Heritage as Reconciliation: A Winter School at Corrymeela

It’s hard to believe that it is already two years since I was involved in Contact Culture and Conflict around the Causeway, but it is an experience that has stayed with me. So it was a privilege to work with the project partnership again to organise this winter school. It gave each of us an opportunity to reflect on what the project taught us and to compare our approach with that of others involved in similar work, both locally and internationally. And Corrymeela provided the ideal environment for open dialogue between a diverse group of heritage professionals, academics, public bodies and local communities.

The week opened with one question from a participant that questioned the very basis of the event – is there, or should there be, a connection between heritage and reconciliation work? However, presentations from Colin Breen, John Giblin and Sara McDowell provided compelling evidence for the many and complex ways in which heritage is intertwined in the causes of conflict, using examples from Catalonia, Cyprus, Uganda and Rwanda, as well as Northern Ireland. If heritage is at the heart of what divides us, then we cannot afford to dismiss its central role as we work towards peace. Sara McDowell in particular drew our attention to how the fear surrounding addressing the legacy of the past has hindered the peace process here in Ireland.

The work of Peter Schmidt reiterated my own belief in the value of developing long-term partnerships with local communities, in supporting local aspirations to secure cultural and economic sustainability rather than assuming a leadership role that serves only your own professional interests. Mazen Iwaisi provided disquieting insights into the (mis-)management of heritage in Israel and Palestine. But it was his personal response to that larger political context which I was most drawn to; the fact that he and his family have committed money and time in order to turn their own home into a museum, a museum that tells the stories of local people’s lives, as a counter to politicised heritage narratives that reinforce conflict.

After a (bitterly cold) day revisiting some of the archaeological sites we explored previously with local community groups during Contact Culture and Conflict across the Causeway, Laura McAtackney encouraged us to consider other public spaces in which Northern Ireland’s contested past is presented. Her examples were wide-ranging and her questions about who constructs (or fails to construct) historical narratives in public spaces, provoked me to question my own role, as a heritage practitioner, within spaces of communal memory.

Nicole Van Dijk presented a further challenge to the role of heritage practitioners in conflict resolution, one that involves a radical re-imagining of what a museum is, where it exists and what it preserves and interprets. Then Pedro Pereira reminded us of the importance of connecting in a personal way with the communities we work with, demonstrating a simple but effective technique for building the relationships of honesty and trust crucial to any conflict resolution process (I was also delighted that his chosen facilitation tool was a hand-made doll, inspired by Helen Perry‘s Stitching and Unstitching the Conflict project I was privileged to take part in).

In the break before the final session, which I was to convene, all that I had heard before coalesced in my mind in the shape of a personal challenge. It’s not a new challenge, but one which I had perhaps lost sight of recently.

I participated in the winter school because this work matters to me; it is about the type of place I want to live in and I want to better understand how I can help to create that place. I began my career in local museums shortly after the Good Friday Agreement, when museums strove to present themselves as ‘neutral spaces’, set apart from, or even above, the cultural conflict outside their walls. But, as John Giblin reminded us, heritage is essentially a political act; as a heritage practitioner, I am implicated in that act. Some of the presentations and discussions earlier in the week had reminded me how frustrated I can get with a purely academic perspective on these issues. While taking a critical distance can give us fresh insights, it can also allow us to remain distanced from community conflict, rather than acknowledging and addressing our role as an actor in that environment. Growing up as I did in the 1980s and 1990s, I have been taught to obfuscate personal questions that try to pinpoint who I am and where I am from. But how can I ask other people to engage in dialogue about identity, place and heritage if I am not open to that dialogue myself? And how can I participate in real dialogue without honestly confronting how my background and experiences influence my interpretation of the past?

And so my challenge, which I hoped would be embraced by others at the winter school, was to reflect on my personal commitment, professional capabilities and ethical responsibilities in relation to working in contested heritage.  In the final session of the week Sara PerryRoss Velure Roholt and I offered that challenge to the rest of the group, asking them to share their own story about how they came to be at the winter school. It was obvious that initially people felt uncomfortable. But I was grateful that in the end most embraced the question and seemed to get a lot from sharing their responses with each other.

I was also grateful that both Sara and Ross then turned our attention to the practice of working with contested heritage. Questioning the way in which community engagement practice is currently taught at university level, Sara asked us to focus on the factors that create sustainable, successful partnerships with local community groups, namely good project governance. The ideas she presented elicited a surprising amount of criticism, when for me some tangible, practical ideas were offered for discussion on how to establish equitable decision-making processes and deal with potential intra-group conflict. Her presentation was also a useful reminder that decision-making on local heritage should be informed by, but not controlled by, heritage professionals. How contention arose and was dealt with by the group perhaps has something to tell us about what we may still have to learn about negotiating conflict. A conversation afterwards with a member of a local community group put it into stark perspective – ‘What are they arguing about? Isn’t this all really simply about treating people with respect?’

Ross Velure Roholt advocated a continual process of reflection, learning and change over the course of a project in order to prevent or address conflict – a process of developmental evaluation. A developmental approach offers a more nuanced and productive understanding of what is working well, what is not working, and how best to respond to arising issues and opportunities. From my own experience, I can see the benefits these principles bring to continually improving our practice, but I also recognise the challenges of putting them into practice, particularly as a freelancer. Too often I am working in the context of short-term project funding, where timescales and budgets are restricted and project outcomes are already determined by the client. However, though I may not often be privy to the wider context of organisational planning and development within which projects are delivered, I am deeply appreciative of the introduction to developmental evaluation practice so that I can begin to apply the principles to my own work.


I left Corrymeela with a renewed personal commitment to working in contested heritage. I care about this place in which I live and I want to be part of creating a peaceful, sustainable society. Heritage may be only one element of building that better future, but it is at the centre of so many factors that divide us, and therefore also has the potential to break down that division. I believe heritage practitioners have an ethical responsibility to bring to the fore the voices that have been ignored or overlooked and to illuminate the shades of grey between the narratives of  ‘us’ and ‘them’. To do that we need to be honest and acknowledge that we are taking a political standpoint, that we are deliberately making different selections from the past to create new stories, because we believe that is what this society needs in the present in order to carve a different future. Taking such a stance may involve some risk, but if we treat everyone we encounter in this work with humanity and respect, and are prepared to be challenged and to learn along the way, I believe we can achieve real change.

It seems that the spirit of Corrymeela may well have infected me along the way.