Damned progress 

I haven’t written a post for some time. And I’ll be frank, it because I’m struggling with the stories at Chawton. (As well as dealing with the last couple of weeks of the school holidays, and making a run to Southampton Uni, for work, on my day off – but that’s another story.)

My struggles have made me think about the whole philosophy of heritage storytelling. And this week, I was reminded how (if you will apply a somewhat Marxist point of view) the cultural heritage “industry” is a construct of the “dominant ideology”. I had occasion at work today to quote again Pitt-Rivers who talk about creating “in such a way as at least to make men cautious how they listen to scatter-brained revolutionary suggestions.” (1891 “Typological museums, as exemplified by the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford, and his provincial museum at Farnham” Journal of the Society of Arts 40)

It seems this meme of progress through evolution has pervade heritage ever since then. Museums of the Industrial “Revolution” explain how one new technology leads to another, country houses are shown to develop over time, even museums of art – which surely celebrate artistic revolutions – resort to explain how artists are influenced by their predecessors. 

Now there’s nothing wrong with these tales of progress per se, but we know that continual progress isn’t a very emotionally engaging story. Chronologies of development, or histories of places or collections, seem to smooth out the ups and downs, the hopes and fears of the people involved.  

I’m not sure quite where I’m going with this, except to say I think I need to unpack more about the stories of the people, and use the developing place  as a mere backdrop to events. 

2 thoughts on “Damned progress 

  1. Thanks Matthew, for making me think critically about the paradigm of inevitable progress …

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradigm_shift

    … and for stimulating me to imagine various alternative paradigms which could be used in this context.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idea_of_Progress#Myth_of_Progress

    A Marxist analysis of heritage would only change the destination of “progress”, but it’s fun to imagine how you could look at the transition from feudalism to capitalism through the life and works of Jane Austen. Examples might include the mass-production of wooden naval equipment on primitive production lines in Portsmouth. Then there’s the issue of colonialism. Why was Austen largely silent on the issue of slavery in Mansfield Park?

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mansfield_Park#Slavery

    More radically, you could look at the apparently timeless cycle of the seasons in the Hampshire countryside. This apparent timelessness would however be an illusion, with UK agriculture undergoing a revolution during the Napoleonic wars. That revolution enabled Europe to avoid the dismal fate predicted by Thomas Malthus, in his reaction against the concept of progress (“as set forth by William Godwin and Condorcet” says Wikipedia).

    One might argue that the end of French dominance of Europe at the battle of Waterloo was the start of Prussian/German dominance, which happened to lead to World War I. That war (and it’s successor) made people in the early 20th century wonder whether progress really was inevitable.

    However you are probably right to hang the history onto individual biographies, rather than get too ideological.

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