Peer Comment

Paul Mullins

Department of Anthropology, Indiana University-Purdue University, USA.

Cite this as: Mullins, P. (2015) Peer Comment, Internet Archaeology 39.

1. The Desperation of Heritage

Sam Hardy's assessment of heritage blogging and employment conditions may seem to simply confirm heritage labourers' understandable desperation in the face of transforming global heritage economies. However, to reduce online advocacy simply to labourers' despair risks missing the most critical implications of Hardy's article. Hardy's assessment of blog posts does not simply confirm the anxiety of our most marginalised colleagues; instead, it illuminates a desperate global fantasy that the heritage industry can be materially self-sustaining, if not profitable, in the face of ever-decreasing funding and on the backs of under-employed labourers.

#CritBlogArch Tweets

Hardy's article revolves around how blogs articulate the anxieties of unemployed and under-employed heritage labourers. On the one hand, the article soberly contemplates whether we can register any tangible transformations fuelled by online activism. The consequence of any blog discourse is difficult to assess because the blogosphere's effects are, at best, ambiguous: we clumsily measure our influence with hit counts and re-tweets and evaluate impact in terms of the apparent emotive resonance of the issues, but these rarely provide an especially satisfying picture of online discourse's meaningfulness.

On the other hand, such clumsy measuring sticks fail to capture the ways online discourses can transform political consciousness and action. In places like Turkey, online protests clearly spilled into public space in Istanbul's Gezi Park. A preservation board initially rejected plans to raze Gezi Park and re-create an Ottoman military barracks with a shopping mall as its centrepiece; when the plans were revived Gezi Park became a protest space subject to police violence, and the state explicitly attacked social media's galvanizing effect on the protest's nationwide reach.

Yet beyond Gezi Park we hazard underestimating the meaningfulness of bloggers' imagination. Bloggers' voices on labour inequality may be tactical in the sense that they do not always articulate concrete long-range goals or measure out the steps toward transformation. Nevertheless, the imagination of transformation, justice, and community in contemporary heritage labour does in fact have consequences. Hardy persuasively argues that these online discourses on heritage employment have a concrete effect on consciousness-building, so we might reasonably forgive even an 'army' of bloggers for somehow overturning the heritage industry in one fell swoop.

However, precisely who is in that emergent consciousness is not entirely clear, and online discourses on heritage labour appear to have a range of effects. Hardy's own [Un]free Archaeology blog embraces the mission of illuminating 'unpaid work and other precarious labour in archaeology and elsewhere in the cultural heritage industry'. Tweets, Facebook posts, and blogs routinely touch on issues of unemployment, austerity, or the apparent decline of heritage, but [Un]free Archaeology is nearly unique for its focus on labour conditions in the heritage industry.

[Un]free Archaeology's modest audience of nearly 2000 followers and scattered online tweets and blog posts on heritage labour may have little audience beyond sympathetic peers. Employed colleagues seem genuinely sympathetic to the plight of the unemployed and under-employed, but this is not mirrored by an assertive effort to understand the heritage labour market and begin to target its structural inequalities. The reluctance to define and confront labour injustices may harbour some of the most demoralising implications of Hardy's analysis. If international heritage professionals cannot rigorously assess the working conditions for a broad range of heritage labourers, there is not substantial hope that the industry will transform.

It is perhaps inevitable that the frustrations of heritage labourers would find an outlet in blogs, Twitter, and many more online discourses whose tenor range from anxiety to strategic activism. Sober observers may lament that these discourses have not had especially clear impact on how many more professionals view heritage labour. The apparent absence of a broader outcry over heritage labour inequities may illuminate the invisibility of such labour even within heritage circles; it may simply confirm that most heritage scholars ignore blogs and online discourses as consequential dimensions of professional heritage; it may reveal that much of the heritage industry fails to comprehend the scope of such marginalisation; and it may unmask the optimism some scholars have in the resilience of heritage labour. Examples like Gezi Park seem to underscore that such online discourses are most powerful when they become linked to a broad range of activists, because Gezi Park was about environmentalism, state authoritarianism, and human rights unrest that overlapped with the concerns of heritage labourers. Yet even a few thoughtful voices can work consequential changes through unpredictable steps, so we should be careful when we dismiss the effects of even modest circles of voices.

An especially unsettling issue is how the plight of international heritage labourers is being received beyond the unemployed and under-employed, and the international dimensions of the heritage labour market may be lost on optimistic professionals. In the US, for instance, academics and professional societies have not been especially powerful voices for their most vulnerable colleagues. There is little evidence that many American academics have allied to under-employed heritage colleagues through online discourses; in fact, there is not much evidence that blogging itself has really been embraced by tenured heritage scholars as anything more than a diversion. Academics in particular seem to remain stubbornly optimistic and committed to producing ever-more scholars to labour in an idealised heritage profession. Instead of dissecting the heritage industry, scholars offer up well-intended personal sympathy for those without work and fail to understand such under-employment is a structural reality of contemporary heritage labour and not a momentary aberration. In the US much of heritage advocacy has simply focused on preserving support for existing programs, maintaining heritage sites, and protecting the fundamental laws that have governed cultural resource management for a half-century.

The collapse of heritage industries figures prominently in narratives that seem to be repeated in nearly every corner of the world, but the concrete economics of heritage can vary quite a lot and in some places are not very well understood. The impressionistic picture of many nations or communities being unable to support heritage sufficiently rings true in some reaches of the globe, and even in stable places some corners of a heritage economy are truly declining. Nevertheless, the assumption that heritage is monolithically part of a global economic collapse is simplistic, and it allows the death rites for all heritage industries and their supporting labour systems to be too easily read. Hardy argues that in some places heritage remains an exceptionally profitable national economic venture. For instance, he indicates that by some measures heritage is the UK's fifth-largest industry, yet as its revenues remain stable, paid heritage positions are rapidly disappearing to be replaced by seasonal or unpaid labour or eliminated entirely. Even profitable heritage attractions are compelled to outline equitable strategies for redistributing revenues, which may go to the state, site maintenance, local communities, other heritage sites, and a host of stakeholders and workers. Yet blanket pictures of an economic collapse outside nations' control risk defusing all activism; instead of dissecting local heritage economies, we assume that the heritage industry is simply declining alongside global economies.

Some nations once supported heritage without much question, and there is good evidence that most communities still value heritage resources – old buildings, archaeological sites and museums. However, we face ideologues who separate heritage things from the labourers who secure those objects, preserve spaces, and present heritage stories in the academy and beyond. The turn to unpaid and poorly paid labour in the heritage industry views heritage sites simply as workplaces while it simultaneously implies that such work is an intellectual or nationalist passion whose benefits are governed by more than mere economic rationality; that is, perhaps the unspoken implication is that such heritage labour is a service to our nations, communities, and scholarship that can somehow remain outside the standards of labour equity we would expect in any other work.

Heritage planning demands ambitious coordination of potentially profitable heritage tourism, conservation of myriad local sites, and employment of a breadth of professionals to shepherd heritage resources, but an increasing number of ideologues and nations appear reluctant to support heritage sites that are unlikely to ever yield narrowly defined economic revenues. Ideologues fantasising about a self-sustaining heritage industry may be signalling a profound shift in the global vision of heritage's value; that is, the value of heritage often rests with aesthetics and collective memory and is not easily reducible to economic rationality, and the marginalisation of heritage labour may signal efforts to reduce all heritage to profitability. Nevertheless, shifts in heritage funding are not evidence that communities have become disinvested in heritage, and they may likely tell us more about well-placed ideologues whose interests reach well beyond museums, archaeological sites, and the academy.

A measured assessment of heritage labour requires ambitious analyses of the broad economics of heritage that pushes beyond impressionistic experiences and examples. Hardy's case study should move more of us to inventory how nations, communities, and neighbours manage heritage, and in many ways that management of heritage – as an industry with labourers as well as a space of values, aesthetics, and collective memory outside economics – should be key to our collective scholarship. Many countries and scholars appear resigned to accept the transformation in heritage funding and the devaluing of the field labourers who make heritage possible at all. This is not necessarily a demoralising revelation that colleagues are not sympathetic to the challenges facing under-employed and unemployed peers, but it may reveal that many of us do not really understand the very industry in which we find or seek work. It is not clear that a dissection of the broad heritage economy and our values can be conducted purely on blogs, but they do seem like a very good place to begin.

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