A Space for History

By Sarah Feinstein  – 

At the end of this month I submit my doctoral thesis and, as a result, I have found myself thinking about what history as a discipline means to me and has meant to my research, both conceptually and as a practice. My thesis examines the post-closure cultural production and heritage management of two former security sites that are iconic within the symbolic landscape of Northern Ireland: Maze Long Kesh Prison and Ebrington Barracks. I have been interested in how the pre-closure history of those sites, specifically their engagement with the contested history that they represent, is in dialogue with those productions.

However, as someone from the field of critical heritage studies, I have struggled with how to address history (and History), particularly the history of conflict. Certainly, one of the key variables that underlines the sources of conflict on the island of Ireland is the interpretation of historical events, and attempting to summarise the manifestation and cultural roots of conflict in Northern Ireland is equally problematic. It is, in part, a question of ideology, but not without the influence of the personal in the political. Ian McBride has explained that in Ireland, North and South, “the interpretation of the past has always been at the heart of national conflict […] perhaps more than in other cultures, collective groups have expressed their values and assumptions through their representations of the past.”[1]

This question of historical representations is a critical debate for heritage studies. Laurajane Smith has argued that the validation, negotiation, and regulation of place has been constituted by the cultural process of ‘authorized heritage discourse’ that naturalises our understanding of the past through objects or material manifestations.[2] These practices not only reflect social meaning but govern them. What Smith advocates, then, is viewing heritage as more than a social and culture resource but as “a political one through which a range of struggles are negotiated. The implications and consequences of the theorisation of heritage as a cultural practice is concerned with negotiating the tensions between received and contested identity has consequences for both academic analysis and heritage practice and policy.” [3] From the perspective of heritage, then, one path to access the significance of place is through social history.

For me, an invaluable resource that can aid our understanding of the history of place within the legacy of the ‘Troubles’ is the Prisons Memory Archive (PMA).[4] Formed in 2005, the PMA holds over 300 hours of audio/visual oral histories filmed onsite at the primary political prisons used during the Troubles. The PMA is governed by a collaborative methodology that is embedded in both their creative practice, editing protocols, and participant governance: life-story telling, co-ownership, and inclusivity. Adapted from oral history methodology, life-story telling applies to their filming practice in which the participant guides the direction of the filming in content and location, unlike in the conventional framework of traditional media. The principle of co-ownership means, in legal terms of the material’s copyright, participants co-own their material. This strategy requires that consent of the individual participant must be obtained in order for their recordings to be used; ensuring that control remains with the participant in how their voice and image is presented, as well as in what context. Inclusivity in the selection of participants and in the edited formats is not limited to the presentation of a cross-section of roles (e.g. governor, politically motivated prisoner, tutor, visitor, prison guard, social worker, etc.) but also includes the active engagement of participants in co-production. In dealing with the past, approaches that privileges co-production in dialogue with those whose lives have been impacted by those sites of political violence present an opportunity that resists totalising, singular narratives, allowing for self-reflection for participants and audiences alike. The material produced through this engagement also serves as a resource to investigate contested history from below.

Heritage management has a responsibility to engage with the political and social history embedded in a heritage site through a frame that resists hierarchical power relations in order to support cultural democracy and social justice. Understanding heritage management through this lens also provides a unique entry point into the dynamics of culture and reconciliation, as well as into history, and the role heritage can play as a platform for a space to engage both.

[1] Ian McBride, History and Memory in Modern Ireland (Cambridge University Press, 2001), p. 3.

[2] L. Smith, Uses of Heritage (London, 2006).

[3] Ibid., p.7.

[4] See Prisons Memory Archive available at <http://prisonsmemoryarchive.com>.

(Image: © Sarah Feinstein)

Sarah Feinstein is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Cultural Practices at the University of Manchester. She has worked in the cultural sector for over seventeen years with institutions such as the Repatriation Office at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (Washington, D.C.) and the Pankhurst Center Heritage Museum (Manchester). You can follow her on Twitter @1000plateaus

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