Introducing Confusion2.0: Who owns our heritage?

One of the most ambitious projects that Heritage Walk Calcutta has been itching to take on is engaging students in heritage conservation. As a part of the three-day FUTURE (T)HERE International Youth Conference On Sustainable Living 2018, Heritage Walk Calcutta’s team worked with kids from Calcutta, Guwahati, and Kharagpur, discussing the legalities of conserving Calcutta’s built heritage. This conference, hosted by the Goethe Institut, Kolkata, was a perfect opportunity to help the students question the definitions and facts and rote learning that are often the bane of history classes. Asking individual students about their own understandings of words like “heritage,” “community,” “sustainability,” “conservation,” or “ownership” — and even “old,” “ancient,” and “modern” – brought to the fore the general confusion around what heritage means. The fact that Grandma’s old recipe book can also be a part of an individual’s heritage helped them come to terms with ideas of private and public ownership of heritage, and how “old” things or “ancient” artefacts are not the only ones worthy of being “heritage.”

On a personal level, it amazes me how little I learned about the general history of Bengal and Calcutta in school. We knew all about the Indian Independence Movement, the Harappan civilization, and even bits and pieces about Hitler and the World Wars. What was sorely lacking from my education was the concept that being a part of history was not an honour meant only for the nobles or elites, the gallants or villains. Instead, it is about you and me, our grandparents, our families, our letters, and the spaces we inhabit. The area now known as Calcutta was not transformed in the span of a day by the efforts of Job Charnock.  Beginning from fishing hamlets, rivers and creeks, and a Pilgrim’s Path that goes back centuries before Calcutta got its name, the developmental history of the region has often taken a backseat in the face of its colonial and postcolonial narratives.

During the conference, we introduced the students to the city, its history, and why it is how it is – all through visual mediums including maps, old photographs, and paintings. Before they could doze off to the hum of the projector, we led them out into the open and headed to Dalhousie Square on the first day of the workshop. They were suitably impressed on learning how St. John’s Church was built on an old burial ground, how it was overcrowded because of the high mortality among the first waves of Europeans visiting Calcutta in the 1700s, and how malaria, one of the many killers of the time, would be treated using mercury and bloodletting, often killing the sick anyway. St. John’s Church also happens to house Job Charnock’s Mausoleum, whose architecture is anything but European. We were pleasantly surprised when the kids correctly surmised that the local architects of the time probably did not know how to build European-style architecture, and that was the reason for its Indian design.

Heritage walk at Dalhousie Square on Day 1 of the workshop

Heritage walk at Dalhousie Square on Day 1 of the workshop

The next morning the kids were excited about the prospect of another walk, this time to the sites around Kumartuli. The workshop was designed to let them observe the differences in the state of conservation of the built environment in various sections of the city. Our primary aim was to show them places they would not normally have access to, or even notice; by walking the streets, they learned to be more observant and empathetic to the needs of the spaces they populate.

The questions started pouring in once we started walking around Upper Chitpore Road, beginning near Bagbazar Ghat and ending at the Bhagyakul Roy Family Mansions. One of the children’s questions that stayed with me was: “Why should we preserve this building which apparently has no significance other than this woodwork sculpture on top? Why not keep that in a museum, and make the housing conditions more liveable?” This leads us to a larger question – what about creating community museums in Calcutta, or even a Calcutta Museum? Is the single gallery in Victoria Memorial sufficient for our future generations to fall back on? Why should we expect them to fall back on dusty papers and government documents in corridors full of bureaucratic red tape? Should the history of our city, the one we live in, not be available to the people of the city in a form that is relatable, understandable, and memorable?

On returning to the Goethe Institut, we had the children dissect the Kolkata Municipal Corporation’s mandates on heritage buildings, including snippets from the KMC Act of 1980. The task was to determine the specific legalities that could be used to improve the situation of the buildings we had seen on the walks, and how the law could be modified to be more flexible and sustainable in the long run. The students were divided into groups of threes and fours so that each could work on a different aspect or site for their final presentation.

The author simplified important aspects of the city’s heritage law for the students

The author simplified important aspects of the city’s heritage law for the students

It is sometimes distressing when innovation and creativity has to end in an action-oriented audience presentation in a short period of time, but the students masterfully dealt with the twin challenges of time and content. During the prep hour, their questions and concerns started pouring in: who owned the buildings; who owned the artefacts; should there be a dedicated museum for the communities; why are some buildings well-restored while others are falling apart; how can an estate be owned in the name of a god; why do the authorities not accept help from private citizens or involve the community; how can the community come together to achieve the sustainable conservation of sections of the city; and so on and so forth. It was humbling for me to see how much they had understood and unearthed in the short span of one and a half days. Amidst the volley of facts and stories and the sensory overload, the students had found breathing space from their rigorous academic pursuits to pursue lines of independent questioning about their own heritage.

To tie all of the lessons together, the last day of the conference included a visit to the community associations and Taoist temples in the Old Chinatown near Tiretti Bazar, Poddar Court. The community here draws their lineage from five different villages in the Guangzhou region of southern China. The descendants of people from each village have their own club and temple. As a classic example of community engagement, Mr. Lee from the Sei Vui temple and community association talked to the children about the origins of the club and the history of the Chinese immigrants, who were historically an important trading and industrial community in Calcutta. The club dormitory, which served as a resting place for new immigrants from Sei Vui village in the early 1900s, has recently been repurposed into a restaurant. As an excellent example of the reuse of heritage spaces, this visit reinforced the idea that heritage conservation is very possible for the people of this city and those who care about it.

Mr Lee, the Secretary of the Sei Vui Club in Old Chinatown discusses the history of the Chinese community and how the Club members plan to preserve their heritage

Mr Lee, the Secretary of the Sei Vui Club in Old Chinatown discusses the history of the Chinese community and how the Club members plan to preserve their heritage

For their final presentations, the three groups of students created: a quiz; a legal review of the current state of certain buildings; and a status report on the state of conservation of different sections of the city. While Group 1 worked on a trivia quiz on historically significant structures, they also came up with questions like “Who owns heritage? And what is our role in conservation?” They did a great job of putting our thoughts into words and presenting them to the parents and teachers who came to participate. Group 2 did a review of Madan Mohan Tala, buildings in various stages of dilapidation on Fancy Lane, and a house located on Upper Chitpore Road. They worked with the varying aspects of ownership and how certain legal functions of a temple estate are different from those of a corporate or private owner. I am glad they decided to work on an oft-misunderstood aspect of the conservation efforts around the city. The members of the third group presented a grading of sites according to their level of risk, regardless of their ownership. They focused on the relevance of heritage sectors in a city, where magnificent structures with forgotten owners deserve to be saved too. Highlighting places like Bishnuram Chakrabarti’s Shibtala and St John’s Church in various stages of the conversation spoke to how much they had retained, both in terms of facts and figures and their visual impressions, including architectural details.

Group 2 worked with varying aspects of ownership and how certain legal functions of a temple estate are different from those of a corporate or private owner

Group 2 worked with varying aspects of ownership and how certain legal functions of a temple estate are different from those of a corporate or private owner

It is difficult to put into words how glad I am to have met these children who worked hard and convinced the general populace that “doing” heritage and heritage walks is a gratifying and necessary objective for a concerned citizen. While it was fun to work with the kids, I have concerns about whether our social bias of pushing children to study science and technology will let them accomplish their own goals of heritage conservation, however small they may be. It also brought forward how the legalities involved in heritage efforts need to be simplified, and that the communities around heritage structures can themselves engage in collecting funds, formulating plans, and giving shape to conservation efforts. A lot remains to be done in terms of heritage identification and mapping, before steps can be taken to ameliorate the condition of the built heritage in the city. Bringing the people of the city together by creating a common digital platform for them to locate and document our built heritage is a very real dream for us. Petitioning the municipal body to disentangle the legalities of grading heritage buildings, or even clarifying the community’s role in sustaining any heritage conservation efforts will help the community come to terms with their heritage and rights to it. This city and the people have a lot of fight left in them. We would like to give their and their children’s hopes a place to find fruition.

Pritha Mukherjee is an historian who is passionate about the colonial and postcolonial treatment of South Asia’s ancient past. She has worked on archaeological surveys, museum documentations, and heritage walk initiatives in Bihar, and currently manages Research and Development for Heritage Walk Calcutta.

Acknowledgements: Goethe Institut-Kolkata, Suvodeep Saha, Srinanda Ganguli, Chelsea McGill

Disclaimer: All images used in this post are the ownership of Heritage Walk Calcutta and may not be used without proper permission.

In this great Future, we cannot forget our Past

My first experience with archaeology was through the Young Archaeologists Club in the Netherlands: as a young teenager, we could actually go excavate every weekend, discover artefacts and document those, while the lead archaeologist would turn all of that into a good story. I remember spending weekends in a castle, cleaning sherds, and trying to reconstruct pots. The best thing was having the area around the castle for ourselves in the evenings. This way of working with archaeology was about getting a personal thrill, a satisfaction, discovering and learning new things. It did not take long until we started explaining to passers-by about the exciting things from the past we had just found out. Maybe we were attention seekers in the beginning, but our stories improved and so did our methods. We learned to try out how we believed people in the past had cooked, fought, worked, not just to test our ideas, but also to tell others.

Open-air museum at Oerlinghausen, Germany

Open-air museum at Oerlinghausen, Germany

I then went to university and there it hit me: many people do research (that is what they teach you there), but the question “why do you do this?” is not often asked. Is it personal satisfaction? I got the question at my next university, though. After gaining my MA, I started working in a museum. I was eager to go tell complete strangers about what I had learned at university, from books and excavations. My museum colleagues however had different methods to do research and also different stories with mixed qualities. Now, I learned very fast not to become the Authenticity Police but help these colleagues in doing simple but effective research. It is very important that literature has become more accessible in recent years, and is not monopolized by scientists. Many archaeologists have become more approachable for the public. Even if ten percent of those approaching scientists may be difficult cases, we should not turn ourselves away from the other ninety percent.

These museums are good at quite a lot of things, but if it would be a bit better structured, so much more value would come out of it. I feel that these museums are very much in the air, not linked well with science on the one hand and with the public on the other. So I went back to university, and did a PhD in archaeological open-air museums. On my first day there, I got the question: “do I want to do research to pursue an academic career (ivory tower) or is my intention to use what I learn in the real world?” I believe there are enough archaeologists out there doing research, but if we do not make the insights we gain from that available to the public, then why do research, except for personal satisfaction?

My position, I feel, is in-between: sitting in a museum, I can help get the message across to the public, but without underlying research, these stories are worthless. That is why I am part of an international network, called EXARC. This is an international networking organization for Archaeological Open-Air Museums, Experimental Archaeology, Ancient Technology and Interpretation. EXARC aims to improve professional standards and promote professional ethics. We provide advice, information, practical tools and learning opportunities to our members. We issue publications and provide opportunities for members to meet. Finally, EXARC actively represents the interests of its members.

Experienced people or newbies, all are working with reconstructing the past. Our membership (300 members across 40 countries) includes Lofotr in Norway, Guédelon in France, Saalburg in Germany, and Butser in the UK. We are a very mixed group of people and organisations including scientists, museums, craftspeople, teachers and actors. More information about EXARC, including an open access Journal with hundreds of articles, can be found at:

As EXARC director, I facilitate our members, showing them where in our network to find the answers, the resources and ideas for quality research and dissemination. We believe in open access, not only online, but also the chance for outsiders to step into our bubble and ask questions, join us in conferences, workshops or writing their first serious research article and publishing with us. The strength of EXARC is our diversity. We decided very early we do not want to be an exclusive club of museum directors only, but an inclusive network, somewhere at the edge of the establishment and those who rather step off the beaten path.

Our aim is to improve the stories told to the public: not just making sure the latest archaeological research is reflected in the museums and at festivals, but also how professionally these stories are told. One can have a brilliant professor orating for an hour but he should be a good researcher, actor and teacher, all in one person. You do not find such people easily. And there is more to it: it is not just about the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which in a museum context means that if there is no good coffee and toilets, people will not be able to pick up the message you try to share with them because physiological needs are not met. It is also about simple things, like you may have a great story to tell, but how do you reach your potential audience, how do you convince them to come and see you?

I started with archaeology because of the great stories about the people who were here before us. I however believe there are much greater researchers and better storytellers in this world. With EXARC, we create the tools; we master the logistics of how to get these stories across. Janus Bifrons was a Roman god. He was the patron of our Young Archaeologists Club; god of beginnings, transitions and endings, he looks in two directions.

I am fully convinced that if you look in only one direction, you will hit your head hard, very hard.  We should work together towards a well-informed presentation of the past to the public, with relevance to the present. That is the only way to catch the attention of the audience and enable them to learn something useful from the past.

Roeland Paardekooper is Director of the ICOM Affiliated Organisation EXARC (International Organisation of Archaeological Open-Air Museums and Experimental Archaeology).

A Heritage Walk for Hearing-Impaired Children

GoUNESCO Make Heritage Fun – Calcutta, March 2017

On 27th March 2017, Heritage Walk Calcutta, in collaboration with Made in Bengal and ArchaeologistsEngage, hosted the year’s first GoUNESCO Make Heritage Fun event in Kolkata, India. Make Heritage Fun is a global initiative by GoUNESCO, aimed at celebrating local culture—simultaneously, across the world. This campaign provides a platform for heritage and culture enthusiasts to share local heritage with others in their community. In Calcutta, we organized an event to help children with hearing-related disabilities explore Calcutta’s history through a guided and assisted 2-hour walking tour inside the compound of St. John’s Church, one of the oldest in the city. For this event, we were proud to work with the Ideal School for the Deaf, located in Salt Lake, Kolkata. 26 of their students from 6th to 10th grade (12-17 years old) and 6 teachers actively participated in this event. The tour was led by Tathagata Neogi, an archaeologist and the co-founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta, and translated into sign language by the accompanying teachers.


After the walking tour, we asked the children to create a work of art about what they learned during the walk.  When ready, these paintings/sketches will be shared through our online platforms and displayed during an exhibition at the Ideal School for the Deaf later this year.

The following is a link to the live telecast at the beginning of the walk.

The accessibility of historic sites is an issue that has not been widely addressed globally. While some countries have recently passed legislation to ensure the accessibility of major historic sites for various groups with disabilities, this issue has not been systematically addressed in India, despite the country’s rich tangible and intangible heritage, and large population of people with disabilities. By conducting a heritage walk specifically aimed at children with hearing-related disabilities under the GoUNESCO Make Heritage Fun umbrella, we at Heritage Walk Calcutta wanted to start a discussion about the issue of accessibility in India’s historic sites. Heritage Walk Calcutta and our collaborators believe in a common, shared heritage, which members of disabled communities have an equal right to access.

Heritage Walk Calcutta approached GoUNESCO about hosting this event under the Make Heritage Fun umbrella at the end of February. The original plan was to provide a bus tour of several major heritage sites for school children. When GoUNESCO approved our application to host an event, this idea was further refined in the hope of addressing accessibility issues in Indian heritage sites. At this time, our collaborators, Made in Bengal and ArchaeologistsEngage, came on board to provide support for the event. The idea of a bus tour was abandoned in favour of a walking tour to increase the experiential value of the event, and to give ample time for the children to connect with a single historic site in a deeper way.

The St. John’s Church complex was chosen as the venue because of its central location and historical importance as the first Anglican Cathedral of Calcutta. The church compound also houses the graves of Job Charnock, the “founder” of the city, and some other important East India Company personalities from the city’s very early days. The Church complex is also a protected site under the Archaeological Survey of India, which is a perfect setting to start discussions about the accessibility of heritage sites, and which does not have any restrictions on entry. Finally, since the children have hearing-related disabilities, the church compound provided safety from the fast moving traffic on some busiest streets in Kolkata, just outside the walls.


After this plan was finalized, we approached the Ideal School for the Deaf through a common friend. Their authorities were very enthusiastic about the event. We discussed our plan with the head of the institute and other faculty members to come up with an accessible narrative for the children. The school requested that the event be done on Monday, March 27th, rather than on Sunday, which was the day of the international event. GoUNESCO very kindly agreed to let us host the event on this alternate day to make it easier for the children to attend, since many of them come from very far distances to attend the school. The Friday before the event, Tathagata made a presentation at the school to give the children some historical context through pictures and paintings, with translation into sign language. This also provided us, the students, and the teachers with a warm-up run for the event.


To ensure the accessibility of the information during the walking tour, we prepared visual aids for the children. This included print outs of important names, dates and numbers in large fonts and visible colours. Tathagata also spoke slowly in Bangla so that the children, who are experts in lip-reading, could get some information immediately, without waiting for the translation. Both Tathagata and the teacher who was interpreting stood on higher ground whenever possible throughout the tour so that all of the children could easily see them. A small welcome kit was also provided for the children and their teachers, which included a bottle of water and some snacks.


The issue of the accessibility of historic sites is very close to our hearts at Heritage Walk Calcutta. We believe that, while one-off events like these can spark a discussion, this talk will die out if it is not regularly followed up by similar events and workshops. Heritage Walk Calcutta is therefore committed to making significant contributions to this discussion by organizing follow-up events for various disabled groups and by working with different stakeholders to make heritage sites more accessible for disabled communities.

Heritage Walk Calcutta is an academic-run company in Kolkata that aims to increase awareness of heritage in the community by connecting scholars and the common people through walking tours and workshops.

Tathagata Neogi is an archaeologist and the co-founder of Heritage Walk Calcutta.

The event would not be possible without the active support of our various collaborators and GoUNESCO. Here, I briefly introduce our collaborators and thank them for their support.

Ideal School for the Deaf: Established in 1967 by the Society for the Deaf, the school functions as a not for profit institution to provide free education for hearing impaired children. The organization is based out of Salt Lake Sector I, Kolkata, India. The school caters to students from all backgrounds in the Kolkata area and beyond.

Made in Bengal: ‘Made in’ is a digital platform for any product/service made by the people of Bengal…for the people of the world. The Made in Bengal team constantly work with artists, artisans and weavers to innovate in order to keep traditional techniques intact! The aim is to bring on more artists, manufacturers, designers, weavers, musicians, theatre artists, and so on, to this single e-platform and reach out to the world with our products, culture, art and cuisine.

ArchaeologistsEngage: ArchaeologistsEngage is an independent non-profit group of archaeologists who came together to enable engagement between professionals and the public. ArchaeologistsEngage is a registered voluntary organisation in the Norwegian Brønnøysund Register.

Typology of Heritage Utopia: Some essentials on the good heritage experience

As conductors of heritage mediation, we are often enrolled in a tale about the increasing need for making heritage experiences popular and relevant. As solutions, this discourse usually brings forward newest technologies, active participation in ‘living history’ and critical constructivist learning approaches. What seems missed, is that ‘traditional’ monumental heritage experiences still are the most visited heritage attractions, and that there is a large heritage consuming segment seeking passive and meditative experiences (as passive consumers of heritage exhibitions and through recent movements such as ‘slow-tourism’, ‘digital detox’ and ‘micro-adventure’) (Hansen 2016: 24, 80). The simple ‘being’ in a heritage environment has great value for many. In relation, we need to recognize how heritage affects our very basic tactile senses: the experience of drinking a beer is different (better) in for example the square of a medieval town than a 70s concrete building in a capital suburb.

The background for this paper, is my PhD thesis on medieval heritage experiences in Northern Europe. The project had the purpose of developing heritage industry in the Danish region of West Zealand: a region with remarkable medieval heritage and good conditions in tourism and infrastructure, but with very little budget set for attraction development (Hansen 2016). Thus, the project aimed to develop methods to detect experience attributes carried mainly by the heritage itself. In the project more than forty heritage attractions were studied. The most popular and engaging attractions had a wide extent of idiosyncratic physiognomy to it, which carries experience potentials far beyond just attracting many visitors, and much stronger than what technology and learning strategies can bring (Hansen 2016: 132ff.).

Instead of approaching these matters via the theories that have become traditional in heritage studies – the so called ‘critical’ or ‘new’ (e.g. Hooper-Greenhill 2013; Smith 2015) – I turned the theoretical attention towards thinkers on the ways ‘historical space’ is created emotionally and physically.  In particular, I found great use of Jörn Rüsen and his ‘five dimensions of historical culture’ (Rüsen 2013) and Gernot Böhme’s atmosphere theory (Böhme 1995).

The theories and attraction data led to the idea that the essentials of good heritage experiences is the Utopia of heritage: heritage (at a certain preservation state) is too good to be true – it has survived the most apocalyptic force of all, time. Moreover, it is the closest we get to communicating with the world beyond. These two factors make heritage divine and Utopian, and are what heritage experience attributes are created from (Hansen 2016: 56-58, 73-80). However, the features reflecting Utopia, differ in the various types of heritage. Hence, the typology below is an attempt to describe the different features.

  • The artifact

The artifacts with the highest degree of Utopia-effect need to carry an exotic expression to the degree where layman can recognize that the artifact is from a ‘world beyond’. Moreover, the patina needs to be at a stage where it contributes to ‘the world beyond’-experience. At the same time, it must reflect a naturalistic expression to the degree where it becomes recognizable, as well as the level of preservation should be complete at a degree where the artifact is experienced as having ‘survived’ time. In addition, the materiality of the artifacts, or its craftsmanship or exhibiting institution should also give some exclusive impression. All of these criteria are for example met in ‘the Sky Plate from Nebra’.

  • The Ruin

The Utopia-effect of a ruin is met when the degree of decay symbolizes the struggle against time, but the preservation is at a degree where the ruin is experienced as having ‘won the battle’. The big question is where the limit goes. One explanation could be at a size where grandness of the architecture and the dimensions can be discovered and the visitor can ‘go into’ the monument. Moreover, an iconic shape seems to feed the Utopia-effect. One the best examples is Hammershus Castle on Bornholm, Denmark.

  • The isolated monument (the UFO)

Another Utopia-effect can be achieved when a monument is isolated and remote to a degree where a full overview is easily accessible. Thus, it will be experienced as a fully preserved vessel from ‘another world’ just ‘landed’. Grand open landscapes and recreational settings seem to increase this experience. Ales Stenar in southern Sweden is a brilliant example of a ‘heritage UFO’.

  • The heritage room

Understood as heritage preserved to the stage where one can enter it, be inside it fully covered by roof and walls, where this space of being can be overviewed and thus the dimensions and aesthetics are grasped. Moreover, one of the important features of the experience here is the distinct border to the contemporary world outside the heritage room. The Utopia-effect is obtained when the aesthetical reflection of time is obvious (style and patina), but the spatial borders are fully preserved. The most obvious example of the heritage room is a historic church of an age and style (e.g. gothic) of which ‘the other world’ is obvious.

  • Things that dissolve Utopia

In certain cases, the awareness of heritage being ‘lost’ can lead to a Utopia-effect of its function or the process of its reconstruction. Mostly, reconstructions and replicas tend to lose their Utopia-effect. However, if the experience contains an illustration of the object being lost to time, a Utopia-effect can be achieved by an experience of the skills that created the object in the first place or the demonstration function of the ‘lost’ object. An example could be the Viking ship museum in Roskilde: an exhibition shows the ‘poor’ state of a series of Viking ship wrecks. In addition, the museum contains a fleet of Viking ships reconstructed from the archaeological knowledge of the wrecks – some of these have set for long and epic voyages under great public attentions. These are all experiences of a materialization of skills and functions that have survived beyond their tangible sources.

The heritage universe

The heritage universe refers to heritage environments beyond a single building. Here, both buildings, artifacts and nature are in combination the heritage experience. The heritage universe is at one hand a very limited world on which escapism is stimulated as well as the experience of something endless. The good experience of the heritage universe stimulates all senses and are extensively tactile. In this experience, a paradox of ‘chrono-syndrome’ (disorder of ages) appears: the consumer will typically search for a ‘time travel experience’ but at the same time search for authenticity through the impressions of time (patina, smell, humidity, assimilation with nature etc.). These impressions would not be present if it was a ‘real’ time travel back to the environments ‘original’ use and creation. The chrono-syndrome paradox is the reason why fully reconstructed or replicated environments (e.g. Viking markets) often don’t have Utopia-effect. An example of the heritage universe is the traditional Scandinavian open air museums, where original buildings have been resurrected for more than a century. Around these buildings is staged an environment which not only has had century to develop its expression, but – in some cases – is an ‘original’ environment preserved at the open air museum, while modern cities grew around it.

I sincerely hope this typology as well as the thoughts and theories behind it, will inspire future strategic decisions on what to brand and display as heritage experiences and how to stage it.

Böhme, G. (1995). Atmosphäre: Essays zur neuen Ästhetik. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
Hansen, A. B. (2016). Den gode oplevelse – af kulturarv fra vikingetid og middelalder I Midt- og Vestsjælland samt andre steder i Nordeuropa. PhD-thesis. University of Copenhagen/Museum Vestsjælland.
Hooper-Greenhill, E. (2013). Museums and Their Visitors. Routledge.
Rüsen, J. (2013): Historik, Theorie der geschichtwisenschaft. boehlau-verlag.
Smith, Laurajane. (2015). Theorizing Museum and Heritage Visiting. In Museum Theory. UK: Wiley Blackwell.

Andreas Bonde Hansen, PhD in Heritage Studies, Assistant Professor Leisure Management, University College Sjælland

Archaeology and Heritage on the Way to Sustainability

Session TH2-21 at the EAA Conference in Vilnius, 2nd September 2016

Sustainability has become one of those terms within heritage studies, with its meaning seemingly reducing the more it is used. It has become an all-encompassing tick-box term that provides enough justification in itself to gain the approval of funding bodies and those who want to keep heritage practice and research socially-relevant. As such, I was not necessarily expecting a lot from this session; at best hoping for a few interesting case studies that could be transferred, adapted or used in my own work. However, TH2-21 was much better than this: it had a common, if subtle, thread that linked the papers, and touched upon a broad range of issues that are actually critical for the future of archaeology and heritage as both a profession and a wider societal activity.

The session started with an interesting presentation from Anna-Carin Andersson of the University of Gothenburg. Her paper, Sustainable heritage and archaeology – a blessing or a curse? focused on archaeologists and the profession, and came to the somewhat unexpected conclusion that the concept of sustainability is not useful for archaeology: instead we should think about feasibility. It is not often that archaeologists approach the concept of what is professionally sustainable, and so this was a welcome break. Andersson left us to consider whether the EAA should move more towards being a Pan-European trade union; I am not sure about the benefits of this, but it is certainly a worthwhile discussion following the important work done in Discovering the Archaeologists of Europe.

A further discussion on practice was provided by Jan Vanmoerkerke of the French Ministry of Culture. Various legal frameworks affect the scale, scope and nature of archaeological work in France, and in the case of this paper we could also perhaps read sustainability as feasibility, but from a different perspective. If archaeological authorities only have finite resources and cannot investigate all building works, what should be prioritised? Land use and planning, as well as the law, need to be considered and connected in order to minimise the loss of archaeological sites and give heritage a sustainable future.

To papers from colleagues in Poland moved us back towards our interaction with the public. Anna Zalewska of the Polish Academy of Sciences introduced the concept of archaeological social responsibility, looking specifically at how we should address dark heritage and painful memories. This examination of the ‘memory boom’ was taken further by Kornelia Kajda of Adam Mickiewicz University; archaeologists should show that there are multiple pasts and histories and contribute with detail to enhance ‘public’ understandings of the past. Kajda looked particularly at the concept of Urbex, the exploration of abandoned places by the public: here-and-now experiences that inspire people to engage with heritage.

Sofia Voutsaki of the University of Groningen examined the use of the past in Laconia, Greece. To a certain extent, there were some similarities between this paper and that of Zalewska, in that it explored ideas of an appropriated and/or authorised past. Nationalism and identity were key elements here; but is seeking out and portraying a glorious past a sustainable strategy?

In Here I Live – interpretations of the past, present and future, Anita Synnestvedt from the University of Gothenburg introduced us to a project centred on a stone age monument situated within a residential area that is today home to many asylum seekers and people with immigrant backgrounds. The project shows how it is possible to use archaeology and heritage as a motor for integration and as a focal point for community-building. Engagement, involvement and giving the community a stake in the area’s heritage is critical in order to ensure a sustainable future for both the monument and those who live around it.

The final presentation was led by Andrea Travaglia from the University of Amsterdam and introduced a European portal for the blending of natural and cultural heritage management. It is in many ways a paradox that despite the World Heritage Convention connecting natural and cultural sites on a shared list of global significance, there is often little actual practical or administrative link between natural and cultural heritage managers. This online tool, then, is an attempt to give natural heritage professionals a better understanding of cultural heritage, and vice versa, with the hope that it will lead to better and more holistic thinking and practice. To a certain extent, this paper brought us back to the start and thinking about the sustainability or feasibility of our profession. Is a sustainable future to be found as nature-culture experts or is it essential that we stand in on the cultural/human/social side?

Sustainability, then, is not always an empty term. This session showed that it is perhaps best to see the concept of sustainability as a vessel which can be filled with multiple interpretations and meanings. The wide range of papers here testify to the fact that sustainability does not need a one-size-fits-all definition, and nor can we give it one. Archaeological sustainability is central to the discipline, and is arguably unconsciously present in the thoughts and actions of every archaeologist – although in different ways: from thinking about the feasibility of the profession, to the wider impact of one’s research, to the creation of a realistic excavation budget. Examples and ideas relating to sustainability lie latent and unconnected. Perhaps, then, in order to make the broader public aware of heritage and give archaeology and archaeologists a louder voice and role in society, we need to be more active when thinking about sustainability. How do one’s actions help make archaeology – at whatever scale – more sustainable? The lessons of this session suggest that we need to be more audible, more visible, more engaging, more engaged, more open and more collaborative.

Mark Oldham is an archaeologist with a keen interest in outreach and the role of archaeology in society. He works in Norway.

Engaging archaeologists from the ground up. Beginnings.

How can we help archaeologists to increase and improve communication with the public? That was the question Emily Wapshott, Belinda Tibbetts and I were left with after a discussion of a paper we presented with our anthropologist friend Veronica Buffon, entitled “Gender and Commodification of the Past: The (mis-)representations of Viking women in cultural production.” We were in Glasgow, it was September, and we had just rounded off a final session at the European Association of Archaeologists (EAA) annual conference. The session was Conditioned Pasts: On the sociopolitical dimensions of current archaeologies. I mention this because the session was one where societal influences on archaeology where discussed in various forms. Suffice it to say that we did not expect the eruptive discussion that ended the session overtime, only really concentrating on our paper. At the end of it, we were all kindly asked to leave by security, who wanted to close up shop.

But let us start with the paper. Why was it causing so much stir? We presented an analysis of current fiction films about Vikings. In the presentation, we showed how Viking Age women are presented as sexy, bikini-clad, exceptional, caricatures of what we must expect a real Viking age woman to have been like. The women presented in the films hardly ever seemed to live through a normal everyday life. Yet of course, the Vikings had mostly that, farming and trading, building and eating, and yes, they used latrines, too. Even women must have done so. Still, we showed that the caricaturist sex-symbol representation did not really change between the 1920’s and 2000’s. Due to this total misrepresentation of the female role in the Viking Age, which frankly, we find an unhealthy ideal considering that archaeology is active in building identity, we suggested that archaeologists start talking to the public more. We suggested that we can prevent such commodification of women and other social roles to take place, by communicating better with the general audience, and that we specifically do not shy away from tackling Hollywood and other producers of popular fiction. Either we should never have said that, or we should say it even more often (we of course lean towards the second alternative). The discussion was loud, active, accusatory — and engaging. We were so pleased when we walked out of that auditorium, and possibly a bit stunned. How could a group of archaeologists who were there to listen to papers on the dynamics between current society and archaeology, react like this?

Princesses and sex warrior goddesses. But what were they really like? (Left: From "The Northmen"/Elite Filmproduktion. Right: From "Vikings"/Take 5 Productions)

Princesses and sex warrior goddesses. But what were they really like? (Left: From “The Northmen”/Elite Filmproduktion. Right: From “Vikings”/Take 5 Productions)

That night we started discussing how we could do something in relation to the neglect and unwillingness we see amongst archaeologists when it comes to talking to the public. (For the sake of definition: when we say ‘public’, we mean non-archaeologists.) The three of us have a variety of opinions on why we should do so, ranging from getting the actual research out there and ‘correct’ unhealthy misunderstandings like in the case of Viking Age women, to purely ethical considerations. Common between us was the aim to actually make something happen! All that night we kept revisiting the idea and the next morning we started our initiative with a formal “yay” and a name: ArchaeologistsEngage. We wanted archaeologists to engage, and we wanted our name to reflect what we want.

The happy founders of ArchaeologistsEngage

The happy founders of ArchaeologistsEngage

The next few days we kept throwing out ideas in a massive brainstorm, all the while starting work on our website. The concept went from being a simple petition to all archaeologists to being an interest organisation for all archaeologists who want to do more for public outreach. We worked on mission statements, regulations, organisational structure, web design, texts, blog posts and pictures all at the same time. Phew, that was an intense month! But exactly a month post-formal-yay we launched our website ( and our petition. We cut a ribbon in front of a projected image of the website at a postgrad seminar in Exeter, UK, and so it began. And it never stops. There is more to this story, and you can read the iteration of our first few months in the next segment. Until then, go out there and engage! Talk to someone, don’t frown or sigh, and feel free to ring up Hollywood, we will not hold it against you!

Tine Schenck is a Norwegian experimental archaeologist and an archaeo-sociologist.

Field archaeology, responsibility and public outreach

One could argue that one of the most important aspects of archaeology is the public outreach. We have an obligation to share our growing knowledge with our community in order to give credibility to our work. What would be the point otherwise? Usually, the public comes into contact with archaeology through museum exhibits, lectures, daily news, scientific articles and books. The last ones are rarely aimed for the public and the museums are struggling with exhibiting more than just artefacts. Since our source material is produced in the field by field archaeologists I believe that it is here the meeting (real or metaphorical) between the public and the archaeologist should take place. If it’s through guided tours or a local journalist doesn’t really matter. What matters is what is said.

In the last 5 years or so there has been a positive change when it comes to public outreach in archaeology, at least in Sweden. This is, I think, largely due to the breakthrough of social media and the use of smartphones. An archaeologist can now easily give a brief report of what she or he is doing with a photo and a few lines of text. Several of the archaeological institutions also have blogs where they continually write about their projects, with content written and aimed for the public.

In 2009 I did a study of the conveyance of medieval archaeology in a journal called “Populär Arkeologi”. This is the only popular archaeology journal in Sweden and it has been coming out quarterly since 1983. By studying the content of every issue for two periods of time: 1983-1989 and 2003-2009, and comparing that content with the development of medieval archaeology at the university, I was able to see if the articles in the journal reflected the development of the subject. This empirical study acted as a foundation for the study of responsibility and lead up to the question: What is the situation of responsibility when it comes to field archaeology and public outreach?

In Sweden the law states that an archaeological survey or excavation has to take place if a contractor wants to build something that is suspected to affect archaeological remains, visible or hidden beneath the topsoil. The contractor has to report to the County Administrative board and they, in their turn, decide whether it’s necessary to start up an archaeological project or not. The law also states that the contractor has to pay for the archaeology. This system results in an abundance of archaeological projects where a lot of information is produced continually.


Table 1. Hierarchy of responsibility. Note that this is based on Swedish circumstances.

Politicians/Government Has the ultimate responsibility. Can make actual changes that enables more funding to public outreach in archaeology.
County administration Makes the decisions for contract archaeological projects. Could demand more effort in public outreach and approve higher costs.
University Could include more systematic training in public outreach.
Contract archaeological institutions and companies Has the responsibility to manage the competence in public outreach.
Archaeologists Is in direct contact with the public and has the responsibility to convey archaeology in a responsible way.
Popular archaeological journals Could, as an independent actor, raise the issue of archaeology being integral in the development of our society.


Several of my fellow archaeologists claims that they are working with public outreach as much as they can. But then we must ask ourselves, what kind of archaeology are we conveying? Well, basically it is the history or prehistory that we focus on in our outreach. In our communication with the public, directly or via a journalist, our message boils down to facts about human life in history and or prehistory. That’s not bad in any way. Our job is to produce these kinds of facts. But there is more to archaeology –  especially field archaeology.

The responsible way to convey archaeology is not only to focus on these facts but all the stuff surrounding archaeological science. In my opinion we have to include the following two aspects in our public outreach:

  1. The development of archaeological research. Archaeology is more than artefacts. It develops with our society and scholars are influenced by the current zeitgeist, which in itself is constantly changing. It’s not treasure hunting.
  2. The roll of field archaeology and the physical development of our environment. The field archaeologist in Sweden plays a vital role when it comes to urban and rural planning and it’s crucial that the public is aware of how the system works.

My hierarchy of responsibility (see table above) tries to summarize the complexity of the situation where everyone has a part to play. My opinion is that it should begin at the universities with the education of future archaeologists in how to deal with the more complex sides of archaeological public outreach. If we can establish a routine and a sense of comfort in conveying all aspects of archaeology, at the departments and in the field, we can do our subject justice.

To summarize, I want to stress the fact that we ourselves, as archaeologists, have a responsibility to our own collegium and to the public equally, to convey not just the dating of artefacts but also our methods and research thesis. What are the particular questions we’re looking to answer when we are writing our reports? The public has the right to know and I think it will benefit the archaeology in the long run.

Erik Johansson is a contract archaeologist currently working in Skåne, Sweden.

Why Engage? We can all change a life – We can all change Archaeology!

We have all had a pivotal moment, or moments in our lives which have led us in a certain direction; for me, it was the tireless and patient mentor-ship of a group of archaeologists. I therefore, as founder of ArchaeologistsEngage am passionate about furthering engagement between archaeologists and our wider audience as I believe if we willingly descend from our Ivory Tower, we may be surprised how much can be achieved at ‘ground level’.

As a toddler, I was notorious, for digging in my parent’s garden and having found a small rusted tin of lead soldiers, the fact that ‘interesting things’ came out of the ground was confirmed in my young mind. However, this may have developed no further than a hobby, to be enjoyed on the weekends, if not for the Archaeology Field Unit, of University College London (UCL), at Bignor Roman Villa. The site comprises a large courtyard building, of complex sixty-five room plan, expanded over a period of time in the 3rd-4th centuries.

Emily's first find was this

Emily’s first find was a box of lead soldiers – in the back yard.

One August trip in 1992 coincided with the annual excavation by the UCL team, focussed at the time, to the east of the known excavated portion. The trenches were taped off but the visitors could talk to the archaeologists as they worked. I asked lots of questions of the site director, David Rudling and his staff and recognising more than average interest, they very kindly talked us through the finds. The site ran short training courses for interested members of the public, alongside their students and despite my young age, being eight years old, the archaeologists agreed to let me attend the next week, accompanied by a parent. In what I was to later learn was a pivotal moment in my life, I was taught the concept of stratigraphy, the importance of straight-sided sections, marking finds bags and drawing with a scale ruler. The archaeologists were patient and informative and never failed to pause and seriously answer a question….and believe me, there were many incessant questions!!

The site where Emily took her first trowel scratches.

Bignor Roman Villa: The site where Emily took her first trowel scratches.

To be surrounded by students, working professionals and the university academics I thrived and requested to return the next year. In fact, I attended the site every year for a week/two weeks in the Summer, on my own, parent’s long forgotten, until the excavations were wrapped up. I was always included in the lessons the student’s were given; taking levels, collecting core samples, dating of pottery. During this 6-7 year period, I was mentored constantly by an available member of staff, never patronised but included to the best of my ability and within what safety regulations would allow. David Rudling also took the time to talk through my stated desire to be a professional archaeologist, with my parents, advising on University departments and subject choices at GCSE and A-level. The engagement of David and his dedicated staff at the UCL Field Unit was vital preparation for my career. I understood ahead of my peers, the pitfalls of a profession of long hours and low pay, that archaeology is often as much the choice of a lifestyle, as it is a career. When applying to university, throughout my studies at Exeter and Reading, and in job interviews I have been able to draw on a depth of experience my peers couldn’t match and a confidence and determination in my chosen field, fostered in the trenches of a West Sussex field.

So I ask you all, Take the Challenge! You too could inspire a child and change archaeology………..ARCHAEOLOGISTSENGAGE!!!!!

Emily Wapshott is a lifelong field archaeologist, with a specialism in buildings, and one of the founders of ArchaeologistsEngage.


Archaeological experimentation with an audience: the personal reward

I did my MA in Experimental Archaeology in 2006-7. Part of the course was two modules on communication and outreach; one for academic communications and one for working with the public. Part of the course was also to highlight experimental archaeology as a research method. I knew I liked the latter part better. To research on my own was my dream. I actually had this picture of myself with a box full of archaeological lithics that I would tip out on a table and peruse with a steaming mug of coffee and a notebook.

Post-MA, I started to do my own experimentation. I realised that to do archaeological experiments you needed space – it truly can be very gritty, messy, and smelly, and you would not want to use your office. I also realised that with space comes an audience. You are typically doing prepwork and experimentation either in a public or a shared space, where people regularly walk both by and into. That means you have to tell people what (the earth) you are doing. I soon came to realise that to work in a shared space is a very useful stimuli to my research, and it also felt good to see that others could be interested in my work.

As a part of my early experimental career, I twice executed own experiments at Land of Legends in Lejre, Denmark. Land of Legends was founded as an archaeological research centre in 1964, and has later evolved into a shared space for research and visitation. In this space – now formed as an open air museum – researchers have since the 60’s performed experiments in front of an audience who are intentionally visiting to see experimentation in practice. We should have enough experience from crafts demonstrations in archaeology by now to know that visitors like to see action in practice, but the performance of a research experiment in front of an audience adds another layer to the visitor’s experience, as people are stimulated to ask their own interpretive questions and enter into discussion with the archaeologist directly. But, what is less often highlighted is the other layer it adds to the researcher’s own experience of the experiment, and how s/he would approach the entire topic and problem.

For me, personally, and the teams I have been working as part of, the presence of an audience has been a particularly valuable contribution to an experiment. It makes me think about why the experiment should be done, as this explanation is regularly called for. Also, the audience may open new lines of insight. Once, while experimenting with aceramic birch bark tar extraction at Lejre, a chemist from the conservation department of the National Museum of Copenhagen came by, and stayed for hours while us experimenters discussed and learned about the chemical prerequisites for the necessary procedures to occur. Other parts of the audience have been crafts specialists, such as the pyrotechnological insight of a professional potter. But in general, the questions vary from “what is that” to “have you thought about adding…” (these two opposites are actually very frequently posed); and from “can I do it” to “Would you like to try?” – “No thanks.” The various research teams and experiments I have been part of have ranged from the total and necessary exclusion of spectators, to the total and obligatory inclusion of spectators. Even when I have experimented in private space, such as a garden, we have invited people to witness and opine on our procedures. Even if outsider’s suggestions are not particularly helpful, we have honed our own argumentation of the research problem to perfection.

My various positive experiences from working in groups and inviting the audience in has made it hard for me to experiment on my own. To me, it feels rather lonely, and I am also not able to gauge interest for my topic in the same way. There are no stimulating discussions around my topic, and my arguments stay the same, and they are not necessarily very good. I have therefore sought out an audience by including for instance students, friends or colleagues. I prefer to be able to bounce ideas off others, and others seem to like to be present to discuss my research problems with me. It has made me think more broadly about issues relating to my experimental questions, and sometimes has turned the experiment in new directions entirely.

A bonfire firing of pottery during my PhD, together with friends and colleagues, was one of the most rewarding experiences throughout my entire postgraduate degree.

A bonfire firing of pottery during my PhD, together with friends and colleagues, was one of the most rewarding experiences throughout my entire postgraduate degree.

It is of course also personally rewarding to get the acknowledgement of others. As part of my PhD, only one of the four case experiments I set up have been executed by me alone, and to be honest, this is the experiment that means the least for me emotionally. I literally feel that it has not been approved, and is therefore less interesting than the three others that have gotten quite a good audience response. Although this is not necessarily the case technically, I have become an experimental team worker. Especially since I am not a technological specialist, but rather have my specialty in the methodology itself, I have not taken part in the crafts environment that an experimental archaeologist is often a member of. For me, the audience has become my social environment and has the same functionality as a discussion between technological colleagues: I discuss my ideas with non-archaeological friends, I have learnt about chemistry, beer brewing, food plants, materials engineering, and archery, and I have taught and explained experimental archaeology in return. This dynamic environment has not only made me a better experimenter, but a better archaeologist. I have been enabled with the understanding that our professional understanding is not necessarily better, only different. I am able to justify what I do to its fullest extent. And in doing so, I have had so much fun I can barely begin to describe it.

Tine Schenck is a Norwegian archaeologist with a specialism in the experimental methodology in archaeology.

Ethics of ethnoarchaeological research with semi-literate fringed communities

Anthropologists and archaeologists who work closely with the local communities are normally required to submit their research proposal to an institutional ethics committee for scrutiny. Although initially this might seem cumbersome, it is a necessary academic ritual that makes the researcher aware of their ethical boundaries and responsibilities in the field while engaging closely with a community in their own cultural contexts. It also seeks to protect the interest of the participating communities by encouraging the researcher to acquire informed consent from their interlocutors. The researcher is normally required to get a “Consent Form” signed by the interlocutors by which they agree to participate in the project as informants. This form, composed in the vernacular of the participants, ideally contains a general outline of the research project, the potential usage of the collected data (including images and video recordings) and an assurance of anonymity of the participants. Although the requirement for written consents works well in the research involving literate communities, it represents a methodological roadblock while studying the non-literate or semi-literate ones.

Tintin's blog pic

The author with locals of Telangana.

This was the issue that I faced during my ongoing doctoral research. I am an ethnoarchaeologist studying the social context of pre-industrial iron and steel manufacture in northern Telangana, a remote forested rural heartland of central India. My research involves working closely with the older members of the local iron-working communities, who were actively involved in iron-smelting before it was completely halted in the early 1950s.  All of these individuals are in their mid-seventies and a majority of them never learnt to read or write, even in their vernacular Telugu.  Therefore, the idea of a signed consent form was simply not workable.  Apart from this, the smelter communities posses bitter collective memories of traumatic episodes of coercion and displacement by the colonial authorities since the mid-19th century, when strict imposition of the Forest Laws restricted their access to good quality timber required for making charcoal. This had gradually smothered the local iron-smelting and crucible steel making tradition, pushing the smelters and the steel makers to the brink of survival. These experiences made them skeptical about everything that can be linked with the power of the state, including all forms of paperwork, a ritual equated with the official authority of the government. During my fieldwork, I quickly learnt that requesting the smelters to sign the “Consent Form” at the onset of our interactions was counterproductive in befriending them and in gaining their trust.

In order to be able to work with the iron-smelters without overriding the ethical boundaries or cultural sensitivity, I adopted a different methodology. In the first few days of fieldwork, I was visiting the village in the car of a local academic who had kindly offered to drive me around. I realized that car is an index of social prestige and economic power, and therefore “official” in the eyes of this remote rural community. Apart from the paperwork, this was also affecting the way iron-smelters perceived and interacted with me. In their eyes I will always command more power and authority due to my non-local origin, my broken Telugu, and my current social standing as an academic educated abroad, it was my responsibility then to narrow this gap as much as possible.

As a result, I hired a friend who was a native speaker of the local dialect of Telugu, as my interpreter. We then rented a motorbike, a common form of transport used by the locals in the region, to go about my fieldwork. Whenever we visited these communities, we made it a point not to go straight into the research topic. And we never mentioned the “Consent Form”. We started our conversation introducing ourselves, over a cup of tea or fresh milk offered to us. Although most of them insisted that we sit on chairs as they squatted on the floor, we made it a point to sit with them in the same level and maintain eye contact as we speak. We would gradually ease into the topic of our research, asking for oral consents about taking field notes and pictures. It was essential for them to feel comfortable and respected in our presence and it was important to tell them that we are grateful for their support in helping us understand their past. There were occasions when we were asked to leave, or requested not to take photographs, and we obliged immediately without forcing to stand our ground.

A common question that my interlocutors often asked was how would they gain from helping me do this research. This was their genuine concern that needed to be addressed in a thoughtful way.  The automatic instinct in this case is to give money to the poor interlocutors as an expression of our gratitude. But that may not be the right course of action. The impersonal act of giving money places the ethnographers in a dominant position of power widening the gap between them and their interlocutors. It also belittles rather than gratifies the interlocutors’ genuine enthusiasm to share information about their lives. The authenticity of ethnographic information purchased for money can also be highly questionable as the communities can come up with a standard narrative of what the researcher wants to hear. This was the case in at least one village in my study area where a few years earlier someone shelled out large sums of money to get information on smelting from the local community.

In the case of my interlocutors, they were happy to know that the stories of their lives and crafts will be available for an international audience when published. They also often asked me to send them their pictures that I took during my fieldwork. Each time I visited them, I asked if they needed anything from the town I was living in, and I bought what they required. When I worked with the local blacksmiths, I normally purchased iron implements from them for my rented apartment. I have also collected a number of smelter family genealogies, which I intend to print and send to the respective families, so that these can be used to perpetuate the knowledge of family histories. My interlocutors never asked me for money, and they appreciated the personal nature of my gifts that created a lasting relationship with the community.

Three key points that one must be aware of while working with semi-literate fringed communities are:

  1. Be aware of the difference in power hierarchy and strategize to minimize the gap.
  2. Respect the local culture and make sure that the interlocutors feel comfortable and respected in your presence.
  3. Show gratitude by thoughtful personal gifts and not money.

Tathagata Neogi is an ethnoarchaeologist interested in studying marginal craft producing communities in South Asia.