Navigating Difficult Heritage: How to share, and how much?

Defining difficult heritage

Although definitions vary, I believe that one of the most important things we can do as heritage workers is adopt a definition. I often use that put forward by Julia Rose in an outstanding work: ‘Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites’ (a book I often recommend).

Julia Rose defines difficult heritage as encompassing narratives marked by “oppression, violence, and trauma”.

Labelling the heritage as difficult (in my own head) with this definition in mind is a cue to pause, so that I consider and reflect on how to proceed.

Wars, conflicts, genocide and persecution

Colonial heritage, empire, and slavery

Histories of discrimination, democracy and rights

Medical collections; mental health

Crime and punishment, justice and injustice

Death and loss; human remains

However, we also encounter difficult history in a range of other places so need to be on the look out for difficult history in disguise.

We often encounter challenging collection materials when exploring a wide range of social, economic and politic history more generally, particularly when exploring working-class histories, gender rights and heritage related to the stories of a wide range of minority communities.

Finding our comfort level

Over the years, I’ve delivered training sessions on the theme of difficult heritage for museum workers, often starting with a simple ice breaker activity. I ask the delegates to rank their levels of comfort in sharing the particular difficult heritage in question, from 1 to 10, with 10 being anything goes, and 1 being highly nervous!

Think about this briefly now before you read on – pick your number.

When it comes to your sensitive objects and stories, are you an ‘anything goes’ person (10), ‘highly nervous’ (1), or somewhere in between?

The variance in comfort levels when sharing difficult collections is always striking – I collect the numbers anonymously in a hat, then share them with the group. I never fail to be surprised to see the full range of feelings represented. There’s a huge range of personalities in a museum!

As a museum engagement specialist, I currently find myself ranking around a 4. I think this probably reflects that, fundamentally, I believe these stories matter, but I am cautious about how to proceed. I want to get it right. I try to select carefully what to share with which audiences and the best manners to do that without sensationalising the topics. I’m not suggesting that my way is the right (or only) way, and some heritage workers would argue that we should all be trying to be a brave 10!

Exploring a ‘difficult’ collection – crime and punishment

In 2018, I worked with Ripon Museums Trust, which cares for three historic sites: a courthouse, a workhouse and a police and prison museum.

All three must have been sites of trauma at times. Some of the convicted may have committed crimes of violence, but the difficulty inherent within collections linked to crime and punishment extends beyond individual cases. Spending even a few minutes in the mock up of a small blacked-out cell in the prison museum, where children were punished for misbehaviour by being locked in total darkness, is enough to reinforce the abuse that is part of the history of crime and punishment.

The criminal records also hold examples of people punished for crimes that are no longer considered criminal today (e.g. imprisoned for ‘homosexuality’).

Reflections on how to approach this sensitive theme

I would suggest that it’s useful to pause before considering how to display, handle and interpret any object from a difficult heritage. This doesn’t mean that every object is a sensitive one, but that as heritage workers we should be aware of this potential.

One familiar example of ephemera to be found in all police collections, from the late Victorian era onwards, is what we know as ‘mug shots’. They show those who have been arrested looking into the camera, and sometimes in profile too, holding their details on a card or blackboard, and often looking impoverished and frightened (or sometimes defiant).

You can find hundreds of these images on display across relevant museums. I’d like to suggest, however, that they are more complex items than we might first consider.

1. Each image records a potentially traumatic moment in the lives of the subject. The act of being arrested and photographed in this manner must have been deeply frightening for many, regardless of their crimes. The conditions in which the arrested were kept may also have been dehumanising in some cases.

2. In some cases, these photos are likely to be the only existing image of some of the subjects. In a time before the ready and affordable availability of photography, having your likeness taken was very rare for some demographics of society. How would I feel if the only surviving image of myself or a family member recorded this moment? If a person’s life is represented by just one moment, is this an appropriate one to pick?

3. These photos represent the moment of arrest, not conviction. The proper name for these is ‘booking photos’. However, they are strongly associated in our minds with notions of ‘criminality’. This, in many cases is misrepresentative given that some of the subjects will have been cleared or released (and still others convicted of crimes that we no longer recognise).

I still feel uncomfortable looking at these photos – it feels voyeuristic. For anyone interested in this aspect, I would strongly recommend Susan Sontag’s book, Regarding the Pain of Others.

Sharing the photos

During my project with Ripon Museums Trust, I chose not to share the booking photos with young audiences during a series of storytelling sessions.

However, I did share them with A level psychology and sociology groups in sessions where we explored the history of criminology and treatment of prisoners in the past through handling objects. In these sessions, I was able to have open discussions with the older teenagers about the sensitivities of the materials, which wouldn’t have been appropriate in the stories with young children. 

We’ll all draw the line in different places, depending on what we feel comfortable with. But I would suggest that the most important thing is that we’ve stopped to consider. Whatever decisions we make, the important thing is that we’ve made them thoughtfully.

A cue to pause

We often tell ourselves that these stories need to be shared, or these histories have to be told, or we shouldn’t censor materials.

Over the years, I have worked hard to bring to light a large number of difficult and sensitive stories. I believe stories of injustice are important. However, I advocate a need to pause to consider how best to proceed, taking time to decide whether it is respectful to the historic persons to share a particular object or story in a certain way.

Most of us are aware that we should be asking very serious questions about whether to share looted objects or whether to display human remains, for example. I would encourage us all to question our motivations when sharing any difficult objects.

Telling the stories of the oppressed is important. But it should honour the victims and ensure that we don’t further the disregard shown for them previously.

A good way to dig into this is to ask if we would be happy seeing our own family member’s story shared that way. Taking this approach ensures that I am never comfortable with exploiting a historic person’s story for the purposes of entertainment . As history workers, I believe we have a different responsibility from the entertainment sector.

Once we’ve decided to share something, we need to ensure we’re doing it in a respectful way. Even decisions over lighting can make an impact on how an object is perceived.

Often our language also makes a difference. I’ve heard collections staff describe objects connected with trauma as their ‘favourites’, for example, conveying their excitement, perhaps, at getting their hands on a rare object and forgetting that it was used to persecute a real person.

Further reading

Susan Sontag

Regarding the Pain of Others
(New York, 2003)

Julia Rose

Interpreting Difficult History at Museums and Historic Sites
(Rowman & Littlefield, 2016)

Randolph Bergstrom

‘Tough Telling’ in the Public Historian 35, no.3 (2013)