A Transnational Heritage of the British Empire

Project Team: Emma Waterton, Jason Dittmer and Sreelakshmi Subramanian (PhD candidate)

Project Support and Funding: The Leverhulme Trust and the Landscape Research Group

A renewal of public and political interest in British colonial heritage illustrates the pressing need to better understand that history. While much work has been done to analyse its political, historical, and media representations, a great deal of attention still needs channelling towards understanding how British colonialism is remembered, received, and understood – cognitively, affectively, and emotionally. With a focus on three key stakeholder groups of professionals, visitors, and local communities, Engineering Memory will home in on how British colonial heritage is encountered in the immediacy of experience at the following World Heritage Sites: 

  1. The Historic Town of St. George & Related Fortifications (Bermuda)
  2. Brimstone Hill Fortress (St. Kitts and Nevis)
  3. The Mountains Railways of India (India) (led by Sreelakshmi Subramanian)
  4. Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (India) (led by Sreelakshmi Subramanian)
  5. Australian Convict Sites (Australia)
  6. Tr’ondëk-Klondike (Canada)
  7. Historic Bridgetown and its Garrison (Barbados)
  8. Levuka Historical Port Town (Fiji)
  9. Antigua Naval Dockyard and Related Archaeological Sites (Antigua and Barbuda)

Mobilising a suite of qualitative methods in order to create novel opportunities for public engagement, a four-pronged approach will be replicated at each Site: a) semi-structured interviews with managers and key employees about curatorial decisions and design; b) focus group discussions with local community stakeholders as a counterpoint to official interpretations; c) visitor surveys focused on embodied experience and memory; and d) autoethnography and observation. 

Our ambition with Engineering Memory is to advance the groundswell of research that has emerged recently around British colonialism, led by historians, heritage organisations, local and community researchers, and ethnic minority research networks. It will do this via its comparative lens, which will bring localised case studies into a broader global context. Moreover, our focus on inclusivity and collaboration will enable us to produce important and novel insights about the contemporary significance and reception of this heritage in the following ways:

  1. In addition to conceiving of the included sites as legacies of British colonial history, we will also consider them as ‘moments of encounter’ between a range of different bodies and the material traces of past British occupation. These environments can act on and shape the embodied experiences of visitors, who come to inhabit this colonial heritage for a time, and locals who live within it.
  2. Engineering Memory dovetails with policy concerns that have emerged only very recently around ‘global’ or ‘transnational’ heritage, which sit alongside questions of how best to ‘decolonise’ heritage. Both are embedded in the sites chosen, which are hybrid British-Indigenous urban designs (such as Bridgetown), infrastructures meant to circulate bodies and goods throughout the Empire (such as Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus), or military technologies meant to protect those settlements or circulations (such as Brimstone Hill).
  3. Finally, while these sites may once have ‘belonged’ to the British Empire, they are not singularly ‘British’; indeed, under the auspices of the World Heritage Convention they are now understood to have ‘outstanding universal value’ (UNESCO 2014). However, the homogenizing language of ‘universal’ cannot be applied to the embodied tourists who visit them or the locals who live within or alongside them. Site managers and heritage professionals can to some extent engineer affective relations between specific embodied visitors and the heritage sites themselves, but they can never be entirely predicted or controlled. Rather, the affective relations are emergent from the specific conditions of encounter.

Sustainable Development Goal/s