9.4 Popular knowledge and public collaboration

The modern past is constructed by academics and professionals but it is also a matter of public knowledge and concern. Research can evidence, analyse and interpret popular understandings of the recent past and, in particular, its material aspects and relationships. In what ways is the modern past made meaningful by people in the present? Which aspects of this past – which narratives, things, places and landscapes- have meaning for people and why? Amongst other things, reference might be made here to the industrial past, to graveyards in relation to family and local history, to the archaeology and landscapes of the Clearances, to battlefields and other sites of conflict, to the iconic place or landscape (St Kilda, New Lanark) and to the mundane. Research can also explore the relationship between popular and academic/professional understandings of the past. As discussed above, this is a two way relationship: archaeologists, through their work, feed into the process of generating a meaningful past; archaeologists, in their work and as persons within society themselves, are influenced by wider historical knowledges, narratives, myths and beliefs.

Research in this field might consider questions of the character and meaning of the recent past from the point of view of different constituencies: the role of historic places and landscapes in the creation, maintenance and re-creation of identities in modern-day Scotland and amongst the Scottish diaspora (Basu 2000, 2001, 2004; Lelong 2008); the character of the archaeological, historical and heritage narratives which underpin notions of national identity (eg Ascherson 2002); the past as perceived by landowners (McCrone and Morris 1994; Stewart et al. 2001), or by crofters (Macdonald 1997a; 1997b); and others besides.

Complementing research into popular knowledges of the recent past and their interaction with the knowledge and understanding produced by academic and professional archaeologists is research into the more direct public interaction. Such interaction between archaeologists and the public takes various forms, from relatively brief and superficial encounters to longer-lived and more meaningful collaborations. Community archaeology and public engagement are areas of growing interest and activity and ones where the modern past features prominently – more than a few of the most successful professional/public collaborations of recent years in Scotland and across the U.K. have concerned the archaeology of the recent past (eg Scotland’s Rural Past project, the Defence of Britain project). These interactions, relationships and practices are the subject of growing discussion and analysis (CBA 2010; Dalglish forthcoming), but currently remain under theorised and poorly understood. Research is needed into the philosophies, politics and practices of public and community engagement, specifically in the context of the archaeology of the recent past, in order to develop a sound and critical understanding of the nature, consequences, possibilities and problems of participatory and collaborative practice.

See also the ScARF Case Study: Linking Communities to Historic Environments (LCHE) Research Review

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