April 27, 2019

Closing Remarks by Casey Gray

Thanks to the School of Indigenous and Canadian Studies and the student organizers of the Heritage Conservation Symposium for inviting me to speak as rapporteur today. The symposium theme this year, Heritage Intersections: people and placemaking, has a few specific goals as stated in the programme: to examine cross-disciplinary and alternative approaches in the field of heritage conservation; contribute to a richer and more complete meaning of heritage; and to consider how heritage conservation practices facilitate and respond to practices of placemaking.

The theme is an appropriate and pertinent continuation of last year’s theme in which we very bravely tackled questions of ontology: what constitutes heritage conservation theory and practice? Can we think of heritage outside of dominant paradigms like literature, landscapes, and built heritage? Can heritage conservation include all the senses? This year, the presenters consider heritage conservation in a very epistemological sense (epistemology being the branch of philosophy concerned with examining knowledge in regard to method, scope and validity, and what separates justified belief and knowledge from opinion). These are important questions for heritage conservation practitioners to ask. What constitutes knowledge in heritage has important consequences for what gets defined as heritage and who has access to it. To the broader public it is also an important question of literacy. In order for people to care about heritage, tangible or intangible, it must be presented in a way that is accessible and meaningful to them. The presenters for this symposium have approached these questions in thoughtful and exciting ways.

In Session One, Marie-Christine Blais and Cristina Ranalli raised an important discussion about the critical understanding and ethical use of new paradigms and new digital tools. In a City like Bologna, Italy, animated by its vibrant intangible heritage, state of the art digital technologies are enriched and made meaningful through crowd-sourced data integrated through WebGIS, allowing stories, processions and graffiti to occupy the digital space. Sampoorna Bhattacharya compelled us to consider a question of authenticity. In the case of ethnic enclaves in Ottawa, the planned and organic evolution of neighbourhoods can lead to the Disneyfication of cultural assets and the celebration of some cultural voices at the expense of others. These two presentations highlighted the importance of Spirit of Place, however, the second half of the session presented us with another important concept: ghosts of place. As theorized by Michael Bell, ghosts of place are the sense and presence of things and people not physically here, as a ubiquitous aspect of the phenomenology of place. In other words, when we talk about placemaking in heritage, we must also consider absences. Cristina Wood intervened in the concept of absence by relocating images of a pre-expropriated Lebreton Flats onto the physical contemporary landscape. In investigating the consequence of urban renewal practices, narratives of relocation, loss and economic opportunity emerged. And across the world in Berlin, Meighen Katz described intersecting, and at times conflicting, stories represented by damage maps, bronze plaques, and oral history. Similar to the ethnic enclaves of Little Italy and Chinatown, practices of active forgetting can be seen at odds with planned and careful remembering.

Ghosts followed us into Session Two, in the absent presences of “found object” sculptures made by Eric Walker. Gemey Kelly highlighted the meaning-making that can be found in the mystery of objects and things themselves. Ruins contribute to the recovery of memory, and the reuse of things reaffirms a connectedness within a social and historical ecology. Michelle Thompson touched on the role of emotion, where affective responses to intangible cultural elements can have more impact on understandings of cultural heritage than “historic facts.” As with the ethnic enclaves of Ottawa, representation of cultural identities in French-speaking cultures can favour particular voices over others. Such peripheral communities can become protective of the heritage, as Heather Horak described. In the case of Wakefield, actions to animate and locate musical heritage intersect with pertinent questions about the reconstruction of colonial histories and practices.

In Session Three, understanding and describing place were key epistemological concepts. Amanda Parkinson asked us to reconsider the question of value in regard to heritage conservation decision-making. Interrogating questions of value requires considering what gets deemed worth conserving and how certain values are prioritized over others. Understanding and describing place were also important concepts for combatting loss of place. Brodie Hobson and Daniel Lowcay introduced us to the developing technologies of occupant sensing. By leveraging existing data streams within heritage sites and buildings, locational data can inform mitigative measures to ease the threat of overtoursim on physical and intangible heritage. Such developing technologies require, as Marie-Christine introduced us to in Session One, careful attention to critical understanding and ethical use. Desiree Geib reminded us of the importance of being able to visualize the multi-perspectival data that informs such notions as Spirit of Place. The stratigraphic layering of the way we sense the world around us combined with more analytical planning data were integrated into her conceptual maps of Calgary to explore new tools for visualizing and understanding the heritage of developing cities.

Session Four began with Adrian Soble introducing us to a missed opportunity within current heritage conservation practice: incorporating indoor environmental quality factors as part of heritage statements of significance. As part of the experience of place, the conditions created within a building itself provide an interesting counterpoint to the environment around it. Courtney Vaughn investigated the potential for repatriation of land and Indigenous-led practices of adaptive reuse as powerful potentials of conciliation and reconciliation. The return of land and existing structures disrupts the colonial logics that legitimized the dispossession of Indigenous land and prioritizes Indigenous understandings of land and stewardship. And finally, Heather Thomson and Chris Hoyt raised a compelling difference between project proposals reviewed by the National Capital Commission: that some applicants view the process and heritage conservation frameworks as simply bureaucratic, and others come to the table with a willingness and interest to understand the value, meaning, and legacy of the building in question.

This brings us back to the emergent theme of the symposium: what constitutes heritage (and heritage literacy) and how do we expand the circle of legitimate knowledge to include new voices and inspire others?

At a recent museums conference in Toronto, a speaker raised the point that the term “curate” was being appropriated by the general public from museum professionals. The casual use of the term in everyday life, in reference to coffee, beer, and music playlists, was delegitimizing the authority of museum professionals, and therefore we must continue to covet the concept of curation as an exclusive museum practice. I believe that this is the wrong approach. In order to make heritage a relevant and important issue for public stakeholders, they should feel comfortable with the language and concepts that we use. We should be promoting heritage literacy.

And so, what I took away from the 14th Annual Heritage Conservation Symposium was that there are a multitude of new practices, technologies, and ways of thinking about heritage that have the potential to expand what we consider legitimate knowledge of the heritage around us and that could speak to new practitioners and new publics in exciting and accessible ways.