“On Heritage, Culture and Trading Zones”

by William Carruthers

William Carruthers at the Annual Conference 2016 in Heidelberg

I gave a paper at a conference (“Making, Sustaining, Breaking —The Politics of Heritage and Culture”) in Heidelberg last month. I kept pretty quiet otherwise, but wanted to write down some thoughts I had regarding the final roundtable (and note my thanks to the organisers and funders). In particular, I was interested by some comments made by Markus Hilgert, Director of Berlin’s Vorderasiatisches Museum. Hilgert noted that he had just returned from a (I think) Europe/EU-level meeting about current issues surrounding cultural heritage and antiquities. He spent some time discussing the differences between the sorts of conversations that take place at intergovernmental fora (generally unembellished by postcolonial theory etc.), the sorts of conversations held by museum professionals (what can museums do, say, to decolonise their collections?), and the sorts of (sometimes, although not always, rather more ‘theoretical’) conversations that happen at academic conferences. I’m writing this piece from memory, so I hope I’m not misrepresenting him.

Hilgert’s comments echoed a tension that had become evident at a couple of other moments during the conference, which involved participants from a number of different disciplines. At a couple of points, it seemed almost as if attendees offering studious academic reflection on the politics of heritage and culture were going to have a (very polite and articulate) tussle with participants who were rather more ‘directly’ involved in it. Of course, my summary here is to construct a problematic opposition. Who is to say what ‘direct’ involvement in the politics of heritage and culture actually constitutes, for instance, and why would reflection on this politics be any less direct than, say, on-the-ground archaeological collaboration? There were, though, clear differences in register and objective in terms of the way that different conference participants discussed the topic at hand, and I think Hilgert picked up on that point well in terms of what happens beyond Heidelberg. There needs to be a way to communicate across registers.

At the same time, that Hilgert made his point at all is evidence that this communication can—and does—happen. Let’s take the history of archaeology as a point of fact. Throughout the development of the discipline there has been if not quite a revolving door, then at least a—sometimes narrow, sometimes wide—open space that has enabled conversations between (inter-) governmental officials, museum practitioners and university academics to take place, in addition to professional movement between the institutions where they work. Sometimes, the history of this form of circulation has been less than glorious. Nevertheless, people have and will circulate. And that Hilgert, a museum director, spoke about going to a European-level meeting at a conference in the university town of Heidelberg constitutes a case in point. So why do the differences between registers—of conversation, of action—continue to be remarked upon? Is there a way to deal with these differences productively?

I think there are a couple of points to make here. One is that the existence of different registers of action in the world is sometimes important, at least if anyone still has any belief in forms of expertise (and perhaps, if you believe Michael Gove, they don’t). Government officials and policy wonks know how to get governments to formulate policy and legislate more effectively than museum professionals and academics, but can government officials and policy wonks conduct effective museum work with the tools that they possess expertise in? I’d suggest not. As Harry Collins and Robert Evans1 wrote, expertise, at least as a category that is meaningfully experienced, needs to be treated “as ‘real’”; expertise is an “analyst’s category” as well as an “actor’s category”2. But we also need to find ways to demystify that expertise and the way that it circulates—or, sometimes, seems to fail to circulate.

During the conference’s final roundtable, Hannah Baader of the Max-Planck-Institut’s Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florence noted that one way of improving conversations between different registers was through the use and development of the appropriate sorts of language. I agree (although wonder, actually, how hard it would be to guard against the development of unhelpful jargon). But I also want to suggest that the sort of ‘trading zones’ discussed by Peter Galison in Image and Logic might play a role in this situation. Galison3 discusses trading zones as places providing “a social, material, and intellectual mortar binding together [in the context he discusses] the disunified traditions of experimenting, theorising, and instrument building”. Trading zones are places where “distinct groups … can nonetheless coordinate their approaches around specific practices”4.

Taking it “as ‘real’” that different and somewhat cohesive forms of practice and expertise exist in relation to the issues that the conference was discussing, the possibility of creating trading zones where those forms might productively come together seems, to me, quite promising in terms of future actions. In fact, the creation of trading zones (of which the conference might well have been some sort of example) seems to offer the possibility of addressing one issue raised during his keynote paper at the conference by Sinan Antoon of NYU. To paraphrase. (Old) things matter, and are linked to people in various ways. Ultimately, though, people—and their ability to live peaceful lives—matter more. Discussing the politics of heritage and culture without discussing, say, the massive human suffering in Syria and Iraq is, to say the least, somewhat blinkered (although it doesn’t seem to stop some people from doing so). What would happen if we created trading zones to place conversations and actions surrounding people, heritage and culture together? My bet is that if we do so we might well be in a better place.

Dr. William Carruthers is a Gerda Henkel Stiftung Research Fellow at German Historical Institute London. He holds a PhD in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge  (2014) and is also the editor of Histories of Egyptology: Interdisciplinary Measures (Routledge, 2014).

This article was first published on William Carruthers‘ personal blog “Fragments”.

  1. Harry Collins and Robert Evans, 2002. “The Third Wave of Science Studies: Studies of Expertise and Experience”. Social Studies of Science 32 (2), 235–296, here 237. []
  2. ibid., 240. []
  3. Peter Galison, 1997. Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, here 803. []
  4. ibid., 806. []

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  1. 10. April 2017

    […] caught your interest, you can find his response paper to the Annual Conference 2016 in Heidelberg here, or read another interview with him, where he talks about his own research in […]

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