Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Caring for cultural heritage

Charlotte Woodhead

The journey towards caring for cultural heritage
I have been interested for many years in how the UK looks after cultural heritage by law and ethical principles. I came to adopt the framework of care, in some ways by accident. The term ‘caring’ started for me as a way of explaining the wide range of activities that we do regarding cultural heritage – such as preserving it, providing access, looking after it and dealing with claims. A quote from Russell (2010) really resonated with me – we ‘care about and simultaneously care for’ heritage. As I delved deeper it became apparent that care, and specifically the ethics of care, covered not only our feelings towards cultural heritage as a disposition in that we care about it but also our response to those feelings, the process of caring for cultural heritage.

The hope of care
For me, ‘care’ typifies the network of relationships that exist about cultural heritage and its importance to so many different people for different reasons. On reviewing an early outline of my planned book, a colleague in Warsaw, Dr Andrzej Jakubowksi, commented that the interesting thing about my approach was ‘care’ and his comments inspired me to bring care to the foreground of my analysis. I began to realise that care provided a means of grappling with the fragmented nature of law and ethics relating to cultural heritage across the nations of the UK, in the common law, legislation, guidance, ethical codes, self-imposed restrictions in institutional policies and also civil society and public participation initiatives. These I refer to as nested practices of care, a term that Tronto (2013) mentions briefly in her work, but which I consider as being central to the care of cultural heritage.

Responsibilities rather than rights
Concentrating on care shifts the focus away from rights and ownership towards responsibilities, which are central to cultural heritage. As part of this, I considered who cares about cultural heritage and who has responsibility for its care, analysing these as communities of care. Different communities often both care about and care for cultural heritage, but may do so directly and/or indirectly. I adopt a very wide notion of communities of care, extending to Parliament and the courts as well as to local communities who take the initiative to assume responsibility for the direct care of cultural heritage. For some people, treating law (through courts and Parliament) as communities of care may seem counterintuitive. However, they provide care, even if the care falls short of being the appropriate care for cultural heritage.

Appropriate care versus paternalistic care
The standard of appropriate care is often described in the academic literature on care, as ‘meeting needs’ (e.g. Herring 2013). However, this struck me as being a rather low bar for something as important as cultural heritage. Pantazatos (2015) has suggested that both care and respect are the normative foundations of stewardship of archaeology. However, I treat respect as part and parcel of appropriate care and set out in the book appropriate care as being dialogic, respectful and empathetic. Appropriate care therefore sits at one end of the spectrum, with paternalistic care at the other end (and not something to aspire to). I take paternalistic care of cultural heritage, something which Narayan (1995) considers in the context of colonialism, as being where the current provider of care assumes that they are best placed to give the care, they already have assumed responsibility for it, and hold on to that responsibility (with a reluctance to listen to, or engage with dialogue to question the status quo). The epitome of this is where national museums have hidden behind legislative restrictions to avoid engaging with claims for cultural heritage.

Implementing care
Given the broad range of caring activities and communities that use nested practices of care, it is important to think about how practical care fits into this landscape. Some care is precautionary – where provision is made just in case of some future eventuality. This includes the provisions relating to the preparedness undertaken in peacetime to come into effect in the event of war. Preventative care is put in place to avert harm wherever possible, or at least to disincentivise it, often with a criminal sanction to support this. Quotidian care is provided for in the daily looking after of cultural heritage and the provision of access to it. Reactive care is provided in response to actual or threatened harm. This also includes how those currently responsible for the direct care of cultural heritage respond to communities challenging the status quo. It also covers how law and guidance mitigate inevitable harm.

Cultural heritage frameworks and the instrumental use of law
Whilst in some cases legal principles found in property law or administrative law mean that the courts cannot appropriately care for cultural heritage, the book nevertheless ends on a note of hope. For, although some cultural heritage frameworks exist, where laws and guidance are directed at caring for cultural heritage, other legal principles, guidance and public participation initiatives enable communities who care about cultural heritage to assume responsibility for its care. Law can therefore be used instrumentally by these communities to care for cultural heritage appropriately.

Caring for Cultural Heritage by Charlotte Woodhead

About The Author

Charlotte Woodhead

Charlotte Woodhead is Associate Professor at Warwick Law School, University of Warwick. Charlotte is a recognised expert in the restitution of cultural heritage, having been commis...

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