By Christine McLaughlin
I’ve spent many years in a university classrooms studying and teaching history. In true academic fashion, I’ve published an article that critically analyzes public history production and memory in a postwar industrial city. My recent appointment to Heritage Oshawa by City Council has offered me the opportunity to translate this theoretical engagement into concrete action. This has been a challenging and rewarding experience.
The Municipal Heritage Committee is made up of citizen volunteers who advise on matters of local heritage and assist Council in carrying out its heritage conservation program. It is governed by the Ontario Heritage Act. Unlike academic work which requires a high degree of specialization, participation on a municipal heritage committee requires broad knowledge of a diverse range of subjects: architecture, engineering, planning, construction, law, local history and heritage. Making informed decisions on such a wide array of topics can create a steep learning curve; so too does this offer learning and training opportunities on a range of topics relating to heritage preservation.
Academic training also offers many transferrable skills to heritage preservation. Most obviously, the ability to digest and critically analyze large volumes of data and material is a clear benefit to this type of work. The graduate student must become well versed in building and following a work plan, and gaining the approval of Council for this plan can be much like seeking the authorization of a supervisory committee.
Experience organizing academic conferences or university classroom activities transfers well into developing and implementing community events and displays. For example, the work required to coordinate local Doors Open Ontario events requires many of the same skills necessary to arrange a large scholarly conference. Project management, whether individually or in small and large groups, is an area where the academic must excel.
In scholarly work, the academic provides the ultimate voice of authority. Analyzing, organizing and representing research findings, we ultimately set the overarching narrative of our work, however cognizant of the power relations inherent in this process we may be. At the municipal committee table, everyone has an equal voice; its work is therefore very much a product of negotiation, accommodation and compromise. While this can pose challenges, there are also many intangible rewards to be reaped from achieving consensus among multiple viewpoints and perspectives at the table.
When it comes to heritage preservation, politics matter. I am fortunate in my local context to have a Council that supports arts, culture and heritage. This is evidenced by the launch of Culture Counts: The Oshawa Arts, Culture and Heritage Plan. Recently passed by City Council, Oshawa’s Arts, Culture and Heritage Plan is based in broad community consultations, and offers a long-term plan for development of and investment in local cultural production.
From my very specific area of academic specialization, I was delighted to encounter a great deal of enthusiasm for preserving some of the city’s “intangible” heritage, including oral histories. As an engaged citizen in heritage production, this will be just one small part of a much larger civic project. While there are undoubtedly many challenges ahead in building and enhancing the civic engagement required to bring an arts, culture and heritage plan into full fruition, so too are there countless rewards to working on the front lines of heritage preservation in our local communities.
Christine McLaughlin is the Vice Chair of Heritage Oshawa and the UOIT Faculty Association Staff Officer.