My critical heritage research investigates the “democratisation” of caring for heritage in the UK. This democratisation is driven by heritage research that argues for increased public participation in caring for heritage, and the loss of professional capacity caused by ongoing cuts to national and local authority culture budgets. In this context, I use “democratisation” after Ricardo Blaug, who distinguishes between “incumbent” and “critical” democratisation. The former controls participation to ensure that participation legitimises institutions and increases their influence, while the latter increases participation locally, outside established institutions and without formal structures. As a result, “democratisation” represents two distinctly different processes: one where institutions compensate shrinking budgets through voluntary labour that upholds their interests, and one where volunteers engage in initiatives that promote their own interests and priorities. Both forms of democratisation represent ongoing societal processes that extend to caring for heritage.
My PhD is part of the “Adopting Archaeology” project initiated by the Department of Archaeology at the University of York and the Council for British Archaeology, which represents the public’s interests in archaeology. Within this project, my research is particularly focussed on sustainability and public agency; specifically, in facilitating sustainable public agency in caring for heritage. The use of the active “facilitating” is deliberate in that I use action research to study change by attempting to cause change. In other words, I see my attempts to facilitate increased public agency in caring for heritage as a knowledge generating process. These attempts take the form of my own co-design project where I design digital resources together with three groups in Yorkshire that are engaged in taking care of heritage locally, and through a process of negotiating institutional reform at the Council for British Archaeology.
My research is critical in a classic sense in that it builds on the core of the Frankfurt School’s critical social theory. As a result, “critical”, for me, involves a rejection of the inevitability of present economic, political and social realities. This position allows research to go beyond merely describing things as they are and make claims about how things could or should be. This is the epistemic foundation for my multi-method approach illustrated on the right. I begin by constructing a pragmatic utopian vision for public participation in caring for heritage that avoids devaluing professionals or exploiting volunteers. This involves a renegotiation of professional and volunteer roles and responsibilities. This vision is the reference point for my critique of the “democratisation” caused by two ongoing initiatives in the UK that attempt to increase public participation in caring for heritage. Simultaneously, I am engaged in my own participatory practice, through which I am uncovering my own tendency to co-opt my participants’ initiative to promote my own professional agenda. In other words, I am attempting to show how one can promote “incumbent” democratisation despite critical intensions. Together, this informs negotiations of institutional reform at the Council for British Archaeology, as the organisation attempts to reposition itself to better connect with its members’ initiatives and interests.