(in)significance: Values and Valuing in Heritage
The roundtable will explore ideas around the concept of insignificance. That is, how things are judged to be unimportant, not worthy of conservation, meaningless, or without substantive power or influence. We will examine this notion in relation to the history, theory, and practical application of significance as a concept and method in heritage. In short, we will discuss the significance of insignificance.
The notion of ‘significance’ is central to heritage conservation in many parts of the world. It is used to represent an amalgam of values and is deployed to describe what, how and for whom the institutions of heritage choose to remember and to forget.
Determining significance is a process of ascribing values – culturally constructed meanings or qualities attributed by experts, individuals and groups to a heritage object, collection, place, landscape or practice. Valuing heritage has led to practices that typically list, rank and then privilege particular values, employing concepts of thresholds and scale–such as World, national and local levels of value.
Objects, places and practices deemed not to meet thresholds established in mandated heritage regimes might be said to be insignificant. They are non-heritage in a quasi-legal sense. However there is currently much interest in approaches to heritage which challenge the authoritarian role of expertise, which are interested in personal and emotional conepts of heritage, and more broadly in how people, narratives and memories are interwoven with things, places and landscape. There is also evidence of interest in the ‘insignificant’ as a counter to the use of heritage in cementing the grand narratives of nations and the progressive histories of the ‘west’ and the ‘north’.
At the heart of these discussions around significance has been the need to make values explicit and to understand where they come from and who they benefit – the notion that values are made and constructed within particular historical, political and economic circumstances remains somewhat contentious in heritage conservation and management. Debates are polarized between positions that see values as inherent in objects, and thus able to be managed through strict adherence to principles of care and management, and the postion that there is no such ‘thing’ as heritage – where the material is intentionally de-privileged to focus on how power is embedded in the processes of heritage, such as significance assessment. This in turn leads to further debates around materiality, intangibility and values, where values or knowledge not seen as ‘embodied’ in a material form (practices, rituals, beliefs and so on) are seen as evanescent and endangered, further obscuring how intangible heritage is embodied and intertwined with the material and social world.
The roundtable will scrutinize different ways of conceiving of value, with a particular focus on how values intersect and at times conflict with one another. The trend towards defining discrete aspects of value and measuring them through particular outcomes will be critically examined and alternative approaches explored. Furthermore, the roundtable will explore the tension between institutional or ‘official’ values, and the values people produce in and for themselves; a tension that is an endemic and difficult issue across the cultural sector.
Key questions to be addressed are: How does significance assessment intersect with concepts of ethics, social justice and sustainability? How might a notion of insignificance be framed and theorised in ways that support heritage practice? Could narrative forms be used to counter values-based approaches, especially for those things (objects, places, practices) assessed as insignificant?