The piece, by ‘Tetchy Steve’, is a response to a talk at the festival pompously billed as The Second Museum of Bristol Lecture: the Historian and the City , delivered by government Heritage bureaucrat Adrian Tinniswood.
Here’s what Tetchy has to say in full:
The trouble with this talk was that the speaker seemed not to recognise any meaningful distinction between history and heritage. Obsessing about the democracy of ‘memory’ and asserting that the role of the historian is to celebrate the rich diversity of the past is just the sort of meaningless and cosy twaddle that gives history a bad name. The cacophony of past voices Tinniswood urges us to celebrate does not, of itself, constitute a history of anything, although it may have some claim on the term ‘heritage’.
Voices are the raw materials from which histories are constructed, but they come to us mediated by issues of power and agency. Sources are one thing; making history is another. Historians recognise and tackle issues of power and agency and try to interpret events as consequences. They are not simply tools of urban social cohesion, keepers of the keys to progressive shared identity, or facilitators of even-handed generalisations. The historian does not go to work each morning to make us all feel good about ourselves by suggesting that all voices are equally weighted and equally valid.
Tinniswood spent some time showing us pictures of Bristol’s architecture and urging us to consider it not only ‘wonderful’ and something with which to collectively identify, but somehow untainted by past associations with grandiose self-congratulation. To consolidate this ‘Idea’, he introduced a few cheap hits against the architecture of fascist and stalinst authoritarianism. Yes, that’s right; Bristol’s architecture is smaller. Yet to suggest that Charles Dyer’s pompous neo-Grecian Victoria Rooms are somehow unconnected to the promotion of an elite-led civic vision and that they should be read without any reference to the uneven power relations encoded in their design is just plain daft. Or rather, it’s unhistorical.
Rather than introduce a single challenging notion about the relationship between the Historian and the City, Tinniswood’s objective appeared to be the construction of a bland intellectual forum in which legions of happy Bristolians, undivided by class, ethnicity or gender, might cohesiviely celebrate their heritage and identity in a blissful cacophony of unmediated joy. Dare we hope that this is not also the objective of the new Museum planners who sponsored his talk?
16 May 2008, 08:47