Like Bryonie, and partly thanks to Bryonie, place has both broadened and focussed my professional practice.
I was drawn to working in museums because working with people appealed to me. I was fascinated by the multi-faceted stories held in objects, and I wanted to ignite that fascination in others. So, from starting in a traditional curatorial role, I moved towards learning and community engagement. The vast majority of my career in museums was spent as a community outreach officer in a museum service without museums – well not exactly, but one museum in development, two open only during the summer and one without the dedicated space to accommodate engagement activities. So, I worked largely outside the museum walls, building new audiences by meeting people where they were, in the places where they lived and finding out what mattered to them about those places. And it was always place that inspired engagement. History and heritage only mean something to people if it connects with their sense of who they are and where they come from. Everyone cares about the place in which they live. Even blow-ins – often they even more so.
I also had the benefit of working on collaborative projects with archaeologists. I developed a new appreciation of the connection between museum objects and the places from which they came. I saw the immediacy of impact when project participants had the opportunity to learn about people in the past through standing where they had stood and holding objects they had once held.
One such project has had a major and lasting impact on my thinking and practice, a continuing collaboration between community development workers, archaeologists, and museum curators led by the Corrymeela Community. The team are an unusual bunch of people, deeply committed to realising the potential of heritage to effect change, and deeply thoughtful about the ethical responsibilities of that work. It hasn’t always been straightforward – sometimes we seem to be talking different languages, specific to our individual fields – but we have challenged each other and learned together and therefore it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career.
Initially, we worked with local communities to explore the legacies of the Ulster Plantation, seeking to effectively disrupt popular Orange and Green misconceptions through objects, archives and sites that demonstrate the complexity and interconnected nature of that heritage. And it quickly became clear that that approach could be applied to any period of contested history, amply demonstrated by similar work on the Decade of Centenaries. However, what made our approach distinctive was that it was rooted in place. I have written here before about how the bodily experience of historic places – ‘shadowed ground’ – has an emotional, imaginative and intellectual impact. The partnership wanted to move beyond isolating one period of history and begin to explore all the layers of contestation embedded in particular places. Our challenge was how to cover centuries of human history without compromising on depth of understanding.
What transformed the partnership was shifting our thinking from material culture towards place. Working alongside Bryonie, I had already begun exploring the relationship between cultural geography, heritage and identity. I saw that thinking about place was a way of making connections through space and time, weaving together stories from disparate periods and different perspectives in a way that still makes sense because it is anchored in the bodily and imaginative experience of place. It became clear that this shift in perspective allowed for a much more immediate connection between past, present and future. We would be exploring the relationship between material culture and the lived experience of place in the present. It’s not such a great leap from there to start thinking about the future too. When people consciously understand how the past has influenced their social and cultural experience of the present, and understand they can draw on previously overlooked or ignored aspects of the past to re-evaluate and re-define the present, then it becomes possible to imagine a different kind of future, one that is more inclusive and more sustainable.
I am realising that this approach to engaging with local communities, in their place, holds the potential for transformational change. It means engaging with heritage not merely as an interesting and enjoyable exercise, but in a way that has resonance and relevance for people’s lives. It connects with a variety of contemporary concerns in our society, such as how the education system facilitates understanding the past, what we choose to preserve from the past and how we choose to interpret it, how historic places and collections find new meaning and purpose as society changes and is challenged to address uncomfortable legacies of the past. Participation in heritage also encourages broader civic participation, so I see immediate opportunities to make a connection between heritage and community planning. Understanding our places better enables us to make better decisions for those places in the future, it opens up decision-making processes to new intuitive and innovative possibilities, specific to the needs and aspirations of a particular place and making a positive impact on people’s quality of life. In this way heritage is no longer problematic in forging a peaceful and sustainable future for our divided communities, but inherent to finding creative solutions.