Q&A: Emotion, Affective Practices, and the Past in the Present

Professor Laurajane Smith
Wednesday 1 August 2018

Emotion, Affective Practices, and the Past in the Present is a new book that responds to debates in the humanities and social sciences about the use of emotion - the way it's embroiled and used in contemporary engagements with the past, particularly in contexts such as heritage sites, museums, commemorations, political rhetoric and ideology, debates over issues of social memory, and touristic uses of heritage sites.

The book features contributions by academics and practitioners from a range of countries, and is co-edited by Professor Laurajane Smith, Head of the School of Archaeology and Anthropology, and Director of the Centre for Museum and Heritage Studies within the School. Professor Smith works in the area of heritage studies, and is editor of the International Journal of Heritage Studies and series general editor with Professor William Logan of Key Issues in Cultural Heritage (Routledge). Prior to arriving at the ANU in 2010, she held the position of Reader in heritage studies at the University of York, UK, where she directed the MA in Cultural Heritage Management for nine years. Originally from Sydney, she taught Indigenous Studies at the University of New South Wales (1995-2000), and heritage and archaeology at Charles Sturt University (1990-1995). She also worked as a heritage consultant in south-eastern Australia during the 1980s.

Emotion, Affective Practices, and the Past in the Present explores “the ways emotion is embroiled and used in contemporary engagements with the past”. Can you describe what it means to use emotion in engagements with the past?
Traditionally, the way in which we talk about the past, particularly in terms of heritage, and the meaning of heritage for the present, tends to be talked about in unemotional terms. The book is basically arguing we need to understand the emotional content of the ways in which people engage with the past and the ways in which it can then be brought to the present to support contemporary aspirations.

It’s based on the observation within heritage studies that the past is brought to the present as heritage and used to support aspirations – cultural, political, social – in the present. But that this process is framed in a range of ways by emotion. 

It’s about reminding us that heritage is emotional. It has an affective quality. Historically there’s been a tendency to ignore emotions because it’s entangled with the perception that we’re not being rational or objective. But we know that how we engage with the past and utilise it in the present is an entirely subjective process. There’s also been embarrassment over emotions such as nationalism, patriotism, nostalgia, etc – they’re awkward to talk about or are misunderstood as emotions of the political right, rather than being the emotions of both sides of politics. 

The book is based on an acknowledgement that of course emotion and affect are subjective. The idea that there is a neutral, objective, value-free way we can engage with the past needs to be dispensed with. That doesn’t mean to say I’m embracing irrationality or relativity; rather, there are critical and systematic ways we can engage and accept emotions as part of the analytical agenda within heritage studies, history, memory studies, archaeology, anthropology and so on. Emotions are part of what we do with and how we use the past, and thus how we use emotions and the active responses we have to heritage and the past needs scrutiny and we need to understand how our own emotions engage with the way we use the past in the present.

The other part of your book title is ‘affective practices’. What is meant by ‘affective practices’?
The idea of affective practices is an idea developed by Margaret Wetherell, a social psychologist. She is very interested in the way emotions effect or underpin and are reproduced through embodied practice. 

An affective practice is an understanding that what we do, how we act, how we bring particular practices to being are emotionally laden. There’s an affective aspect. It draws on the idea that the way we think as well as the way we act are influenced by emotion. We make judgements in our everyday life and draw conclusions etc. that are in part framed by emotion. Emotion has a cognitive consequence – that is, it impacts the ways we think or the judgements we make and ultimately the way we act, and thus our practices. 

What do you see as being the value of assessing cultural heritage through a lens of how much or how it moves us?
Your question cuts to one of the central questions of the book. Formal heritage and museum management processes set up an assumption that we will go through this assessment process quite rationally and make our informed decisions on scientific analysis based on clearly defined ‘heritage values’. But we are engaged in an emotional assessment about what constitutes heritage and its value, and the meaning it has for us. 

One of the central arguments of the book is that we need to understand emotion as something that frames that process and we need to be aware of it as part of the values we use to assess and utilise the past. If we stop and think about it, of course heritage is emotional but we tend to pretend it’s not, the affective professional practices of heritage management that state legislation and policy frame emphases emotional neutrality, but formal heritage and museological assessments are nonetheless an affective practice. Another point of the book is emotion doesn’t have to be the high, hot emotion of anger, delight, nationalism or patriotism. It can be the emotions of indifference, boredom; of feeling excluded or included. They can be banal and everyday or hot and intense.
What do you think makes this book essential reading for those studying and working in heritage and museum studies?
Firstly, it draws attention to affect and emotion. It identifies the utility of considering emotion both in our professional work with heritage and ways in which people engage with heritage. And we disarm the high theoretical, obtuse and over-theorised positions adopted in relation to emotion, and take a far more pragmatic approach and provide a range of case studies that illustrate the utility of using emotion and affect in heritage management and museum studies. 

It is an argument for the validity of emotion and affect and an argument that we shouldn’t further obfuscate emotion by overly abstracting ideas of emotion; that emotion is something that can be engaged with in a way that is straightforward and informative. 

Would you be able to briefly outline the book’s contents?
The book is divided into three parts. The first part looks at the ways in which emotion engages ideas of commemoration and remembering. Certainly one of the theoretical insights here is that the sense in which we remember and commemorate is given legitimacy and justified by the authenticity of the emotions engendered. For example, if you’re at an ANZAC Day commemoration, if the emotions engendered in that feel real and authentic, that helps legitimise the meanings of the commemoration or memories it invokes. So the chapters in the first part of the book look at the ways in which emotion legitimises or delegitimises commemorative process and performances, and the affective practices of remembering or forgetting.

The first chapter looks at the ways in which people engage in the recovery of the remains of Russian soldiers, the bodies of whom were lost in the battles of WWII. It looks at the way in which the emotions of those working to retrieve the dead are used to consider and think about the meaning of the commemorative practice of retrieving and searching for lost Russian soldiers. 

One of the most interesting chapters in the first part has to do with the Museum of Broken Relationships. [This chapter discusses how] artefacts invoke a particular sense of humour, or sense of loss, and how they work to engender empathy and reinforce the meanings and commemorations that are talked about in that museum. 

These themes are explored in a slightly different way in Part 2, which looks at the way emotion constructs a sense of place and belonging, but also the ways in which it’s used to exclude. When you talk about heritage, you’re talking about a very inclusive thing but it’s also exclusive – what’s ‘my’ heritage may not be ‘your’ heritage. 

We draw on examples from Australia, Canada, Ireland and Bulgaria that examine, among other things, not only how emotions work in heritage to include and establish sense of place and belonging, but also how certain affective practices work to exclude and, in some cases, to maintain prejudice. 

In Part 3, we look at the way emotion engages with learning and teaching within museums in particular but also the wider heritage sector. One of the strong rationales for the existence of museums is that they play an educative role in society. This third section looks at the way in which the idea of affective practices can inform the ways in which we engage with museums as sites of learning and consider how curatorial staff and heritage interpreters may use emotions and affective practices to get their ideas, messages and concepts across to their audiences. 

Any final words?
There is a tendency in heritage and museum studies to be very wary of emotion, to be suspicious of emotion and affect. I hope what this book shows is that we can engage critically with emotions and that it has positive consequences for what we do. The basic message is: there’s nothing to be scared about! It’s something we need to engage with. And in doing so, it will enrich our understanding of heritage and its significance for the present. 

Emotion, Affective Practices, and the Past in the Present, edited by Professor Laurajane Smith, Professor Margaret Wetherell, and Gary Campbell, is published by Routledge.

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