Since early 2013, efforts to to build a community around cultural heritage, its discourse and studies, which can be argued to be a bit more lively outside the U.S., mainly focused on growing a U.S. Chapter of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies (ACHS). The popularity of ACHS and its international conferences were viewed as an opportunity for sparking/further developing related interests in the U.S., as well as promoting greater contributions to the international heritage discourse, expanding its interdisciplinary with theories and methodologies grounded in longstanding – and more commonly known in the U.S. – disciplines and fields (e.g. folklore/public folklore, public history, American studies, among others).
Admittedly, chapter growth has been slow; although, the chapter has organized several small-scale events, such as sessions on connecting U.S.-based heritage studies to the global discourse at anthropological, folklore, and other annual meetings and conferences. Great momentum was gained at the U.S. Chapter meeting at the 3rd international conference of ACHS in Montreal (June, 2016), where new participants joined, and the seeds were planted for the upcoming (June, 2017) heritage studies meeting at Arkansas State University. Thanks to the support of ACHS, we now also have a budding listserv for all things cultural heritage in the U.S.as a means for fostering greater dialogue, connecting to each other as heritage studies in the U.S. takes deeper root.
On February 20th, 2013, the US Chapter of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies (ACHS-US) was launched at a meeting hosted by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, in Washington, DC. Drawing inspiration from the recently-established and internationally-growing ACHS, this launch meeting sought to uncover the shape in which a US Chapter can take, as well as key aims that can help guide it forward.
The idea for this US Chapter stemmed from the June, 2012 inaugural conference of ACHS at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, which convened over 400 heritage researchers and professionals from around the world. As a conference participant, Dr. Michelle Stefano, Program Coordinator for Maryland Traditions, the folklife program of the Maryland State Arts Council, and Folklorist-in-Residence in American Studies at UMBC, noted first-hand that the wide-ranging conceptualizations, definitions, processes and practices relating to ‘heritage’ and ‘heritage-making’ within US contexts should be included to a greater extent within the international heritage discourse. Moreover, the primary mission of ACHS, which is to “promote heritage as an area of critical enquiry”, was recognized as a much-needed force for reflection and movement with respect to cultural and heritage-related work – to state it broadly – in the US.
Critical heritage studies can be viewed as a movement to examine and interrogate the power dynamics of defining, making and using ‘heritage’ from the local to global levels. In this light, ACHS has been formed in response to increasingly institutionalized heritage narratives that tend to lessen the opportunity for diverse actors to self-identify and articulate their own heritage concepts, practices and policies. As the US Representative of ACHS, Dr. Stefano convened the launch meeting with the view that forming a US Chapter can foster the dialogue, debate and examination needed to create a more inclusive heritage enterprise within the US, as well as to uncover where access to heritage-related processes is lacking. Meredith Holmgren of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, and ACHS inaugural conference participant, shares her views on the core aims of this chapter:
As many heritage processes evoke uneven power relationships, I think that one aim of critical heritage studies is to document and/or analyze cases of sociopolitical (in-)congruity. The examination of critical case studies is crucial to facilitating the development of new practical and theoretical frameworks. In which cases are institutional prerogatives commensurate with community values and/or practices, and in which cases are they not? This is one of the many critical questions that I think critical heritage studies begs us to ask.
As such, the ACHS-US launch meeting brought together a diverse array of scholars, researchers, student-colleagues, cultural activists, community leaders and professionals within the heritage, folklife, culture and arts sectors from the DC/Maryland region, as well as beyond. This diversity – so early on in the development of the US Chapter – serves as a testament to the wide-ranging applicability of ‘heritage’ concepts and processes, and that a forum to discuss, debate and examine heritage-related issues is highly necessary.
It was agreed that this diversity is what will give ACHS-US its strength to develop further into a “network of all networks”, as James Early noted within the meeting. From our discussions, it was decided that the US Chapter will be shaped through inclusive, horizontal interaction(s) – that is, it will not be built as a vertically-structured organization. Above all, this is a movement that all participants should feel ownership of and decision-making power within. Indeed, the chapter will gain momentum through the active participation and decision-making involvement of local communities, universities, scholars, researchers, student-colleagues, cultural institutions, art and cultural activists, among other related actors and/or groups. From an academic perspective, Dr. Theo Gonzalves, Chair of the American Studies Department at UMBC, reflected on the meeting by noting, the establishment of a US chapter is an exciting development for scholars and other professionals who care deeply about the cultures and communities from which we hail and serve. Building a network of networks will be key to starting this important task. Similarly, Caitlin Smith, a UMBC Anthropology and Ancient Studies major, remarked, ACHS-US presents students with the unique opportunity to engage with seasoned professionals from an array of disciplines in an effort to construct some understanding of our nation’s complex and varied heritage. It will provide networking opportunities, learning experiences, and, most importantly, the chance for our generation to have a voice in this defining moment for the study of heritage and of ourselves.
Dr. Lisa Hayes, Director of the Accokeek Foundation (Maryland), expressed how ACHS-US can benefit her work with indigenous cultural landscapes and museological practices:
As the steward of 200 acres of Piscataway Park, a national park on the Potomac River, the Accokeek Foundation is working to deepen its interpretation of the culture of agriculture in Southern Maryland to engage visitors in the compelling interwoven narrative of African American, American Indian, and European colonists on this land that was home to the Piscataway nation. A resource like ACHS-US will provide an important network of colleagues who can help guide our research and thinking, and will offer a forum for the discussion and exploration of new and developing ideas.
How will this chapter develop and operate horizontally? Participants acknowledged that a full commitment to encouraging the active involvement of our peers and colleagues is needed to move ACHS-US forward, as well as outward. It was expressed that, eventually, this can be a network that spans the country (and beyond), linking passionate people together in order to create an inclusive and relevant forum for discussing and debating heritage issues, opening access to ‘heritage’ concepts and heritage-making processes, as well as for connecting this US discourse to that at the international level.
Key actions that were also discussed include:
- The crafting of a mission statement that grounds the main aims of ACHS-US is the immediate, next step.
- The creation of a website will enable people to connect, discuss and share ideas, issues and approaches concerning ‘heritage’ and heritage-making in the US context(s).
- Future meetings, as well as broader symposia, can serve as a platform for promoting US-based voices, wide-ranging theoretical frameworks, and practices within the international heritage discourse, as well as to enrich informational exchanges among participants.
- ACHS-US should not shape itself as a ‘cultural heritage organization’ only; it should seek partnerships with diverse local community groups, universities, scholars, researchers, cultural institutions, art and cultural activists, as well.
- An emphasis should also be placed on developing university programs that seize the broad, interdisciplinary nature of understanding and working with heritage, from fields and disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, geography, urban planning, intellectual property law, cultural policy studies, to name only a few, as well as to help university student-colleagues to access the diverse range of careers that focus on heritage-related issues.
Since the launch, participants have been reflecting on the importance of developing ACHS-US further, and sharing these thoughts. In particular, the question of what to do next is, understandably, most discussed. While we have obviously created a website, thanks to the support of UMBC, the actual moving-forward of the chapter will still need some time. Garth Ross, Vice President of Community Engagement at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and a meeting participant, has articulated a rather inspiring reminder of what is most important about these early stages:
To be both stewards and beneficiaries of culture requires dialog sufficient to elevate awareness and action sufficient to sustain progress. With its explicit focus on promoting dialog and networking between researchers, practitioners and activists, a U.S. chapter of ACHS will help me and my institution sustain meaningful relationships with artists and communities that support the dialog and action that contemporary American culture needs to develop and thrive.
Starting a new organization can be messy. A lot of time and energy can be spent in the attempt to limit the mess. Alternatively, we can let it be messy.
It is easier to make a mess than to make something “just right” the first time around. And while there is not presently consensus on what is “just right” for ACHS, there is consensus that something must be done to increase the amplitude and frequency of dialog around culture in the United States.
So instead of spending precious resources on muting our efforts by limiting the mess, let’s turn up the volume by publicly making something happen – by working together to manifest our passionate commitment in ways that create awareness and provoke response. Even worse than making a mess for all to see is making nothing that is seen by all. The coalescence of this network can enable such action.
The single, greatest resource at our disposal is the passionate commitment that each of us brings to this endeavor. Another is the impulse to come together for a common purpose. The combination of the two create a third – the network.
The network itself is the critical resource that none of us alone can bring. It is a resource for collective action, and thanks to our conveners it is now also at our disposal. But any network is only as useful as it is used. And the measure of that usefulness is in what the network enables us to do with it that we weren’t able to do without it.
So let’s give it a try. Let’s try to use it with as much frequency and volume as we can. Let’s see if we can make a joyful noise and perhaps, a beautiful mess. But let’s be seen and heard. Because the greatest single challenge we face right now is that our cultural heritage is not being seen or heard as it needs to be in order for Americans to be both its stewards and its beneficiaries.
On this note, we strongly encourage your participation in developing and expanding this chapter. Please share this information with your colleagues and peers ACROSS THE COUNTRY and promote the importance of a US-based heritage discourse, exchange and LOCAL
CONVENINGS OF DIVERSE INDIVIDUALS AND GROUPS TO BECOME ACTIVE PARTICIPANTS IN THE EVOLUTION OF THE ACHS-US FORUM AND CRITICAL HERITAGE AGENDA.
Above photo: Former Director of Cultural Heritage Policy at the Smithsonian CFCH, James Counts Early, welcomes participants to the February 2013 meeting.