Heritage and the ‘ecology of significance’
I am not sure who invented the phrase ‘ecology of significance’, nor what was precisely meant by it, but it is a concept of enormous value in debates about heritage values and may echo with those of us exploring the wider significance of family history. I first heard it 15 October when the AHRC Connected Communities project in which I am involved was resumed. It was put forward by a geographer in my workshop group and struck an immediate chord. Since then I have done some more hunting.
The phrase can be read in several ways, for the English language has ambiguity and metaphor built into its structure. The phrase ‘ecology of significance’ can be used to mean:
1. The word ‘ecology’ as a noun, with ‘of significance’ as its qualifier: hence, an ‘ecology’ that has ‘significance’. This might apply to a particular site which has value compared with other sites that have little or no value in a particular context. Around 1966-7, the Smithsonian Institute talked of developing courses on ‘ecology of significance’ to conservation efforts.
2. The word ‘ecology’ as a noun, with ‘of significance’ as its qualifier: but this time, an ‘ecology’ that has ‘significance’ as or for something else. This might apply to an environmental complex that has value to natural historians in a different way from its value to building developers. Passing remarks in project development reports published in the Antipodes in the first decade of this century link the concept to the impact of construction on the environment. More generally, M.V. van Doorn has published a book Towards an Ecology of Significance: from growth to development – I have not been able to establish a date of publication, but it seems to be in this same area of concern.
3. The word ‘ecology’ as a noun, with ‘significance’ as its content: that is, meaning (or meanings) in an environment or location. The one time when I have found the phrase apparently used in this sense occurs in literary criticism. John Hollander used the phrase in a discussion of the poetry of A. R. Ammons. The link is to the natural environment in which the poet’s sensibility is situated and from which he draws meaning.
This third sense of ‘significance’ arising as a response to the environment is much closer to what is relevant to heritage values and is something that family historians may experience when they explore locations of relevance to their ancestral past, as well as to their own sense of ‘home’. It has often been discussed in the literature about heritage in terms of ‘identity’, but I think that is too bland a term.
When I was much younger and travelling home to Darlington, I well remember certain landmarks seen from the train. The first was the view of the Cleveland Hills emerging on the right hand side; the second was the gradual change to slightly russet colours in the green of the natural vegetation; both signs of entering the ‘North East’. Closer to home large cooling towers hove in view alongside three tall chimneys we knew as the ‘cricket stumps’, and finally the rows of terrace houses that were my childhood haunts and the familiar line-side factories where neighbours and relatives worked. There was a complex of associations: structures, buildings, landscape, natural colours and memories of things familiar from my early upbringing, sometimes leading on to further associations.
Much later in life, I travelled to the area around Allenheads on the Durham/Northumberland border, chilly at that altitude even in mid-summer, with the scattered remnants of the once thriving industry of lead-mining, the villages rendered silently picturesque, now the haunt of commuters and occasional tourists. This was where my mother’s favourite grandfather, Joe Percival, was born and spent his childhood years, captured in the 1871 census aged 12 and working on the washing rake at Rookhope. An environment once significant to him became meaningful to me. As I wandered along the many scattered tracks across a landscape in which rock outcrops outnumbered trees, the latter barely shrubs, my imagination and sensibilities began to engage. It became ‘ecology of significance’, though only now can I conceive of it in that way.
Much the same can be said in relation to the area west of Barnsley, the landscape in which my seventeenth and eighteenth century Bashforth ancestors settled and left their records. This too represents ‘ecology of significance’, since my ancestors contributed to the way in which the environment was shaped and they were shaped in return. They walked along the lanes and footpaths, brushing against the trees and vegetation, collecting fallen wood for fuel. They talked to neighbours, haggled over prices for raw materials and their wares, carried goods to market, married, brought children into the world and buried some of them almost as quickly. Many lie unmarked in the village churchyard. The significance need not be attached to particular buildings – the church at Silkstone in which my ancestors were ‘hatched, matched and dispatched’ has had its architecture and interior massively altered since the 18th century and is no longer separate from the village but surrounded on all sides. It means something different to the villagers of today, but its significance continues.
The same applies to the nearby township of Dodworth, where my various ancestors actually lived, and the fabric has changed here beyond all recognition. On one side of the High Street can be found Nino’s Pizza House, with its quaint wooden door dated 1641. Opposite is the brand new memorial to the local miners, unveiled this year, though the pits disappeared more than a generation ago.
Seasons came and went, months and years passed by, people came and left. Their footprints and echoes remain. This is heritage, my heritage, though not mine as personal property, but shared, and not managed by anyone in particular – nobody owns it, nobody can quite pin it down. There is a specific quality to the use of the word ‘ecology’ in this context, as it implies both continuity and change – ecology evolves.
Significance itself evolves and any place may have different ‘significance’ to different people for different reasons. You can’t bottle ‘ecology of significance’. Equally, I would argue, you can’t put ‘heritage’ in a box and sell it as a commodity. What we now call ‘Heritage’, the stuff of institutions, professions and Government Policy, narrows, confines, constricts and perhaps even oppresses the wider ‘ecology of significance’. (Or should that properly be in the plural?) Presented as our friend, maybe ‘Heritage’ is our enemy, someone else’s product sold to us allegedly in our own best interest and allegedly because ‘we’ demand it. Significance (and its ecology) is more about the heart than the head.
 John Hollander, The Work of Poetry, (Columbia University Press, New York, 1997)