Key future skills for cultural heritage sector: Mediation and enablement

Key future skills for cultural heritage sector: Mediation and enablement

At the General Annual Meeting of the CHARTER Alliance that took place from 5-7 July 2022 in Vienna, Austria, a panel on stakeholder's views on gaps and needs in the Cultural heritage in Europe took place. Upon request, CHARTER reached out to one of the panelists Conor Newman to collect his input and thoughts.
Newman considers mediation and enablement to be one of the main skills needed for cultural heritage professionals in the future. He draws on experiences from his field archaeology to explain how finding the right level of mediation and explanation will keep the public pleased and feeling involved and at the same time leave space for the professionals to remain the experts.
Newman argues that there is a need to educate the educators, but he recognises that by fitting in meditation in the programme, something else would have to go and this is were things get delicate. Where may we fit this kind of training?
On a final note, Newman encourages more in-depth involvement of students and early-career people to make sure the CHARTER Alliance achieve its goals for the sector to remain relevant.
The panel at the General Assembly in Vienna, was moderated by Margherita Sani from the Network of European Museum Organisations (NEMO). She had asked all panelists to answer three questions and Conor Newman responded the following.

In your specific area of expertise, what skills/competences are (most urgently) needed to meet the challenges of today? Are there also new occupations/profiles that you see emerging in this context?

Referring to today’s challenges, I am thinking about the phenomenon of new heritages, new synergies and new audiences: heritage is in constant transition and these are new and important frontiers of our sector. Heritage and Wellbeing; physical, psychological and ontological is a major growth area. Similarly, Difficult Heritages represents a rethinking of existing heritages and values against, inter alia, a background of woke culture, Black Lives Matter and the range of associated social movements that are redefining the landscape of heritage consumption. A significant portion of European heritage is the product of colonialism, so this is a space we need to pay close attention to.

My contribution today, however, focuses on mediation and enablement; it is clear that this is recognized as the new norm in heritage practice.

Let me start with an anecdote that pinpoints one area of concern.

A review in the Irish Times newspaper of a book on Irish prehistory complained that it was not really accessible to the layperson. I doubt if the same criticism would be made against a book on, say, orthopaedic surgery, jet propulsion or corporate law!

The first and most obvious takeaway is that people feel let down if archaeological heritage is presented in a way that goes over their heads, that smacks of exclusivity. There is a sense that archaeological heritage is a thing people can reasonably expect to understand, without any specific training.

A lot of archaeological work is carried out in the full public gaze, and we have a long history and proud tradition of sharing our work with the public. However, operating literally in the public space, archaeologists regularly find themselves in the cross-hairs of spatial planning disputes, where the heritage resource is weaponized, by both sides. This is where shortcomings in communicating the value and merit of archaeological heritage are exposed. They say when it comes to disputes “when you’re explaining you’re losing”, which is another way of saying that investing in public understanding of the principles of heritage conservation pays off! In the field of archaeology, we have a wealth of experience in this area and it has given birth to a whole branch of archaeological training and practice, namely Public Archaeology. Despite being around for about 40 years, however, it is an approach that is still struggling to gain traction within a rather conservative profession.

Not only do people expect to recognize and understand archaeological heritage, there is a sense that they feel entitled to do so (long before Faro I might add), or at least not to be excluded from it. We’ve learned that heritage is personal, and therefore is accompanied by feelings of recognition, familiarity, ownership and belonging. Archaeology is, above all, local. (Every time I say ‘archaeology’ you should substitute this with heritage or your own area of specialization.)

Conor Newman discussing mediation and enablement as key future skills

At the CHARTER Alliance General Meeting. Left to right: Patricia Alberth, François Mairesse, Margherita Sani, Conor Newman and Martina de Luca.


These sentiments converge with a more global public perception that, unlike the STEM subjects, the humanities and social sciences (where a lot of heritage education goes on) occupy, let us say, the intuitive end of the intellectual spectrum―they are simple, easy, comprehensible, baggy and accommodating (meaning ‘tolerant’ of the input of the non-expert). This is nonsense. I start by telling my students that archaeology ain’t rocket science: it’s far more complex than that!” And important!

The second, not-so-obvious take-away, is that despite the criticism of the Irish Times reviewer, it is actually necessary and healthy for a profession to cogitate and talk and write deeply and technically about its subject matter, even if such discourses are beyond the ready comprehension of the interested lay person. This type of inadvertent exclusivity is actually ok; in fact it is an indicator of serious, healthy professional specialism.

This might not be the most politic thing to say at a time when our sector is awash with talk of stakeholder inclusivity, shared stewardship and public ownership, but when it comes to decision-making, expertise, experience and wisdom count! It may be flattering to find ourselves in the spotlight, but it might be tactical to push back against the perception that the heritage sector will roll over and open its executive doors to all and sundry, because to do so risks undermining our professional standing.

Push-back of this sort is more difficult, of course, in the face of values-theory which, while it has a central place in heritage, and indeed landscape theory, is actually a servant of two masters. We must be on our guard against relativism.

These then are the two poles, the public and the expert, that shape the parameters of the sector generally. The citizen-expert has become the leitmotif of contemporary heritage theory and of Sustainability. No pressure then(!) for a sector that has dangled by a thread on the fringes of government priority and spending!

The heritage sector has been in the business of sharing or exhibiting the fruits of its expertise from the very start. Has all of this sharing worked? Have we struck the right balance between proximity and distance, intimacy and dispassionate objectivity? Perhaps historically, but there’s a new audience, a more complex demographic, a more varied range of expectations, not just among the public but among new entrants into the sector.

The spectre of mass tourism tells us that a large part of this audience has an insatiable, rapacious appetite. For this audience, the ‘look-what-we-found’ approach may work but it is short-termism. At best, it wins hearts, fleetingly at that. At worst, it propagates shallow, fetishistic interest in celebrity heritage items. For the sector to thrive, and to live up to the new demands being placed on it, we need to avoid the quick but temporary wins of fetishism. The real goal is to inform and win the public over to the principles that shape practice in the sector, how well-thought-out ethics set the parameters of professional practice, including management of the public resource, and, importantly, why expertise matters. This means learning how to situate heritage values and practice. The contemporary context for this is sustainability.

When you consider the curatorial principle at the heart of what we all do, heritage has been quietly leading the way on sustainability and the circular economy, long before these terms achieved the public profile they now enjoy. We should lay claim to that heritage and build on it. So doing we can also speak to the values, interests and sentiments that lead the younger generation to consider this sector in the first place.

What I am trying to get at is the complexity of the balancing act the sector is now being asked to perform, to do more than just share our expertise but to share our space, the very platform of our professional lives, with the expert-citizen, the author-owners of the heritage. This is not only a technical or theoretical issue, it is a political one too. For the sector to deliver on what is being asked of it there needs to be deep public buy-in.

Heritage mediation, moderation and enabling already comprise a sub-discipline in some areas of the sector. They need to inform every area of expertise. I am not in a position to discuss how and where training for this aspect of professional practice is available across Europe, but I think we can guess that it is variable at best. If it remains an add-on to traditional professional practice it will fail, meaning that the resource, the sector and the public will have been failed.

Are the skills that you mentioned when replying to question 1 provided by the education/training providers or can you see a gap between the education/training system and the labour market (now and in the near future)? If there is a gap, how could it be bridged?

There are gaps that need to be bridged, some more significant than others. The first step is to educate the educators!

With all training/education programmes, to fit mediation in means leaving something else out. And, everything is somebody’s precious. So the question then is where to situate this genre of training? It is tempting to put it on the long-finger by offering it at post-graduate level―after all this is from where tomorrow’s professionals emerge. However, it is my experience that undergraduates have an appetite for this sort of training; it seems to resonate with their sense of social justice and, importantly, helps them situate archaeology, and the transferable skills that come with an archaeological training, in their contemporary contexts.

Perhaps even more importantly, if this type of education is reserved for the postgraduate syllabus it circulates only within a self-selecting cohort of future professionals, and an opportunity to allow it propagate more widely is lost.

I passed on a few hand-written questions to the students who carried out, so brilliantly, the survey of vacancies in the sector. Essentially I was asking them whether the spectrum of jobs on offer appealed to them, whether they were they excited or underwhelmed by what the near future had to offer, both in terms of fulfilment and security?

I think they may have been a little bit too polite to answer! Notwithstanding the fact that the selection process will have been biased in favour of ‘traditional’ employment vectors, there is not a lot here to be excited about. The true potential of the sector is not going to be realized in an employment landscape that does not let the future happen, especially when it is coupled to an educational sector that does not capacitate outside-the-box, ‘disruptive’ (there’s the term that has replaced ‘contested’ in the jingoism of contemporary humanities research) thinking and actions.

Do we abandon or compromise traditional skills training? Absolutely not. At the very least, this sort of training is what defines the parameters of the application of the sustainability paradigm to the heritage. Instead, we should recognize the limitations of show-and-tell and aim for a more holistic conversation situated in the sustainability paradigm.

In some literature related to museums the notion of “unlearning” is frequently mentioned. In your area of expertise, could you think of skills cultural heritage professionals need to “unlearn”?

After 14 years, our dog still barks at the postman!

Muscle memory is hard to shift. And, the postman doesn’t really mind; they’ve developed an understanding!

So, is unlearning per se really that important?

More important is to envelope professional practice in humility, openness, generosity and grace.

And all of these are essential to allow the future to happen. And, the future that is unfolding before our eyes is unimaginably different from even 20 years ago. There is a past-tense default in heritage sector thinking. That is unsurprising given the centrality of preservation of artefacts of the past, tangible and intangible, in the sector.

So, if I have a closing remark here it is to encourage more in-depth involvement of students and early-career people in CHARTER’s considerations of the future of the sector.


Graduate of University College Dublin (1984); Masters degree 1986; Awarded NUI Travelling Studentship 1987 and studied in Italy, France and the UK; director Discovery Programme Tara Survey 1992-96. co-director (with Dr Mark Stansbury – Classics NUIG) of the Columbanus: life and legacy Project (PRTLI4 and Andrew Mellon Foundation) and member of the International  Scientific Committee of Making Europe: Columbanus and his legacy. He is the Acting-director of the Centre for Landscape.

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