A Conversation with Rodney Harrison on Heritage: Critical Approaches

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In May 2021, the first Chinese translation of Rodney Harrison’s seminal book Heritage: Critical Approaches was published by Shanghai Classics Publishing House. As nearly a decade has now passed since the first publication of the English version, the editorial office of Heritage Architecture and Built Heritage considers this an opportune moment to discuss the book’s impact on the theoretical development of Heritage Studies since its first publication and to help Chinese readers further understand the book’s objectives and background. Therefore, the journal invited Tam Lui, a PhD candidate in Architectural History and Theory at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University, to have a conversation with Professor Harrison. The discussion focused on the book’s primary arguments and contributions to heritage research and practices and on the author’s thinking and projects since the book’s first publication. The editorial office hopes that this conversation will allow readers to refresh their understanding of the book’s contribution from a historical perspective and foster further reflection on our ubiquitous experience with heritage.

Date of the Interview: 5 August, 2021

Interviewee: Rodney Harrison, Professor of Heritage Studies at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London

Interviewer: Lui Tam, PhD Candidate at the Welsh School of Architecture, Cardiff University 

1. Introducing the book to Chinese readers

[Liu Tam]:

What are the most important messages in the book that you hope to get across through this translation? Who should read the book and why?

 

[Rodney Harrison]:

The main point of the book is to encourage readers to think critically about what heritage is and what it does. We tend to assume that conservation or preservation of the natural and cultural environment is an inherently ‘good’ thing to do. Because of this, heritage is placed beyond questioning and critical examination. The aim of the book is not to moralise about whether heritage is good or bad, but to encourage its readers to consider the social, political, economic, ecological, and material work that goes on around heritage. What does conservation do and why do people do it? I think the fact that we spend money, resources, time, and energy on conservation, and that we hand responsibility over to experts to allow them to do this work for us and in our name, means that we should encourage people to think critically about what is being done, why it is being done, by whom, and to what ends.

The other key message in the book, not just in a Chinese context but more generally, is to encourage people to think about heritage more holistically. On the one hand, it is about the connection between cultural and natural heritage, which are just labels and are not very helpful [1]. The labelling itself contributes to some of that socio-political work that heritage does. On the other hand, the book aims to encourage its readers to think about heritage more generally in its relationship with other forms of redundant objects, places, and practices, such as ‘waste’, which has been the key theme in some of my subsequent work [2, 3].

 

2. On the abundance of heritage

[Liu Tam]:

The discussion on heritage and waste is related to this next section on the abundance of heritage. The book starts with a description of the ubiquitous experience of encountering (listed) heritage in New York and suggests that there is an abundance of heritage in today’s world. Such an idea is provocative and might indeed raise alarms among Chinese readers, especially heritage academics and practitioners, who see historic environment and ‘intangible’ traditions disappearing at a rapid speed in the country, both during the turmoil in the last century and the rapid economic development since the 1980s. What would you say to such pressing anxieties?

 

[Rodney Harrison]:

 

The argument I make in the book is that heritage is always defined within the context of some sense of threat, or risk, or endangerment. Fernando Vidal and Nelia Dias [4] term this heritage’s ‘endangerment sensibility’. All conservation practices are connected by an implicit sense that certain objects, places, and practices are under threat in one way or another, because they are somehow irreplaceable. However, there have also been a long running series of debates about whether heritage should really be considered a non-renewable resource. Part of the argument in the book is that globally, heritage has grown exponentially over the course of the 20th century. One could argue that there is more ‘heritage’ now than ever, because there has been such an increase in the range of things that we define as heritage. To me, a simple answer to this question is that heritage is not independent of the sense of endangerment that helps to define it as such. Heritage is created and defined by this sense of endangerment.

 

[Liu Tam]:

 

If I can press on this question a bit more, we can say that in general, if we look at the entire cohort of designated heritage, it is growing exponentially, also in China, with this trend and ‘craze’ of (designating) heritage (in the recent decades). However, there are things, some types of heritage, objects, or traditions, that are rare. What would you say to that?

 

[Rodney Harrison]:

 

It is only the assumption of a pure form that allows one to imagine that something is at threat from transforming into another thing. It is similar to the classic anthropological problem of assuming that cultures are entirely bounded in their relations with other cultures, and that they do not change over time. (It is assumed that) the moment when something is observed constitutes a moment at which one can record the totality of something, and that this moment is somehow more meaningful than the next or the one before. This idea touches on the relationship between heritage and time. Conceptually, the threat to heritage is seen to increase over time, because time is seen to materially erode things, and time is a factor in imposing change.

    There is no intention in my work to be cynical towards people who are genuinely working very hard to save different forms of valued heritage and see this as important work. The idea is just to think critically about what valorising heritage in particular ways means and what it does to those objects, places, and practices to designate them and manage them as such. In many ways, what underpins my more recent projects is to think about how to practically engage with what will be inevitable and accelerating environmental (climate) change, but also social and political change, to think differently about heritage and conservation, not so much as a practice of arresting change, but as a practice oriented towards working with inevitable changes, coming up with creative solutions that allow us to not only save things, but also adequately mark the passing of things which cannot or should not be saved.

 

[Liu Tam]:

 

Some heritage professionals in China also consider that too much designated heritage would impede economic development. They suggest a ‘balance’ between the two or that heritage conservation must contribute to economic development. On the other hand, some residents in historic urban areas also consider designating heritage prevents them from the possibility of having a better living environment. In this context, how should we interpret the ‘abundance of heritage’ and its role in heritage practices?

 

[Rodney Harrison]:

 

This characterisation of the relationship between heritage and development as opposed to one another is misleading. Development makes heritage, because it is only when something is perceived to be threatened that it can be understood to constitute a form of heritage. This comes back to the question of whether heritage is really a non-renewable resource or not. Chinese readers might say it is dangerous to say that heritage is not a finite resource, but the argument of the book is not that there are no special places, practices, objects, or landscapes, nor that people should not try to conserve them one way or another. It is certainly not to argue that heritage must have a set of specific values that are quantifiable within a marketplace and that these values need to be put against other development values and therefore, one can decide to keep something or not. I think the argument in the book is precisely to think on a case-by-case basis, to acknowledge the fact that when something is threatened, it forces one to articulate what the values of those things are and be creative about how to maintain them. These processes are important and should be seen as a very generative and productive set of questions that emerge in the context of risk or endangerment. The problem is when it seems like there is only one way of conserving or attributing value to things and this becomes a very rigid and fixed set of practices.

 

3. On the paradigm shifts within Heritage Studies (and CHS)

[Liu Tam]:

 

The proposal of a dialogical approach to heritage in this book has set it apart from both the conventional approach to heritage and the discursive turn, which I dare to term as a ‘post-discursive’ turn of heritage studies. Could you briefly introduce to our readers why it is a promising alternative to the prevalent approaches to heritage today? How can it be applied in practice?

 

[Rodney Harrison]:

 

If one was to take a completely socially constructivist approach to heritage, one would say, as Laurajane Smith does, that ‘there is, really, no such thing as heritage’ [5], that heritage is simply a label that we give to something for some particular reason because we want to preserve it. I am not saying that Laurajane Smith necessarily does this, but if one were to take an extreme socially constructivist approach to understanding what heritage is, then one could say that anything could be attributed heritage values to and that it is irrelevant what it actually ‘is’. I think it is not enough to say, ‘anything could be heritage’, because it is not true. It is quite clear that many things that we designate as heritage are startling, enchanting (to connect with the ideas of Alfred Gell on the agency of art objects [6]), or do have a kind of aesthetic power. I think to say that heritage is entirely socially constructed detracts from the experience which emerges in the space between people and certain kinds of objects, places, and practices which hold value for them. It is why I use this term ‘dialogue’, because I see heritage values as emerging in the interfaces between objects and people, places and people, or practices and people, across socio-material networks.

    So the argument of the book is that it is not really possible to understand what heritage is and does simply by studying conventions, laws, and guidelines, but that one needs to see how heritage is practised in diverse contexts ‘on the ground’ (to borrow from the title of Christoph Brumann and David Berliner’s book [7]); that one needs to study what people actually do, not what they say should be done. I see it as a very important component of the approach that I have been advocating for in the book and my subsequent projects.

 

[Liu Tam]:

 

Could you talk about which part of the critical approaches in the book can potentially be further interpreted and adapted to apply to the Chinese context, or whether some of the concepts are even irrelevant?

 

[Rodney Harrison]:

 

I think this process is part of the complicated history of global heritage that I have tried to tell in the book. International heritage practice today is an amalgam of lots of different concepts, taken from a number of different intellectual traditions. The story of the cultural landscape concept (which I discuss in the book) is a good example. It arose out of different groups saying that this very strict delineation of natural landscapes and cultural sites implied in the World Heritage Convention just does not work for the way they understand heritage. Since the publication of the book, a number of more empirically grounded histories of heritage practice have been published, for example, the book by Lynn Meskell [8], that work through the particular histories of the development of heritage concepts and practices in specific contexts.

 

[Liu Tam]:

 

Would you say the approach to heritage is also in a dialogue with practices?

 

[Rodney Harrison]:

 

Yes, the concept emerges partially in relation to practices, and partially in relation to concepts of time and change. While there is a fundamental difference in the history of the concept of modernity and its relationship to heritage in different places, I believe heritage always exists in some sort of dialogue with the concept of the ‘modern’, and how ‘the modern’ is defined. I think it is important to understand that practices and ideas of time and change are in dialogue with one another, somehow, even if the history of those ideas are different in different contexts.

 

4. On the use of theories in practice

[Liu Tam]:

 

You already glided smoothly into the next question earlier on. The debate and advocacy on a landscape approach to heritage (such as HUL and Cultural Landscape) among both academics and practitioners, including in a WH context, echoes the relational/connectivity ontology of heritage discussed in the book. Do you think that it is a promising direction? What drawbacks can you see and how to overcome those?

 

[Rodney Harrison]:

Yes, I think the focus on landscape has been important precisely because it changes the frame of reference. It allows us to look at things in a broader context. I think the shifting of frame and how it allows one to be more attuned to the long-term histories and the ongoing changes and transformations within the landscape context is the most important, rather than the idea of landscape itself.

 

[Liu Tam]:

 

I would say that adopting the landscape approach is related to the idea of seeing heritage as an assemblage that you talked about in the book. Even for a single building, there are other actors that are (constantly) having dialogues and connections with that building, which form a sort of ‘landscape’ with it. In this sense, our approach to various types of heritage can be inspired by the landscape approach.

[Liu Tam]:

 

There has been some resistance from the anthropocentric perspective (particularly from heritage scholars with a discursive focus) towards the post-humanist approach to heritage that you adopted in the book, which is partly attributed to the concern that the power structure (and imbalance) between human actors might not be sufficiently captured or addressed in a ‘flat’ ontology. The interactions of human actors in a ‘hybrid forum’, for example, can be significantly skewed by the hierarchical relationship between them in society, even if they were all given equal presence. Such hierarchy might be beyond the individual actors’ ability to overcome. How can a dialogical approach address these concerns?

 

[Rodney Harrison]:

 

I do not agree that post-humanist perspectives, by definition, ignore or are unable to account for issues of power. If one looks at the work of feminist post-humanist scholars like Donna Haraway, Rosie Braidotti, Isabelle Stengers, or Anna Tsing, there is a very strong emphasis on inequality and power. To dignify other kinds of actors with some degree of agency does not necessarily and is not intended to diminish the agency of others or the inequalities of power that exist within social and material networks.

    However, as you say, dialogues are not always equal nor inherently democratic. The emphasis on dialogue in Heritage: Critical Approaches has two separate concerns. On the one hand, it acts as an explanatory mechanism through which to explore how heritage functions, and how it relates to other concerns. On the other hand, it is also a kind of aspiration for heritage. The idea of ‘hybrid forums’ and dialogical processes of decision making provides an aspirational scenario in which it is possible to acknowledge different forms of expertise as equal with one another. It forms the basis for imagining ways of doing heritage differently.

5. On Prospect of the Chinese version and the Futures of Heritage

[Liu Tam]:

 

The book was initially written in a post-2008 (financial crisis) era. More than a decade later, the global pandemic has imposed an even larger crisis on our world. We are now nearly two years into the pandemic, do you have some reconsiderations on some of the ideas in the book or do you think it makes some of them even more significant in the post-pandemic world?

 

[Rodney Harrison]:

 

I think we have seen an acceleration and proliferation of discourses of crisis over the past decade, with the climate emergency, the extinction emergency, the crisis around race that emerged with discussions in Black Lives Matter, as well as the pandemic. I think Critical Heritage Studies is more important than ever within the context of this global sense of crisis, precisely because within this context, upon the declaration of an emergency, it is very easy to assume that the crisis is so great that any proposed solutions are inherently good and do not need to be considered critically.

 

[Liu Tam]:

 

I think this discussion is related to the understanding of the word ‘critical’, which you and Prof Hang Kan address in the prefaces of the Chinese version. What ‘critical’ means in an Anglophone context is different from that in the Chinese language. You mention the difference in translation of the word ‘critical’ between the 2018 ACHS Hangzhou Conference and the book. I understand that CHS has some philosophical root in Critical Theory and other related academic traditions, but I think regarding the scholarships of CHS that we are seeing now, it is perhaps more about not taking anything for granted.

 

[Rodney Harrison]:

 

Yes, I think it is both about being self-reflexive (especially if one is a practitioner), and holding individuals, practices, and institutions to account. Critical Heritage Studies is about reflecting, probing, and understanding things in context, understanding what things do and why they work the way that they do. When experts do things in our name, on our behalf, I think we have a right to hold them to account for the things that they are doing and to look at those things critically. Perhaps more so in an emergency.

 

[Liu Tam]:

 

Could you give our readers a preview of your upcoming publications?

 

[Rodney Harrison]:

 

One of the ideas that underpin several projects that I have been involved in since the initial publication of Heritage: Critical Approaches (English version) is looking at the concept of sustainability and whether heritage really could be argued to be ‘sustainable’. Heritage Futures was a large multi-researcher project in global partnership with 25 different heritage organisations, from endangered language preservation, built heritage conservation, to landscape rewilding, and then also including practices that we may not normally think of as heritage practices, like nuclear waste disposal or messages sent into outer space [2]. One of the conclusions that we came to was that heritage practices are not very sustainable at all, and that there is very little consideration given to how one set of practices impacts upon another within the various different fields in which heritage is practised. Indeed, heritage practices quite often come to conflict with one another, and attempt to arrest what are really inevitable processes of change, whether it is social change, historical change, or physical change, which one might describe as unsustainable.

    Two other projects following Heritage Futures include a small but very focused project called ‘Landscape Futures and the Challenge of Change: Towards Integrated Cultural/Natural Heritage Decision Making’, and another one called ‘Reimagining Museums for Climate Action’. The former aims to develop and disseminate new frameworks for heritage decision-making and resource the heritage sector to engage with long-term thinking and respond to the challenges of climatological and environmental change more effectively and creatively, working with, rather than against inevitable processes of change. The latter was prompted by the need for radical new thinking around museums and heritage in response to the climate crisis. Responding to the two main pillars of climate action—mitigation and adaptation—an international design and ideas competition launched in 2020 asked how museums could help society make the deep, transformative changes needed to achieve a net-zero or zero-carbon world.

 

 

References:

[1] HARRISON R. Beyond “Natural” and “Cultural” Heritage: Toward an Ontological Politics of Heritage in the Age of Anthropocene [J]. Heritage & Society, 2015, 8 (1): 24-42.

[2] HARRISON R, DESILVEY C, HOLTORF C, et al. Heritage Futures: Comparative Approaches to Natural and Cultural Heritage Practices [M]. London: UCL Press, 2020.

[3] HARRISON R, STERLING C. Deterritorialising the Future: Heritage in, of and after the Anthropocene [M]. London: Open Humanities Press, 2020.

[4] VIDAL F, DIAS N. Biodiversity, Endangerment, and Culture [M]. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2016.

[5] SMITH L. Uses of Heritage [M]. Oxon: Routledge, 2006: 1.

[6] GELL A. Art and Agency: An Anthropological Theory [M]. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

[7] BRUMANN C, BERLINER D. World Heritage on the Ground: Ethnographic Perspectives [M]. New York and Oxford: Berghann Books, 2016.

[8] MESKELL L. A Future in Ruins: UNESCO, World Heritage, and the Dream of Peace [M]. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.