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Sometimes you read a book and think: this is so centrally relevant to what I have been thinking that I cannot believe I’ve missed this all this time. Chantal Mouffe’s book Agonistics. Thinking the World Politcally (London: Verso 2013) was such a book for me [1].

 

Antagonism

Mouffe in effect argues that negativity and opposing views ‘can never be overcome’ (p. 130). She asserts this in contrast to a liberal tradition, which believes in ‘universal consensus based on reason’ (p. 3). Rather than dismiss passion and conflict as ‘archaic’ (p. 4) and thus inferior, as liberalism does, Mouffe holds antagonism as ‘constitutive’ (p. 130) and central to democracy (e.g. p.7ff). Antagonism means, Mouffe writes, that there exist conflicts without rational solution and a pluralism in which not all views can finally be reconciled (p. 130).

 

Agonism

Enter ‘agonism’. This may be most simply understood as a healthy version of the potentially destructive antagonism. In agonism there are ‘adversaries’, not enemies as in antagonism. Adversaries share democratic principles but otherwise have conflicting views (p. 7). And that’s okay because everyone ultimately recognises the legitimacy of their opponent’s demands (p. 138) even if there can and will never be a full reconciliation. The point is, the concept of agonism embraces plurality. ‘Agonistic’ thus is the adjective that describes the confrontation between adversaries and their different views within a context of mutual respect and acceptance (p. 7).

 

Hegemony

Importantly (and now I’m beginning to inch my way towards interpretation), Mouffe argues that because the many differing views can never be reconciled, any order that emerges is always hegemonic: it is a matter of what has, for the time being, become the dominant view, and therefore any order is contestable, exclusive, and only one of many orders that are possible (p. 17).

 

The Hegemonic Struggle

Mouffe therefore talks about the ongoing hegemonic struggle (p. 14), which is the struggle to unsettle the existing hegemony and build another, and so forth. For this process to work peacefully it is important that structures and opportunities are created that allow the process to be ‘agonistic’, that is, opportunities that make sure that people see each other as adversaries, not enemies, and have a respectful debate about their differing views.

 

Agonistic public spaces

Mouffe contradicts the view that public spaces should be spaces where people arrive at a consensus (p. 92). Rather, Mouffe argues that public spaces should be agonistic: not only should they be spaces where conflicting views are voiced without seeking an (impossible) reconciliation (p. 92), but they should also make ‘visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate, in giving a voice to all those who are silenced within the framework of the existing hegemony’ (p. 93).

 

Agonistic Interpretation

And so I arrive at ‘agonistic interpretation’. I have for a while argued that interpretation is not about messages and objectives of whatever kind, which are achieved by, for example, persuasive communication. Rather, I have been suggesting that interpretation is about creating an infrastructure to allow people to continue to create heritage. And I have suggested that interpretation is fundamentally about representation. It should aim at making visible the wider representational dynamics in society and history [2]. I have often called this ‘telling all sides of a story’, which is why Mouffe’s description above about ‘agonistic public spaces’ just enthused me. Agonistic. A concept that recognises the hegemonic order of societies, the pluralism of reality, the impossibility of consensus, and the consequent suppressive nature of the liberal-rational claim [3]. Agonistic is the political, it is an action and a process that has real socio-political consequences. As Mouffe asserts, the disarticulation of a hegemony (read: make visible) is not the end goal, it must be followed by rearticulation (read: facilitate, enable creation): a new order (p. 74). And agonism is at the heart of making this possible.

 

Mouffe’s ideas in this book mirror much of Laurajane Smith’s critique of the Authorized Heritage Discourse (AHD) in Uses of Heritage (London and New York: Routledge 2006), only related to society and politics, not heritage. Smith’s book was another of those books that made me think I had been living in a dark cave for years. But what my engagement with Smith’s ideas hadn’t given me was a proper handle on what to call this interpretation that isn’t communication, education, or thematic, or persuasive. Earlier in the year, at the Interpret Europe conference in Mechelen, I presented my take on interpretation as ‘Critical Heritage Interpretation’, and discursively it undoubtedly is.

 

But agonistic! I think I may have just found the label for the kind of interpretation I think we all should be doing.

 

 

Notes

[1] I owe huge thanks to Lena Johansson at the Swedish National Heritage Board, who recommended this book to me after a presentation I gave at this year’s Interpret Europe conference in Mechelen.

[2] For example here and here.

[3] Which is of course also at the root of much of contemporary interpretation philosophy that aims at ‘educating’ people toward certain desired goals: the suggestion is that through rational through, aided by good interpretation, people will arrive at the ‘right’ understanding, and the ‘right’ appreciation. But to elaborate this here would go too far.

 

 

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about ‘culture’ on one hand, and ‘the cultural sector’ on the other. The two are not the same, although many in the cultural sector seem inclined to claim they are. I am going to call that hybris. And I wonder if such hybris will cause – and may already be causing – the cultural sector’s fall. I’m cynical about the cultural sector, yes, but I would nonetheless argue that such a fall would be detrimental to all of society. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

 

The cultural sector is not the whole of culture

In a rather scathing review [1] of the European Commission’s brainstorming session as part of the Voices of Culture Structured Dialogue on the Inclusion of Refugees and Migrants Through Culture, this fellow participant wondered, “Why is it always culture that has to make excuses? Why, despite all examples of good practices, should culture still be substantiating to its funders its importance and its role in major issues, such as the issue of refugees and migrants?” To me, this is a prime example of ‘culture’ being conflated with ‘the cultural sector’. ‘Culture’ exists without funders. ‘Culture’ is you and I going about our business on a daily basis, relating to others, expressing ourselves, making sense of our world. ‘The cultural sector’, on the other hand, is primarily made up of professionals and their initiatives asking wider society for funding. It is structured and organised, and made up of institutions such as the museums the author of the review refers to.

 

Why the equation ‘cultural sector = culture’ is hybris

It seems obvious to me, but perhaps it needs stating that it is hybris for the cultural sector to claim sole ownership of ‘culture’. Not only that: it is also a questionable hegemonic attitude that dismisses the cultural practices of everyone else. We might want to explore whether this attitude isn’t also a reason for the diversity issues the sector continues to struggle with. And there is a democratic problem here too: noone has elected us ‘cultural professionals’ as the spokespeople or architects of culture. We may have been granted a greater voice and clout in the larger (social, political, economic) system we live in, but that is also the very reason for the following:

 

Yes, ‘the cultural sector’ is accountable to the rest of society

It is becoming tiresome to hear cultural professionals bemoan the fact that wider society is asking us to ‘prove’ our impact and worth [2]. After all, we’re taking their money, and in quite considerable sums, too. ‘All the examples of good practices’ that we heard at the brainstorming session had not in fact been evaluated, so we can hardly be surprised to be asked about the basis for the cultural sector’s claims, especially with such grave social challenges as those we currently face regards integration of large numbers of people. The fact that cultural impacts are hard to measure is not an excuse; it is a call to us ‘professionals’ to use our professional skills to assess what we are doing, and to do so critically. How else can we develop our practice? Furthermore, we claim not to act within the sanctuary of ivory towers, and yet this does make it seem a bit like we are. We’re basically asking funders – and society – to just accept that what we do is great and worthy of their money. However, not being untouchable and above everyone else also means answering to uncomfortable questions. That’s the reality of being on eye-level with others [3].

 

Or are we still living in ivory towers after all?

At the actual dialogue meeting with representatives from the European Commission in mid-September, a British colleague whose work and intellect I highly value expressed what I’ve heard from other cultural sector people in the UK: how shocked he and colleagues were by the Brexit vote, and how all of them had supported staying in the EU. And I felt and still feel for them, but I also pointed out during the debate [4] that not even the UK’s professional representative body for museums was making a positive case for staying in the EU, nor managed to speak up against the rampant anti-immigrant rhetoric of the debate. I cannot quite arrive at an explanation as to why the cultural sector in the UK now should be so shocked – unless I resort to the image of that ivory tower from where the cultural sector simply did not see what was going on elsewhere. As if the sector believed that people would naturally share its (unspoken) belief in the EU and follow its (invisible) lead. As if the debate was just too nasty for something as civilised as ‘the cultural sector’ to get down and dirty.

 

This hybris is dangerous

I won’t claim that this is objectively what happened in the UK, I’m merely stating my personal observations and thoughts. To me, they are a call to action: not only is it dangerously arrogant for ‘cultural professionals’ to see ourselves as above the rest of culture. It also undermines even the potential for the very impact we claim to have. The UK has shown us what happens if a country’s cultural sector remains so painfully quiet, and we need not wonder when funders ask whether we are indeed equipped to make a difference in the key issues that face our societies today. Now that I live in Germany, my greatest fear is to find myself, as a ‘cultural professional’, in a context where the AfD dictates what culture we may have, and our own europhobes further undermine the EU until we lose it altogether. While thinking we’re too obviously important to be ignored, the cultural sector may well find itself sleepwalking into oblivion, abandoning society to its fate [5].

 

 

Notes

[1] This is not the place to respond in full to the review. However, true to my new determination to speak up politically, I feel obliged to point out that the European Commission, by its very constitutional nature, cannot but act as a facilitator making suggestions to EU member states. It cannot, on its own, act. To criticise the Commission for pointing this out in an introductory session simply emphasises the need for this very introduction in the first place. To criticise the Commission for the treaty that limits its powers is to undermine the European Union in the ways we have seen during the EU referendum debate in the UK. Here, half-truths and flat out lies supported so-called arguments. If we as EU citizens want a stroger European Commission that can act on such initiatives as the Voices of Culture dialogues – initiatives which I find laudable! – then we must argue for it within our national borders. If we don’t like how the European Union acts, we must first take our national governments to task, for they make the EU, even more so than the European Parliament.

[2] It should also be noted that the European Commission, in the Voices of Culture process, specifically invited representatives of organisations with large networks, in other words, people within the organised cultural sector who are part of the ‘official’ system within which the EC acts.

[3] I ought to make it clear that I do think the cultural sector plays an important role, precisely because it is part of that official system and machinery in ways that regular ‘culture’ often is not. But that also means it plays by different rules than ‘culture’, including the rule of being accountable for the money and position we are given. It’s not a benign distinction we earn by our very existence; we earn it by our contribution and service to society. Mind, ‘culture’ would not die out if ‘the cultural sector’ didn’t exist. But it may be less visible, play less of a role at a higher, ‘official’ level, at least in the systems we live in today.

[4] For new readers of my blog I should point out that I lived through the whole sad EU referendum debate in the UK, and what an unpleasant experience it’s been.

[5] Although of course in Germany  institutions have in the past taken a stand very publicly. My task will be to do likewise.

I have left Britain and relocated to my native Germany. Most Brits nodded knowingly when I told them I was going back to Germany, telling me that ‘Of course, you want to go home’. And in many ways I have indeed ‘gone home’. But in nearly as many other ways, I have also lost my home.

 

The idea that ‘home’ is (solely, exclusively, even at all) the place of origin seems unjustifiably simplistic. I have spent nearly half of my life outside of Germany. Why should Germany automatically be more ‘home’ to me than the places where I deliberately chose to live? And yet, this definition of ‘home’ as ‘country of origin’ and, to a lesser degree, as ‘citizenship’ is widespread, not only in politics but also in the cultural sector. It fails to appreciate the complexity of ‘home’, and how intrinsically it is linked to people’s identity, their well-being, and their very lives.

 

That, to me, has been the true tragedy of the EU referendum debate in the UK. I didn’t leave Britain because of Brexit. Rather, I realised over a year ago that in the eyes of my chosen home, Britain wasn’t – and would never be – home to me at all. This clip, and the suppressed tears of the couple, should give everyone an insight into the impact of a country’s refusal to acknowledge that it is unqualifiedly ‘home’ to people that were not born there [1].

 

As I drove from Scotland back to Germany, I heard this poignant piece about ‘Heimat’, the German term that encompasses ‘home’. The professor [2] explored many different levels of ‘Heimat’ and how it is constituted; how it relates to where we are now, and how it can change and adapt. He suggested that ‘Heimat’ is ultimately about ‘feeling at home’, in his view mostly because of people, with place acting primarily as a symbol and anchor for that feeling, rather than constituting it per se. I would personally stress the role of place in certain instances a little bit more, based on my own experience, but nevertheless, as I was leaving one home further and further behind and approaching my old/new home, I thought that here was a way of thinking more dynamically about ‘home’ that was more appropriate and useful.

 

Germany has never ceased to be ‘home’ to me. But Scotland was also home. For many years, I knew more about Scottish and British history, politics and culture than I did German. I have adopted Scottish ways of thinking, I already miss tea and scones, and then there is that undefinable sense of connection to the Scottish landscape, the music, the dances and the stories, that perhaps more than anything else made Scotland home to me. However, I still scoffed at the suggestion that I should take British citizenship to secure my status in case of Brexit [3]. I am also German, in the stereotypical sense (inefficiency and being late drive me crazy) and in all the ways that Germany inspires me with its stories and landscapes and culture, and the fact that my own personal history started here. My point is that home wasn’t one or the other, it was both.

 

Policies and practices that stubbornly insist on a view of ‘home’ as rooted in ‘origin’ and ‘citizenship’ in the end will fail us. They divide people, and they reduce them to assumed traits that may or may not have any meaning in who they think they are and how they relate to where they live. We need something more complex. Today, we live in a world where people move around in varied circumstances, and we must acknowledge their right to ‘home’, and not simply their right to residence. If we fail to do this, there will be further repeats of what has happened in Britain to people like me [4].

 

 

Notes

[1] Please remember that these folks had come to Britain and still are in Britain perfectly legally. The fact that Britain to this day – more than two months after the referendum – still refuses to unambiguously grant their right to stay is frankly the starkest confirmation that the country still does not recognise their claim to Britain as ‘home’.

[2] At one of the universities in what will be my new home, no less!

[3] I never would give up my German citizenship, but as far as I’m aware I wouldn’t have had to. However, I resented that Britain asked such a huge step of me like becoming a citizen just to acknowledge my already evident commitment to it, and to give me security. It felt like being my German self who loves Scotland wasn’t good enough, and that a part of me was meant to be suppressed. I won’t have that.

[4] To push someone like me, who loved the place, spoke the language, earned her own money and was fully integrated, to the point where leaving seemed better than staying would be something I would really want to think about if Britain were my country. But then, that’s also very German of me.

I recently heard a short description about an interpretive encounter that made me think again about the construction of heritage, the use of interpretation to represent that particular view of heritage, and the social structures that are expressed and recreated in doing so.

 

The anecdote concerned a guided tour with a school group [1]. Before I recount it as I was told it, I want to make it clear that the teller did not intend to give an in-depth account of the interpretation, and therefore I do not know the precise context in which the original story was narrated, or indeed how. The facts, however, are as follows: the guide told the school children that in the past, there existed the practice of tossing a biracial boy (in the retelling the term ‘mulatto’ was used) to danger, to see who in the attending group (I have strong reason to believe they were white men) could rescue him first. There was a black boy amid the school group who, upon hearing this, burst into tears. He then was told that this was ‘a long time ago’ and ‘obviously’ this ‘would not happen today’ (I think were the words used in the retelling).

 

Now, for a start, I’m simply going to assume that no guide would actually use the term ‘mulatto’ in public, in front of a school group, and in front of a black boy.

 

However, I can well imagine that if the guide did use the term, it was in the context of ‘the past’. For in the past, that’s what they would have called the child. And I can – sadly – imagine that somehow, that seemed to make it okay to use the term today in the retelling of the practice. As if the passing of time had purged the term of the disdain and discrimination it expressed back then: ‘mulatto’ comes from Spanish ‘young mule’. And clearly the people of the past had little more respect for the boy than they did for a mule as they endangered his life for their own amusement and sport [2].

 

Of course, that may have been the whole point of telling the story: to show up the racism of the past and analyse it unflinchingly so that we may understand the racism that is still happening today and build a better future for tomorrow. However, the fact that the guide apparently told the boy who cried that this happened a long time ago and obviously wouldn’t happen today, just doesn’t make me believe that that’s actually how – and why – the story was related. First of all, such racism obviously does happen today, so that clearly wasn’t part of the conversation. And while I understand why the boy would have cried no matter how the story was told, the fact that the other children as far as I know weren’t affected tells me that he was the only one who understood what was truly going on in this little ‘story’.

 

And what is this story? If it wasn’t shared to examine the inherent racism of 19th century Britain (as I believe the period concerned was) then why share it at all? I wondered: in what other context would anyone think it appropriate to tell this story? Again, I do not know the precise context of this piece of interpretation and how it came about. However, the fact that it was told in the first place and then subsequently rationalised as ‘a long time ago’, ‘obviously’ and ‘would not happen today’ suggests a view of an ultimately benevolent society that created something good from which we still benefit today [3]. This is the quintessentially sanitised past turned heritage. Only by willfully ignoring the darker aspects of history are we able to represent it as heritage that is universally claim worthy. By declaring that racist actions of the past ‘of course’ would no longer happen today, we deny the pain and hurt of that boy who cried upon hearing the story. We refuse to acknowledge that those very same structures of discrimination and disregard that are evident in the story are being recreated quite literally as we speak: we’re expecting that boy to share in our sense of benign heritage, when quite obviously all he heard was a shocking and frightening action that may have more resemblance to his everyday experience than we may be prepared to face.

 

Like me, your first reaction upon reading this example of interpretation may have been to pronounce that, ‘This is why you should have professional interpreters.’ And maybe we’re right, maybe the guide wasn’t a professioal – I don’t know. And yet, I think there is every chance that a professional interpreter by our standards may simply have chosen not to tell this story at all. But is this truly better? Is simply leaving out the nasty bits any more responsible or professional? Especially since a ‘professional’ very likely would have understood and represented the heritage overall in the same way: that this site was created by kind people for the benefit of others, and now we are benefitting from it too. The message: the site is worthy of our protection and all of us can (and should) enjoy it. And meanwhile, on our 21st century streets, the racism continues and black people die.

 

I am a firm believer in people choosing and creating their heritage, and this, I am well aware, sanctions the choice to ignore the racism and establish a rosy view of times (and practices) gone by. But I also believe that heritage can be exclusive and dissonant, with inherent representations and views that shape and influence our present and future, and not always in a constructive manner for all. I also believe that heritage is fluid – as we contest and debate it, it changes. And that is truly where I feel professionalism enters the equation. In professional interpretation we must be aware of these representational dynamics and do all we can to make them visible. This isn’t about preaching to a heritage community to change their views. It’s about opening doors for all to enter into heritage making in our shared world. I honestly believe that the particular site in the example can become great heritage for the young boy who was reduced to tears – but not on the basis on which we’re currently trying to goad him into buying into our story of kindly benefactors. Acknowledging and sharing that the past was wrong means we can reclaim the site on a different basis that works for all of us, not just those with the power to tell the story. Heritage, after all, is not set in stone.

 

Notes
[1] I want to point out here that the incident was shared with the express recognition that something had gone wrong and that advice should be sought on how to do things differently in the future. So that’s an all-round good thing.

[2] Just for the record, I make no distinction between the worth of the life of a mule and that of a human being. But I daresay those chaps did.

[3] I know I’m being vague here, but unfortunately any more details may identify the site in question, and that’s not the point of this post. It’s not a critique of a specific site, but an underlying approach that applies to many other sites also.

Last month, I presented [1] a paper at the Re-Imagining Challenging History conference in Cardiff, Wales. It combined and developed two of the key things I’ve written about a lot on this blog recently: that museums’ silence is never neutral, and that objectivity, as an expression of ‘truth’ (including a ‘material’ truth), does not exist.

 

The paper became an example of when history overtakes us. As I was putting the finishing touches to it, Brexit had just happened. Suddenly, my suggestions in the paper about the negative impact on immigrants of the increasing anti-immigrant rhetoric in British media and politics [2] were superseded by actual xenophobic attacks on EU Citizens, which many argue were enabled by the tone of the EU referendum campaign. The fact that the overwhelming silence in society on this rhetoric was now pierced by outspoken support for EU citizens and a critique of how the campaign had been conducted, all of a sudden seemed to make my arguments in the paper self-evident. Obviously there had been an issue. Obviously museums, society – anyone – should have done more before now. There hadn’t even been a silent majority coming to the rescue just in time. There had only been silence.

 

The world has since moved on, the country seems to have come to terms with what has happened, and we’re back to politics that sees people as mere bargaining chips, and a media obsessed with focusing on what Brexit will do for immigration controls and ‘taking our country back’. In a sad way, perhaps, it has become worthwhile again that I did write the paper.

 

But this time, there is no excuse for museums. Silence is not neutral. If museums are silent, they are supporting the hate, the harassment that is happening now. As key institutions of social and cultural life, museums that are silent are enabling such actions by not opposing them. Opposing them is political, yes. But in remaining silent museums are not apolitical either: they are siding with someone. And it’s not the immigrants.

 

Of course, museums can choose to side with whoever they want. They choose their own values. They just need to stop thinking that others don’t notice. And when consequently those others choose not to visit, museums need to take ownership of the reasons for this, and stop subtly chastising them as ‘hard-to-reach’. They are not hard to reach. Some of them may just find museums’ socio-political messaging hard to swallow [3].

 

Part of that messaging, I would argue, is the way in which history and objects are deployed by museums. I’ve blogged about this several times: In this post I argued that the recourse to history is largely irrelevant and has little, if any impact on contemporary debate, while in this post I suggested that the way museums choose object-narratives avoids engaging with current events. None of this does anything for museums’ impact on society, as envisaged by Museums Change Lives, the British Museum Association’s (MA) vision for museums. It most definitely does not advance society, or support social inclusion, as the MA hoped. In fact, in the paper I suggested that with their current approach, museums in Britain have been allowing, if not promoting certain myths about the nation that cannot be reconciled with current realities. I’m not one for ‘busting’ myths just for the sake of it. However, when myths become a potentially dangerous source of complacency, as I would argue they have become in Britain, then I do think museums must mount a challenge if they are serious about being relevant to contemporary society. Not to preach, or to convert, or to persuade. But to make visible what we may otherwise not choose to see. As far as I’m concerned, anything else is quickly and simply becoming not good enough.

 

You can download the full paper I presented at the conference here: Silence is not neutral and objectivity does not exist.

 

Notes

[1] I presented the paper in absentia via audio recording. Sadly I could no longer attend in person as planned. Shame! It sounded like a great conference that prompted really good conversation, as seen under the conference’s hashtag #challhist.

[2] See for example Nikolaidis, A. 2015. ‘Immigration and the 2015 Election: The Banal, the Racist, and the Unspoken’. In UK Election Analysis 2015: Media, Voters and the Campaign. Early Reflections from Leading UK Academics., edited by D. Jackson and E. Thorsen, 98. Bournemouth: Centre for the Study of Journalism, Culture and Community, Bournemouth University. https://www.psa.ac.uk/sites/default/files/page-files/UK%20Election%20Analysis%202015%20-%20Jackson%20and%20Thorsen%20v1.pdf. For a comparative study of the years 2006 and 2013, see also Balch, A. and Balabanova, E., 2016. ‘Ethics, Politics and Migration: Public Debates on the Free Movement of Romanians and Bulgarians in the UK, 2006 – 2013.’ Politics 36(1), p. 19-35.

[3] In the paper, I juxtaposed museums’ silence on the nastiness of the immigration debate and their enthusiastic support for the commemorations of the First World War. In both narratives, but uncommented by museums, many people will have recognised the same ‘us and them’ binarity. Britain is famously a country where the ‘Great War’ is solemnly commemorated year after year, and any refusal to participate in the accepted mode of reverence and gratitude is generally met with criticism. You can read about one of the  debates about the public wearing of the poppy here, and I would also recommend reading this paper about Britain’s relationship to Remembrance: Basham, V., 2015. ‘Gender, Race Militarism and Remembrance: The Everyday Geopolitics of the Poppy’. Gender, Place and Culture: a journal of feminist geography. Available from: https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/17371. [Accessed 11.06.2016].

 

After last month’s Interpret Europe conference on the topic, I have been pondering what the role of heritage interpretation is for the Future of Europe. This is not a review of the conference [1]; however, I want to share some of the questions and thoughts I’ve had.

 

What future?

The joke that Prof Dr Mike Robinson of the Ironbridge Institute (UK) made before giving his keynote speech encapsulates the real ‘hot topic’ of the question of heritage intepretation and the future of Europe for me. He joked that here he was, an Englishman, being asked to speak at a conference about the future of Europe. His keynote wasn’t in fact about the future of Europe [2], but in a way I wish it had been. I would have liked to see the question of Brexit being discussed prominently, to explore why people are questioning the idea of Europe, not only in Britain but elsewhere also, and how this criticism compares both to the ideal and the reality of this union of nations. In my view, understanding this has to be the starting point for any involvement of heritage interpretation in creating Europe’s future [3].

 

What role?

At several points throughout the conference, the ideal of Europe (peace, prosperity, common destiny, shared culture) emerged as an unquestionable truth, and its promotion the natural aim of heritage interpretation for the future of Europe. While unsurprisingly I personally agree with this positive view of Europe, treating it as a truth in a management practice such as interpretation ultimately dismisses the opposing viewpoints shared by too many. For that is what we are doing when we are proposing heritage interpretation as a tool in promoting this, our view of what Europe is. Instead, we need to really engage with why so many are questioning Europe, and represent that fully in interpretation. That is not to say that we cannot also state what side we, as management, come down on; just the opposite. I argue that being transparent and clear about our political views is what we urgently need in interpretation, and professional heritage work in general [4].

 

Any role?

I attended a short session on the European Heritage Label, and one of the discussions that emerged in the group was whether this was a bottom-up or top-down approach to deciding which sites get the label [5]. This prompted questions about whether this then imposed a certain interpretive focus, which would in turn force these sites into a narrative of a European history and thus identity. I wondered whether this will actually play a role in supporting that identity, or will it rather put people off and give more fuel to the notion that Europe suppresses national diversity? I don’t have an answer and it would be interesting to read some research around that (suggestions?). It may be a natural step of an ever-closer union, right after bringing down the borders and introducing programmes of exchange and collaboration, all of which definitely have helped create a stronger sense of Europe for me. I would be okay with that. However, I also noted that I felt far closer to the Belgians when I by sheer accident found out about the story of Ambiorix than when we were on the First World War battlefields, which clearly are a ‘shared’ place of European history and which are interpreted as such. Ambiorix, you see, is Belgium’s Arminius, although the Gallo-Roman Museum in Tongeren did not mention that, nor do I think I would have much appreciated if they had. Nevertheless, realising how similar some of our stories are really pleased me. It made me feel that we can understand each other, and that I and my folks can learn from the Belgians’ relationship to these histories, too.

 

Here’s to the future of Europe.

 

 

Notes

[1] Much of my conference, due to the sessions I picked and conversations I had, didn’t actually touch on this question.

[2] You can see the slides from his keynote here. He talked more about the future of thinking about cultural heritage, which was a good keynote to have at an interpretation conference.

[3] And I do not mean so that we can better persuade people of our view.

[4] I’ve spent much of my time since the conference writing another conference paper on just this topic. This is for the Challenging History conference later in the month.

[5] It seems that the answer to the question depends on one hand on the national nomination process, which can be different in each country that has signed up to it. Not all EU members have. On the other hand, there are the criteria which then are used by the EU panel of experts. That process will, I suppose, always be ‘top down’ to an extent, and for an official initiative such as a label I’m not sure I see an alternative.

 

Next month, I will represent ICOMOS ICIP at the Voices of Culture Structured Dialogue on the Inclusion of Refugees and Migrants through Culture. In preparation, the organisers have posed three questions [1] for each participant network to respond to. As I collated the response from ICIP’s network, it’s been really interesting to revisit the various initiatives and writings I’ve come across over recent months, and read through what colleagues sent me. I’d like to share some of the thoughts and questions that have come up for me personally during this process [2].

 

Migrant doesn’t equal migrant

The term really is too often used to cover what are vastly different motivations for and experiences of migration. These groups cannot be lumped together. That they all ‘live away from their country of origin’ no more predicts their needs and desires than does having red hair for British people. It may seem a convenient segmentation, but it neither reflects reality, nor does it provide a helpful framework for thinking about migration and its demands on our professional heritage practices.

 

Living in an ‘Age of Migration’

The MeLa project spoke of an ‘age of migration’, and its final report notes that although migrations have always taken place, ‘due to improved possibilities for physical and virtual movement today they have grown in quantity, rapidity and complexity’ (p. 8). Migration today is constant, fluid and global, and it seems to me that this in particular necessitates a more differentiated understanding of, and thus professional response to, the specific type of migration we want to work with, if indeed we continue with this targeted practice at all [3]. But there are other questions too that arise from the idea of an age of migration:

 

Heritage Assimilation?

The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) in their publication Towards the Integration of Refugees in Europe (2005) notes that historically, states used a ‘strategy of assimilation’ regards third country nationals (p. 14). Through assimilation, ‘refugees’ values and norms would be substituted with values and beliefs of the host society’ (ibid). I wonder if many of our current professional heritage practices regards people from third countries are rooted in concepts of assimilation. In other words, as we offer guided tours for refugees and programmes where they can learn more about ‘our’, the ‘host’ country’s history and heritage, are we in danger of creating structures that ask newcomers to adopt this heritage and make it their own? [4] Is this also at the core of the following:

 

Fighting for resources

I read the suggestion in an article [5] that migrated groups are ‘in competition’ for representation in museums. Heritage here emerges as distinct parcels belonging to distinct groups, that my heritage isn’t your heritage, and if my heritage is represented that means yours isn’t. And of course to some extent that is how heritage works; scores of writers have noted the exclusive nature of heritage [6]. But could this also be more than a question of representation? Could this be the result of an ultimately assimilatory understanding of heritage, and one that becomes increasingly problematic in an age of migration: the idea that the ‘host’ heritage should and will stay the same, with newcomers expected to either buy into it or create their own, separate heritage in this new place? How would this all change if we adopted a different view of heritage altogether?

 

Heritage Integration?

The ECRE writes that integration (as opposed to assimiliation) is a ‘dynamic two-way process’ (see above, p. 14) that requires of both sides action and adjustment. What could integration mean then for heritage, and consequently professional heritage management? Would this be a kind of give and take between ‘old’ residents and ‘new’ residents, whereby they create a new, shared heritage, in which some common elements remain, and others change? While professional practices may necessarily have to start off with showing what heritage in the host society is like at the moment of arrival, do we then need practices that adapt and change as new heritage is created once refugees become settled?

 

The Integration of Refugees and Migrants through Cultural Heritage (Management) Practices

I suppose what I’m grappling with in all of the above – and I am not suggesting I have any answers here – is my deep dissatisfaction with current professional practices that compartmentalise and historicise migration and create a ‘migrant’ heritage that, while possibly represented, forever remains separate. If we are indeed in an age of migration (and I think we are) then this is not a sustainable path forward. Telling a balanced story, or ‘polyvocality’, as MeLa calls it (p. 25), is still in my view the best approach in interpretation to show all aspects of heritage, but this is not about inclusion, or more specifically integration, this is primarily about representation. To arrive at integration, we might need more – but that’s the part I’m not sure about yet. Thoughts welcome.

 

Notes

[1]

  • Question One: Which 5 recent initiatives in Europe (or elsewhere) best demonstrate the successful role of culture in promoting the inclusion of refugees and migrants? What have been the key success factors in these initiatives?
  • Question Two: What are the best ways to organize cultural activities to promote the inclusion of refugees and migrants – immediately on arrival (first six months), and in the longer term (after six months – the normal time limit for asylum procedures in the EU)?
  • Question Three: What are the 5 strongest arguments which can be made by civil society, on why and how to use culture to promote the integration of migrants and refugees? How should these arguments be framed, to justify investment in culture?

[2] This is very much one of these posts where I’m putting my thoughts out there to make sense of them. I’m fairly new to reading migration studies and migration/museum research, so bear with me and do point me to stuff you think I should consider.

[3] Although I would again argue against any segmentation on the basis of one attribute. Incidentally, so does MeLa’s report (p. 50).

[3] I want to quickly, and emphatically, add that I am not in the least devaluing those activities. Refugees in particular appear to find these very offers, of learning about the existing history and heritage in their new home, very helpful and important. It seems to be a way of familiarising themselves with this new place, to make sense of it, before they can even enter the phase where they can add their own heritages. I’m also intrigued by mapping projects, and tours that are guided by refugees, all of which actually may go a long way toward creating a new, integrated heritage, through connection to place.

[4] Small, S., 2011. ‘Slavery, Colonialism and Museums Representations in Great Britain: Old and New Circuits of Migration.’ In: Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge 9(4), pp. 117-128, p. 125

[5] See for example Waterton, E. 2010. Politics, Policy and the Discourses of Heritage in Britain. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 9.