Heritage and the Politics of Recognition

by John-Paul Sumner on 3 April 2017

Silenced, ignored or ‘unrecognised’ people are, by this very definition, not part of the regular media-museum discourse. The CARMAH event, Heritage and the Politics of Recognition sought to explore how diverse communities in a city can be given a voice, listened to and represented in heritage and museum culture. So whose heritage is represented in public spaces? And who decides what is ‘our’ shared heritage?

Three stimulating lectures on people-power, the methods by which citizens are facilitated and enabled to, not only, have their stories represented, but also in doing so change the present and influence the future. All three lectures featured apparently disenfranchised citizens and the story of how these communities insisted that their heritage be represented in an often indifferent society. The three examples that were presented by each speaker were: the lives of de-industrialised Coal Miners, oppressed Inner City populations in London, and the exploited citizens of Newhaven, USA.  A panel discussion sought to examine how the experiences of diverse communities in other cities could be useful in defining how Berlin will represent its history, heritage and communities. I have a special interest in this topic, with experience in working with disengaged young people in museums. My role in Berlin is to help develop the Museum für Islamische Kunst at the Pergamon into a visitor focussed and inclusive experience.

In their talks the speakers outlined communities that could be described as being ‘unrecognised’, ignored or unenfranchised community. Laurajane Smith (Head of the Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies, the Australian National University, Canberra) discussed how in the 1980’s the mining communities of Great Britain were disenfranchised by the then Government, whose leader Margaret Thatcher decreed ‘that there is no such thing as society’. Towns’ and even some cities economies were destroyed and once proud communities humiliated. For thirty years these communities have been victims/survivors of destitution and neglect. As a group of people the British coal miners, their families and the towns that they lived-in can be seen as one community. Gareth Millington (Department of Sociology, University of York) presented the example of the people of Brixton. Brixton was a mainly Afro Caribbean neighborhood in London. For an accurate depiction have a look at the film Babylon from 1980. The 1981, the last days of the post-war settlement, riots were the result of, ‘institutional racism’ by the police and other agencies caused a community to be oppressed. David Huyssen (Department of History, University of York) described the cultural and economic influence of Yale University on the city of Newhaven, USA.  A post-industrial town, Yale, in the centre of the city, is the most powerful employer and has redeveloped swaths of the city. However, Newhaven has been subjected to ‘progressive inequality’ between the wealthy university in tandem with its business partners and the people of Newhaven many of whom are employees of the University.

One observation that could be suggested is that the process of heritage formation is borne by conflict, civil disobedience, strikes, revolution and political movements. Perhaps to find the heritage of the future we need to look for disquiet in the present. So we have examples of three ‘unrecognized’ communities and how these people harnessed heritage to become visible to either the authorities or general society.

The post-coal mining community of Overton and Wakefield, West Yorkshire, felt that there was mis-recognition, that they were underrepresented. Their story was not being told. The working mines were never going to return. So for regeneration and economic reasons the community government decided to re-develop the mine as a Heritage Museum, The National Coal Mining Museum at Caphouse Colliery in Yorkshire England. A significant aspect of the museum experience is the underground tour led by ex-miners. The community turned to heritage from which they developed self-esteem and recognition to acquire re-distribution of resources, which they achieved. The people of Brixton who were often treated with prejudice sought their ‘Right to the City’. The right to the city is an idea and a slogan that was first proposed by Henri Lefebvre in his 1968 book Le Droit à la ville. Lefebvre summarizes the idea as a “demand…for a transformed and renewed access to urban life”. So the initial cultural reaction to unrecognition were riots (an observation by the author is that the end of the Coal mining industry was also marked by conflict, perpetrated by the police against the miners), but subsequently the revolutionary culture of that period is now celebrated and admired. Cultural developments that lead directly back to the riots of ’81 include the Black Cultural Archives, Windrush Square and ‘First Child’ Sculpture which is a Soweto uprising memorial. The heritage is also in the nostalgia for the agitators and the civil unrest.  And in Newhaven, The university workers union has joined forces with the city’s other two main unions to create a powerful voice of the people. This union of unions have broken-down spacial and racial barriers that were originally constructed by the actions of the university. They have created a political movement that seeks to address racial and economic divisions and they have acquired a degree of authority by being voted onto the local council. They have used this authority to re-instate a sacked college kitchen worker, Corey Menafee, an African-American dishwasher, who knocked out a stained-glass window-pane that showed black slaves harvesting cotton in the fields. As Corey related, he no longer wanted to be subjected to seeing the “racist, very degrading” image at his place of work. The union is also challenging the college over its name Calhoun College, in honour of its alumni, slaver John Colhoun.

To this writer a similarity between these examples is that the ‘authorities’ did not approach these groups and invite them to tell their stories .These groups insisted that their concerns be discussed. In the case of the coal miners it was the local council who represented these communities that triggered the idea for the heritage museum and in London and Newhaven, it was people self-organizing to create change. Top level authorities did not beckon them into the establishment.

A thread that runs through these three cases is that of the politics of recognition. Professor Sharon Macdonald cheerfully introduced Laurajane with the observation that French philosopher, Paul Ricoeur has distinguished as much as 23 different usages of the notion “to recognize” grouping them under three main categories, namely recognition as identification, recognizing oneself and mutual recognition.

Recognition is a tool that Laurajane described. Heritage and identity are intertwined with commonsense and with policy. How can we define the power and consequences of the heritage we create? What power does heritage have? Heritage is a resource of power and the politics of recognition. In our lifetimes civil rights, indigenous rights and gender rights have developed to confront monocultural national identity. How is recognition defined? It is a struggle where a particular group demands a say in the politics of the day. Charles Taylor and Axel Honneth defined recognition as a search for recognition and esteem. Respect is a form of recognition. Receiving respect is essential to wellbeing and recognition. Negotiation of social values is esteem plus recognition. Nancy Frasier commented (2000) that lack of recognition causes disenfranchisement. A lack of recognition denies participation the distribution and redistribution of resources and rights. There can be no recognition without redistribution of resources and rights. People who seek recognition must first realize that they have a heritage that is not recognized. For recognition to occur, powerbrokers must first realize that they are excluding others.

The emotional skills of offering recognition include shame, pride, envy and compassion. Empathy is key to be able to offer recognition, empathy is often described as superficial. But, sincere empathy is required for recognition to proceed.
So there are six key elements relating to identity and heritage.
1)    Authority creates Heritage
2)    Individuals turn to museums to seek validation of their own identity, museums reinforce identify and some people use museums to see how their identity is being portrayed.
3)    Museums are often in a position to withhold recognition.
4)    Those who seek recognition, by definition, only have access to discussion and a voice out with the usual media.
5)    Heritage is a negotiation process.
6)    Self-recognition is a fundamental stage in any recognition process.

Laurajane’s ‘emotion-effective’ practices remind me of my work on the use of ‘values’ to engage with visitors, which I cannot resist in sharing. A case study that I developed in Scotland in the late 1990’s echoes the importance of emotion and recognition. The community that the museum worked with was disengaged young people to help develop their self-confidence.  A World Health Organisation study indicated that levels of personal self-confidence amongst children of school age were low across Europe, particularly in Scotland which ranked 23rd out of 29 countries in terms of confidence (Currie 2000, 26). Looking at this research again, Germany has even lower levels of wellbeing in young people! The Scottish Parliament published a discussion paper identifying concerns about the negative impact of low levels of confidence (and identified that low self-esteem is a risk factor for victimisation by others, adolescent eating disorders, teenage pregnancy and poor economic outcomes) and outlined activities that could contribute to raising levels of confidence. These activities included engagement in educational and cultural opportunities. The issue of confidence is also addressed in the Scottish School Curriculum. A cornerstone of this curriculum is to enable young people to become confident individuals, with self-respect, a sense of well-being, secure values and ambition.

Self-efficacy (the belief of ones’ own ability to reach specific goals) underpins confidence. The objective of a programme that was in operation at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, UK to improve young visitors’ self-efficacy. The aim was to use the museum to help young people develop life skills. The outcome was that teenagers used the museum collections to discover their own character strengths, and this improved their self-confidence.

The young people were asked to define their role models and crucially, what it was about these people that they found admirable. There are four main themes or values that young people found attractive in others: Determination; Endurance; Trust and Compassion. Our innovation was to find stories of these personality strengths in our collections in the museum. By completing video games the visitors are compelled to express their own compassion, trustworthiness, determination and endurance. Our visitors discover that they, in fact, share the attributes of their role models and heroes.

Back to Berlin and part two of the evening and the intellectual prowess was fortified with valued guest contributions during a lively round table discussion moderated by Katarzyna Puzon (CARMAH) that was dedicated to some of the issues presented earlier: Claudia Gemmeke (Director Department Forum, Stadtmuseum Berlin) represents a national collection of over 4.5 million objects that address the history of Berlin. Much of the collection is Art and Decorative Arts and they have five locations across Berlin and the surroundings. All this City Museum of Berlin collecting is in addition to the district museums of Berlin. The City museums do projects with pupils and committees to make them aware of the collections and to evaluate what types of exhibitions the citizens want to see. The goal is that different diversities are apparent in the museum. Noa Ha (Centre for Metropolitan Studies, Technische Universität Berlin) highlighted that when creating a City archive it is often the immigrants to that city that are often neglected. The Roma people of Berlin had to create their own archive and some of the black people of Berlin and wider Germany have developed a ‘No Humboldt’ movement to protest against any proposals to glorify violence in the new Museum. Mirjam Brusius (Faculty of History, Oxford University) observed that Museums tend to pick and choose what is inclusive and what is seen as ‘other’. For example, Ancient Egyptian culture is seen to be embedded in European heritage and is presented as such, however, Islamic culture is seen as separate, ‘other’, and so it has its own special museum to mark it out.  Susan Kamel (University of Applied Sciences, Berlin) nailed it when she asked ‘how do you turn the philosophy of recognition into practice? And Sharon concurred, perhaps like Schrodinger’s cat, the moment you heritigize a movement you stop it in aspic.

For me Laurajane summed it all up nicely when she reminded us that the process of using recognition is just a tool. Alongside all the other tools at a museum’s disposal. What is important is what our higher calling is as museums. What we actually do in museum. Plus what can museums cause to happen? What are the consequences of our actions as museums…?

© John-Paul Sumner
© John-Paul Sumner
© John-Paul Sumner


John-Paul Sumner is a Kulturstiftung Des Bundes International Fellow based at The Museum für Islamische Kunst Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz. This role involves introducing an interpretation protocol for the permanent re-display of the museum.