14.00  Keeping Critical Heritage Studies Critical: Why "Post-Humanism" and the "New Materialism" Are Not So Critical

Monday 06 Jun 09:00 AM (30 minutes)

Theory building in heritage studies in general, and critical heritage studies in particular, has to be eclectic and wide-ranging. However, to actually be “critical,” rather than up to date or fashionable, we think that it is important to be judicious about where we draw our inspirations.

To us, being critical means more than being literate in the social sciences. It involves, in theory and practice, an orientation to issues of power and social justice that is not simply rhetorical, but pragmatic and grounded in real-world social and political issues. Some of the early sources that people have drawn on to build a critical approach to heritage, such as Raphael Samuel (1994), the “three tenors” (Ashworth, Graham and Tunbridge) and Stuart Hall (1999), very explicitly addressed thorny political problems. When we wrote the Manifesto for the Association of Critical Heritage Studies in 2011, these approaches to social justice issues were at the forefront of our minds. We were also keen to give further impetus to emerging trends in heritage and museum practice that were trying to move past a long-standing professional obsession with the self-evident importance of artefacts, buildings, sites, and places to embrace their wider cultural, social, and political significance.

Consequently, we have become somewhat dismayed by some of the theoretical borrowings that are seeing in heritage and museum studies. To our mind, these are not “critical” examples of theory building, nor are they the kind of pragmatic exchanges of ideas that can inform practice. We are talking about the broad field of the so-called “post-human” and “new materialist” thought (Latour’s Actor Network Theory, Thrift’s “non-representational theory” and the work of Deleuze, amongst others), which we think are antithetical to the kind of critical work that we would like to see develop.

There are a number of reasons we think this, but we would first and foremost like to ask whether these themes, which privilege the immediacy of the material world, are not so much new materialisms as a return to the “old materialism” of professional and academic practice in the museums and heritage sector. Is what we are seeing the borrowing of recent high theory as an intellectual justification for old “business as usual”—the occupational and intellectual obsession with the self-evident importance of things—and of particular practices of curating, interpreting, and preserving them?

We would like to argue that by privileging “first order” relations, that is, face to face interactions with objects that are accorded a form of “agency,” important “second and third order” relations—what we might reasonably call politics, class, gender, ethnicity, the social, economics—are treated as outdated abstractions. The problem is, for us, that these issues should be at the heart of critical heritage studies, not sacrificed at the altar of the latest wave of fashionable social theory.

Australian National University
Professor and Head of the Centre for Heritage and Museum Studies

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