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Archive for the ‘Interpretation’ Category

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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On 11th November 2020, there was a short debate in the UK House of Commons on the future of the National Trust in England and Wales. It is worth analysing in particular the contributions of the debate’s initiator. They make for a textbook lesson on history vs. heritage, the power structures of hegemonies, and why professional heritage interpretation needs to be based in polyvocality where applicable.

Dr Andrew Murrison complains that a Trust report on the connections between the Trust’s properties in care, and colonialism and historic slavery ‘diminishes towering figures in British history, notably Winston Churchill…a man who, more than any other, stood against fascism, racism and antisemitism’.

Dr Murrison does not challenge the facts presented in the report about Winston Churchill [1]. His critique, implied but not made explicit, is that these facts are given importance. To him, the facts that should be stressed are presumeably that Churchill fought and won against Nazi Germany – thus his reference above to what Churchill, in his eyes, stands for. This is a selective focus and emphasis: Dr Murrison stresses some historical facts, while he mutes others. The facts that he gives importance to convey a meaning and a narrative, namely, about what Britain stands for, and therefore about what it means to be British. We call this heritage values.

The above illustrates a key element of the definition of heritage: it is selective, it tells a story about identity/identities, and it is consequently emotionally charged. Dr Murrison’s statements also highlight that heritage is not history. It is not an attack on history that he objects to (i.e. the facts); rather, it is what he perceives as an attack on his heritage (i.e. the valuing of certain facts), although again, he does not make that clear (and I’m arguing below that this is a function of hegemony).

Dr Murrison criticises that in his view, the facts in the report, i.e. those that challenge his heritage values, are not given sufficient context. This might at first glance be mistaken as the call for polyvocality. It isn’t. Instead, it is an example of hegemonic power structures at work.

Dr Murrison actually dismisses the giving of context on site as unnecessary. At length he argues that at country houses, the ‘inequality’ on which they were built (note the euphemistic choice of word here) ‘is there and it is in your face’. To point it out, he suggests, is to ‘force-feed’ visitors. He says, ‘It is also plain to most visitors that the wealth required to throw up those mini-palaces did not often come from a post office savings account.’

This phrase in particular is very informative. Dr Murrison does not acknowledge, even in words, the true source of this wealth – slavery, colonialism, with all the pain these exploitative structures caused. In his sentence, he not only obscures what might otherwise be a true challenge to his heritage values, i.e. his positive narrative of what Britain stands for, but he dismisses it completely through flippancy (‘a post office savings account’).

Dr Murrison goes even further than this. He suggests that at country houses and other Trust properties, no interpretation of history is required at all. Again, it is instructive to note that he arrives at this conclusion through reference to his own experience only, assuming that most other people’s will be the same. He states that the purpose of visiting a National Trust property is ‘to admire an elegant pile of bricks or a beautiful landscape before going for a nice cup of tea and a slice of cake – job done, and happy days’.

Dr Murrison is full of praise for a 2013 English Heritage report on Slavery and the British Country House. So let us turn to that report in the attempt to understand Dr Murrison’s statement better. The report notes that, ‘The British country house, that symbol of refinement, connoisseurship and civility, has long been regarded not only as the jewel in the nation’s heritage crown, but as an iconic signifier of national identity’ (p. 13). That, then, is the value widely associated with country houses such as the National Trust care for: they are a representation of a national identity that sees Britishness as being refined, being civil, and being connoisseurs. Without additional interpretation, that is what a country house stands for. They are their own interpretation.  

I do not know if this is in fact the heritage value that Dr Murrison shares – he does not make his values transparent except for objecting to interpretation based on the Trust’s report (and movements such as Black Lives Matter). However, since the above is the hegemonic value, the issue as stated remains. Consequently, to suggest that no further interpretation needs to be offered is to defend the status quo.  

That is of course the aim of all hegemonies: to preserve themselves, by dismissing, suppressing and keeping invisible the values of others. But it cannot be the aim of professional heritage interpretation. Nor is it in the interest of the cohesion of increasingly diverse societies.

What must happen instead is precisely what the National Trust has done: we need to collect all historical facts, even where they are inconvenient to the hegemonic heritage values. And we need to engage with relevant heritage communities who contest these values in order to understand theirs. And then we must push to have these values acknowledged and represented also.

Crucially, this is not just so that currently margenialised views can be appeased, as Dr Murrison implies. Rather, it is an intrinsic part of a pluralist democracy and its ongoing agonistic struggle. It makes possible the renegotiation of heritage, and the creation of new heritages as diverse societies come together as one.

At the end of such a process, we may well arrive where Dr Murrison claims to be today: at a glorious state of shared and equal reclaiming of the places that were built on inhuman exploitation and pain suffered. Perhaps these country houses will then no longer stand for an idealised vision of a wealthy and civilised Britain full of beauty and art. Instead, they may represent a nation’s courageous and just struggle toward reconciliation over a shared past that for some was brutal.

Personally, I think that’s the better Britain.  

Notes

[1] The report notes that Churchill was Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1921 to 1922; that he was PM during the Bengal Famine of 1943 for which Britain has been heavily criticised; and that he opposed the Government of India Act in 1935 and Indian independence in 1947, which ended three hundred years (!) of colonial rule (p. 55 of the report).

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Just over a year ago, I moved back to the south of Germany, and specifically the Swabian Alps, where I was born and grew up. One unexpected aspect of this has been my awareness of the landscape and culture here, and their impact on my experience of home, heritage and Heimat.

Home

I haven’t lived here for the better part of 20 years, and yet I felt immediately at home. The landscape played a big part in this: it was familiar, with practical implications. The land has been shaped by agricultural practices in ways that I know and understand. This in turn means that my expectations about how paths cut across the land are generally correct, and I can find my way around. In contrast, when I lived in the north of Germany, I got lost regularly because my chosen direction was blocked by ditches or boggy ground. I had the almost physical sensation of rebalancing once I was back on the rocks of the Swabian Alps.

I also felt immediately at home among the people here: they speak my dialect, and they do things in a way that I recognise and appreciate. I felt immediately in sync with them.

Now, I have felt at home in other places, too. Whenever I think of Scotland, for example, I feel homesick, I miss it so much. And still, it had a different quality that I cannot quite put my finger on. Perhaps it has something to do with the next two concepts.

Heritage

I don’t come from the field of natural heritage. The way in which the heritage aspect of nature has generally been explained to me was in terms of the study of the natural world – ecology, geography, zoology. I have always struggled to see why this is considered heritage, for I understand heritage as a human process. Now that I am back on the Swabian Alps, however, I suddenly do have a sense of heritage that is connected to nature. I feel connected to this landscape in ways that are shaped by my own memories of people and events against the backdrop it provides. I cherish it, and derive comfort from it. It is a factor in how I experience my own identity, and how it is established by others. In fact, I remembered a term that was applied to people like myself at my first university: someone who ‘has come down from the Alps’. It was meant as an insult, but I now take pride in it: yes, I hail from this beautiful place. Isn’t it awesome? [1]

Although I felt a similar sense of identification with the Scottish Highlands, I would hesitate to call the Highlands my heritage in the ways that I am experiencing the Swabian Alps. Maybe, after a few more years, that might have changed: heritage, after all, is also created and evolving.

However, I am not entirely sure, and that’s because of the last concept I want to explore.

Heimat

Heimat is of course a German term. There is no agreed translation into English. I used to think it’s similar to heritage, but now that I am back here in the south of Germany, I no longer think that’s correct. My experience of Heimat is largely constituted in a sense of instinctive familiarity, about place, about people, their customs and their mentality. I need no explanation. Just as importantly, I also feel that those around me view me with the same instinctive familiarity. As I recognize myself in them, I feel they recognize themselves in me. It is this mirroring, this element of belonging to each other, that to me make this place Heimat.  

Mind, none of this necessarily means that I identify with what I am familiar with here, or that I like it (although incidentally, I do). But it is, still, my Heimat, undeniably so to myself and to others [2].

Fluid stages of being human

Home, heritage, Heimat: I described these concepts as separate, but there are many overlaps, and indeed perhaps one leads into the other. As time passes, and we spend time in new places with new people, we may move from home to heritage to Heimat. We may even have been gifted those places and people through our families: our parents and grandparents.

The point is, the last year has been a very personal experience of these concepts that I have spend much of my professional life considering. And it’s been such a wonderful and healing experience.

Notes

[1] I do feel reminded here of a conversation with my doctorate supervisor, Rodney Harrison, about his concept of the ontology of connectivity. The landscape here is, of course, the non-human actor that plays such an important role in creating heritage.

[2] In fact, when I lived in the north of Germany, my being from the south was always a topic of conversation raised by others. It was clear that ‘the north’ was not my Heimat, and that the people around me weren’t prepared to pretend otherwise either.

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A local project invited me to write an article on culture for an imaginary newspaper in 2030. It got me thinking about what I hope (German) museums will be like then [1]. Here are my thoughts.

 

In 2030, as soon as I step through the doors of a museum, it is clear that this is a place for discussing the past, negotiating the present and imagining the future. This is a lively space, open and welcoming, with stuff going on right there in the entrance area. In the exhibition, it’s obvious that the relevant (heritage) communities have had a huge say in creating this space. There is transparency: I always know whose voice I am hearing when. Polyvocality is everywhere, giving me the opportunity to engage with all the different perspectives on this heritage, even where they are contradictory or controversial. I am able to respond to what I see/hear/do, and I can leave my own traces for visitors that will come after me. This exhibition is a reflection of the rich and diverse fabric of heritage expressions and our society, and I and everyone else become part of it.

 

The museum that is about my heritage in 2030 creates plenty of opportunities for me to do heritage work. I can engage with, express, reaffirm, and reinvent my sense of heritage and thus my place within this society. The museum knows that this is precisely it’s job: to facilitate engagement and heritage work. There are no preferred readings here. It’s a place of making visible what may otherwise be hidden. It’s a place of negotiation.

 

A museum in 2030 is consequently all about people and providing an infrastructure for the above. It is not about collections. In fact, the most progressive museums no longer have their own collections at all. They focus on facilitating a third space, leaving collecting, research and collections care to archives, libraries and universities. What objects they need for an exhibition, they either crowd-source or borrow from other collection holders.

 

This is also reflected in staff expertise. The best museum directors and curators in 2030 are those who entirely blend into the background. They are outstanding at supporting (heritage) communities in expressing what is relevant to them and their societies; they facilitate co-created exhibitions and activities to the highest interpretive standards and so create opportunities for visitors. Interviews with these celebrated museum folks focus on the input from (heritage) communities and the relevance of the outputs to these communities and visitors. The previously called ‘subject specialists’ have migrated to other institutions along with the collections they were experts on.

 

In 2030, every museum has detailed knowledge of their visitors’ and staff profiles, particularly around ethnicity (in German ‘migrant background’) and socio-economic background. Museums understand that this is the prerequisite to ensuring there are no lingering racist biases within their structures and processes. In fact, any museum unable to produce such data stops receiving any public funding because the task is clear: a museum must be fully representative of, and fully serve, the whole of their society in all its diversity. So, when I search for the percentage of museum directors with a ‘migrant background’ this information is not only immediately available, I also find out that yes, the proportion is about the same as people ‘with migrant background’ in our society as a whole.

 

The same is true for audiences. Consequently, in 2030, every museum has an Audience Development Plan alongside a stringent Audience Research Programme.

 

In 2030, museums understand that they themselves have sometimes troubling histories; that they are part of socio-political hegemonies, and that they are as receptive to behaviours detrimental to inclusion and equality as other institutions. Therefore, they are in a constant process of self-reflection, constantly rechecking and recalibrating their efforts so that they remain the polyvocal, democratic and representative third spaces they intend to be.

 

And finally, in 2030 I am no longer forced to leave my coat and hand over my handbag because the museum will actually treat me as an adult.

 

 

Notes

[1] I am primarily thinking of museums here that traditionally fall into the broad category of ‘history’ museums. Art museums that present art as cultural heritage will be similar in 2030 to what I describe in this post, at least I hope so. Art museums that present art ‘just’ as art, well, I would like to consider that separately. However, since I come from a cultural heritage background, that’s not where my immediate interest lies. Maybe another time.

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Last week I came out of my personal, Corona pandemic-induced paralysis by presenting a paper at the Interpret Europe web conference. My topic was agonistic (third) spaces, and in preparing the presentation, I felt that creating such spaces is now more important than perhaps ever before.

 

I have already blogged about agonistic interpretation and agonistic spaces here. In summary, an agonistic space is a space in which those views generally obscured and obliterated by the dominant consensus are made visible, and those who are silenced within the framework of the existing hegemony are given a voice [1].

 

Through an excellent Erasmus + project that I was fortunate to be part of between 2017 and 2019 I became aware of the concepts of Third Place and Third Space. Third Place is an idea that goes back to American urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg. In short, he speaks of our homes as the first place, our work places as the second, and the third place are communal spaces such as cafés. For Oldenburg, those third places are crucial for community cohesion: they are social levellers, where we are all equal and where we can discuss and shape our communal futures together.

 

Personally, I have always felt that Oldenburg’s idea of the impact of such third places is exaggerated. Although I think that he does have a strong point about the need to create physical spaces that are perceived as generally open to all, I think more needs to happen in those spaces to truly deliver equality and shared agency. This is where Third Space theory comes in. It was Homi Bhabha who promoted the idea of the third space as what I like to describe as a facilitated space. Reminiscent of representation theory, Bhabha argues that in the third space culture is co-created as all involved bring to bear their own cultural concepts upon the conversation and creation taking place.  Bhabha comes from post-colonial theory, so an important element of his concept is that in the third space, the past with all its injuries and representations is (I’m paraphrasing here) actualised in the present and thus (now we’re back to agonistic spaces) made visible. Only in pausing and examining the underlying representations and dynamics of the past can true equality and shared agency, and thus co-creation of communal futures happen.

 

I argue that creating agonistic (third) spaces is the purpose of (agonistic) heritage interpretation. In these spaces, the representations inherent in heritage, their origins, contexts and present-day impacts are made visible. In doing so, we also give a voice to those heritage communities whose heritage values are not part of the dominant consensus. In turn, the performance, negotiation and (re-)creation of heritage in and by diverse communities is made possible. Therefore, an agonistic space is the prerequisite for the democratization of heritage management and interpretation. Considered more widely, agonistic (third) spaces are the prerequisite for a pluralist democracy, of which heritage management is a part.

 

Regularly, when I speak about the need for agonistic interpretation, that is, interpretation that gives voice to diverse views, some in the audience will raise the issue of ‘hate speech’. This was also the case in the discussion that followed my talk last week. The fear is that an agonistic space may become a platform for extremists and haters. While I understand that fear, I am troubled by the fact that extremism is what we end up discussing – rather than the everyday occurrence of minority views being muted by the dominant consensus. I believe that that, too, is an expression of the hegemonies of which we as interpreters, educators and managers are a part. We know – or could learn – how to respond to hate speech. Hate speech is not the pressing issue in this case. In focusing on hate speech, we are turning a blind eye to marginalisation and the many real ways in which it impacts on our societies. Brexit, Trump – these are all recent examples of the outcome of this process, and Coronavirus may turn out to give rise to yet another. We must become facilitators of agonistic (third) spaces if we want to avoid further splits in our societies.

 

Notes
[1] Mouffe, C., 2014. Agonistics. Thinking the world politically. London and New York: Verso, p. 93.

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