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Last week, I had the wonderful opportunity to see Jongmyo Jeryeak, the Royal ancestral ritual and music of the Korean Joseon period (1392-1910), performed in Munich by the National Gugak Center of Korea [1]. Jongmyo Jeryeak was inscribed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2008.

The material context of intangible heritage

One of my thoughts since seeing the performance went back to something I discussed with my then supervisor, Rodney Harrison, during my PhD studies a few years back. I had thoroughly embraced the dismissal of the material in the critical heritage concept of heritage. So when I read Rodney’s idea of dialogical heritage in his 2013 book Heritage. Critical Approaches, I wasn’t quite prepared to allow the material back into my thinking. But Rodney, as always, made a convincing point: while all heritage is nothing without people, it also does not exist outside of the dialogue with the material world, and in fact with other living beings [2].

Jongmyo Jeryeak, as it is known today, goes back to the 15th century, when the Joseon kings would lead the ritual five times per year. The rituals weren’t held just anywhere but at Jongmyo, the Royal shrine for the deceased kings and queens. Location appears to have mattered because Jongmyo (itself inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995) as well as the second Royal shrine, Sajik, had a spatial relationship to Gyongbokgung, the main Joseon palace.

In other words, the ritual was connected to place. Judging from videos and photographs of Jongmyo Jeryeak in Korea, the shrine itself seems to guide the movements of the priests and determine the spatial arrangement of the musicians and dancers. The relationships between these groups also seem to express the Confucian values and ideas on which the ritual is based.

All of this is necessarily lost when Jongmyo Jeryeak is performed elsewhere. On the stage in the Prinzregententheater in Munich, where I saw the performance, there wasn’t much space, so what were actually two orchestras merged into one, and instead of 64 dancers there were only eight.  

In consequence, I did feel that what I saw had been drained of much of its meaning. I kept wondering what this might feel like at Jongmyo itself, not only because of the architecture giving structure to the ritual but also because the kings and queens are (supposed to be) right there where you hear their praises sung. Jongmyo, and Jongmyo Jeryeak, apparently were seen as the heart of Joseon itself, but without that material context its heartbeat could barely be heard in Munich.   

Whose heritage is it?

Of course, 21st century Korea is not Joseon. Judging from the comments of the Koreans and Korean-Germans around me in the audience (and there were lots!), many had never seen Jongmyo Jeryeak performed either. This made me wonder to what extent it can still be considered a ‘tradition or living expression inherited…and passed on…’, which is of course how UNESCO defines intangible heritage [3]. There is no doubt that Jongmyo Jeryeak is a fantastically documented Confucian ritual of the past, and as such immeasurably valuable. Seeing it performed today is an amazing experience. However, without people, it would by now have passed into history and no longer be heritage.

In its definition of intangible heritage, UNESCO thus refers to the ‘community’ that is necessary to live and pass on the listed heritage today. The inscription of Jongmyo Jeryeak states that the ritual is ‘organized by the descendants of the royal family’ once a year [4]. Presumably, they would then be the heritage community to whom Jongmyo Jeryeak owes its status as intangible heritage.

The listing itself actually concludes with the acknowledgement that, ‘The ancestral ritual is nowadays often considered to be devoid of meaning (…)’ (my emphasis). While on one hand, this seems to contradict the ritual’s listing as intangible heritage, it does on the other hand suggest that there are some beyond the descendants of the royal family who do at least sometimes consider Jongmyo Jeryeak to have meaning as part of their Korean intangible heritage.

Reducing heritage to a spectacle?

Which brings me back to the question of performing Jongmyo Jeryeak elsewhere. Is it really acceptable to transplant the ritual into a German theatre and to adapt it to fit a stage? And as an audience member, was I complicit in making a mockery of someone else’s intangible heritage [5]? Is it a sufficient excuse because it was a Korean organisation that brought it here?

Intangible heritage must be allowed to change

The thing is, the National Gugak Center didn’t actually claim to bring Jongmyo Jeryeak to Munich as intangible heritage. It brought a ‘theatrically staged’ version, in which the centre focuses ‘on the artistry of Jongmyo Jeryeak’. And this seems to be aimed at non-Korean audiences as much as Koreans themselves.

The centre makes much of Jongmyo Jeryeak’s relationship to the two Olympics in Korea, and I wondered whether through this a process of transformation has occurred. Rather than being reduced to ‘mere’ historic art, Jongmyo Jeryeak in this theatrical staging, performed at key moments of modern Korean history, may have begun a new cycle of being intangible heritage. Only this time, it may have a different (dialogical) context and a different meaning. As the centre claims, ‘[Jongmyo Jeryeak] continues to carry its symbolic importance as the quintessential cultural icon of Korea (…) for modern Koreans (…)'[6]. Understood this way, what I have seen ‘worked’ as intangible heritage. And it was beautiful.

Notes

[1] In the following, whenever I quote or refer to the National Gugak Center, the source is their page on Google Arts and Culture.

[2] I’m paraphrasing. Rodney also called this the ‘ontology of connectivity’ through which people together with the world surrounding them form part of a natural and cultural collective. If one changes, so do all others in the collective.

[3] I could go into a discussion about the sense or nonsense of a list for protected ICH.  

[4] Bearing in mind that Korea is no longer a monarchy.

[5] With regards to indigenous intangible heritage, many have argued that this must not be done, and certainly never without involving the community concerned. For three reviews of examples in museums see for example Alivizatou, M., 2011, ‘Intangible Heritage and the performance of identity.’ In: Jackson, A. and Kidd, J., eds., 2011, Performing Heritage. Research, practice and innovation in museum theatre and live interpretation, pp. 82-91.

[6] And just maybe, that symbolic importance may be enough. One may not need to have seen Jongmyo Jeryeak before for it to have that meaning. Perhaps that was the reason why so many of Korean descent attended. For all I know, in watching Jongmyo Jeryeak, they may have been performing their intangible heritage right there beside me. If anyone knows more about how modern-day Koreans feel about Jongmyo Jeryeak, or if you know about any studies, do let me know!

Last week, I finally took the time to visit the Zeppelin Museum in Friedrichshafen, Germany. Unfortunately, it wasn’t what I had hoped it would be – and not just because here, too, they force you to lock up your bag, leaving you to carry what you need in your hands [1].

The exhibition

The exhibition was oddly lifeless which seems strange, since they did make the effort of partially recreating the Hindenburg and allowing visitors to walk through. They even attempted to make visible individuals on board the Hindenburg, both from the crew and the passengers.

However, these experiences almost entirely remained behind glass– the glass of the exhibition cases [2] and the surfaces of interactive monitors [3].  This was compounded by the lack of orientation, both physically and intellectually [4]. There was a lot of information on offer, and nicely designed, too, but there was simply no journey. There was information here, and information there, and more information as you retraced your steps in search of whatever it is you hoped to find in the first place.

Even the climb into the partial reconstruction was anti-climactic. In fact, you would probably not realise that the ‘ceiling’ above your head is the reconstruction, if you didn’t know about it beforehand. At some point, you’ve seen all there is to see in the first exhibition space, and you’ll climb the steps simply because there is nowhere else to go. And so it continued.

Why do people care?

I couldn’t find any research on people’s interest in the Hindenburg and Zeppelins in general [5]. A quick search on YouTube suggests people are interested in the following, in this order:

  • The disaster (by far the most views)
  • What accommodation and service areas looked like (the ‘inside’)
  • How the airship worked, including construction
  • Whether there is any future in airships
  • The history of airships (especially their use in WWI)

In the absence of proper research, let’s go with this as to why people are likely to come to the Zeppelin Museum. This, then, should be the starting point for developing an exhibition [6]. With one minor adjustment – swapping the last two topics – you actually have your storybook ready. That is, if one is willing to consider exhibitions as a form of storytelling.

And that’s how I argue they should be seen – certainly when it comes to something fairly straight-forward as the history of the Hindenburg and Zeppelins in general [7].

Storytelling through exhibitions

Exhibitions are a bit like a media art installation. They offer several storytelling tools: light, sound, space. Text, images, film. Objects. Exhibitions can even use smells. Unlike an art installation, however, they do have to have a narrative arc. So one needs to be clear about why visitors are motivated to come and then take them from there through the key points of the story toward a meaningful wrap-up before the exit.

Storytelling is always about grabbing people’s imagination and their emotions. This video analysing Barack Obama’s speech at the Democratic convention in 2004 gives a concise idea about how to do this. Telling history through an exhibition is no different [8]. And as they say, a great storyteller can make even the most difficult facts understandable and meaningful to a broad audience. More importantly, a great storyteller can make experiencing that story both interesting and fun.

To me, there is absolutely no reason why an exhibition should not be like that.

Storytelling the Hindenburg

As I walked through the existing exhibition at the Zeppelin Museum, I couldn’t help but wonder what this might have looked like when told as a story. Given people’s overriding interest in the disaster, that’s what I would have started with: the original newsreel, presented on a large screen in a dedicated transition space taking visitors from ‘their’ world into the story of the Hindenburg.

My next storytelling tool would have been a space in which the partial reconstruction takes centre stage. This is about scale. It is also about imagining what it was like to travel in this airship: the designs, the materials, being able to touch fabric, to physically move through the airship, experiencing it with all your senses [9]. I would have turned the windows within the reconstruction into monitors, with historical footage of landscapes passing by and of the ship approaching destinations.

And then could have come the artefacts from the crash, the eyewitness stories narrated by actors over an image of the historic people. This could have led into the explanations of how the airship worked (with the briefest bit about the history and development) and how it compares to our modes of travel today. It would end in a segment on what a future of airships might look like, not the least when faced with the environmental cost of conventional travel. Would it be safe?

Why not?

There are constraints to the ideal implementation of any project, and there would have been in implementing my ideas. The greatest constraint in this project, however, would probably have been the attitude prevalent in so many German museums. Just as becomes clear from the lack of wide spread research into visitors and non-visitors before developing museums, visitors’ interests and what they take from an exhibition so often seem an afterthought.

So, I guess many visitors will leave this museum as I did: feeling dissatisfied, their need to connect with a well-known story unfulfilled. And like me, they are likely to go back to other sources in order to engage.

As a museum and heritage professional, I find that thought very sobering.

Notes

[1]German museum people will tell you that this practice is for ‘the protection of the collection’, which in the case of the Zeppelin Museum is in glass cases (!) or – within the reconstructions – for the most part behind ropes. Some will go as far as calling it ‘unprofessional’ not to force visitors to leave behind their bags before they enter an exhibition. It says just about all you need to know about whom and what they think museums are for.

[2] You could only see into the exhibition cases from above. It’s the classic issue of accessibility: if you’re small or using a wheelchair you’ll have a hard time seeing into the cases. If you’re struggling with your eyesight, the angle might also prove a challenge.

[3]  Neither I nor museum staff could get the interactives to work consistently. After several futile attempts, I ended up ignoring them. A lot of the exhibition in the first room was built on these, however, so I lost much of what they were trying to convey. What I did see of the interactives, however, didn’t really need an interactive to begin with. It was text, with images. Why use an interactive for that?

[4] Upon entering the exhibition space, you did not know where to go, nor did the exhibition cases offer more than topical headers. I overheard another visitor ask museum staff where they should go – I was clearly not the only one feeling disorientated.

[5] Nor would I be surprised to learn that the museum did not undertake any before developing the exhibition. Visitor (and to a lesser degree non-visitor) research has become a topic of discussion only in recent years in Germany, and astonishingly, many museums people still do not consider it relevant to their work.

[6] Most of my readers are from the US and the UK, where visitor research is established. For German readers, let me just say that even if you do not like your (potential) visitors’ interests, you had better understand what they are if you want to implement successful interpretation. If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know that I do not support Tildenesque interpretation that seeks to influence people toward a preferred reading. But even if that is what you want to do, you’ll still need to understand where visitors are at before you can move them toward your own goal. I’ll say it again, however: that’s dangerously close to manipulation, and museums should not be about manipulating people. And if we were talking about heritage here (and I do not consider the Hindenburg anyone’s heritage, except perhaps for the descendants of those directly impacted in one way or another), then having your interpretation be guided by people’s heritage value would be non-negotiable as far as I’m concerned. And for that, you first need to research what those heritage values are. In other words, I really do not see how any professional museum can bypass visitor and non-visitor research.

[7] As long-standing readers of my blog know, I do not see interpretation as communication. However, it does of course rely on good communication methods. And in recounting history (not heritage) I will always favour a good storytelling technique.

[8] In Germany, far too often objects are seen as enough to convey a story. The approach seems to be: the more objects you display, meticulously researched and labelled in specialist language, the more professional the exhibition is. Emotion in a museum is often viewed as lack of professionalism. Trying to argue from visitors’ point of view too often only works with young museum professionals – in fact, they already understand and try to do things differently. The problem is that they are by far in the minority – at least that has been my experience.

[9] I will say that climbing up into the reconstruction there was a musty smell which immediately moved me. I have no idea if that was a ‘real’ smell, but it added to the authenticity of my experience in that brief moment nonetheless.

Winnetou Revisited

Five years ago, I blogged about Winnetou as a different kind of heritage [1]. Being fully aware of the terrible cultural appropriation and stereotypes of the books and the just plain awful representations of American Indians by white actors in black wigs of the 1960s films, I ended my blog post wondering whether I would ever be able to let go of this part of my German heritage.

Discussions in Germany over the past two weeks about a new Winnetou story have made me revisit that post and think more about my position on Winnetou as (my) German heritage today [2].

First off, I actually wondered in my previous post on Winnetou whether having a significant number of American Indians living in Germany would change my views on Karl May and the 1960s films. This needs clarification: of course the presence or absence of the community being misrepresented changes nothing about the nature of the heritage. It is based on cultural appropriation and racial stereotypes, period.

What I was trying to get at is whether my sense of shame would increase to such levels that it would stop me from cherishing it in the first place. In other words, how would being in a shared space change my sense of this Winnetou heritage?

This points to two things: first, that heritage and culture are a process through which both can evolve and change; and second, that in shared spaces something collaborative can and should happen to facilitate that process.

Five years ago I didn’t make too much of the 2016 remake of the films and their claim that ‘Every generation has its Winnetou’. I have since been part of several projects on the Third Space, and I’ve become more interested in diversity as an organising principle of our societies. And with that learning, my view on the remake of the films has changed too. Today, I’m absolutely certain that no, not every generation needs its Winnetou, at least not in the way that we know him.

Winnetou was an ill-informed, albeit probably well-intentioned (which doesn’t change anything) misrepresentation and appropriation of American Indian culture by a 19th century writer. We might have known better in the 1960s, but apparently we didn’t, thus making films that continued the stereotyping, while also creating something distinctly European and German. The films, and by extension the books, have become part of our childhood memories, interwoven with other aspects of our identities and personal relationships. That is the German Winnetou heritage. Put differently: Winnetou is made of the past.

And in the past he must remain. Yes, as I wrote in 2017, as a German story the 2016 remake couldn’t have been made with a Native American actor. But that is also the very reason why it shouldn’t have been made at all. There is no justification to repeat stereotypes in the way that was done then and is being done now in the current movie ‘Young Chieftain Winnetou’.  

In a space shared with American Indians, perhaps the original Karl May story could be expanded, improved, cleansed of its misrepresentations. Perhaps co-created with an American Indian writer it could be brought into our age, informed by what we now understand, acknowledging colonial histories and truths. Perhaps in that way, a new Winnetou story might emerge, one that inspires both audiences in Germany, if not beyond. A story that becomes new heritage for a new generation.

Or not. Maybe in a shared space, we would come to realise that there is no saving Winnetou from his colonial origins. If I feel too ashamed to watch a Winnetou film with an American Indian friend or colleague, then maybe, for that same reason, over time I will also no longer want to watch that film myself. Heritage changes.

What will remain is a memory. Not of Winnetou, but of watching it with my mother, knowing how much she loved the stories and Pierre Brice as a young girl herself.

Notes

[1] Winnetou, you may remember, is the creation of Karl May, a 19th century writer from Saxony who’d never been to the United States at the time of writing his Winnetou books In the 60s, his stories were adapted into vastly popular movies, starring a French actor in the role of Winnetou. The title theme of the movies is iconic.

[2] In August, an entirely new story based on Karl May’s Winnetou theme was released, in a film titled ‘Young chieftain Winnetou’ along with accompanying print merchandise aimed at a children’s market. The books were recalled after a backlash decrying their cultural stereotypes, but the film is still in cinemas around the country. I’ve not seen the film nor will I, but the trailer is enough to give you a good idea of its reproduction of stereotypes. And apparently there is one scene in which the white child asks young Winnetou whether American Indians sweat. And this is just noting the racist undertones, never mind the constructions of masculinity (‘Indians do not feel pain.’).

Interpret Europe has just published a little introduction to heritage interpretation for architects and landscape architects. In one of my previous roles, I was regularly in consultancy teams that included architects, so the booklet got me thinking about some of those experiences as well as architecture that I liked, both in heritage sites and in museums.

Working with existing buildings

A lot of the projects that I was involved in were centred on existing buildings – historic houses, castles, courthouses, even a swimming pool [1]. Our remit was on the conceptual side, from feasibility studies to development/activity and business planning, so we worked very closely with the architects in imagining what might be possible within the existing spaces and what else may be developed.

Our approach was always to respect and enhance the ‘readability’ of a building or site as much as possible, even if it no longer functioned as originally intended. ‘Readability’ here means that you can connect what you see to what the building or feature originally was used for. The building or site is likely heritage precisely for its previous use(s), so retaining their visibility are paramount in creating a heritage infrastructure that facilitates people’s engagement. This may sound self-evident, and it is where you’re talking about a heritage (restoration) project that presents the site as was: for example, you restore a castle in order for it to still be presented only as a castle.

It’s a bit different when you’re looking at creating something more, which was generally the case in our projects. So for example, the courthouse project(s) I was involved in didn’t aim to present the buildings as courthouses, but rather develop them further into a museum and a cultural centre, respectively. In these cases, too, readability is key, as far as I’m concerned, and for the same reasons.

I may have been quite fortunate in our projects, but there was never any major conflict with the architects on this aim, even where additional buildings needed to be added. If anything, architects could sometimes seem overly protective of the status quo, but for all the right reasons.

Purpose-built visitor centres

Where there are no existing buildings involved, such as with purpose-built visitor centres, I personally really appreciate architecture that is an experience in its own right. That’s not to say that it need not pay attention to the surrounding site, on the contrary. In my opinion, good architecture can and should be the first point of interpretation, by providing a gateway to a site, sometimes guiding us in our approach, getting us ready for the encounter, as it were [2].

Example 1: Urquhart Castle

One memorable example for me is the visitor centre at Urquhart Castle. You watch a film about the history of the castle, at the end of which the projection screen pulls away to reveal a fantastic view of the castle ruins themselves. What an impact! And if my memory serves me correctly, you can exit from the theatre (almost) directly out onto the site. This truly enhanced my approach to the site, about which I knew nothing beforehand. I was ready to go and explore. Brilliant.

Example 2: Culloden Battlefield

The visitor centre at Culloden Battlefield where I worked for several years is an example of architecture that could have been equally brilliant, but for reasons I am not familiar with didn’t quite turn out that way [3]. The intention was for a rooftop viewing point to enable visitors to look out over the moor and battlefield. Unfortunately, from access issues (at the time I worked there you had to get an extra ticket for the rooftop) to odd alignment (you had to stand at an angle to really see across the site), this never quite took off in the way it was intended. It also wasn’t integrated into the official visitor journey through the centre which always seemed like a missed opportunity to me (if there was a reason for this, I wasn’t made aware of it). Just imagine if at the end of the exhibition you would have been naturally guided to that view! It would have been a climax and transition similar to that at Urquhart.

Example 3: Varusschlacht

My final example is of architecture that to me always seemed more of a distraction than anything else. It’s not a visitor centre but rather pavilions placed on one of the presumed sites of the Varusschlacht, or Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. In all fairness, the architects did have a form of experiential encounter (I cannot call this interpretation) in mind: a camera obscura shows the battlefield ‘upside down’; a listening pipe focuses visitors’ attention on outside sounds, and finally, a long-since defunct video installation of current newsreels also has slits that allow narrow glimpses of the battlefield beyond. However, these experiences seem arbitrary to me – for example, there is no framing of them that might link the now to the then. What is more, the structures that were created are massive steel cubes that disrupt the view across the site from wherever you stand. This may well have been the intention (I do not recall the specifics on this). However, in my opinion, if it actively gets in the way of people’s own heritage encounters, it has no place on a heritage site.

So, if I were to summarise my personal expectations of architecture with regard to heritage, then it is this: architecture must always be about heritage [4]. It must be the first piece of interpretive infrastructure, providing a gateway and transition and being a guiderail toward and for heritage itself. In a visitor centre, architecture can be bold, striking, confident – after all, architecture is a form of sculptural art. Yet it is art with a purpose and should always enhance, never take away from heritage, especially when it comes to people’s ability to engage with, make use of it, and perform it.

Notes

[1] These were all projects with a heritage focus. In other words, their aim was not to turn a historic building or site into anything other than a facility supporting the heritage of that site, i.e. as a visitor centre or exhibition.
[2] I’m not talking landscape architecture here.
[3] To be clear, I like the building itself very much. It’s bold and modern, with a very nice mixture of materials. However, as interpretation, it just was way too abstract – from the memorial wall to the internal alignment mimicking the direction in which the Jacobites were headed (this according to the architects, I never would have realised this myself if they hadn’t said). Having said that, the traditional interpretation (i.e. the exhibition) inside was, in my view, fantastic, and the architecture made that possible, too. So it worked very well in that regard.
[4] Quick reminder that I do not understand heritage as purely material, on the contrary. If there is a material element to it, it’s about its use in people’s performance of heritage and everything that is involved in that. That’s what I mean here when I write that ‘architecture must always be about heritage’.

My organisation is currently in a joint project with a museum. In our funding application, we were very specific about our aim: to engage culturally diverse people with the Roman sites in our area. This is not with a close focus on the sites’ history but rather on people’s own current experiences in the environment of which those sites are part.  

We collaborated with three external experts who took that aim and came up with a multiple-part project that centres on inviting people to be in the historic space and observe. This mass observation is as much about observing (read: reflecting on) the site as it is about observing one’s own place within our society. This may take people back in time or it may take them into the present. Either way, I am thoroughly excited [1].

Some of the museum interpreters who followed our recent invitation to meet our experts and hear more about the project and the method we wanted to use seemed markedly less excited. They had come with specific issues: school classes that were disinterested, visitors that lacked even the most basic knowledge of history… As one interpreter put it, ‘They need to know this!’ They seemed to expect that in our session, they would learn an innovative and guaranteed way to impart that knowledge.

In hindsight, I really wish we had interrupted the session right then and there. There was a fundamental difference in the two approaches to audiences. Our starting point had been Third Space. I will at some future point write more about my current thinking on Third Space; however, for the purposes of this post let me just say that one key element of Third Space is critical self-reflection on the part of those in power (e.g. interpreters or course tutors). This critical self-reflection in turn is the foundation from which to achieve the aim of Third Space, which is to facilitate truly open or indeed co-creative interpretive and/or learning opportunities [2].

In other words, it is the polar opposite of imparting any set knowledge in a more or less one-way fashion. There is no need to in Third Space, as in ‘They need to know this.’ Third Space is more interested in what they bring and what new knowledge may be created subsequently.

However, we didn’t interrupt the session. Instead, we ended up having numerous short discussions about the relevance of recognising our own privilege and the validity of ‘visitor’ feedback on what they felt were barriers, to name a few. On top of this, I was told a few days after the session that those same museum interpreters had missed a clear learning outcome (for the project) and concrete and assured instructions on how to get (visitors) there.

Interrupting the session would not have made any difference on this latter point. The crux is that openness is the very characteristic of Third Space. While we did explain our aim and method (see above) it cannot be any more prescriptive than that. Otherwise, it ceases to be open, co-creative and a Third Space. Third Space can and must still be evaluated in its effectiveness, but success is defined differently from the kind of knowledge transfer that the museum interpreters implied.  

However, I do believe that interrupting the session would have made something else possible: an honest discussion about our fundamental beliefs about the role of museums and in consequence, about audiences. It is one thing to talk about knowledge that one person has and the other person should gain. What this discussion obscures, however, are the more crucial questions that lie beneath its surface, such as why other people’s interests are given less importance in this approach. It is the answer to those questions that would make a lot of other discussions unnecessary.

For example, if a museum isn’t actually interested in sharing power [3], then yes, it is unnecessary to do exercises on recognising museum interpreters’ privileges. If a museum does not truly value diversity [4] then there is no point discussing methods for audience development [5].

Having that transparency about the fundamental beliefs behind our arguments would enable a wider and more meaningful conversation within our society about culture and heritage, which of course itself would have a democratizing effect (which I imagine some also do not want). At the very least, it would make visible what cultural (and social) aims decision makers pursue as they fund public institutions. I think we have come to the point where such transparency can no longer be avoided in Germany. It is vitally important in a society that becomes ever more diverse on a daily basis. At the end of the day, this is about the accountability of publicly funded institutions.

Notes

[1] I will write more about the project in a later post around the time it kicks off in late September.

[2] There is an interesting discussion to be had over other aims of Third Space both as method and as occasion, as it were. Some argue that since Third Space is about co-creation and openness, it cannot have any additional aims. In its truest sense, this may be so. However, if Third Space is to have relevance in contemporary cultural practice, I believe that at least for now, it does need to have additional aims so as not to become arbitrary. These aims may sometimes best be understood as context, or impulse, or reason for the Third Space to be applied – but more on that another time.

[3] This could be, for example, because they use a narrow definition of academic ‘subject’ knowledge, which they consider superior to all other knowledge on the matter.

[4] For example, because they don’t actually want the families with the noisy children, or those who don’t behave according to the ‘code’.  

[5] Audience development programmes that are not based in true beliefs are prone to fail anyway. The true beliefs will always shine through, for example in language. One discussion we had during the session was about the use of the term Ausländer, or foreigner. Many, if not the majority of people without German passports do not like the term Ausländer. And yet here we were, arguing over whether that should matter.

Imagine the following scene, taking place in Germany: a person walks up to the hotel reception desk. The member of staff looks up and immediately switches to English: “Are you here to check out?” To which the guest responds, in German, “I speak German too.” And then they add, “In fact, I am German.”

This is the scene I observed during a recent stay at a hotel here in Southern Germany.

The hotel guest had, for lack of a better word, an ‘Asian’ face. And clearly the assumption by the member of staff was that they were most likely from somewhere other than Germany.

It’s not like we’ve not been told that this is happening in this country. In her book Undeutsch, German author Fatima El-Tayeb noted that the concept of ‘being German’ was ‘white-Christian’. In other words, if you’re not perceived as white and Christian, you are likely to be thought of as ‘not German’.

And not just that. Even if the hotel guest was eventually accepted as German – after having asserted they were – they still would not have been simply labelled as such. They would have been ‘a person with a migrant background’ [1] or, a Deutsch-Asiate, i.e. ‘German-Asian’ [2].

I cannot tell you why that is so. Especially since there is no similar and established phrase for everyone else, i.e. the majority whose families’ roots do not reach elsewhere, at least not in recent memory.

The unhappy suspicion is that unlike ‘people with a migrant background’, the majority is considered just that: German. We don’t require a label. We have one [3].

As if this weren’t troubling enough, the term ‘person with a migrant background’ doesn’t actually tell you anything much about the person in question – it merely tells you that they or one of their parents were born without a German passport. I have recently been told by one such parent that their child is now labelled as having a migrant background even though they do not speak that parent’s mother tongue nor do they have any close relations to their parent’s country of origin.

So what useful information does that term actually give us about that person? How are we using this information to improve the life of the person to whom we’ve just forcefully attached the label? For there is no escaping this classification on a German bureaucratic form. You must not lie about where your parent for example was born, no matter how little that means to your identity and experience.

I believe that every time we speak of ‘people with a migrant background’ or ‘German-X’-people, we reaffirm that they remain outside of the group of ‘real’ Germans. We reaffirm this not just to ourselves – the ‘in’-group of Germanness – but also to those on the outside. At best, we’re creating a hierarchy of Germans, with those majority-Germans on top and everyone else below [4]. However, as we’ve been told through #metwo or by Mesut Özil on his departure from the German National Football Team in 2018, when push comes to shove, those ‘less-than-real’-Germans are just as likely to have their Germanness denied altogether when they do something that the majority disapproves of.

The troubling part is that to this day, so many in Germany refuse to really acknowledge these issues. We have a tendency to point our finger elsewhere; I was told only this week that ‘Racism in the United States is so much worse than in Germany’. I am neither sure that this is true – compared to the US there is a lamentably small number of proper research on racism, especially structural racism in Germany – nor do I believe that this should be our standard.

We are Germans. Our history in the 20th century has given us a special responsibility. Our achievements in tackling that history in the second part of the 20th century has proven that we are capable of being radically honest with ourselves. That is something that Germans can actually be proud of. Now let’s not give that away by shying away from taking a close look at the dynamics we’re creating in our society today.

I am specifically looking to cultural and educational institutions to lead the way if need be. It should never happen, as I experienced not too long ago, that a representative from a cultural organisation implies that those who belong to a city’s community are white. There should be more awareness than that. We should challenge such latent views, not state them ourselves. That’s painful, I know, especially when we realise that for years perhaps our thinking has been flawed, to put it mildly. But we have no choice if we are truly serious about promoting a just and inclusive society. We must be the change.

Someone ‘with a migrant background’ recently laughed when we discussed this term. They said, ‘Person with a background, what does that even mean?’

Exactly.

Notes

[1] The official definition of ‘person with a migrant background’ is someone born without a German passport, or someone with at least one parent to which this applies.

[2] I do find it curious that the emphasis in this construction is not on ‘German’, as in ‘Asian-American’, but instead on ‘Asian’. It suggests that the more defining aspect is that person’s ‘Asian-ness’ and precisely not their being German.

[3] There have been a few attempts which haven’t stuck: Biodeutsche (organic Germans), Herkunftsdeutsche (Germans of origin). I actually don’t like either of those terms because they’re just one step away from ‘German-Germans’. Yes, that feels as wrong as it sounds, not the least because of Germany’s history. And they still create a hierarchy: we’re the organic and original ones. Seriously?

[4] There is a hierarchy that the majority assign to German-X-people as well. The whiter and more Christian you are, the higher up on the ladder you are placed, and the less discrimination you experience. See this study for the job market as an example: Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung 2018, Ethnische Hierarchien in der Bewerberauswahl. https://bibliothek.wzb.eu/pdf/2018/vi18-104.pdf.

Violence.

I was going to write about something else this week. And then the reversal of Roe vs. Wade in the United States was announced and in its wake, several states passed legislation banning abortion. I cannot ignore this here.

I’ve studied in the United States and I lived there for many years. I often look back to those times with regret, wondering whether it was a mistake to leave. I was happy there. I felt free. I was able to express myself as a human being, free from pressures to behave and feel a certain way just because I am a woman.  

That the United States of all places has chosen to inflict such violence on women is a betrayal beyond words.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslet has today written a stark piece in The Guardian about what being forced to carry a pregnancy to term means for a woman (and surely anyone able to get pregnant): ‘The point is forced birth, which amounts to torture.’ And she goes on to observe that, ‘It can be hard to find the words when faced with such hatred’ (my emphasis).

That’s what this is: Violence. Torture. Hatred.

No human being should be forced through any such experience. No-one should be told that their life matters less than another’s.

No-one’s body should be turned into a tool to torture them.

That is what may now happen to women and girls in the United States.

The message I take from this is that we must not be lulled into a false sense of security. For as long as women are underrepresented in our parliaments, for as long as women continue to be paid less than men, for as long as women are measured by different values: women are not safe from such attacks on their lives and their status as human beings and citizens.

Anywhere.

Ever since reading Sharon MacDonald’s work on the Nazi party rally grounds in Nuremberg I have wanted to visit the site myself [1]. The grounds are of course the ultimate example of, as MacDonald calls it, ‘difficult heritage’. In her 2009 book of the same title, MacDonald gives a very interesting account of the City of Nuremberg’s approach to the site’s management over the years. I was particularly interested in MacDonald’s visitor research there and her observations of guided tours. It was Sharon MacDonald who coined the term ‘preferred reading’ which had a lasting impact on my own thinking and work.

Despite having read all this reseach about the site, I still wasn’t quite prepared for experiencing it when I went there last month. A lot has been written about the buildings’ monumentality, but to physically be there gives that word a different meaning. I first saw the façade of the Kongresshalle (congress hall) across the waters of the Dutzendteich (a lake), and it still seemed enormous. It also looked seductively handsome from this angle.

This caught me by surprise: I know that the stone for the building was quaried by people imprisoned in concentration camps, and MacDonald makes many comments about tour guides trying to dissuade visitors from appreciating the buildings’ aesthetic. Yet here I was, not quite admiring the Kongresshalle, but certainly being aware that its architectural language – albeit on a ludicrously enlarged scale – is not at all unlike that of other buildings I enjoy, starting with Rome’s Colosseum.

This prompted an intriguing internal conflict. At which point should the knowledge of the context of a building’s genesis – and its ideological underpinnings – take precedence over everything else, and indeed itself become its meaning? In allowing that conflict to play out I realised that it was in fact through that flicker of appreciation that a sensation of being unsettled emerged within me. As I continued along the lakeside path with the Kongresshalle persistently within my view, I had a deeper confrontation with the entirety of the horror for which that building stands than any words could have initiated.

In contrast, standing within the circular inner yard of the Kongresshalle had a different effect. The building is of course unfinished, it never had a roof and has been pretty much left to decay as a ruin. Spaces seem to be let out for storage and workshops, and there is a general atmosphere of neglect. I know that this ‘profanation’ was and apparently still is one conscious approach to dealing with the building. I purposely write ‘dealing with the building’ because it really did nothing in my eyes for dealing with its history. On the contrary, this backyard shabbiness made it so profane, so ordinary and ugly that I just wanted it gone. That may well have been the sentiment that prompted this approach in the first place, but personally, I felt quite strongly that this was a cheap way of dodging responsibility, including the responsibility to confront this history and our own feelings about it.

I did then wonder what the effect might have been if the Kongresshalle had actually been completed according to Albert Speer’s original plans. What if they had then decided to actually put the building to use, for example as a cultural venue. Would that have amplified the unsettlement that I had felt looking at the façade from far away? Could that have deepened my confrontation with the past? And would the enjoyment of liberal, democratic, diverse art have been able to quash the horrendous ideology of those who had conceived of this building until the Kongresshalle actually became a symbol of the ultimate power of good over evil? [2] I don’t know.

What I realised yet again visiting the Nazi party rally grounds in Nuremberg was just how powerful ‘the place where history happened’ is, even if it is such terrible history as happened here. There truly is something about bodily experiencing a place and its memory that is more transformative than any documentary can ever be. No matter how many images we may see of that man standing on the Zeppelin Tribüne (grandstand), preaching his hateful ideology to the masses, nothing will impact you quite like standing by that very same platform yourself. I couldn’t and wouldn’t step onto it.

There are and always will be many differing opinions on how the buildings the Nazis left behind should be dealt with. I’m sure there is not one right approach. It also changes as time passes and new generations are born. Personally, I am glad that there are at least those remains left that are there today. They can and should unsettle us.  

Notes

[1] MacDonald, S., 2009. Difficult Heritage.  Negotiating the Nazi Past in Nuremberg and beyond. London and New York: Routledge

[2] No point telling me that this would have cost a ton of money and that there might have been a danger of some people turning it into a site of Nazi pilgrimage. I know that.

My organisation is currently leading on an Erasmus Plus Strategic Partnership dedicated to the Third Space, and more specifically, to negotiating (European) identities therein [1]. The project is in its final year, and while we’ve really moved forward a lot in our understanding of the Third Space, we’ve spent far less time talking about the negotiation of identities. One reason for this seems to be that, as the project has progressed, we’ve come to realise that we’re not entirely agreed on the relevance of this aspect.

Members of the Irish group, for example, have previously spoken about the concept of a global identity, which apparently is gaining traction in Ireland, particularly among young people. We’ve not been to Ireland yet, so there hasn’t yet been any in-depth discussion of this. However, in its brief mention it was suggested that a global identity transcends all others, and in particular a national identity. This global identity is so inclusive and all-encompassing that it makes negotiation between people superfluous: we all partake in it. In a sense, therefore, this global identity also turns identity in general into an outdated idea.

A brief Internet search led me to an article in the Irish Times published in 2016. The then 23-year-old author describes what I perceive to be that concept of a ‘global identity’. He writes, ‘[Young people in Ireland] subscribe to a homogenous and pervasive culture that exists without nationality. To be Irish, British or American on the Internet is defunct because for the most part there is no fundamental difference between our cultures.’ He goes on to note: ‘To be Irish becomes a passive description and to a certain extent nationality is renounced in favour of joining this global network of people. We forgo our Irishness to become an Earth citizen, which is a far more harmonious and inclusive concept.’

For the author, the source of this global (sense of) identity is the Internet [2]. The Irish partners in our project also referred to the Irish Diaspora as making any ‘Irish’ identity necessarily global, in that ‘Irish’ people now live all around the world. This opens ‘Irishness’ up to include other ‘nationalities’ (if I understood this correctly). In an article titled ‘Globalised Ireland, or, contemporary transformations of national identity?’ [3], G. Honor Fagan also points to the Irish experience of emigration. But in her account, instead of making Irish identity transcendentally global, she rather suggests that the Diaspora have, not the least in a joint effort with the people left in Ireland, re-invented the Irishness of the Irish identity.

For example, Riverdance, along with Irish films and other phenomena, are today widely viewed as Irish culture (and thus an expression of an ‘Irish’ identity). Fagan notes, however, that these ‘may be partly constituted locally but it is with reference to a global cultural market’ (117). Traditions play a central role in this process (as did Irish dance in Riverdance), but Fagan rightly stresses that traditions have never existed as immutable. They were always invented, and the Diaspora has played a central role in these re-inventions of Irish traditions. Even the framing of Ireland as ‘home’, which apparently has been pushed more recently by Irish politicians, is part of this joint creation of Irishness, and thus Irish identity.

What emerges, then, is not so much a global Irish identity, but rather a globally constructed Irish identity still reliant on inventions of Irish traditions and notions of (a geographical) Irish home.

In my reading of the above, I feel that there is a lot of negotiation of identity going on after all. Even the young author of the Irish Times article concludes that, ‘… the notion of sacrificing my Irishness is too much for me…I’m an Irishman.’ His anguish at being torn between the desire for a harmonising global identity and his experience of, and love for, a particular national identity is probably something many of us share. It is perhaps also the reason why we so often avoid talking directly about (national) identities. They just sound like a certain recipe to engender conflict and divide people. Nobody wants that.

However, to negotiate identities to me is actually the opposite of othering people and excluding them. To negotiate means to be transparent and open, and to engage in a dialogue among equals. The developments of recent years, from Black Lives Matter to #MeTwo and #vonhier, have all highlighted the existence of unspoken definitions of identity (such as Germanness) that have in fact excluded people. It is only through these movements that we’ve finally acknowledged real issues and begun a discussion. To me, negotiating identities means we can mould them into a vision that can accommodate and inspire us all toward a peacefully shared future.

The Third Space seems a really good way of facilitating that negotiation. I look forward to thinking more about that in the months ahead.

Notes

[1] I’ve blogged about the Third Space before here.
[2] In terms of Third Spaces this is quite interesting. It is on the Internet, in a virtual space, that people jointly created, in the author’s view, a new global identity. This has all the markings of a Third Space. And yet, in our project, views are divided on whether a virtual space can be a Third Space at all. But more about that another time.
[3] Fagan, G. H. (2018). ” Globalised Ireland, or, contemporary transformations of national identity?”. In The end of Irish history?. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press. Retrieved May 24, 2022, from https://www.manchesteropenhive.com/view/9781526137715/9781526137715.00012.xml

Reboot.

I’ve taken a rather long break from this blog. Now it is time to restart.

However, the scope of this blog will widen. It will become clear why, and how, once I’ve set out where I’m currently at in my experiences and my interests.

It’s been two years and eight months since I left the formal museum (and heritage) sector. I was recently asked if I would not consider going into museum consulting in Germany. Participation and to some degree co-creation and power sharing have finally arrived at least on the political agenda, as the recent establishment of the Zentrum für kulturelle Teilhabe (Centre for Cultural Participation) in the State of Baden-Württemberg shows. And participation, co-creation and power sharing have always been the primary goals in my professional practice.

Unfortunately, in the three years that I worked in the German museum sector upon my return, these goals were also the ones which I was repeatedly forced to defend. In the end, this meant taking several steps back in my professional practice and fight for something that to me and most of my international colleagues is a given. I was not prepared to do that. I am still not prepared to do that. I leave that fight to others.

I am now fast approaching my three-year anniversary in the further education sector, which in its day-to-day practices is firmly rooted in what in Germany is called Soziokultur. There is no term for that in English. This is highly illustrative of the underlying issue of my experiences in the German museum sector: museums are high culture, fairly separate from wider society, while Soziokultur is all about people and how they live together.

In other words, I have arrived in a professional environment that is dedicated to what has always been most important to me. I still work with heritage, and indeed we are currently in a collaborative project with our local Roman history museum. However, I am now engaged with the dynamics of heritage, history and culture far, far beyond museums and heritage sites. Where before I used to reflect on heritage primarily in the context of interpretive practice and heritage management, I am now challenged to think much more deeply about the role of lived heritage and its impacts within societies, as well as the impacts of history and culture.

I now work in an organisation whose very reason for existing is democracy. Volkshochschulen were founded to enable people to participate fully. Every course we offer relates back to that vision in one way or another. Not being bound to a museum collection or a particular site gives me the freedom to engage with issues that perhaps at first glance are nothing do with heritage. Take for example the Symbolic Elections that we organised last year for all the people in our town who were not allowed to vote in the German Parliamentary Elections on the grounds of their nationality. Upon closer examination, this has everything to do with history, our culture, our definitions of Germanness and who we want to be as a society. In other words, it has everything to do with questions about our heritage now and in the future.  

So, getting back to the scope of this blog. I will still write posts purely on cultural heritage, and heritage interpretation, too. However, I will also write more broadly about heritage, history, and culture, and especially about how they manifest, impact, and (re-)shape society. Occasionally, I may write about technology and the Third Space, or developing a co-created vhs programme. The essence of this blog will remain the same: I am all about furthering professional practices around heritage and culture that are inclusive and people-centred.

I do hope that many of you will continue to accompany me on this journey. Do share your thoughts with me. I look forward to exchanging ideas with you.