A Reflection from Degna Stone
Listen here to this text on the CONTESTED DESIRES podcast.
We are delighted to share the second instalment of Crafting Nations, a series of online conversations as part of the CONTESTED DESIRES programme taking place across Summer 2020. 2020 has been an extraordinary year putting into sharp focus reappraisal, reform and action around our personal and collective responsibilities. In July, we were joined by Director, Sadie Young and Digital Heritage Curator, Jacquie Aitken from Timespan, a cultural institution based in the village of Helmsdale in the Scottish Highlands. Timespan seeks to ‘weaponize culture for social change’, not only challenging heritage narratives both locally and globally but considering how they connect, moving beyond the telling and entrenchment of one side of the story around Scotland’s colonial past.
The conversation was expertly facilitated by Cristina da Milano from ECCOM and community artist and writer, Francois Matarasso. Degna was unable to join us on the day but shared her reactions to the recorded conversations.
Crafting Nations: The Need for Radical Common Sense
Scotland’s Colonial Connections
I was fascinated by the conversations which centred around Timespan’s call to “weaponise culture for social change” and their “radical common sense” approach. Timespan’s Director, Sadie Young and Digital Heritage Curator, Jacquie Aitken outlined the organisation’s aim to be anti-colonial, rooted locally and understood globally in order to generate social change. This position resonated strongly with the group. Based in the Scottish Highlands, Timespan is committed to de-modernising itself as an arts institution. ‘De-modernisation’ might seem paradoxical to progress, but if you acknowledge that some aspects of modernisation were not wholly benign (e.g. the Enlightenment and neoliberalism), this stance makes sense.
Timespan’s Scottish Parliament constituency, Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (based in the north east Highlands) is made up of people on all points of the political spectrum and who come from both sides of the Brexit  and Scottish independence  divides. In a world where binary divisions seem the norm, Timespan occupies an interesting space where their commitment to serving their whole community in the village of Helmsdale and they aren’t afraid to have difficult conversations.
The organisation has spent the last 18 months looking at the histories presented in the museum, from the arable farming communities that stretch back to the Iron Age to the more recent industrial and agricultural revolutions that changed the way the land is used. In scrutinising the museum’s collections, they were struck by the lack of awareness of Scotland’s colonial connections with the transatlantic slave trade.  A situation that just doesn’t make any sense in the modern context, and which they are seeking to redress by making Scotland’s colonial connections explicit.
In the Highlands, as is the case elsewhere, the tourist industry relies heavily on a palatable, mythologised version of heritage, one where the role of colonialism is minimised. The infamous Highland Clearances led to the removal of thousands of people so that Industrialists could yield more profit from the land, fundamentally reorganising the landscape. Exploitation of land and exploitation of people goes hand in hand. The control and manipulation of land developed in Scotland established the blueprint for the plantation system, plantation economies in the Caribbean supported the development of Scotland, and therefore many modern advancements bear the fingerprint of slavery.
Collaborating with artists to challenge the dominant narrative
We looked at the role of artists, concluding that they are often expected to be activists. The presumption being that they’ll make the noise that others are scared to make. Organisations are in danger of abdicating all responsibility to challenge the dominant narrative to the artists.
To make the work of the artist easier, organisations need to be committed to the community, and relationships must be built on trust and respect. It’s important that artists are given freedom when responding to residencies and commissions, and that they are given the support to immerse themselves in the local community. It’s also important that the archives artists are working with allow them the freedom to respond creatively, if they’re only ever given access to a fraction of the true history that’s not real freedom.
For Timespan, a cacophony of local voices within the museum is vital and so it’s important to know how to approach potential resistance where the local community may be protective of their history (especially when they can trace their ancestors back for generations). Having said that, never underestimate a community’s capacity to be challenged or to engage with projects that might not be within their immediate sphere of knowledge or experience. It was a delight to hear about the success of the Walter Rodney Bookshop, as part of Timespan’s No Colour Bar: Highland Remix: Clearances to Colonialism exhibition, and the community's engagement with it.
In terms of working with the community, offering multiple access points is important but organisations must allow the community to have genuine control too. What does sharing control look like and how will it impact the way that organisations function? How do you embed collaboration and community in organisational structures and decision making?
A fight we can win?
Colonialism has multiple narratives but it is often told as a one-sided story (depending on where or who you are). We are beginning to recognise that you can’t really understand anyone’s history without understanding everyone’s history. If you tell just one side of the story it doesn’t make sense. The current drive to topple the dominant narrative from its plinth is not a mission to erase or hide that narrative but to make sure that it is not the only story told.
And as we question the dominant narrative around our shared and contested colonial heritage the answer of what we replace it with isn’t easy to find. Each narrative is linked to an individual’s identity, when you try to question or take away someone’s identity that’s where the trouble begins. So how do you extricate a historical narrative from someone’s sense of self?
The exploitation of people is inextricably linked with the exploitation of land and this must be acknowledged as we search for ways to change culture, language and symbolism. Timespan are aware of the scale of the work that needs to be done. For them, heritage has to be disruptive and active to be an agent for social change. They refuse to be bystanders.
So back to that idea of weaponising culture for social change. Jacquie defined ‘weapons’ as knowledge, research, digital tools and support from the cultural sector. Will these weapons be enough to win the fight to decolonise culture and heritage? Is this a fight we can actually win whilst operating within existing structures? If it’s a lost cause, what then? Destroy the system? Build something completely new? If we don’t begin to see the change we seek the case for abolition rather than reform of our organisations grows stronger.
Before we get to that point, let’s start by really getting to know and understand our past in order to imagine the future. No omissions. That’s just common sense.
 Brexit: the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brexit
 Scottish independence from the United Kingdom: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scottish_independence
 Historian Dr David Alston has written in depth about Scotland’s role in colonialism and the slave trade. Sadie Young recommended the academic paper, ‘Very rapid and splendid fortunes'? Highland Scots in Berbice (Guyana) in the early nineteenth century.’ Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness, LXIII (2002-2004), pp 208-236 (Inverness, 2006)