Post-truth history – the ethics of heritage placemaking
The Oxford English Dictionaries both declared ‘post-truth’ as their Word of the Year for 2016. This term doesn’t mean that truth has ceased to exist – more that it has ceased to be relevant. In the ‘post-truth’ society where ‘alternative facts’ run rampant, what sounds true is more important than what can be verified by observation: feelings have triumphed over facts..
This is a dilemma heritage sites and we, as digital placemakers, face in every project.
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Our work as app developers blurs historical records with the narratives we deliver, and it is – to an extent – ‘post-truth’. We interpret artefacts and accounts and assemble our interpretations into a narrative – but we can’t go back in time and make sure we’re right. This creates an ethical problem for us to resolve; when it comes to presenting the stories of the past, how ‘truthful’ are we being?
Whose truth are we telling – do we have the right?
When we originally posted this article, we overlooked an important aspect of the decision to ‘placemake’ and the discussion around the act. Acknowledging our errors and striving to improve is part of our ethical obligation, so we’ve chosen to add this section addressing a fundamental problem of placemaking.
Our actions – entering a place with ambitions to shape and curate a narrative – can easily become ‘placetaking’ if we choose to overwrite the reciprocal relationship between a place and the people who already live there or work there, both now, and historically. It’s doubly troubling if we overwrite and erase marginalised populations – indigenous or aboriginal, poor or working class, immigrant or disabled or queer communities.
At best, careless placemaking is synonymous with gentrification; at worst, it’s a form of oppression. A failure to recognise places that have been made by others, and to respect such acts of placemaking that are not our own, is unconscionable. In heritage, we are duty bound to work with the full history of a place, not as a branded product or a form of social capital but a process which is building that place’s future – and that process is not something we exclusively own.
When we decide to act in and act on the world we do so critically and creatively – we don’t seek to erase or to impose an overarching account. We acknowledge those who have gone before, but we appreciate that places are fluid and ever becoming.
The present creates the past
Society’s knowledge of the past is curated. History is filtered to the present day through objects and accounts acquired and interpreted by historians, who acknowledge that this process is not objective. It is a socially constructed activity, in which people with diverse viewpoints apply those viewpoints to their decisions about what to show and how to show it.
These decisions involve making ethical choices. The old saying “history is written by the winners” is true. Anybody working with stories made by history can easily find themselves constructing a narrative from their own point of view, leaving out other interpretations. If the curator imposes their version of the past over other people’s, it becomes a form of cultural imperialism – establishing the dominance of one culture over another in an unequal relationship, often based on power and debt.
Getting it right: What stories are we telling, and how?
This is the long-term concern for heritage organisations, and for us as designers of heritage apps. What stories are we telling, and how? Do we take a side, or do we try to represent everyone’s point of view? Are we acknowledging the role of the marginalised, the oppressed and the exploited people who are often left out??
Sometimes the apps we design recreate a site that doesn’t even exist any more, like the ‘lost’ Whitehall Palace in London. In these cases, we believe we’re responsible to present as complete an impression of the site as we can. This means showing the history of the slaves and servants as well as lords and masters.
The past creates the present
When we create a heritage app, we make decisions about what to include, based on our ethical values. We only have those values because our environment has built them for us – our sense of right and wrong is just as socially constructed as our history. Different cultures exhibit different moral values – as another old saying has it, “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”
In practical terms, this is another reason for presenting multiple perspectives from the past. As a recent paper on Museums, Ethics and Truth says: “…museums can be considered spaces of ethics wherein testimonial and hermeneutic injustice can be confronted and challenged.” This all goes to ensure there’s a place in our histories for the victims of history.
It also means we have to recognise multiple perspectives in the present. If we were to create an app about the 1190 massacre of York’s Jewish community, for example, we would have to acknowledge that a Jewish user might feel very differently about that app from anyone else.
We have to hold our past to account with tact and decency. This would mean including the Jewish perspective, and making sure to avoid repeating acts of historical erasure and myth-making that have warped that perspective over centuries.
Creating a heritage app allows us to socialise a space – to present it as a place someone lived in, a place lots of people lived in. That allows us to interweave stories, and create room for empathy and understanding that didn’t always exist before. This potential has to be a part of our strategy for every app we build – every bit as much as the practicalities we’ve discussed before.
The present creates the future
We’re going to quote one more old saying: “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” Historians, curators, heritage organisations and those who work with them play a role in establishing the ethical values which people live by, both now and in the future.
If people are learning about history from our apps, we want our apps to be honest: to show the best and worst aspects of the past, not an incomplete account which can justify unethical behaviour in the here and now.
Heritage apps offer a great opportunity to historians. They can provide an immersive, detailed experience that doesn’t shirk from the less palatable elements of the past. They can link and hyperlink different accounts: click here to read the servant’s diary, cross the battlefield to hear what the front-line soldier had to say. They can avoid the dry, distant or one-sided accounts in favour of presenting something like a real place, where real people lived and died.
We believe we have to make the most of that.
Find out about our heritage projects here.
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