When our museums and monuments preserve the whole of our diverse heritage, when they are inviting to the public and interact with the changes all around them, then they will strengthen our attachment to human rights, mutual respect and democracy, and help prevent these ever again being violated.
– Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s Heritage Day, 1997
I came across this quote from a speech given by Nelson Mandela at Robben Island on the first day of my internship with the National Trust’s Heritage Open Days team. Heritage Open Days (HODs) is England’s largest history and culture festival and is part of European Heritage Days. Each year European Heritage Days has a shared theme in addition to each country’s individual theme. For 2021, the shared theme will be inclusivity. In preparation for this and as part of their ongoing mission, the HODs team wanted to learn more about inclusive heritage practices from organisations beyond Europe and North America. In particular, they wanted to find examples of programmes showcasing narratives and objects that represented the breadth of a country’s people and history, as well as programmes that were welcoming to all and attracted a range of audiences. With these two approaches to inclusive heritage in mind, the objective of my internship was to create a database of relevant programmes and exhibitions from across the globe and document their aims, impact, partnerships, funding sources, and press. For me, Mandela’s quote perfectly encapsulates the profound political and social impact of including all voices and stories in the heritage sector and galvanized why the 2021 shared theme and HODs’ ongoing work is important. I was excited to help contribute via my micro-internship.
I spent two weeks researching museum exhibitions, heritage festivals, public art projects, heritage trails, digital exhibitions, and grass roots initiatives in dozens of countries. The examples I found often showcased previously untold stories and focused on representing a fuller range of histories, from the female leaders, or ‘unsung Sheroes’, of Ghana’s independence movement to preserving a stilt house from Rio de Janeiro’s favelas at the Maré Museum. In addition to programmes that told inclusive narratives, I found initiatives that brought in more diverse audiences. For example, the In_Herit Festival in Cape Town developed a partnership to provide buses to care homes and rural communities to ensure as many people as possible had the opportunity to take part in the festival.
After gathering examples and creating the database, I wrote a report on ten case studies and an analysis of key trends. On the last day of my internship, I presented the database and report to the HODs team at their London offices. We had a lively discussion about the core themes I identified during my research. Notably, the idea of social cohesion repeatedly came up as one of the main outcomes of promoting inclusive heritage, just as Mandela wrote in his speech. Inclusive heritage initiatives dealing with topics such as slavery in Cuba or genocide in Cambodia highlighted how by confronting the past, heritage can foster a greater sense of understanding and help build communities.
Another theme, or in this case criticism, which came up frequently in audience assessments and press reviews was the issue of tokenism. Partnerships and working directly with local community groups and individuals were key to ensuring authenticity. Many projects used crowd-sourced information to develop their heritage trails or exhibitions. This allowed for multiple voices to be heard and placed the discourse not just in the hands of academics but also the community.
This internship took place in January 2020, and it allowed me to research one of the most important issues facing the heritage sector from an often-overlooked perspective. Case studies from the EU and US are frequently used as examples during discussions of inclusion in the sector, but a global perspective on how to present and preserve a more inclusive heritage adds much needed voices to this conversation. As I write this blog post in the midst of 2020 when the call for more inclusive heritage practices is making international headlines and heritage sites are reevaluating their role in society, the necessity of understanding global practices has become all the more pressing. And I for one cannot wait for Heritage Open Days 2021!
Alexis Gorby is a PhD candidate in Classical Archaeology. Her dissertation explores late antique sarcophagi in their original contexts. She occasionally tweets @AlexisCGorby.
Find out more about the National Trust Partnership here.
Find out more about the TORCH Heritage Programme here.