In the spirit of self-mockery? Labour heritage and identity in the Potteriesby Emma Waterton

International Journal of Heritage Studies



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International Journal of Heritage


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In the spirit of self-mockery? Labour heritage and identity in the Potteries

Emma Waterton a a Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney ,

Sydney, Australia

Published online: 08 Jul 2011.

To cite this article: Emma Waterton (2011) In the spirit of self-mockery? Labour heritage and identity in the Potteries, International Journal of Heritage Studies, 17:4, 344-363

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In the spirit of self-mockery? Labour heritage and identity in the


Emma Waterton*

Centre for Cultural Research, University of Western Sydney, Sydney, Australia (Received 23 September 2009; final version received 18 March 2011)

This paper focuses upon the Potteries region in Staffordshire, UK and offers an examination of the ways in which people living there are actively and critically engaging with processes of identity and meaning-making. The overarching aim of the paper is to extend the analysis of labour history originally developed by

Smith (2006) in Uses of Heritage by examining the processes of identity and meaning-making at a range of museums/visitor centres. Like Smith’s work, the paper rests upon the analysis of one-to-one social surveys with visitors to the

Gladstone Potteries Museum. The questions asked were designed to capture a range of responses regarding motivations for visiting, understandings of heritage, identity and memory work, audience interpretations and the validation and/ or rejection of intended messages.

Keywords: social history museums; identity; memory-work; experiences; affect; industrial heritage


The linking of ‘heritage’ as a solution for overcoming economic depression and community fragmentation with areas suffering the effects of deindustrialisation has a strong presence in UK public policy. This therapeutic characterisation of heritage – as a means of procuring social well-being and cohesion – remains strikingly prominent, and is regularly cited in publications by the Department for Culture, Media and

Sport, and English Heritage (see Waterton 2010). A central assumption underpinning this linkage is that those areas characterised as ‘post-industrial’ will be lacking in identity and cohesion without the implementation of explicit reclamation and regeneration policies and practices that target heritage or ‘the built environment’. The Potteries, an area defined by industry and primarily remembered for its involvement in ceramics, iron, steel and the Staffordshire coalfields, is a place commonly brought to mind during such discussions, where it is imagined as lacking in self-worth, constructive identities and senses of belonging. Indeed, as a number of academics and policymakers have asserted, the Potteries has become ‘a byword for obsolescence’ (see Edensor 2000, p. 10), a culture that is ‘self-mocking’ (Cowley 1999, p. 7), and an area lacking in ‘things for people to talk about’ (Hansard 2007, c. 562). What is particularly unsettling about this characterisation is that very little academic work has ever been done on the Potteries as a region – sociologically or in terms of its *Email:

International Journal of Heritage StudiesAquatic Insects

Vol. 17, No. 4, July 2011, 344–363

ISSN 1352-7258 print/ISSN 1470-3610 online  2011 Taylor & Francis

DOI: 10.1080/13527258.2011.577967

D ow nl oa de d by [U niv ers ity of

W es ter n O nta rio ] a t 0 8:2 2 1 1 F eb ru ary 20 15 heritage. More significantly, no empirical work has been done that incorporates a line of questioning that asks about the direct experiences of people living in the area. As a counterpoint to such arguments, this paper offers an investigation of how memory and identity are sought, articulated and inscribed upon a particular heritage space within the Potteries, using engagement processes communicated by visitors at the

Gladstone Potteries Museum. This approach was chosen because, as Pitchford (1995, p. 36, cited in Pretes 2002, p. 440) notes, sites of heritage tourism can tell us as much about the messages a group wants to broadcast about themselves, their lived experiences and emotional lives in the present as it does about their history. Conceptually, this study takes its lead from the work of Laurajane Smith (2006) and, borrowing from her re-theorisation of heritage, suggests that important and meaningful cultural work is undertaken in this area, particularly in relation to its industrial history and not only in terms of understanding the past. The presumed absence of engaged heritage work in de-industrialised areas, I argue, stands at odds with the active and critical engagement isolated at the museum included in this study. Quite the contrary, this is a museum used by visitors to position themselves in the present, sometimes using its displays to critically engage with contemporary social and political issues of exclusion, while at other times using them to make sense of more mundane processes of negotiating self, home and community. In short, it is a history that still holds the capacity to evoke emotions that help people describe their experiences of place.