Thursday, 9 April 2015

Guest blog 4: History is my business... and yours. by Nat Cohen

Welcome to the fourth of our guest blogs, written upon the subject 'what does history/heritage mean to you'. This week I am delighted to welcome a contribution from Nathalie Cohen. Nat is a professional archaeologist with, I'm sure she won't mind me saying, far too many jobs. She is the National Trust archaeologist for South-east England, covering sites such as Knole, Bodiam castle and Dover. She is also the cathedral archaeologist for Southwark Cathedral, and a key part of the award winning Thames Discovery Programme, now run by Museum of London Archaeology. Oh, and if all of that wasn't quite enough, she is one of those brave souls who have taken on the running and organisation of the Kent Medieval Graffiti Survey. Frankly, I'm quite surprised she had time to write this at all! But write she did - and it is a fantastic read. Enjoy!

History is my business…and yours

by Nat Cohen

As you can see from my biography, I’m an archaeologist by profession.  And yes, I was that geeky kid who loved reading, especially history books.  I even loved learning about kings and queens and dates of battles; all that stuff.   I was lucky enough to have some great history teachers in primary school, and we covered a lot of ground – everything from ancient Mesopotamia to the invention of the telephone.  Seeing ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ at a rather impressionable age was a lightbulb moment for me; I don’t think that before that I’d realised you could have an actual job that involved hunting for treasure, exploring forgotten landscapes, and teaching at university, with fighting against Nazi evil an obvious bonus.   Apart from a (pretty unrealistic) desire to be a ballerina, all I wanted to be when I grew up was an archaeologist.  It certainly put into context my youthful attempts to ‘feel the past’ (translation: getting told off for touching things in museums that I wasn’t meant to) and to ‘access heritage’ (translation:  impotent rage at rope barriers across interesting looking areas and spaces.

If I had to define it further when a confused adult asked why I didn’t want to do something more ‘sensible’ when I left school, I usually said I loved history and wanted to do a job which involved history,  but didn’t want to be stuck indoors in a library looking at paperwork all the time (also true). 

So, eventually, off to university I went to study medieval archaeology, and specifically British medieval archaeology.  However, this is not necessarily ‘my’ heritage – as an American-born Australian of a very mixed cultural background (my only known English ancestor is about five generations back) I have no particular links to England.  For my love of castles, churches and cathedrals you can place the blame squarely at the feet of my Anglophile parents whose idea of a good holiday once we’d moved to England involved visiting at least one historic site a day.  University just encouraged this obsession (as it should) – the opportunity to spend time thinking, looking at, doing and talking about archaeology with like-minded people was something I am very grateful I was able to do.

In spite of the possibility of digging on far flung, much more Indiana Jones style sites, I ended up working in Sussex, Kent, Wiltshire and London. And I loved it. I did some travelling, digging in Eastern Europe and Israel, and loved it some more.   In between times, I worked in a bakery, as a waitress, and as admin staff at the Institute of Archaeology in London.  Then I started to get archaeological jobs – working in the East Midlands, London and back in Kent and Sussex.  After twenty years working on sites, in museums, in universities, on research projects, for archaeological units, for charities and for a cathedral, I still love it. 

All of the above is by way of preamble really, now to address the tricky question Matt has set us bloggers – ‘what does history / heritage mean to me?’  As my title suggests, history is my livelihood; it’s what I do every day and how I put food on the table. Early in my career, and very thankful indeed to have a job, I was interviewed for a newspaper,  and I said that I felt very lucky to be paid to work in archaeology (at the time I was both an archivist and a digger).  During the interview, I was quoted as saying I would work for nothing in archaeology (i.e. volunteer) if I couldn’t get a paid job, and was thoroughly upbraided by a colleague for saying I would be prepared to work for free.  With hindsight I think both our views were correct.  I still feel that I am privileged – working in archaeology is, for all its frustrations and as much as I might complain about the early mornings, the cold and the rain, on the whole and in a word, awesome.  I get to see some wonderful things, visit some beautiful places and I get to hang out with some amazing people as part of my working life.  The number of people I meet who respond with ‘Ah I always wanted to do that’ when I say I’m an archaeologist reinforces my feeling of being the lucky one.  If I wasn’t employed in the ‘heritage sector’ I have no doubt I’d be out volunteering any chance I got.  And yet, I totally agree with the sentiment as voiced by my colleague all those years ago, that the recording and interpretation of our history should not come for free.  We should not be relying on the avocational sector to shoulder the responsibility of this; we as the professionals should be supporting volunteers to better understand and engage with heritage, while learning ourselves from their experience and enthusiasm.

 I fell early, and largely accidentally, into working within community archaeology (before it was even called ‘community archaeology’ I believe!).  While I love to discuss (rant about) the wider issues within our sector – values and significance, protection and legislation, pay and job security – I’ll admit to having very little truck with academic navel gazing around the definitions of engagement, and actually with archaeological theory in general.  Maybe it’s because I’m a ‘get out and get on with it’ kind of person?  I love talking about archaeology with anyone who’d like to talk about it, and I love being on site, with anyone who’d like to come along.  Let’s face it: I’d be there anyway, most likely muttering to myself.  I guess that makes me a walking personification of the recent study by the Heritage Lottery Fund [1] which proclaims that ‘heritage makes you happy’; I strongly believe this as it certainly makes me happy, and I know it makes lots of other people happy too.

As far as ‘engagement’ goes there are so many different levels to people’s experience of the past but in trying to dissect and over-analyse this, we may run the risk of disassociating ourselves from the very people we are trying to reach.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting an uncritical approach and a lack of reflection, but maybe we should always try to hold in sight how history makes us FEEL, and listen to others when they tell us the same thing.

So, after all that, what DOES history / heritage mean to me?  It’s my job but it’s somehow more than that too – it’s a passion, and something that can be shared.  I’m very glad I’m able to share my obsession with other people, and also glad it’s my job – I’d make a very clumsy waitress these days.

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