UCL East


Q&A: How heritage can inform all our futures

29 November 2021

Professor Rodney Harrison (UCL Institute of Archaeology) reveals how a new BA in Heritage, launching at UCL East in September 2023, will link lessons from the past with contemporary social and ecological issues and hold solutions for the future.

Three young people work together on a project

Heritage goes beyond artefacts in museum collections. It is the practice of engaging with all our histories, through objects, natural spaces, architecture and more.

Given the urgency of the climate crisis, and the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement on highlighting the violent histories of museum collecting, the heritage industry is currently going through a time of great flux and change.

Which is why an innovative degree programme that acknowledges how heritage can reflect society’s issues and attitudes, and build upon them to enact positive change, could not be more timely or valuable in training the heritage professionals of the future.

Professor of Heritage Studies, Rodney Harrison (UCL Institute of Archaeology), is co-curator of Re-Imagining Museums for Climate Action, a project that examined what it would take for museums to become catalysts for radical climate action and featured as an exhibition at COP26.

We talk to him about the challenges the heritage industry faces, how UCL's new BA Heritage programme, designed for UCL East, aims to tackle some of these, and his hopes for its graduates.

Q1: What was the inspiration behind developing a BA in Heritage, given that most other heritage qualifications are at postgraduate level?

The BA Heritage will be a transformative degree for the sector. It offers a new kind of interdisciplinary programme, which builds on the strengths of several world-leading UCL Social and Historical Science Faculty departments.

By teaching heritage as an independent subject, we hope to produce a new generation of heritage practitioners; graduates with a broad portfolio of skills to apply to many different roles in the sector. We also hope that by offering an undergraduate degree programme we can improve diversity and inclusion in heritage, whilst also providing more opportunities for collaboration through embedded long-term placements with key natural and cultural heritage organisations.

My academic co-lead, Dr Rachel King (UCL Institute of Archaeology), myself and our colleagues also wanted to create a future facing BA programme, that critically engages with contemporary social and ecological issues and debates. As a flagship degree course, it will highlight to students how museums have historically reinforced and underpinned exploitation of humans and nature, alongside the social and racial inequalities manifest in heritage collections.

We hope the BA Heritage will give students the potential to reimagine museums, conservation and natural and cultural heritage management for the future.

Q2: Could you give us an overview of the degree and what students can study?

The degree structure will have an overall emphasis on decolonising, sustainability, the climate crisis, and anti-prejudice approaches to working in the heritage industry.

Students will be offered three sets of skill progression options alongside the core programme content. These are: natural and cultural landscape management, curatorial skills and digital heritage.

Our students will have the option to take modules at both UCL's East and Bloomsbury campuses too. The experimental and interdisciplinary ethos of UCL East, as well as the opportunity to design new purpose-built object-based learning spaces, has made it possible for us to develop this kind of degree in a way in which we simply couldn’t if it was entirely Bloomsbury based.

But, importantly, we want students to benefit from everything the departments at both UCL East and Bloomsbury have to offer, so we have designed the programme to allow for movement of students between campuses and to build a sense of community between them.

Q3: Many students decide to train in heritage and museums at a postgraduate level. What kind of student are you looking to attract to the BA Heritage?             

On the BA Heritage degree course, we want students who are passionate about making a difference in the world of tomorrow. If you are interested in histories, conservation, social sciences, art and humanities – these disciplines can make an important impact on contemporary issues.

We want students who are interested to learn about different ways of working with heritage collections, the difficult histories many of those collections represent, and who want to make positive cultural changes in a time of crisis.

Q4: We can expect UCL's new partnership with the National Trust to provide fantastic placement opportunities, but will there be many others? And will students also become part of the academic landscape of cultural heritage and museum studies?

Our partnership with the National Trust will facilitate a close working relationship with one of the most significant heritage sector employers in the country, ensuring key skills are embedded in the development and teaching of the BA Heritage degree programme. It will include placements where students will learn how to develop models of landscape management, acknowledging the connections between history, culture and nature – whilst also giving them practical experience.

Also, we have almost 100 agreements in place with a range of different heritage organisations and collections - regional, national and international - and especially with key East Bank partners in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park like V&A East, with whom we will work to provide placements for students on the programme. This means that students on the BA Heritage will acquire skills from the sector in practice, developing cultural capital and equipping them to work in the future.     

Q5: How will the course feed into the growing atmosphere of change in museums and their relationships to their pasts? Will students be trained in decolonising debates and how to approach difficult/violence legacies in museum collections?

For the BA Heritage, training our students in decoloniality and approaching violent legacies in heritage collections is a core part of the programme. The course was created precisely to engage with these issues, and we are recruiting teaching staff on the basis of who they are and how they teach the difficult histories that feed into a deeper understanding of heritage.

UCL is also experienced in these approaches, as we are also starting to examine our own complex history and producing public responses to this. For example, the Making and Mobilising Difference Project is a curated digital tour of the history of eugenics and scientific racism at UCL, as told through objects in its collections.

Q6: The first cohort from BA Heritage will graduate in 2026. What do you think the field of cultural heritage will be like by then, and what will the main issues facing the industry be?

I think there are always going to be many different issues in the heritage sector, and one that will be increasingly important by 2025 will be our constantly changing natural environment. Future heritage professionals will need to learn to work with, rather than against, change.

The BA degree programme will equip a new generation of students who are ready to engage with this realisation. Society is always changing, as our its values. For example, the emergencies of climate, racial inequalities and de-accessioning of objects, places and practices from the public sphere will create new ways of working with heritage.

Q7: The heritage industry is a very competitive field to work in and has historically relied on volunteering opportunities to recruit graduates into entry level roles. Are you hoping to break this unequal system with a BA degree in Heritage?

This BA will equip each graduate with a portfolio of transferrable skills that are highly relevant to working in the heritage industry and beyond. For example, the curatorial skillset pathway will provide students with a model that is also applicable to other career options, such as research, audience engagement, and project management skills. Alongside this, the connection to digital heritage on the programme will train students in these mediums of public communication.

Applications for UCL's new BA Heritage will be open from Spring 2022 for entry in September 2023. It is just one of an exciting new range of undergraduate and post-graduate degrees from our new School for the Creative and Cultural Industries at UCL East.

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