Book Review: Participatory Heritage

This review originally appeared in the Autumn 2018 issue of History News.

Participatory Heritage
By Henriette Roued-Cunliffe and Andrea Copeland (eds.)
(London: Facet Publishing, 2017)
Reviewed by Megan DiRienzo

Participatory. Engagement. Interactive. Relevant. Since the publication of Nina Simon’s 2010 game-changing title, The Participatory Museum, these words—especially “participatory”—have become common museum jargon. And like all jargon, the term is often peppered throughout discussions like glitter, adding seductive sparkle but little substance. But Henriette Roued-Cunliffe and Andrea Copeland use the term with heavy weight in their latest publication, Participatory Heritage. This book offers a series of stalwart case studies exploring how the boundaries of foundational heritage work—preserving, archiving, and sharing information—can flex and stretch when the professionalized heritage sector connects with communities that have been preserving their own heritages through genuine participation.

Participatory heritage communities include local volunteer-run archives, online forums hosted by self-taught historians, Wikipedia writers, artisans, and many others who participate in heritage work outside professionally sanctioned institutions like state archives, accredited museums, and official historic sites. The editors remind us that non-professionalized communities of practice, most often organized by unpaid stakeholders without formal training, lack the resources to preserve collections and knowledge in permanent, sustainable ways.

But instead of lamenting the loss of valuable historical documents and priceless objects at the hands of well-meaning but uninformed community members, this collection of case studies focuses on what the professionalized heritage sector can learn from informal communities of practice.

For example, JoyEllen Freeman’s chapter challenges readers to imagine an archive as an active aspect of community life, existing in the open for easy access rather than stowed away in perfectly conditioned storage areas. She reveals less than ideal archival conditions and processes (according to professional standards) at the Flat Rock Archives in Georgia, but then illuminates how implementing archival best practices could threaten the very community participation that saved this important African-American site from complete erasure. The archival materials at Flat Rock (documents, records, etc.) are displayed with artifacts and other materials in a mid-nineteenth-century farmhouse with no rhyme or reason, according to archival principles. And although the Flat Rock Archives organization may seem haphazard to professionals, to the archives’ most immediate users—community members—the house is a dynamic space for programming and community participation that depends on easy access to the archival materials as currently staged. Freeman then describes how she first focused on materials that were not displayed and is now working to organize a mass preservation and processing day that will allow her and volunteers to document materials without disturbing public use.

The Flat Rock Archives Museum in Lithonia, Georgia.

In a later chapter, Noah Lenstra offers a cautionary tale for organizations that seek to offer marginalized communities access to archival resources like databases, training, or willing history students hungry for hands-on archival experience. His chapter focuses on three partnerships between marginalized communities and large universities. Each vignette discusses various levels of autonomy for community members with various failings and successes.

The failures, he argues, happen when well-funded institutions swoop in with “the right answers,” further alienating the very communities they wish to reach by stripping them of their autonomy and ignoring their true needs.

His final example—a statewide workshop and handbook developed by the University of Illinois—is presented as a success because the university offered resources that community leaders could choose based on their needs. In the end, this chapter beckons large, powerful institutions to foster leadership in marginalized communities of practice rather than blindly insisting that the professionals know best.

Participatory Heritage is a challenging read because it asks professionalized cultural workers to loosen their grip on archival best practices in order to favor community needs and wants. However, this doesn’t mean professionalized standards should be thrown to the wind. Instead, the editors implore us to imagine what new best practices could look like when traditional heritage work links with communities who have figured out how to preserve their stories on their own terms.

Whether you are a student or a seasoned professional, this work will open a hearty discussion about how professional standards can evolve to preserve a broader swath of human history. Participatory Heritage makes it clear that the key to that evolution is held by the communities of practice that have struggled and thrived outside the professionalized world of heritage work.

Megan DiRienzo is an Interpretive Planner at the Detroit Institute of Arts. She collaborates with evaluators, designers, curators, community members, and various experts across disciplines to create relevant and personally meaningful experiences with art for museum visitors. She can be reached at [email protected]

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