Last year the Heritage Alliance began a series of debates about Heritage (http://www.theheritagealliance.org.uk/heritage-debates/ ). 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 (http://hc.english-heritage.org.uk/content/pub/2014/heritage-and-wellbeing.pdf) 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 (http://archaeology-debate.com). 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
— Alison Atkin (@alisonatkin) December 16, 2014
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 http://www.jstor.org/stable/4128331?seq=1&sid=21104889956161&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3738032#page_scan_tab_contents