.

        Would have been interesting to have been there. Shame I couldn’t make it.

      • Yes! I completely agree with your example. And i also agree that a debate format (while valuable) is probably not a good way to welcome people who may feel excluded. A more open, listening format will work better for that

  2. “instrumentalist procedure, that is, something that delivers knowledge, information and skills which have a distinctive, easily definable, measurable and quantifiable character, which can be assessed in a direct way” Hamilakis 2004.

    This definition introduced right at the end of the debate I believe was not the definition most people in the session were working to. The debate was set up to be controversial. Instrumentaliation was put as being something we as archaeologists are being forced into by all the various forces Sarah My so elequently outlined in the opening paper. It was put as something we can not fight against or have any control over. I really enjoyed Mike Nevell’s paper that proposed we need to be instrumental. For me this is the definition of ‘social purpose’ which most speakers seem to miss. There was a lot of talk of ‘social purpose’ archaeology.

    For many this meant ‘doing archaeology to do good to others’. I concurred with Rachel Kiddy in her frustration at this. Who are we to say we are doing good? I teach a lot of disadvantaged groups, people with learning difficulties, mental health issues, the Deaf community and those with physical impairment. The greatest joy I get for teaching for the WEA is that we take every person who comes through the door as a person with the potential to discover new things, to share experiences and if they want to – change things- for themelves, for their families, for those communities. I hope that no-one has ever turned up to my class to be ‘done good to’ but rather because they want discover new things, to particpate in discussion and feel they are being heard. Freire argued in his Pedagogy of Oppression ” ‘authentic thinking’ does not take place in ivory tower isolation but only in communication” (1968: chapter 2). I can honestly say that in all the classes I have taught I have come away inspired by the students engagement, their openess and often their insightfulness and knowledge from whatever background they came from. It was good to hear Mike Nevell argue this point and Hayley Roberts. Often we as archaeologists think we know it all when actually local people have spent years gathering information and, especially in relationship to the the pressures of commercial archaeology, will have a far greater understanding of the evidence because of it. It might not be in a format that we recognise from our ‘professional’ pedestal but it is there if we are willing to ask and engage in debate.

    Archaeology is an amazing subject in its diversity and power to engage. We need to be brave and engage in debate, there may well be benefits beyond the sense of discovery and interpretation, for everyone this will be personal.

    I have problems with both forms of instrumentaliation outlined above. Hamilakis because it argues to passive engagement, it talks about delivery of information rather than discussion. The there is a huge problem concept that instrumentalism is about dumbing down, allowing ‘non- professionals’ to play at archaeology and that we are becoming ‘social workers’. If believe this we will soon lose our audiences who will feel patronised. For many of my students it us about taking part in something ‘normal’, if extraordinary, to think of things other than the everyday that makes the subject so exciting.
    Let us share our knowledge and expertise and in return be willing to receive the knowledge and expertise of others.

    • Wow, thanks for your comment, really useful contribution. A number of people have said that the debate did provoke the thought we hoped it would, but that it wasn’t fully expressed in the room. Your comment really shows that. The way archaeology interacts with the communities it exists within is really complex and not always positive. There’s clearly an appetite for discussing this all without trying to simply identify ‘best practice’ thanks again

      • I think the set up of the debate needed to be different. Maybe we needed papers in the morning and then more of a debate set up in the afternoon -perhaps for and against panels with questions and discussion from the floor. Alternatively a circulation of written papers before hand to discuss with people willing to defend what they wrote from the floor.
        Perhaps a definition of the key words in the motion may have helped!

        Regarding your proposal for a debate on Diversity it would be really great if you could involve a ‘diverse’ audience. If enough notice is given projects may be able to find the funding to get different communities to come and voice their own opinions.

      • Yes, I think the key to that idea is funding. Cara Jones and I had a chat on Twitter about it and Dan Pett suggested using Micropasts. Its not what I was thinking about in terms of a debate though, because if we’re going to invite people from outside the profession I think a panel discussion would work better. I had a different, more clearly divisive motion in mind, but I’m happy to be convinced otherwise. Next year’s TAG theme is Diversity, so I think we should all be thinking of lots of ways to address that.

  3. Pingback: A proposal for the next debate | Heritage for Transformation

  4. “Was there serious consideration that Heritage may have a negative effect on well being?”

    It may do, but I find it hard to face up to such a possibility, just as many would be reluctant to take a debating stance that “kittens have a negative effect on wellbeing”!

    But it does need facing up to IMO. A debate on the lines proposed would have a voice missing – the voice of heritage itself! Thus you could have a better, genuinely two-sided and healthy debate on the motion: “does the popularisation and outreaching of heritage have a negative effect on the well being of heritage?” (No, not just what you think I might think, but also overcrowding, erosion, trivialisation, Disneyfication etc. Lots to chew on).

    • I’m all for loads of debates! And that would make a corker. I still hope I can find someone to argue in favour of the motion I’ve proposed, but there’s nearly 12 months 🙂

  5. Pingback: This house believes that archaeological resources are not finite and are renewable | Heritage for Transformation

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