I recently had the strange experience of being a live part of an interactive exhibition, as one of several individuals asked to take part in the ‘Speakers’ Corner’ session of the recent Sustainable Stories exhibition at the CUBE gallery on Portland Street in Manchester. This was run by SURF, one of the research centres within the School of the Built Environment, University of Salford, as part of their Mistra Urban Futures project, and coincided with the Manchester Science Festival. The exhibition was organised around three themes – Fair, Green, and Dense – and was designed to engage the public in a shared conversation about the challenges, issues, and solutions to making the Greater Manchester more sustainable.
Amongst the exhibition material of artwork was a short film produced by the Eco-Schools Team at Temple Primary school and community stories gathered by communities’ members. The public were invited to leave their own stories about sustainability with Community Researchers who had designed and tested a set of questions in their own neighbourhoods. These stories were illustrated directly onto the walls of the exhibition space by specialist artists and visual minute-takers, capturing the conversation as it developed: which is how I came to spend 15 minutes talking about archaeology and sustainability. This might seem an odd conjunction of topics, but sustainability is a broad concept and in heritage runs from the conservation of monuments to the support of local groups and individuals. Thus, my brief moment in the spot light allowed me to look at how professional archaeologists might embrace community engagement, how we might ensure that there is heritage access for all, and what the challenges and opportunities are for community archaeology in the future.
These three issues were debated at a one day seminar on Community Archaeology at York University last November (2011) and recur in the recently published volume Community Archaeology: Themes, Methods and Practices. They are highly relevant to the Dig Greater Manchester work currently being undertaken by the Centre for Applied Archaeology: when we undertake ‘community engagement’ we need to consider the often unspoken issues about who this archaeology is being done for, what is its purpose, and what does it mean? Yet these are not just questions for those organising archaeological engagement projects, they are also questions for those participating in them. This is where the sustainability of such initiatives comes in.
Volunteers and participants usually have very personal reasons for engaging with community projects: to gain confidence, for the enjoyment of working with others, and for the empowerment that comes from giving the present more meaning. Simply by taking part in the process and engaging in these activities, individuals can acquire new life-skills at the same time that some of our larger academic questions are being addressed.
Even so, there is a dichotomy between the way we understand and the way we visualise engagement projects: a ‘community archaeology’ that is voluntary and run by the networks of participants themselves versus a ‘public archaeology’ that is more top-down, structured, and organisational. Naturally, these two visions overlap hugely, but one benefit of identifying this dichotomy is that the economic crisis and its cuts can be seen to mostly threaten the latter: a real grass-roots, popular, community archaeology might escape the current economic problems largely unscathed. Professional archaeologists should be encouraging this kind of community archaeology, as a way of enabling people to engage sustainably in the past on their own terms, allowing it to remain alive and a living part of the present, a tool to help better understand ourselves and our communities.
If engagement strategies can provoke people in Greater Manchester and beyond to get involved in exploring their own heritage, to organise and commit to a real empowered, bottom-up, strategy for exploring the past, then this may well provide a sustainable way for long-term engagement with the future of the past: and my immortalisation as a cartoon on the walls of the Sustainable Stories exhibition will have been worthwhile!