Heritage Practice in Contested Spaces Seminar

I was lucky enough to attend part of this seminar last week held by the Causeway Museum Service at the Roe Valley Arts & Culture Centre.  The idea of the seminar was to encourage all the participants to explore our practice around evaluating the impact of heritage work in our communities and consider who owns our heritage.  It was a really great opportunity to hear from international practitioners to get a sense of how heritage practice is carried out in other countries, although in Northern Ireland we have a long history of ‘contested spaces’ it turns out we don’t have a monopoly on them!

Our first session was on ‘Evaluation in contested spaces’ with Professor Ross Velure Roholt, who does a lot of work with young people in Minnesota, and has previously worked in Northern Ireland.  In groups we discussed the challenges we come up against when we’re trying to evaluate projects, and shared our knowledge of heritage practice in contested spaces.  My group discussed different methods of evaluating how ‘successful’ projects had been and the difficulties faced with having enough time and resources to analyse the information gathered and knowing how to use this data going forward.  For example I volunteer with older people on projects designed to increase social inclusion, but how do you measure and quantify the social benefits of this work?  We also talked about how in many cases evaluation is based around criteria from the project funder and the difficulties of long-term analysis of short-term or one-off projects.

Ross then spoke about how evaluation is more difficult in contested spaces, as there is emotion involved, and sometimes people tell you what you want to hear rather than how they actually feel, out of politeness or fear of an uncomfortable conversation.  It is also impossible to evaluate refusal to engage, as there is no reason given for lack of participation, and in contested spaces it can be difficult for people to tell their story and have it respected.  Is taking the politics and division out of heritage possible?  Events like Culture Night last week when record numbers of people attended all kinds of cultural events in Belfast would suggest that heritage that isn’t owned by one particular section of the community is less contentious and can contribute to a shared future.

Then the Mayor of Limavady officially opened the seminar, and talked about Peace III in the North East and the aims of the seminar in exploring heritage practice, and how pleased he was that we were based in the Roe Valley Arts & Cultural Centre.


Next up Dr Max Hope told us about his community archaeology project on the island of Colonsay, a team of specialists work with members of the community to archaeologically investigate the island, leading to the creation of a heritage centre with an exhibition of local history, geography, and culture.  This fueled a discussion on communities of practice and the difficulties faced by our communities of practice (academics or museum professionals for example) in contested spaces.  As a student I was with the academic group, discussing the desire of academics to be involved in projects with their local community, but the focus on UK-based academics undertaking international research to maintain the prestige of their university.  Through our discussion we were able to explore the contrast with US-based universities, where interaction with the local community is encouraged and collaborations are an essential part of academic life.

Finally we heard from Paula dos Santos, who teaches museology in the Netherlands.  She was a very passionate speaker, and told us about her experience of a museum reopening in Brazil and how this led to her interest in social inclusion in the museum and heritage sector.  Paula has a lot of experience building networks between Portuguese speaking countries and community projects in Brazil and was a very inspirational speaker, she made me want to get involved with more community heritage projects, and made me believe even more strongly about the importance of community and co-operation.



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