History as bunk

A brilliant critique of the Museum of Bristol project and its embarrassing heritage-lite approach to the city’s history has appeared on the Festival of Ideas website.

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?

tetchy steve
16 May 2008, 08:47

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5 Responses to History as bunk

  1. old misery guts says:

    quality post.

  2. badnewswade says:

    Yeah, good one. The MoB has the potential to be a huge scandal – millions in public money are being thrown at this frippery, while at the same time the very same City Council has carried out drastic cuts against the poorest, most vulnerable citizens. The disabled and the old are literally paying for this waste of space.

    In a decent society there would have been riots in the streets over this, but this being Bristol very few people seem to give a shit, and virtually nobody has connected these particular dots.

  3. Brstl says:

    Only just stumbled over this blog so apologies for late arrival.

    I don’t think anyone can disagree that the spending of public money needs to be more closely controlled and that the costs of such major capital projects in particular need to be scrupulously managed in order to prevent what is too often the all-too-easily accepted escalation.

    Nevertheless, it is also all too easy to slag off the ‘new’ in favour of the ‘old’ just because it is so. Firstly, the Industrial Museum was engaging, interesting and had a real charm but few visitors would have baulked at the idea that it required at the very least a modernisation.

    Secondly, for a major city such as Bristol the lack of a dedicated museum space which dealt with the history of the city – rather than purely its industrial heritage or other individual facets – was criminal and a Museum of Bristol in some form is long overdue.

    Thirdly, the principle of a museum which engages all sections of the city’s population, rather than the white, middle-class Brunel enthusiasts is surely to be applauded: the link that a museum can provide between the population’s view of their heritage and the ‘authorised’ heritage of formal bodies such as museums has been underdeveloped and the principles expounded by the museum seem to have this at heart.

    There is a lot of pseudo-intellectual b*llocks talked about this, but in essence – and in principle – it’s an opportunity for the people of the city to shape what is presented about ‘their’ heritage, rather than to be spoon-fed the same cliches, models of ships and stuff animals in glass cases which – although interesting and in their way important – mean so little to most ordinary people. In response to Tetchy Steve, it is exactly this engagement with the community that offers opportunities for a proper examination of the un-balanced power relations between sections of our society, both in the past and today, rather than relying on a well-meaning but mis-guided museum worker to define it for us. If the museum can actually delivery on its promises to engage the ‘community’ in a meaningful rather than tokenistic way we might be in for a real step forward.

    I am not trying to defend the entire project, and don’t doubt for one minute that these principles will be undermined or underachieved in the process of creating the new musuem; nor am I condoning the waste of money that comes from mis-management. But I think that the need for a Museum of Bristol is as real today as it was when first mooted and the project has real potential for success.

    Badnewswade, your point about local government waste is well made, but mis-directed. I personally think that a new Museum celebrating the history of this city and introducing its people – both young and old – to the successes, failures, injustices and triumphs which have helped to shape – and continue to shape – the city in which we play our daily lives is a far better use of my tax money than that temple to materialist greed which has taken shape at the far end of Broadmead and will add about as much real value to the city’s well being and future as an outbreak of plague.

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