OBITUARY - Professor Steve Watson, 14th June 1958 - 22nd January 2016


Professor Steve Watson, 14 June 1958-22 January 2016

On the 22nd January 2016, Steve Watson, Professor of Cultural Heritage at York St. John University, passed away suddenly and very unexpectedly at the age of 57. Many people working in the field of heritage studies will recall Steve’s agenda-setting contributions to academia, and his guiding role in the formation of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies. Though he will be remembered primarily for his leading and influential contributions to the fields of heritage studies and heritage tourism, Steve’s interests in, and approaches to, those fields of study were underpinned by four more varied university degrees: one undergraduate and three postgraduate. He commenced his studies with a Bachelor of Arts in Social Studies attained from Liverpool Polytechnic, now known as Liverpool John Moores University, which he consolidated with a Master of Arts in Social Administration and a Master of Philosophy in Social Policy, during which he examined the administration of psychiatric court orders in Magistrates Courts. Both Masters were conferred by the University of York. In 2007 he completed his doctoral thesis, entitled Church Tourism: Representation and Cultural Practice, also at the University of York, in the Department of Archaeology.

He began his academic career as a research associate (1984–1986) in criminal justice policy in the Centre for Criminology and the Social and Philosophical Study of Law (CCSPSL) at the University of Edinburgh, where he worked on a study of ‘plea bargaining’ in the Scottish Criminal Justice System. In 1986 he moved from Edinburgh to Liverpool John Moores University, taking up a part-time lectureship in sociology before moving out of academia into the policy realm in 1989. Steve then transitioned from the post of Policy and Performance Service Officer at the City of York Council to that of Assistant Director of Leisure and Tourism Services; the experiences and knowledge he accrued there provided a rich itinerary for his later writings, particularly those that sought to reconcile heritage tourism and economic development, and probe at the politics of their effects in the wider world. His vision for heritage studies as well as the wider social impacts of research is clearly etched within this history. In 1996 he moved back to academia and into the role of Principal Lecturer in Business and Management at University College Scarborough (later merged with the University of Hull), during which time he also performed as Deputy Head of the Scarborough Centre for Management. It was only in 2004 that Steve moved into the role with which most of us are familiar: as an academic based in the Faculty of Business and Communication at York St. John University, where he swiftly progressed from Senior Lecturer (2004–2008) to Principal Lecturer (2008–2014) to full Professor (2014–2016).

Despite moving back into academia, Steve continued to retain strong links with the tourism industry with which he had become so familiar, and was appointed as a non-executive director of Visit York in 2009. In a bid to further cement the crucial links he saw between academia and the operational contexts of heritage and tourism, Steve established the Heritage and Arts Visitor Research Collaborative (HAVRC), which he hoped would “foster a critical academic approach to public engagement in heritage and the arts”, as well as “act as a vehicle for collaborative work with academics in other faculties and institutions as well as practitioners, operators and communities of interest outside the immediate academic sphere”.[1] His ambitions in establishing HAVRC were underpinned by both his considerable experience in the sector as well as his scholarly interest in cultural tourism and community-based approaches to heritage management, both of which were soundly supported by a sharpened intellectual interest in social and cultural theory.

Steve will be remembered as an enthusiastic and generous collaborator, and worked with colleagues all over the world: in Spain, the US, Australia, the UK, Finland and Denmark. He also held his own personal research ambitions, which emerged out of his great pleasure in listening to the memories of peoples’ first trips abroad, and his intrigue with the writings of Northern travelers who produced what he termed ‘the Spanish imaginary’ (Watson 2014). In both projects he found enormous scope in which to explore his wider interests in the affective, cognitive and representational dimensions of heritage, all of which, he argued, provide a deep layer of meaning that manifests itself in the absorption and fascination of both talkers and writers for their subject.

While it is clear that Steve had a considerable impact on the field of heritage studies, he will be remembered for reasons that far exceed his intellectual scholarship, despite their significant import. That is because Steve was a very rare figure within the university setting: he was undoubtedly an original thinker, an exquisite writer and a dedicated teacher, but he brought with that the most genuine mix of compassion, empathy, respect, charisma, graciousness and humour we will ever encounter in the academy. He was generous with everyone: undergraduate students, doctoral candidates, his mentees, his colleagues, editors, publishers, and anyone else he encountered along the way, and so he has left the pocket of academia in which he moved a far more friendly and supportive place than he found it. He will be greatly missed.

Emma Waterton

Western Sydney University

[1] Quote is taken from the HAVRC website, which can be found here: Accessed 1 February 2016.

Yujie Zhu