York Minster. Image taken by Walter Nakonecznyj 2011

York Minster. Image taken by Walter Nakonecznyj, 2011

Theatres of Memory: The Foundation of Identity in the Historic City

“The heritage process is never inert; ‘people engage with it, re-work it, appropriate it and contest it. It is part of the way identities are created’ (Bender 1993). The concept of heritage should not to be considered as a singular, one dimensional concept but a continuous process that performs a role in everyday life. Our interaction with the environment continually reaffirms our position in space, time and narrative, culminating in our personal notion of who and where we are. This project examines within the confines of a cityscape the impact the environment and its past has on the interpretations, interactions and identification the public employs.”

The nature of a city is ever changing, with a continuous daily change in population with both tourists and residents using the space for their own pursuits. By using York as a case study my research is about to draw upon a wealth of history and apply a number of interdisciplinary concepts to observations. Having celebrated eight centuries as a city in 2012 the local government and civic trust made a large effort to reflect the changing city since its foundations under Roman occupation. However, it has been since the Escher Report in 1969 that the city authorities have proactively attempted to protect the city and what is deemed its heritage. The consequence of this is an interpretation of York that is bound by encouraged narratives; the project is investigating the conflicts that arise as people identify with the environment in ways that differ to the predetermined notion.

As a built environment the research takes into consideration the role of constructed space, through the examination of museums, monuments and urban redevelopment on the impact these historically centred landmarks have on the public’s perception. As a space fluctuating with visitors there is an ever changing interpretation of the city and its meaning, this draws upon psychological and sociological ideas of identity formation and how we associate with the environment around us. The notion is always individual to ourselves, it is unique but can draw upon shared ideas, within the city various communities and groups will be engaged with to understand how perceptions of themselves and the city differ. Using Maffesoli’s idea of ‘tribes’ I hope to be able to show how groups and individuals operate on varying scales of interaction to form their identification and representation of themselves and collectives.

To provide a development of ideas the project will investigate three areas of personal interest which have had an impact on York in the 21st century. The first theme is the rise and influence of counter cultures from community based groups like Incredible Edible, Todmordon and The Incredible Movement based in York which reclaim areas of the city for communal gardening to Urban Explorers who enter disused urban spaces and document and often reuse the space for artistic form. How these movements have formed a new notion of the city that is not reliant on the past but embellishes it helps to show the development of urban understanding as people take more of a role, integrating with the world around them. The second theme is a follow on of engagement dealing with the digital revolution and the role of virtual experiences on visitors as ideas of augmented reality apps, and google earth allow people to witness sites globally without ever leaving their house. The debate the project wants to consider is the impact this can have on people’s engagement with a location; can a ‘visitor’ say they know a city if they haven’t heard, smelt or felt it? Has culture become too dictated by the visual? The digital world is not an enemy to the past but it has to be considered that a level of adaptability and integration is needed as culture and society become more and more immersed in the world of digital and virtual technology. The last theme of consideration is the impact of performance, many sites around the world are becoming more encouraging of mediums of interaction and interpretation that break from the traditional notions of object based history. Performance is one of the most freeform movements available that is accessible to the public. The project intends to compare the city of York which has a tradition of performances through re-enactments, Mystery Plays and events like the festival of lights, Jorvik Viking festival and York Pride which all represent a part of the cities diversity. Sienna, Italy is the ideal comparison having put forward a manifesto of performative programmes as part of its bit for 2019 Capital of Culture. Though the bid was unsuccessful the idea behind the programmes show how performance is a means of engagement and education presenting the location and past in a multitude of forms for the public to engage with and understand on their own grounds. After completing the research the information will be formatted into workshops engaging with the people I interact with through the project as well as an exhibition to present some evidence regarding the effects the public play on interaction with material culture, urban environment studies, and affective history and the importance of oral history.


The interdisciplinary nature of the project draws upon elements of cultural geography, sociology, psychology, and anthropology but at its heart is heritage as a discipline. This is based primarily on my previous study in Heritage and Museum Studies (BA) at the University of Huddersfield, where a firm grasp of how institutions operate on matters of education and understanding had been achieved. During the course a number of events and exhibitions were researched and organised around public engagements and awareness of the past. Notably, ‘Out of the Shadows’, in collaboration with Thackray Medical Museum, Leeds, examined the West Riding’s Pauper Lunatic Asylums.  Upon completing the undergraduate degree a suitable conceptual framework and awareness of heritage discourse was acquired which was swiftly applied at a master’s level in the discipline of Early Modern History (MA) at University of York. During this time my focus quickly moved to examination of Elizabethan narratives and the modern interpretation through displays and architectural history of Country Houses writing a dissertation on Hardwick Hall, Derbyshire considering the role of female symbolism being portrayed in both the contemporary and modern depictions of the house. Alongside academic pursuits a more practical career has developed through work with museums from the internationally renowned Royal Armouries to more local sites like Armley Industrial Mill and Thackray Medical Museum with roles varying from assisting curators to helping to research and plan exhibitions. As part of a project at University of Bradford in 2005, I was one of a team of volunteers involved in a study on Reminiscent Therapy establishing a strong foundation of oral history.

Supervisors: Professor Franco Bianchini, Leeds Beckett University, and Dr Natasha Vall, Teesside University

Out of the Shadow Exhibition and History at Huddersfield YouTube film


Twitter: @The_Blackheart