Whose heritage? Reforming social history curating

Curators need to question the purpose and value of heritage and history to their communities today, not for an unknown and undefined future generation.

Over the last few months we have been commissioned to work on various professional development projects to address heritage and curatorial skills (Cornwall Museums Partnership Curatorial Interns funded by the John Ellerman Foundation and Truro and Penwith College Innovation in Higher Education Skills funded by the European Social Fund).

These opportunities demanded a focus on questioning the purpose and value of heritage and history. As a research active organisation we keep a keen focus on the latest thoughts and influences on our sector, not just that come from within the sector but those that come from outside it, for example, a much greater public demand for our cultural institutions to be accountable, honest and transparent, for example about systemic prejudices such as racism within their organisations and their colonial structures (museums). Decolonising work is inextricably linked with dealing with racist practises in culture and heritage, from how we document and have documented collections to the ways in which we interpret them to who gets to decide what is said about them. And social history is as much at the heart of this work as dealing with cultural heritage taken from colonised parts of the world.

Commodity, cultural right and weapon

We also want to better understand how heritage exists on a spectrum from commodity (transactional) to cultural right. The appropriation, misappropriation, representation and misrepresentation of history and heritage fuels, and is used to justify, ethnocentric identity politics. In my discussion with learners the theme of ‘weaponising heritage’ was mentioned a few times–a very apt description of the insidious uses of history to justify today’s summary justice-style discrimination, hate and prejudice. Good curating of social history should work towards narrowing the gap of understanding and tackling the polarisation of discussions, and promoting truth and factual information in the era of the infodemic.

Newspaper front page. First News. Headline says Read Between the Lies with two buttons, FACT on a green knob, FAKE on a red knob.
Newspaper/zine First News cover taped to the front of a disused phonebox in Penzance, Cornwall, UK.

This is no longer curating as activism but about a new set of core skills curators need.

Topics in heritage and social history have danced around themes related to memory — including memorialisation — and representation in museums for decades. British and anglo-Western approaches to social history have developed into emphasising histories of working people, ordinary people, even women’s heritage tends to be treated through the lens of social history. Preserving the past for the future has been a persistent cliché. We’d like to emphasise the present and the relevance of social history to today’s concerns and issues.

Curating social history is no longer about just collecting ‘objects of the people’—working clothes and tools, washing machines and mangles, baskets and buttons––or generating countless hours of oral histories, but ensuring that all parts of our communities, and communities of interest, are able to be involved in storytelling. This will mean letting go of beloved things that some colleagues and visitors will have developed an attachment to, whether a hard-wired display or passive style of interpretation (Box, brown, wooden, used for bed sheets — *says nothing about who they belonged to or why we should care*).

Panorama of a parlour or kitchen stuffed with objects such as a cooking range, grandfather clock, spinning wheel, dresser with crockery, mangle and two mannequins, one male with a flat cap and navy blue knitted jumper, one female with greying hair in a bun, reading classes, head tilted, wearing a kind of house coat or dressing gown.
Creating a sensation of bygone times – a pastiche of social history from the Isles of Scilly Museum, 2015.

Our curatorial training now de-centres any notion of a dominant or mainstream social history narrative and avoids rigid conventions around collections cataloguing and description. We support learners to ask good and powerful questions because that is so much better than the knowledge-transfer style of curating. We want the curators we train to be good facilitators, good at supporting the space for two-way conversations. This means creating space to question the very purpose of social history in museums, whose heritage? These are also fundamental concepts of the Citizen Curators programme.

Let’s question everything

It also means interrogating the prejudices inherent in traditional curatorial disciplines such as ethnography, archaeology, natural history, scientific and industrial, art, and social history. By questioning how these very categories and their fetishisation have shaped a narrow and impersonal understanding of both the social and cultural value of collections, as well as how they are documented, and how that documentation serves to reinforce prejudicial views of people past and present, we can at least begin to reframe what social history means in a curatorial context.

A typical topic list for one of our webinars or CPD sessions might look like this:

  • What are social history museums and collections?
  • What kinds of things make up tangible and intangible heritage?
  • Whose memories and identities are we curating?
  • Whose diversity are we representing?
  • What current trends are on our watch-list: ethics, decolonisation, wellbeing, relevance in a contaminated world?

If you’re interested in co-designing a webinar, training programme or CPD I’d love to hear from you.

Watch our social history webinar showreel on YouTube.