What Does Heritage Change?

In 2015/16 we ran our conference funding for Early Career Researchers scheme for the second time. In this series of posts, some of the winners report from the conferences they attended with our support.

By Nuala Morse

The Association of Critical Heritage Studies (ACHS) is a relatively new association which takes shape around its biennial conference. Montreal hosted the 3rd Biennial conference at UQAM and Concordia University. The aim of ACHS is to promote heritage as an area of critical academic enquiry through interdisciplinary perspectives, bringing together scholars from around the world. Montreal brought together over 800 delegates to engage with the conference theme ‘What does heritage change?’ over the course of 6 days, with numerous parallel sessions.

Along with two colleagues, Bethany Rex (PhD Candidate, Newcastle University) and Dr Katherine Lloyd (Heriot-Watt), I co-organised a session entitled: ‘Co-production in heritage: Towards new imaginaries’. The session came out of several research conversations we have had over the years around our shared interest in how ‘participation’ is deployed in the context of cultural activities and in particular museum practice. Our starting point was a sense that current ‘critical diagnoses’ of co-production have perhaps become stuck in a circular critical mode focused on readings of (unequal) power. Our aim with the session was to bring together a range of disciplinary and theoretical perspectives to move towards more expansive and creative ways of analysing co-production processes through new lenses, metaphors or imaginaries. My own engagement with this debate came from my research on museum professionals and their practice of community engagement, which I have explored through ideas of care and craft.

Our original call for papers attracted 22 submissions, of which we were able to select 10 papers from scholars from the UK and France. Our session took place over two days of the conference, with papers arranged in three themes: ‘Digital co-production’, ‘Co-production, conservation and memory’, and ‘co-production and professional imaginaries’. The conference programme and speakers are still available here. I presented in the final session a paper entitled ‘Co-producing health and wellbeing programmes in the museum’, which explored how professional museum practice and values are co-produced through collaboration with health and social care providers and service-users. The paper gave me an opportunity to reflect back both on my PhD research and forward, connecting this with my current postdoctoral work. It was a rare and unique opportunity for space to reflect on connecting threads, and explore how my area of work might develop. It has brought me in particular to further explore how thinking about heritage might be enhanced through approaches taken from sociologies of health and illness.

I also chaired the second panel and the final discussion. We were fortunate, in such a big and fast-paced conference with so many parallel sessions, to maintain a core group of 25 or so delegates who stayed with our session, which provided us with the opportunity for a real depth of discussion around the topic. To me, our discussion crystallised around the need to unpack the different logics at play in co-production, in particular how the public logics (public good, public space) come together with the logics of participation. Here Helen Graham’s (University of Leeds) paper in particular helped bring these issues to the fore. A second key theme came through for me around the importance of bringing nuance into our account of professionals/practitioners, their values and actions/agency. Finally and perhaps most critically, what I am taking away is the need for caution around approaches that aim to stabilise ‘co-production’, and to engage instead in new ways of thinking and writing the essentially relational and unstable nature of co-production. As further plans we are now exploring how the session come together as a position piece for publication.

I am hugely thankful to the Sociological Review for supporting my attendance at this conference as an Early Career Researcher, and would like to recognise this as a strong support for interdisciplinary research conversations.

Originally posted 17th July 2016.

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