Critical Heritage

Reimagining the past to reimagine the future

How can new ways of navigating the past generate fresh images of the future, and vice-versa? How can cultural heritage reckon with the overwhelming realities of colonialism and neocolonialism? How can re-ordering and re-analysing archives, and re-framing how they are encountered and interpreted, unlock the secrets, powers, and affordances hidden under our noses all along? How might different heritage and archiving practices challenge accepted conventions around what deserves to be preserved, and around whose expertise and experience should count in curation? How do archives relate to activism, and what kind of agencies might the archive exercise in our present moment?

These are just a few of the questions we're exploring at the Sussex Humanities Lab, collaborating with a wide range of external partners, and applying cutting-edge digital techniques within history, heritage, and archive studies.

Our BBC Connected Histories project is a ground-breaking collaboration with the BBC, creating a new digital catalogue of hundreds of rarely-seen audio and video interviews with former BBC staff -– from those in the corridors of power to those at the broadcasting coal face. The project team is David Hendy, Tim Hitchcock, Margaretta Jolly, Alban Webb, Anna-Maria Sichani, and Denice Penrose100 Voices that made the BBC, part of the Connected Histories project, tells the story of the BBC and its wider world through richly curated individual testimonies.

Community archives, and in particular those of LGBTQ+  communities, is a major focus of Sharon Webb’s research. For community archivists, institutional partnerships can unlock badly needed funding and resources, while also creating complex risks around autonomy, ownership, and sustainability. As communities take charge of their own heritage, and create their own digital archives, Sharon’s research explores the viability, sustainability, politics, epistemology, and ethics of community archiving. In addition, Reanimating Data, a project also including SHL's Rachel Thomson and colleagues from Manchester, Edinburgh, and the community archive Feminist Webs, explores ways of archiving, sharing, and reanimating data associated with the Women, Risk & AIDS project conducted in Manchester in the late 1980s.

Queer Codebreakers, a collaboration between Sharon and Elle Castle, uses interactive installation art as an innovative way of experiencing and engaging with community archives. It is based on the Queer in Brighton oral history collection, a set of over seventy interviews gathering individual and collective queer histories, drawing on lived experience to challenge the frameworks and the gaps of official histories. The Queer Codebreakers project explores how history can be playful, and how that playfulness can make it more and differently accessible to the public. At the same time, it probes complex questions about how histories and publics are constructed in the first place, and the role of risk, fragility, and obsolescence in the making and re-making of history. Queer Codebreakers 2.0 is now exhibiting as part of the Queer the Pier exhibition in the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery.


Louise Falcini and Tim Hitchcock’s work on the Poor Law, in collaboration with researchers at Keele and members of the public, is pioneering new methodologies for data collection and analysis, to enrich the archival catalogues of partner institutions, and to generate original biographies of individuals whose lives are currently underrepresented in the historical record.

JoAnn McGregor and James Baker’s Making African Connections project explores the decolonial possibilities of collections of artefacts from Botswana, Namibia, Angola, and Sudan currently held in UK museums, seeking to further the theory and practice of decoloniality in British institutions.

Jacob Norris and Leila Sansour's Planet Bethlehem Archive project is collecting digital versions of materials scattered around the Palestinian diaspora among families whose roots go back to the town of Bethlehem. The project aims to recast Palestinian heritage as the product of an ongoing series of global movements and exchange.

James Baker and Andrew Salway, together with colleagues at the British Library and Lewis Walpole Library, are opening up new directions for computational, critical, and curatorial analysis of collection catalogues through their Legacies of Curatorial Voice project. What is curatorial 'voice'? How might it differ from (or resemble) the voice of the artist, the writer, the critic, the researcher? How can we tune into the quirks, cadences and curiosities of curatorial voice when it is distributed across thousands of objects? Building methods and tools to investigate the 1.1 million word British Museum 'Catalogue of Political and Personal Satires,' this project seeks empirical and interpretative insight into 'voice' across a large curatorial catalogue, while also exploring questions about the enduring legacies of curatorial labour.

We engage all these themes not only through our research projects, but also through our bold and exploratory programming. Alex Peverett and Andrew Duff's 'Game Studies and Media Archaeology' day, for example, revived game consoles spanning over four decades, creating a forum for lively play and debate around gaming cultures and their wider penumbra. Events such as 'Mapping, Maps, and Digital Enquiry,' organised by Alex Butterworth and Margaretta Jolly, and 'Feminist Maps and Mapping Feminism: Lessons from The Women’s Atlas,' jointly held with the Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research, have sought to examine an enlarged sense of mapping and cartography in the context of history, narrative, and data perceptualisation. For more upcoming events, please check out 'What's On.'

Across many of these projects, there emerges a concern with the kinds of stories told by individuals, by communities, by institutitions, and by the kinds of stories told by data. There is nothing new about the need for arts and humanities research to create spaces for the invisible and the silenced to emerge. But new technologies and infrastructures are creating new possibilities for who and what can speak, in what ways, and who and what can listen, and perhaps do more than listen. We are also developing new understandings of how such encounters can be distributed in time and space. At the same time, 'data' can exist in an uneasy tension with personal testimony and lived experience. Even as we explore new digital methodologies to help us to reveal untold stories, we need also to reflect critically on what might be concealed or sidelined by such methodologies.