From the Ruins of Preservation: A Symposium on Rethinking Heritage Through Counter-Archives

This article is part of the TRAFO series “Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’”. Today, we put the spotlight on the event “‘From the Ruins of Preservation’: A symposium on rethinking heritage through counter-archives”, which will take place on July 1112, 2019 in London. The symposium is co-organized by Rodney Harrison (AHRC Heritage Priority Area Leadership Fellow/Professor of Heritage Studies at the UCL Institute of Archaeology) and Mirjam Brusius (Research Fellow in Colonial and Global History at the German Historical Institute of London).

The call for papers was open until November 1st, 2018. More information on the event can be found here. If you would like to attend the symposium, you can register here.

In the title of your upcoming event, the “counter-archive” is quite prominent. How would you define a “counter-archive” and how can the concept be useful if we are rethinking the discourses and practices of heritage studies?

By “counter-archives” we effectively mean alternative sources, which allow us to tell counter-narratives that conventional archives cannot tell. Heritage sites, and the discipline of archaeology itself, are often the result of colonial exploration. Sites such as Palmyra, Split, and Athens, to name a few prominent examples, were created by processes that separated them from the contemporary world, and the people who lived with and amongst them. In extreme cases this has resulted in the removal of entire local settlements from inside and around natural and cultural heritage sites. Communities, however, have always had their own ways of engaging with material culture. Objects, places and landscapes were and still are embedded and reactivated in the domains of contemporary life. These realities, however, challenge the disciplinary baggage and prevailing methods of heritage studies. Our established methods have proved to be unhelpful in engaging such records outside ‘the archive’ as it is conventionally understood. We would therefore like to encourage an engagement with unorthodox sources: can we rethink objects, landscapes and built environments, bodies, and oral and musical traditions as archives? Can we experiment with more-than-human agents? This is not to say that we deem the conventional archive unhelpful in all cases. In fact, even conventional archives contain counter-archives within unnoticed materials such as photographs, for example, and the neglected landscapes, buildings and people they show. How can we deal with the absence of such aspects and records in the master narrative of heritage? We will draw on current tendencies to challenge institutionalized official forms of memory, kept in spaces where access is restricted. Dealing with archives at times of loss and addressing the complex issue of documenting disastrous present-day realities are part of an ongoing conversation in a number of fields, including those supported by transregional studies. Academics have been joined by practitioners, writers and artists to engage in an exciting dialogue in this new field which also includes new forms of expression such as film and fiction, to name just a few. The fact that archives themselves are often regarded as ‘heritage’ makes the topic particularly appealing.

What audience do you address, what disciplines will be represented at your symposium, and what aspects or point of views will be brought to the table?

Image: Palmyra (Tadmor).
Street of village in Temple of the Sun
Digital ID: (digital file from original photo) matpc 01426 http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/matpc.01426, Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-matpc-01426 (digital file from original photo), Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA .

We have had a positive response—more than 130 abstracts from all kinds of disciplines—to our Call for Papers, which reflects the high level of interest in the topic. As it was difficult to select twelve papers from such a wide range of engaging case studies we did our best to be as diverse as possible in terms of geography and discipline, in the hope that our selection will meet the interests of what I expect will be an equally diverse audience. Our speakers will present case studies from South Africa, Egypt, Iraq, the UK, India, Turkey, Palestine, and Bermuda from the point of view of a number disciplines, including archaeology, heritage studies, art history, colonial history, and anthropology. The symposium will also provide a platform for encouraging a dialogue between researchers in areas that are usually seen as discrete. Heritage studies, for example, has, although not uncritically, privileged methods that focus on contemporary issues, such as oral history and ethnography. This happened sometimes at the expense of historical research in conventional archives. This, however, has frustrated historians who, in turn, have seen heritage studies as a field in which the historical contexts of the contemporary phenomena have been effectively written out of the picture. We hope that this dialogue will foster ideas on how we cannot just engage with the long ignored gaps and unspoken emotions and bodies in written archival sources, but also discuss new approaches to oral and public history. Speakers who engage with images will, furthermore, present innovative approaches to visual analyses. Several papers deal with photography, and we hope that papers will speak to each other and spark an effective conversation about how to tackle more specific methodological challenges. We currently lack the methods, for example, to engage with photographic subjects that have no equivalent in the written sources: locals going about their lives in ancient ruins; workers who labour on archaeological excavations; those often nameless individuals who serve as human scales next to an excavated building; the local guides who help “open up” landscapes to preservationists; and the agencies and affordances of forms of material culture themselves. Finally, we hope that an engagement with historical aspects will prove to be fruitful for contemporary heritage practices and that historians and practitioners will be inspired by talking to one another and others in the field.

Which future debates on heritage do you wish to encourage with your upcoming symposium?

Ideally, the symposium will help construct new histories and viewpoints in order to allow practitioners and researchers to re-examine cultural heritage and to rethink the various agencies – both human and non-human – that surround natural and cultural heritage preservation practices through new conceptual and methodological approaches. We trust that papers will go beyond simple case studies and present a methodological intervention into reductionist preservation historiographies by developing a new diachronic, more diverse vocabulary and directions for future research in and on this field. By re-centring the discourse about ‘heritage’ to examine specific bottom-up practices through such new methods we also seek a more nuanced and effective understanding of how preservation has been determined over time and from different perspectives. Re-engaging with these histories will prove to be important not only in building a new historical approach to heritage, but also in helping researchers and practitioners to reconceptualize and recontextualize contemporary heritage phenomena. A number of projects that serve scholarship and the needs of local communities alike are currently being undertaken. Ideally, the symposium will encourage practitioners in fields such as archaeology to engage not only with the (often) colonial legacies of the fields and specific sites, but also with the living communities surrounding heritage sites.


About the Conveners

Mirjam Brusius is a research fellow at the German Historical Institute London since 2017. Her research interests concern the history of collecting and visual culture across Modern Europe and the Middle East. She holds an MA in Art History, Cultural Studies and Musicology (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin) and a doctorate in History and Philosophy of Science (University of Cambridge)

Rodney Harrison is Professor of Heritage Studies in the UCL Institute of Archaeology and AHRC Heritage Priority Area Leadership Fellow. His research interests include Critical Heritage Studies, multiculturalism, globalisation and museum studies. He is the founding editor and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, and a founding executive committee member of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies.


Citation: Mirjam Brusius, From the Ruins of Preservation: A Symposium on Rethinking Heritage Through Counter-Archives, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.04.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/18344.


Max Weber Stiftung

The Max Weber Foundation promotes global research, focused on the areas of social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities. Our research is conducted at ten institutes in various countries across the globe with different and independent fields of focus. Through our globally operating institutes, we are able to contribute to the communication and networking between Germany and our host countries or regions. By promoting academic dialogue and merging academic and non-academic employees from several countries with different cultural backgrounds, the Max Weber Foundation is able to strengthen the internationalization of research.

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