I recorded a short video for the wonderful people at the Anarchism Research Group on the topic of Heritage & Anarchism. They asked for under two minutes, so the video is the edited version, which you can watch below:
The full text before editing:
We commonly think of heritage as grandiloquent historic homes, arranged on green lawns– that statue of the general in front of the courthouse. If you are in the United Kingdom, “heritage” may invoke castles, Roman villas, or the name of a rather pernicious right-wing populist and conservative party. Or perhaps you think of UNESCO world heritage sites, places that are deemed of “Outstanding Universal Value” yet are often statist and reflect colonialist legacies.
These examples reflect what Laura-Jane Smith calls the authorised heritage discourse–“the regulation of historical and cultural narratives and the work that these narratives do in maintaining or negotiating certain societal values and hierarchies.” But moreso, as she further describes, it is “a process, or a performance, in which we identify the values, memories and cultural and social meanings that help us make sense of the present, our identities and sense of physical and social place.”
“Heritage” props up power, nation states and solidifies narratives about the past that are generally abhorrent to anarchists. It immediately evokes “god and country,” and privileges the powerful elite. Lewis Borck argues that archaeological sites are not just used to legitimise the state but, in his words, “create a future history where alternative power structures—egalitarian, non-state, Indigenous, pre-colonial—seem impossible to achieve; or worse, are forgotten.”
So, with this context, what would an anarchist heritage look like? There is a growing recognition of past anarchist events, people, and interventions and acknowledging and understanding these can dispute statist claims of stability and the assumed ubiquity of top-down power structures. There may be anarchist approaches to heritage: curators, caretakers, conservators, archaeologists and museum workers could extend their ethics of care for places and artefacts to people and communities. Some already have. I’m thinking of the statue of Edward Colston, slave trader, conserved and on display in Bristol, graffiti and associated assemblage from his immersion in the Bristol Harbour in 2020 intact. I’m also thinking of the plinth, now a central point of gathering for protest, direct action, and collective expressions of happiness, grief and resistance. Further, Rachael Kiddey’s work with the unhoused and migrant communities provide a version of heritage work that centres marginalised people, not statues.
Finally, how can anarchism inform heritage practice? There is already a robust movement toward community-based initiatives within the sector–but what would it mean to open up heritage properties to communal use, occupation and curation by the public? To emphasise reuse, social justice and communal management over state preservation? And what is the place of the “heritage professional” in all of this? To offer solidarity, to resist governments that seek to silence, to mobilise heritage to collaborate and to serve.
An anarchist heritage may be difficult to conceptualise, let alone achieve. Anarchists live a politics that are always becoming–we pull up the paving to find the beach, we see that stately homes are built on what was once communal land, and we are suspicious of any narratives or heritage politics that result in building a statue to honour, well, anybody. If there is an anarchist heritage, it must be one we make ourselves, that doesn’t lionise people, affix or sanctify events, but that is mutable, imperfect, can be explored and shared and celebrated but also ignored or discarded as we see fit. Spanish civil war anarchist Durruti reminded us that “it is we the workers who built these palaces and cities” and that “we are not in the least afraid of ruins.”
Borck L. 2019. Constructing the Future History: Prefiguration as Historical Epistemology and the Chronopolitics of Archaeology. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology. 5(2):213–302
Smith L. 2012. Discourses of heritage : implications for archaeological community practice. Nuevo mundo mundos nuevos