Module focus: Critical Approaches to Heritage

Postgraduate students studying at the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage at the University of Birmingham have the opportunity to explore and challenge the core concepts of heritage through the Institutes ‘Critical Approaches to Heritage’ module.

The module explores how heritage values are generated, identified, valued and protected. It looks to identify how heritage values are defined, and how these have implications for the recognition and protection of heritage.

We caught up with Module Leader, Dr John Carman, to find out more about the module.

Q. What will students cover in the module?

A. “The module covers key themes in the study of heritage as a modern social phenomenon. We look at how the idea of heritage came into being, what we mean by ‘heritage’, why we think it is important and who tells us it is, claims of ownership and control, and the kinds of institutions involved with heritage. The overall aim is to provide an introduction to the theoretical and conceptual ideas that underpin modern approaches to heritage, which is the framework within heritage work is done. This then links to the more practical areas we cover in other modules.”

Q. What do students learn from the module?

A. “The essential message of the module is that heritage is an interesting modern phenomenon that we make, not a something that is just ‘there’. It requires students to ask questions about heritage and its management, and to reflect on the paradoxical nature of heritage that exists everywhere but is also different everywhere and is at once global and local.”

Q. What are the highlights of the module?

A. “Paradoxically, the thing that students enjoy most about the module is the discovery that heritage – far from being a simple and straightforward topic – is complicated and messy and quite hard if not impossible to grasp entirely. The module is built around lectures which ask questions and raise challenges rather than provide answers and explanations, matched by seminars encouraging deeper thought and debate about the topics covered. Students find that there are no simple answers nor indeed answers at all, merely different points of view, and this opens up the chance for them to make up their own minds. As I put it, we don’t care what they think: we merely require them to actually think.”

Q. How will students be assessed?

A. “This is the only module on our programme assessed by a conventional academic essay, delivered at the end of the first semester. We give students five topics to address of which they choose one and write a 4000 word essay on it. The topics go to central issues in the field of heritage, about the nature of heritage, its ownership, how the concept of heritage links to other kinds of thing, and about the connection between heritage and identity.”

Q. How does this module help further students careers?

A. “The module provides the key understanding of heritage that is required both for a career in heritage – how can one seek to manage something you do not understand? – and for future research in the field. It emphasises critical thinking skills, the ability to develop a personal point of view and sustain an argument based on that perspective, and to recognise how different perspectives lead to different – but equally valid – understandings. It is a central module for all our programmes which is why all our students take it and why PhD students also sit in.”