Review of ‘Heritage, Communities and Archaeology’ by Laurajane Smith and Emma Waterton

01st December 2009

heritage-communities-and-archaeology book coverHeritage, Communities and Archaeology by Laurajane Smith and Emma Waterton. Gerald Duckworth and Co., London, 2009, 374 pp., ISBN 978-0-7156-3681-7.

Amy Roberts

93 East Street, Torrensville SA 5031, Australia

This book is one in a series of volumes ‘devoted to a theme which is the subject of contemporary debate in archaeology’ and which is ‘designed to be accessible to students and serious scholars alike’ (back cover). The authors tackle some important issues facing the archaeological discipline with the primary aim of providing an analysis of the manner in which ‘community’ and ‘heritage’ have been ‘yoked together’ (p.11) and to ‘unpack’ the ‘prevalent images of ‘community’ in heritage studies’ (p.14). The opening sections begin with an analysis of the term ‘community’ with the authors making some pertinent comments about the inherent dangers of assuming that ‘communities’ are a ‘homogenous unit’ (p.18).

Australian readers should be aware that the book appears to be primarily written for a UK/European audience, although there are some references to Australian examples/case studies (e.g. Ros Langford on p.35 and the Yorta Yorta community on pp.81–85). One observation that the authors discuss in this regard relates to the lessons that the discipline can learn from ‘Indigenous engagement’. They write:

Although the insights emerging from the literature on Indigenous engagement are useful and applicable more broadly, they are often ignored in the wider archaeological and heritage literature because they are seen as issues only relevant in crosscultural or so-called post-colonial contexts. This tendency to compartmentalise these issues derives from the assumption that communities within one broad community will understand and accept narratives about the past and heritage that their experts construct (p.142).

This would seem particularly so in relation to the authors’ comments on ‘intangible’ heritage regarding their case study about Castleford (a post-industrial town in West Yorkshire, UK):

For many in the CHT [Castleford Heritage Trust] and the wider Castleford community, heritage is not simply the physical remains of the industrial landscape, nor primarily the Roman remains that still underlie modern Castleford. Nor is it its mining artefacts or pit banners and so forth. Intangible heritage is an important aspect in Castleford … much of what the CHT and other community members define as heritage are intangible events such as memories, oral histories, dances, music, industrial knowledge and workplace skills (p.97).

For many Australian archaeologists who work with Indigenous communities the parallels between debates about Indigenous Australian intangible heritage and the authors’ comments above will be obvious.

Given the recent demise (and resurrection) of the Ausarch listserver, Australian readers will also find Smith and Waterton’s commentary on ‘digital communities’ interesting (pp.119–137). They note that ‘[t]he current web presence tends to be associated with professional communities or disenfranchised groups already struggling to find a legitimate and authoritative voice’ (pp.136–137).

Another important theme concerns what the authors term AHD (Authoritative Heritage Discourse) – a discourse in which ‘emphasis is placed upon the material and tangible which are earmarked as crucial markers of heritage and identity’ (pp.27–35). They provide some interesting analysis of the ways in which the ‘emotional quality of heritage’ may be disregarded in an AHD discourse (p.52). In this regard they refer not only to the ‘emotional response of communities’ but also importantly to the ‘complex and nuanced emotional responses from the heritage expert’ (p.52). As they rightly point out, ‘heritage experts’ are often characterised as the objective professional which may serve to ‘mask’ the ‘emotional and political work that heritage does in our society’ (p.54).

Smith and Waterton’s comments about ‘inclusion’ in the heritage sector provide useful commentary though they leave you wanting to know if they have considered practical solutions to the issues they raise:

Dissonant or ‘negative’ heritage thus becomes something that is undesirable and to be avoided. The mechanism that has arisen in the UK for dealing with this need to eradicate dissonance has come in the form of ‘inclusion’. Here, community groups and individuals operating outside dominant understanding of heritage are subsumed, through policy, practice and rhetoric, into dominant understandings (p.65).

As cases in point they refer to the ‘acknowledgement and commemoration of the Holocaust and the trans-Atlantic slave trade in Britain’ and argue that both events, by focusing on ‘unity’ and ‘togetherness’, consequently denied the ‘needs, memories and disparate requirements of a range of stakeholders’ (pp.66–68). Whilst this may be so, one feels that the authors need to provide alternative methodological approaches that could provide heritage professionals with new ways of approaching inclusion issues. They suggest that ‘critically and politically aware community engagement’ (p.108) is what is needed in these situations. Many archaeologists would be aware of the pitfalls of ‘consultation’, as the authors also point out (p.115), but as a reader I am interested to know their thoughts on how one arrives at this level of engagement. What are the steps that should be taken? What does this look like in practice? What are the dangers as they perceive them? What can we learn from the experiences of other practitioners and communities?

The book does provide in-depth critiques of the ways in which relationships between archaeologists and communities can be problematic. But critiques such as these are not new and many researchers have attempted to grapple with the complexities inherent in these relationships over the last decade and more.

Smith and Waterton provide good advice to embrace the fact that ‘community interaction is contested, fraught and dissonant’ and to pay attention to ‘honesty, dialogue, recognition of power, a holistic and integrated approach and a critical regard for the political and social context of community engagement’ (pp.142–143), but one is left wanting more.

Now that most heritage professionals are at least cognisant of many of the issues that Smith and Waterton analyse what I imagine most want to know are practical steps they can take, real life examples they can borrow from, tangible ways that they can achieve ‘critically and politically aware engagement’ under real time and funding pressures, and ways to cope with the stresses that community work ultimately brings to bear. It is for this reason that I hope that Smith and Waterton consider a second volume in which they turn their attention to addressing the issues that they bring to the fore in this book.

Amy Roberts
Review of ‘Heritage, Communities and Archaeology’ by Laurajane Smith and Emma Waterton
December 2009
Book Reviews
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