Interview: Professor Rodney Harrison

‘I want to develop new ways of addressing global problems by fostering inter-disciplinary approaches to heritage,’ says Professor Rodney Harrison of his new role as Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Leadership Fellow in Heritage. ‘I aim to bring together different fields or practices that are not normally in conversation with one another. Heritage researchers and practitioners are quite dispersed and exist in pockets in many different places. Heritage doesn’t exist in one field – archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, geographers, chemists, biologists, planners and architects, and many other professions, all have an interest in it. It is very broad.’

Professor Rodney Harrison

His story so far

Rodney Harrison is Professor of Heritage Studies at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. He gained a BA (Hons), and a PhD in Archaeology from the University of Western Australia in 2003, before working for the National Parks and Wildlife Service as an historical archaeologist and regional Aboriginal heritage studies coordinator. He then moved to the UK, where he was responsible for establishing a teaching programme in Global Heritage Studies at the Open University. He is currently Principal Investigator of the Heritage Futures research programme (heritage-futures.org), founding editor and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology (equinoxpub.com/JCA), and a founding executive committee member of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies (criticalheritagestudies.org). He is the author and co-editor of a dozen books and has guest edited and contributed to many journals.

Professor Harrison has already begun to explore this through his work with the AHRC-funded Heritage Futures research programme, based at University College London. ‘We’ve been encouraging knowledge exchanges across different domains and heritage fields that wouldn’t normally have much to do with one another,’ he says. ‘For example, as part of our “profusion” theme, we arranged workshops introducing professional de-clutterers to curators who have concerns with how to deal with museum storerooms which are full of objects.’ He also brought together a group of people responsible for managing a range of different kinds of collections – archivists, museum professionals and colleagues from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault – at a Swedish nuclear waste repository. During a workshop they gathered to discuss managing heritage for the future. ‘We talked about managing various objects of conservation for very long time periods,’ he says, ‘and came up with some dramatic answers.’

These initiatives are typical of Professor Harrison’s singular approach to Heritage, an approach forged early in his career through working with Aboriginal people in his home country, Australia, and working for the National Parks and Wildlife Service in Sydney. ‘I think those experiences have been relevant to my understanding of heritage and the way I approach it,’ he says. ‘They also explain some of the more distinctive approaches I bring to the subject.’

He wants to critically explore the definition of heritage, broadening it to include aspects of both ‘natural’ and ‘cultural’ heritage, as well as the spaces in between. He suggests comparison between indigenous practices of conserving nature with the sort of practices that go on in non-governmental organisations like the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) or national park management in the UK. ‘For example, Aboriginal people in the north west of Australia fire the landscape intentionally to regenerate it and help things grow. It’s another form of nature conservation activity like managing a national park and protecting the species within the boundary of the park. These different fields have a lot to learn from one another.’

One thing high on his priority list for the next three years is to connect heritage researchers with the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) agenda. ‘This is going to have an important role in shaping research in the UK in the coming decade,’ he says. ‘I think it’s important to see how Heritage relates to key global challenges and development issues around areas like green energy production, sustainable land and sea use, food security and biobanking.’ Biobanking and crop diversity conservation particularly interests him because, he says, we tend to think of conserving seeds as a form of nature conservation, whereas they are also a genetic container representing millennia of cultural experimentation. ‘Seeds are themselves the result of cultural heritage practices.’ This nexus between nature and culture, the relationship between natural and cultural heritage, is one that fascinates him.

The widely-held impression that Heritage is stuck in the past in one he would like to redress. ‘Heritage is mostly about how we want to live in the future. I don’t think of the past as a real place that is independent of the present. I think of the past as a space that is constantly reworked in the present.’ He sees Heritage as a future-making practice – what is conserved and cared for now will become building blocks for the future. ‘We need to think about what we conserve, not only for our children and our children’s children but also for other plants, animals and agentive beings that will inherit the earth after humans cease to exist. It’s important for us to have a common language and a common set of objectives to make sure that we are able to agree on the sorts of future worlds we want to build using the legacies of the past.’

Alongside his Leadership activities, which will include advising the AHRC on new and emerging research areas that need investment, and connecting academic practitioners across different fields, Professor Harrison will undertake research into specific areas of interest. For example, he wants to consider what it would mean to take a multispecies or ‘posthumanist’ approach to heritage. He also has a particular interest in Heritage and its relationship to waste: ‘We label certain things that have become outdated as “heritage” and put them in a museum or we label them as “rubbish” and we put them in the rubbish dump. I’m interested in thinking about how the field of waste studies might help us to rethink the field of Heritage.’

During his three years as Leadership Fellow, Professor Harrison aims to foster a more critical approach to heritage and to communicate that to the general public. ‘It’s important for us to think critically about Heritage and the work it does in society,’ he says, ‘particularly at this time when we see certain political and social movements emerging which draw on heritage narratives to justify extremism’.’

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