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Since 2009 the Challenging History network has been working with and alongside cultural institutions in order to support their work with difficult and sensitive subject matters. The work of the network arises from a very real – and justifiable – anguish on the part of museum workers and visitors about how best to navigate this difficult terrain. This anxiety has been a recurrent finding of the network over the years, even as the volume of work in this arena carried out by museums has grown staggeringly.

Some heritages are understood as challenging by virtue of their content; they might make visible such themes as war and conflict, genocide, human rights violations, struggles for meaning and for representation. They are heritages that – not least within the museum context itself – have complex legacies and links to politics and memory. They raise serious questions: If heritage is a construction, who has constructed it? Whose voices are heard? And whose are consigned to silence?

But the Challenging History network has always been interested in a broader understandings of difficult heritage, as important as it is to reflect ethically on that. As such, the network is interested in approaches and methodologies that can be challenging also, not least the digital turn and growth of participatory discourses within museums’ practice in recent years. We recognize that museum visitors and users might wish to challenge institutions also; they might disagree with the narratives they are presented with, the roles they are cast in, or the business models that support heritage organisations. This brings us to another way in which we (in the network) are now understanding the challenge of history; it is apparent that museums are operating in difficult contexts worldwide. This is a time of unprecedented change, pressure and evolution for museums and their continued investment of resources in this area is not assured. Indeed, the very definition of the museum has been opened up for negotiation and challenge in recent years.

Against this backdrop we held our third Challenging History conference this year. This conference, jointly hosted by Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales and Cardiff University, explored how cultural practitioners are continuing to work in innovative and responsive ways with difficult and sensitive heritages/themes. The conference directly addressed the afore-mentioned contexts, and suggested imaginative responses to them, helping delegates to explore why and how challenging histories maintain their relevance.

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What is Challenging History?

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Challenging History is a manifesto for change in the way museums and heritage sites engage with contentious and sensitive histories. It is, at once, a community of like-minded individuals,a  forum for discussion, a programme of ongoing professional development for practitioners and an advocate for change in the way our audiences engage with our shared history.

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It originated in 2009 and continues to explore the role, aims and outcomes of heritage and museum learning programmes in relation to difficult and controversial subjects.

What is the manifesto?

The Challenging History network operates with the following (emergent) manifesto in mind:

The museum and heritage sector has an important role to play covering contentious issues in their spaces and programmes, and must do this work to stay relevant to our audiences.

We will:

  • Acknowledge history is complicated and that we need to take risks in delivering it.
  • Build our confidence in delivering contentious issues by creating a process, supported by peer review, for sector staff to develop their expertise.
  • Recognise successful practice and agree what produces quality programmes.
  • Create a forum for dialogue across the sector and beyond, about best practice.
  • Facilitate conversations at subject and audience level online and in person. Support mentoring and develop skills profiles. Advocate for this work across the sector and beyond.
  • Conduct rigorous evaluation and research of delivery of contentious history in museums and heritage sites, how it works and what it does.
  • Coordinate a central programme of pilot projects, evaluations, case studies and body of evidence, Identify and track the training offer.
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