Urban Cultural Heritage & Creative Practice is an international research collaborative of university academics and local creative practitioners exploring cultural heritage in urban locales.

Locales represented in the project include: Cape Town, South Africa; Dublin, Ireland; Hong Kong SAR, China; Istanbul, Turkey; Providence, Rhode Island; and York, England.

Video introductions to the project from the Winter 2012 Symposium at Brown University are available here.


The common conception of cultural heritage today assumes an unchanging present and past: heritage roots stable societies. But cultural heritage, especially in urban areas, is neither static nor stable. Enmeshed in transnational processes of social change, mobility and cultural diversification, cultural heritage in urban areas is dissonant, shifting and multiple.

The Urban Cultural Heritage & Creative Practice research collaborative seeks to reframe understandings of urban cultural heritage. We proposes that heritage is a creative and relational process where places and communities are constantly remade through creative performance, and together we rigorously critique models for connecting contemporary arts practice and cultural heritage curation.

Bringing together international partners (a university and local creative partners) from Providence, Istanbul, Hong Kong, Dublin, York and Capetown, the collaborative is establishing shared vocabularies, tool kits and best practices for incorporating collaborative arts practice in cultural heritage curation.  Partners will collaborate on fieldwork, sharing outcomes at annual meetings and workshops. An interim meeting will be held at Brown in January 2012. The first workshop will be in Istanbul in June 2012.

Disciplines represented: archaeology, anthropology, performance studies, material culture studies, cultural tourism, historic preservation, collaborative arts practice and public humanities.

Central question

While the fabric and quality of urban cultural life is ever-changing and elusive, vestiges of older fabric survive in neglected spaces – back lanes, disused lots – where survival is incidental rather than an intentional result of heritage policy. These residues are, however, important touchstones for local community memory, affect and identity. They are stray references to disappeared but still-recalled moments from once-familiar landscapes. Unnoticed as excavation digs past and development rises above, they present unique opportunities for the production of contemporary urban cultural heritage, allowing a deeper understanding of what cities have been and how they are creatively used today. How can we identify and encourage sustained innovative and creative activation of these resources?

Theorizing urban cultural heritage

Current conceptions of heritage assume its universal importance and relevance to the representation of contemporary communities. Most often intended for managing discrete, bounded sites (best exemplified by rural scenarios), institutional understandings of heritage are neither nimble nor flexible enough to effectively engage with the complexities and rapidly changing social and physical contexts of urban life (See Turnberry 2004; Gilderbloom & Mullins 2005).

The project has a series of central propositions which inform the theoretical rationale of the work undertaken:

1. Heritage is uncertain

Heritage is often engaged with as a static, constant object – one that persists over time and is a source of stability and confidence. In practice and interpretation, heritage and the city itself are uncertain (see Toulmin 1992) as communities attach different narratives to places as their constitution shifts and changes.

2. Heritage is dissonant

Though often used as a way of creating consensus and continuity within society, ownership of heritage within the city – where there are competing claims to the representation of “society” – is often contested. Who identifies and controls the resources used to manifest these representations? Who is given access? We see this dissonance as an important affective resource, one which gives cultural heritage vibrancy and relevance to the negotiation of contemporary society.

3. Heritage is creative

This project proposes that heritage is not merely an inherited object but is also a creative subject (See Giaccardi & Palen 2008).  As an experience, it is a dynamic relational phenomenon implicating people, communities, systems, ideologies and spaces in the constitution of an agreed conception of space and time. This constitutionality in heritage, we suggest is an inherently creative act, deserving of rigorous critical interrogation.

4. Heritage and curation

While heritage is generally perceived as dealing with the past, the establishment and maintenance of heritage resources and spaces are decidedly contemporary concerns. Approaching heritage management as a contemporary action of deploying materials and resources within spaces, and coordinating people and systems in service of producing experience, affect, sentiment and comprehension, this project proposes that heritage as creative act is a mode of contemporary curation (See O’Neill 2008).

5. Heritage and the cinematic

Increasingly contemporary art work has engaged time itself as a medium (See Campany 2007). Not restricted by categorization or imposed chronological structures, artists transgress temporally, creating durational experiences which can constitute collapses of time. Distant pasts become familiar, and contemporary moments become foreign. This project engages the current critical negotiation of these modes of artistic practice and applies them to the creation and curation of heritage space.

6. Collaborative arts practice and collaborative heritages 

The project understands creative actions not as the agency of an individual but as a dispersed agency best exemplified in the discourse of collaborative arts practice (See Kwon 2004). As such an intention of the project is to explore and adapt the models and practices of collaborative arts to the testing and articulation of modes of practice and evaluation for collaborative heritages.

7. Conservation through creativity

An important consideration for the project are the implications for applying the aesthetics and conceptual models of contemporary arts practice to the ethics and procedures of heritage management and preservation. This project proposes that the sustaining of communities of interest around heritage spaces, concepts and scenarios requires sustained creative actions. While the proposal of making heritage resources available for use in contemporary artistic creativity may seem in conflict to principals of conservation, this project will demonstrate that sustained creativity within heritage space is central to the constitution and maintenance of communities through heritage.

Questions to be considered

  • What are the risks and implications of advocating for artistic freedom within areas of special conservation/preservation and how can we mitigate these risks?
  • How can the project document social scenarios while understanding and allowing for social change?
  • What are the difficulties that will be encountered in handling issues of cultural diversity in various partners’ scenarios?
  • As cities are not bounded, how can the project teams both identify areas of study while allowing for mobility within, through and out of urban areas?