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Archive for the ‘Interpretation’ Category

As regular readers of this blog will know, it is my very firm belief that in heritage interpretation we must strive to tell a balanced story. This concept is also known as ‘multivocality’: presenting multiple perspectives on something.

When I discussed multivocality in interpretation with my peers in the past, I have sometimes been accused of relativism. In this line of argument, there exists an objective truth which provides legitimacy to a certain set of perspectives but not to others. To insist on the legitimacy of multiple perspectives consequently must mean to deny truth: it means to deny facts.

A few years ago, I simply dismissed such views. Study after study shows that heritage is not a clean-cut thing. We cannot pretend that heritage is always homogenous, nor can we continue to insist that it is determined by scientific values and nothing else. From post-colonial to feminist critiques, from discourse analysis and representational theory to the challenges to the Authorized Heritage Discourse coming out of critical heritage studies: we know that heritage is personal, emotional, dissonant and contested. In other words, more often than not, it is made up of multiple perspectives. And it is not, in general, based purely on facts. This is not because of any denial of facts. Rather, facts are appropriated, reinterpreted and recontextualized to acquire new meaning.

A few years ago, I would have stopped there. The studies are clear, and so is my interpretive answer. Full stop.

Except, today we are well into the post-factual age. The sector has been grappling with this for some time, and so have I. So when, a few months ago, Michiko Kakutani’s book The Death of Truth was published, I immediately read it in search for further input to help me formulate my new answer to the challenge of relativism.

It didn’t disappoint. The book provides an excellent overview of the Culture Wars in which people broke free of the unquestioned dominance of science. It also traces the development from well-founded critique of ideas of universal truth to the extreme rejection of any verifiable fact, or, as Kakutani writes, ‘the celebration of opinion over knowledge, feelings over facts’ (p. 63). From here, she steps right into a description of the post-factual age: the ‘sheer shamelessness and decibel level’ of right-wing media (p. 111) and our existence ‘sealed in impermeable filter bubbles by Facebook news and Google search data’ (p. 105). She reviews the historical strategy of propaganda based on lies and concludes that, this strategy was ‘to distract and exhaust [a nation’s] own people…to wear them down through such a profusion of lies that they cease to resist and retreat back into their private lives’ (p. 141). She sees a similar strategy applied in modern contexts, where lies are joined by bombast and sheer outrageousness, which equally wear people down until they retreat.

The sane person’s gut reaction is to insist on facts. There are facts. There are standards. There is a way to behave accordingly. And then there is everything else. Kakutani herself presents a cautionary tale when she cites a 2011 BBC Trust report which concluded that on climate change ‘the network’s science coverage paid “undue attention to marginal opinion”’ (p. 75) in the very effort to present a balanced story.

So, out with multivocality because it is incompatible with facts? After some reflection, I still say: no. First of all, we know from recent experience (and the review in Kakutani’s book makes this painfully obvious as well) that simply insisting on facts doesn’t make people accept them. Secondly, facts can be and actually are interpreted differently by different people. Facts do change according to a changing context, for example when further facts emerge. It is how science has evolved over centuries, and with it our understanding of the world. The key point to note is that a different interpretation of facts is not the same as ‘alternative facts’ or more bluntly, lies. We can have, and should promote, verifiable facts as our common ground. But we cannot insist that our interpretation of a certain fact is the only acceptable interpretation. We must not force others to adopt our attribution of meaning. We cannot ignore what we have learnt in recent decades about the influence that discourse and power relations have on reality and our perception of it. Particularly not in heritage, which is the subject that interpretation deals with.

This is where I still reject the charge of relativism against multivocality. Facts do have a place in multivocal interpretation. But to present them in an unassailable interpretation as ‘truth’ is to go backwards. And the BBC’s findings on telling a balanced story? If this were heritage, they would have been guided by heritage values of the relevant communities. The ‘marginal opinions’ would have consequently be presented as just that. Full stop.

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#MeTwo was launched on 24th July in Germany, two days after Mesut Özil had announced his retirement from the German National Football Team due to racism. I am wondering if this could be the Ferguson moment for German museums.

Why Ferguson? Because Ferguson kicked something loose. On one hand, it shone a light on continued institutional racism in the United States. It wasn’t as if we didn’t know there was racism in the US, of course. And yet with Ferguson there seemed a palpable change, with people refusing to remain silent. Not only that – there was a demand, and this demand was directed at White Americans to take responsibility and take action. And then, of course, there was the movement that it brought to the museum sector: the very thoughtful Joint Statement of Museum Bloggers, the #museumsrespondtoferguson Twitter chats, the MASS action project.

I think – I hope – that #MeTwo can have the same calvanizing effect for German museums. At the moment, I believe German museums, or more accurately the professionals that work there, are almost philosophically encumbered when it comes to acknowledging and thus dealing with racism. There is a strong self-image of enlightened liberalism based on thorough education, combined with a memory culture centred on the country’s Nazi past. Aleida Assmann wrote that this focus on the Nazis provides a type of “safety distance” which suggests that “we” are different and safe from similar behaviours. This conviction is so all-encompassing, that Fatima El-Tayeb in her book Undeutsch. Die Konstruktion des Anderen in der Post-Migrantischen Gesellschaft observes that whenever anything happens which might dent the liberal-enlightened view of German society – like racism, for example – this is laid squarely at the door of a supposed „faulty” German: from the former GDR, or Russia, or the less-educated, or, yes, the second-generation immigrant-Germans. In other words, it is constructed as not actually a German problem at all [1].

This touches on a second issue. Aleida Assman asserts that (German) historians reject the idea of a “German collective identity”, which in many ways they hold responsible for the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust. And it is certainly true that in the cultural sector, any discussion of a German identity is viewed with suspicion, and therefore generally avoided [2]. However, this very rejection of identity in relation to the dominant memory culture is, in fact, itself fundamentally about identity. This is not made visible though. Like any discourse, it has practical effects on behaviours, attitudes and people, yet these are allowed to continue to work hidden in the background without neither proper examination nor challenge.

This is where we’re beginning to come back to Mesut Özil and #MeTwo. Özil observed that whenever he is successful, he is German; when he is not, he is an immigrant. He questioned why in German discourse he cannot be both – German and Turkish; why his identification with his Turkish heritage should make his commitment to “German” values questionable and require him to continually reaffirm them. Basically, he is not only calling out a racist bias in German culture, he is raising a challenge to how we define – and live – Germanness.

These questions should be visible and debated in museums. And I am certain that this will require far more from us than just giving assurances of our (liberal, enlightened, educated) support to Germans with a migrant background, and staging exhibitions about Turkish guest workers in the 1960s. It requires rattling our own self-image and having a critical look at how our thinking, quite likely unintentionally, contributes to structural racism in Germany – or at the very least, does nothing to end it.

I take heart from the fact that a large number of publications, and in fact many mainstream politicians, too, are paying attention to #MeTwo and apparently listening. What comes of it is not yet clear, particularly in the museum sector. It is a chance, however, and one that I hope we’ll take.

Notes

[1] This, it must be emphasised, of course excludes and judges not only the people in question, but everyone else who belongs to that group.

[2] Politicians have less of an issue, as the recurring, and somewhat infamous discussion of a German Leitkultur, or guiding culture shows. What is lamentable is that this suggestion of a “German” culture and identity in many ways is just the kind of narrow and exclusive notion of identity that many in the cultural sector have in mind when they, in consequence, reject identity altogether as divisive and dangerous.

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Whenever I have presented on my vision for agonistic interpretation, that is, interpretation that strives to include all relevant views on a heritage aspect, there was at least one person in the room who challenged me: was I really proposing to include all views? Even those that are “objectionable”? What I have never once been challenged on, however, is whether positioning the museum, which I consider an equally important element of agonistic interpretation, is compatible with presenting a multivocal, somewhat balanced story. So I’m going to challenge myself here and explore this point further in this post.

To do so, I must first go back to discussing ‘neutrality’ in museums. Broadly speaking, the sector as a whole is coming to accept that museums (and heritage sites) are not neutral spaces [1]. Through curatorial selection and the very act of interpretation museums are making a statement. There is a misconception, however, that now sometimes arises: it is the idea that multivocality means an approximation of neutrality. In other words, it can seem to some that including multiple voices equates to being, at the very least, “as neutral as possible”. The underlying notion, of course, is still that neutrality is the goal we are trying to achieve in museums in the first place.

It is not. It cannot be our goal, for two reasons. For one, neutrality in any guise is an illusion. We as individuals and institutions always have a bias, period. Our bias may not be intentional, it may be an inescapable fact about ourselves like class, race or anything else that, at least for the time being, puts us in a different and likely privileged position in relation to other people in our society. Pretending that we can achieve neutrality through including other voices is therefore to deny the reality of inequality and the inherent power relations, and the very existence of the hegemonic struggle [2].

The second reason why neutrality, if it did exist, could not and should not be our goal is because as cultural institutions we have a duty to be agents in our societies. That museums do and should make an impact on society has been part of the idea of museums since they first opened their doors to ‘educate’ the public. Now we’ve taken this further, to aim for and claim impacts such as social inclusion and justice. These impacts, however, cannot be achieved through an assumed neutrality, as I have argued here. They require action, and action requires taking a stand.

Which brings me back to my question of whether we can reconcile agonistic interpretation with museums positioning themselves with regard to a certain topic. For all I have laid out above, my answer must be a resounding Yes. In fact, I’ll go one step further and argue that it is a prerequisite for successful agonistic interpretation.

By positioning our institution at the beginning (or end) of an intervention of any kind, we achieve several important outcomes: firstly, we are taking that stand necessary to take action within society and to create impact. We express our values as institutions and make it very clear what it is we believe in, what we support, and what changes in society we are seeking to affect.

This, secondly, creates much needed transparency. Transparency is about being honest and taking the agonistic exchange seriously by not pretending that our own views, biases and positions within society do not exist and did not influence our selection and presentation. Rather, this transparency goes some way to acknowledging our bias and opening ourselves to being challenged in turn.

This brings me to the third outcome, which is that by positioning ourselves we also give more credit to all other perspectives that are being presented. I believe that by taking away the usually hidden claim to and assertion of authority we create a better environment for debate. Positioning our institution signals that much of what people see, read and hear in our interpretive offer are expressions of different perspectives on reality. Our institutional perspective is but one of these. And this, fundamentally, is the core of the theory of agonistics.

 

Notes
[1] With notable exceptions, and a delightfully frank comment here.
[2] The hegemonic struggle, i.e. the struggle to win dominance over other views, is at the heart of the idea of agonistics.

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Since starting work in the museums sector in Germany, I have gained a new appreciation for the positive role funders and political decision-makers can and do make in the effort to change museums into meaningful social agents. They can be and regularly are valuable allies. So, although I share most museum professionals’ unease about the idea of being pushed in a certain direction by outside forces, in this case, I would actually welcome more definite requirements.

 

Let me explain.

 

To start off, being a social agent is most simply defined by the impact or impacts an institution has within society, and these impacts range from the more cautious to the more radical, from the three areas of the British Museum Association’s Museums Change Lives campaign to the demands formulated after Ferguson [1].

 

In Germany, ‘participation’ is the key word around which we may cluster the various discussions on this topic. The landmark case of the ‘participatory museum’ [2] is the Historisches Museum Frankfurt, which, from all I can gather, really has placed participation, in the sense of inclusion and democratization, front and centre not only of its recent redevelopment, but also its on-going operation since reopening. It is an example that is regularly cited and represented at current conferences, and rightly so.

 

However, with equal regularity, there follows a heated debate: delegates challenge and question the idea of participation, arguing that it devalues expertise, subjects museums to the yoke of plebiscite, and overall reduces quality. How far this rejection can go is illustrated in a recent comment made by Gregor Jansen, director of the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf. He criticises the expectation that ‘everything’ should be ‘sacrificed’ to ‘Vermittlung’ (interpretation, public engagement) and that institutions are expected to use ‘simple language’, which in his words is like telling an athlete not to put in too much effort [3].

 

In this environment, funders and political decision-makers have turned out to be great allies when it comes to working toward museums having a bigger and broader impact in society [4]. Decision-makers have a clear expectation: they are beholden to the public at large, not a small section with the knowledge and education required to understand highly specialised treatises on a narrow topic. They want culture (and thus museums) to be representative of a diverse society, supporting things like inclusion and integration (see for example the new German Government’s coaltion agreement here, p. 166) . The same goes for many funders, who in Germany are often associated with the public purse and building societies. Perhaps because of this broad base they, too, often have a focus on wide-spread impact.

 

In other countries, funders’ requirements have already changed the sector. There can be no doubt that the Heritage Lottery Fund’s scoring on its desired outcomes (heritage, people, communities) has altered how museums and heritage organisations in the United Kingdom approach and deliver their work. The message has always been as clear as it has been uncompromising: you either deliver on these outcomes, or you will not get funding from us.

 

German funders generally are still more subtle than that. They engage in more conversations with the sector as a matter of course than I have seen elsewhere. On one hand that is fantastic, for it is always good to be engaged in an exchange. On the other hand it means that things can move very slowly. The desired change at this rate may take a very long time, and the pressing issues we were meant to tackle – migration, radicalisation, disenfranchisement – may have moved beyond our reach by then.

 

So, despite my above reservations, in this instance, I think it would be a good thing for funders and political decision-makers to be more adamant about what it is they expect their funding to do. Why not make funding decisions dependent on a museum’s commitment to deliver just that? The impact would be one of accelerated change. And we are not talking about communicating a party manifesto here, or implementing a particular world view. Nor am I suggesting some superficial tick-boxing. Rather, in this case, it is (most) funders and decision-makers who are actually the ones that want museums to go beyond a narrow interest, and truly have an impact on society. Personally, I can only consider that to be a good thing.

 

 

Notes

[1] In case there is any doubt, I am on the more radical end of the spectrum.

[2] Nina Simon’s book of 2010 is an often referred to textbook.

[3] His choice of words is important here. It displays an underlying contempt for the people who require these sorts of interventions (interpretation, simple language). In the interview he goes on to talk about ‘Höchstleistung’, or maximum performance, as that which is hindered by all these other efforts. Clearly, to him there is only one aim to be served by museums, and that is output at the highest academic level for those who understand it. All else is an unwelcome distraction.

[4] I meet funders very regularly these days due to a major museum reorganisation complete with a new building that we are planning at my workplace. And it is in my conversations with them that I receive the greatest encouragement about what it is I am trying to do in and with museums. Not all of them, granted, but the majority.

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I am fortunate to be part of a cross-sectoral knowledge exchange project at the moment which looks at practices for working with new arrivals and minority populations [1]. We are five partners in total: two theatre companies (one from Britain, one from Italy), a business consultancy based in France, a university in Turkey and the municipal museums in Germany that I represent.

 

This mix of sectors and countries is such an asset. The project is still in its early stages, yet it is already becoming clear that each of us brings a different set of experiences and viewpoints to the table that are both determined by the respective discourses within which we locate ourselves professionally, and also by our native cultures.

 

This may seem an obvious point; and indeed it was for this reason that the partners were chosen [2]. However, the first training week in Turkey has already revealed that this will not be a simple and benign exchange. We may have expected that our different perspectives would just add up to something that the partners individually simply had not thought of yet. Instead, I am beginning to think that this project is as much about challenging each other’s certainties as it is about learning new methods from each other.

 

Take the fact that the German contingent and I didn’t actually attend the Turkey training. This was a decision based on fear: the then-German foreign minister had just warned all Germans not to travel to Turkey. Then I met the Turkish colleagues, and I quickly began to wonder about German media coverage. Yes, there seemed to be an issue. But was it really the kind of issue that they portrayed on German TV? Or was I being manipulated in the same way I was told the Turkish public were being misled?

 

The reports from participants of the training, and our subsequent discussion in the steering committee, also paint a picture of thought patterns clashing. The training was focused on a theoretical foundation for intercultural exchange. It seems that the Turkish colleagues presented a level of cultural categorisation that the other partners were uncomfortable with. Most of us have been striving to transcend cultural classifications and boundaries in our professional practices for years. We are motivated by the desire to see people first, not subjects defined by a supposedly distinct culture that more or less allows us to predict their expectations and behaviours. In other words, what was presented as a theory appears to have seemed, well, wrong, and somewhat outdated.

 

When we looked at this some more, there seemed to be a divide: the EU, or dare I say the ‘European’ partners on one hand, and the Turkish partner on the other. And some of us became uneasy: was it really ‘wrong’ and outdated what the Turkish colleagues had presented, or was this an expression of our own eurocentrism? And what does this mean in a project that looks at new arrivals, many of whom are precisely not from Europe, and therefore likely to arrive here with worldviews and values that may seem just as ‘wrong’ and outdated to us? What will our response be then?

 

Suddenly, the project is about much more than collecting good practices in working with refugees and migrants. The project is also and fundamentally about us. It has the potential to challenge and test the core of our beliefs, and thus develop a truly critical practice. For example, in my view, the discussion about the training in Turkey has already raised questions about the extent of our rejection of an assimilatory approach to the ‘integration’ of new arrivals. Our daily practice may be much more determined by our instinct to persuade someone else of what we think is right. We have already started to discuss democracy in response, and I think this will be a constant as we look at concrete practice for each of our sectors. I fully expect to be surprised and shocked in equal measure. And in all honesty: I can’t wait.

 

 

Notes

 

[1] The project is an Erasmus + experience exchange called ‘The Promised Land’. It builds on the work that three of the partners – myself included – did in 2016 during the EU Voices of Culture Structured Dialogue on the inclusion of refugees and migrants through culture. You can read the report from the dialogue here. During the project, each partner will host the other partners for a week of training. Inbetween, the steering committee meets to review progress and learning, with the aim of collating a booklet of good practice methods working with refugees and migrants.

[2] The lead partner is Border Crossings in the UK, with its ever-passionate director, Michael Walling. It was Michael and his colleague Lucy who initiated the project and approached everyone.

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Some years ago I read the US American National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 (amended 2000). In it, it states that ‘the historical and cultural foundations of the Nation should be preserved as a living part of our community life and development in order to give a sense of orientation to the American people’ (my emphasis).

Since my return to Germany, I have often thought of this idea, that heritage can and should provide people with orientation. It is a much simpler concept than those that have been adopted in most European and international policies: cultural understanding, identity, social cohesion, personal development, sense of place or sense of belonging. All of these concepts are valid, and yet in my experience of arrival in Germany, ‘orientation’ was my most immediate need, and how I began to refer to it.

This is a personal first, however. Despite having been a new arrival in several different countries and regions before, in these circumstances to date, heritage first and foremost has always been a source of information for me. I went to heritage sites and museums to learn more about this new society I was now a part of.

Heritage is often theorized in this way in the context of migration. A recent paper by Laia Colomer [1] suggests that global nomads use local or national heritage as part of a cultural first-aid kit (my words) to support their integration. They assemble these heritages into cultural capital that helps them transition between cultures. These heritages also collectively form the backdrop against which global nomads experience and define their global identity.

One might argue that orientation does play a role here, though. What I like about ‘orientation’ as a concept is this sense of mapping the world around you in relation to your own position within it. It suggests place and an awareness of this place and others in it. It implies making connections, between your existing knowledge and what is new, between yourself, others and place. It is a term of arrival and need, a process that may be activated when necessary.

There is an emotional dimension to orientation too, at the contact points to belonging, identity and cohesion. Orientation is about touching the soul of a place and a people. It is a process of empathy, of entering into the mind of the other. It is about finding that which is universally human and thus shared between this new place, its people, and us as individuals. Orientation is fundamentally about story: that which captures our imagination, which we can connect to, make our own, reuse or reinvent to fit around who we are.

To think of ‘orientation’ in heritage management and also interpretation may give us a different perspective. When understood as a dynamic physical and emotional process, as I’ve described above, it can help us provide (negotiation) space, especially for new arrivals like refugees and migrants, but also the native population. Orientation is a transitory phase, which in itself implies change: change that also needs to be allowed for in management and interpretation. Orientation also acknowledges a deeply felt need we all have at certain points in our lives. This can be a rather existential crisis, and ‘orientation’ as our guiding term recognises the meaning and use heritage has in people’s lives. In some ways, ‘orientation’ thus brings us full circle: it is a classic concept, a traditional concept, yet with a newly added layer of change in a globalised world [2].

 

Notes

[1] Colomer, L. 2017. ‘Heritage on the move. Cross-cultural heritage as a response to globalisation, mobilities and multiple migrations’. International Journal of Heritage Studies 23 (10), pp. 913 – 927

[2] There are very many pitfalls and issues here too, that I want to concede and briefly touch on. Orientation, if understood as a one-way lesson on ‘what things are like here’ cannot work. Thus my emphasis on the dynamic interplay between the person and place/others. I also wrote of the emotional element of orientation. The challenge is the sometimes very real danger that such emotion will be misappropriated and misused, particularly in a nationalistic way. This would be something to explore further, for based on my own experience with sites of very high nationalistic potential, I think it is not at all an automatic outcome of making visible and accessible an emotion – but it is a danger, and an unease that many of us feel

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At work, we are getting ready for a major redevelopment of our local history museum. It is a good opportunity to think more about what an agonistic approach to interpretive planning might entail. Most of it is not revolutionary; in one way or another much of this has been or is being discussed if not in textbooks, then at least at current conferences. Nevertheless, it might be helpful to collate some important points, and highlight a few challenges along the way.

 

Check Your Ego At the Door

Local history museums often rank low in the museum hierarchy. I think there may be a trace of professional snobbism in this: anything that is local is considered small and less important; local collections are thought mostly repetitive and undistinguished; people are believed to be just so precious about their own little corner of the world… I think this (unconscious) ranking should make us cautious, and maybe even wary of our own attitudes. In fact, in agonistic interpretive planning, I believe it is vital to constantly – and critically – check our attitudes to the heritage and people in question. These attitudes will colour what we notice as potential content in the interpretive planning process, what we ultimately choose to represent, and how we will do so. In other words, our attitudes are a major factor in the interpretive planning process, and we need to be aware of them in order to work with them responsibly. I am not suggesting that we can shed them altogether, nor do I think that necessary. However, I do believe that we must check them as carefully as we would any source of information. We will have to decide on a case by case basis  what role they play; different scenarios are possible. We just can’t allow them to play that role in hiding, in an approximation of a natural law, and in exclusion of other views.

 

Capturing a Sense of Place

Local history museums are nothing if not about the local sense of place. But herein lies the first trap: is there really only one sense of place? Doing interpretive planning agonistically around sense of place would start with the premise that while there may indeed be a dominant sense of place, upheld by a dominant group of people, there are other versions too. These are equally important and relevant. As agonistic interpretive planners it is our task to uncover all these ‘senses’ of place and create an environment where people feel that their sense of place is valued and appreciated. Of course this must be followed up by representing these different ‘senses’ of place in the museum, and that may be the toughest task yet. It is far easier to present a closed narrative of what makes a place special – in the case of our city, we might think of the architecture, or a certain lifestyle shaped by its (former) majority population of civil servants. These two narratives are actually two sides of the same coin, but things will likely look very different once we start talking to the refugees that have come to town, or the students, or anyone else that doesn’t care about architecture or an upper middle class lifestyle. To bring these senses of place together under one roof, while still making them understandable for visitors – that’s the agonistic challenge of the task.

 

Brace for Impact

A hegemony of view is a hegemony for a reason. The majority of people support it, and therefore, insisting that other perspectives are represented in (agonistic) interpretation means to potentially swim against the tide. This is an obvious point, but it has further consequences that are less often considered than perhaps they should be. It is here that I suggest agonistic interpretation must leave the well-trodden path of community-majority democracy, and insist on representation for all. This also means that agonistic interpreters drop all pretense of neutrality. They decidedly fight a corner – inclusive representation – and they do so on the grounds of a very clear ethical-moral value – to give everyone a voice. In this standpoint is also encapsulated a whole series of beliefs about what a museum is, and what role it plays in society. Again, agonistic interpretation is far removed here from the serene image of the knowledge-expert, hovering in objective distance above the mess society makes. Agonistic interpretation is clear that it takes part, that it promotes inclusivity even where this is not universally welcomed. This can be messy: I am sure in our city, too, there will be some stories and perspectives that many, if not a majority would rather leave untold. Still, if museums are to be more than frozen temples to a hegemonic view, then we must enter the fray.

 

Honour the Heritage Story

As agonistic interpretive planners search out different perspectives, it is important to still keep in mind one important aspect: heritage is heritage because (some) people make it so. A fine line is drawn through this statement, and another difficult task hides behind it. We must recognise what is a relevant heritage perspective, and what is a mere historical fact [1]. I am always reminded here of the lesson I learnt as a frontline interpreter at Culloden Battlefield in Scotland: yes, historically speaking, the Jacobite defeat at Culloden began a still unbroken period of (Royal) stability for the United Kingdom. However, if supporters of the union and what is now the House of Windsor came to Culloden at all, they certainly never identified themselves as such to me. This suggests that any Unionist/Royalist attitude wasn’t a motivating factor in visiting Culloden, and that the site held no or little place in the respective heritage. I did meet many that came because they simply were battle enthusiasts. And I met many more who came to Culloden on a pilgrimage, because the battle to them marked the beginning of a personal story of Diaspora and cultural loss. This means that planning agonistically does not mean to gather and represent every utterance about a site. It means weighing up what is heritage, and what is history.

 

 

Notes

[1] As a reminder: heritage need not necessarily be built on historical accuracy. A historical fact therefore cannot be automatically equated with heritage.

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I have recently read Fatima El-Tayeb’s book Undeutsch (‘Un-German’) [1]. As the book’s subtitle explains, the book looks at the construction of the Other in a post-migrant society [2]. The society in question is Germany, so I was particularly interested in this perspective on the country I have recently returned to.

 

I was not surprised by El-Tayeb’s observation that in Germany, too, there are many processes by which people are turned into ‘the Other’ and thus excluded and marginalised. What I was surprised by, however, was that despite my determination to not be part of these processes, in many instances I had not even been aware of them. Some are so natural, well-meaning even, that upon first reading them described as having racist undertones in the book I rejected the notion. Take the term ‘Deutsch-Türken’ (‘German-Turks’). This is the term used to describe people of Turkish descent. What could possibly be wrong with that? It’s actually an improvement on the language used when I left Germany 20 years ago. Back then, ‘they’ were generally just called ‘Turks’. Great, I thought consequently: finally Germany and its language reflect a migrant reality. These folks are German, with Turkish roots. Splendid.

 

Except, El-Tayeb argues that this linguistic construct (German-Turks) places the emphasis on the second part: they are and always will be Turks before they are German. While in the American construct (‘German-American’), the ‘German’ is merely a distinguishing adjective to a shared identity (‘American’), in the German construct the adjective is what binds us. If it is taken away, what is left is ‘the Other’. And the exclusion does not end there: this linguistic device also subtly constructs the ‘real’ German, for lack of a better word, one who doesn’t need the adjective to be German, but one who simply is German.

 

It is easy to dismiss the above as innocent language development, and El-Tayeb’s analysis as hypersensitive. It’s certainly easier than acknowledging that there may be truth in it, and that in using this language, possibly thinking we were recognising and honouring diversity, we may actually have perpetuated a subtle form of Othering. However, our good intentions do not absolve us of their negative outcomes. We don’t have to be abuse-shouting racists for our actions to have racist undertones.

 

Take another of El-Tayeb’s examples: She writes of receiving an invitation to a conference on the impact of contemporary racism in Germany. She declined to speak when she realised that all other speakers were white men. To her objection the conference organisers responded that the conference was not about the political, but the scientific engagement with racism. In other words: those affected by racism were treated as if they could speak only from the perspective of personal emotion. Others had to contribute the scientific analysis that they were thought incapable of.

 

El-Tayeb does not offer further insights into why the conference organisers responded in this way. However, we see such marginalisation a lot when the experiences of minorities challenge our self-image as open-minded, forward-thinking actors in society. While understanding and compassion for the ‘personal grief’ is readily offered, it is just as readily rationalised away. El-Tayeb points to one such mechanism when she writes about ‘Majority-German’ perpetrators of terror being dismissed as a mere ‘minority’, as not being representative of the country at all – as being ‘Undeutsch’. A ‘silent’ majority that abhors such actions is evoked to prove that despite minority experiences to the contrary, the country and its people at large are ‘good’. The underlying message is clear: we are not the right addressee for your grievance.

 

But we are. I am. El-Tayeb’s book makes it clear that we are looking at a problem of structural racism that doesn’t stop with a linguistic construct like ‘Deutsch-Türken’. The concepts reach deep into our heads and it is there that we need to start tackling these issues. We all have biases, even if rationally we don’t want to have them. And we all have a natural and understandable instinct to want to see ourselves as ‘good’. Yet we must resist the urge to become defensive as soon as someone criticises something about us or about our country. This still happens a lot in our profession – maybe especially in our profession, where the very root of the philosophy we have been raised on is a near-metaphysical good that is hardly ever questioned: protection, understanding, appreciation. If we serve this good, how could we possibly partake in racist structures? It seems near inconceivable, and yet the reality is that we do. What is more, in our profession the impact of our beliefs and actions carry far beyond our own personal sphere. For this reason, we have a particular responsibility. Maybe it is time we spent less effort on fixing ‘others’ through what we offer them, and more effort on ‘fixing’ our biases.

 

Notes

[1] El Tayeb, F., 2016. Undeutsch. Die Konstruktion des Anderen in der Postmigrantischen Gesellschaft. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag

[2] The German Federal Centre for Political Education defines a post-migrant society as one in which:

‘(a) Social change towards a heterogeneous underlying structure has been acknowledged (“Germany is a country of immigration”) regardless of whether this transformation is seen as positive or negative, (b) Immigration and emigration are recognized as phenomena that have a tremendous impact on the country, which can be discussed, regulated and negotiated but not reversed,

(c) Structures, institutions and political cultures are adapted ex post to the identified migration reality (i.e., post-migration), resulting in, on the one hand, greater permeability and upward mobility but, on the other hand, also in defensive reactions and distributional conflicts.’ (source: http://www.bpb.de/gesellschaft/migration/kurzdossiers/205295/post-migrant-society. Accessed: 19.11.2017)

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I would normally consider it my duty and responsibility to attend the Interpret Europe (IE) conference in Scotland taking place from 3 to 6 October [1].  Since I will not be there, I want to explain my decision in this post [2].

 

I disagree with the decision to hold IE’s first annual conference after the  vote for Brexit in the United Kingdom. It is true that Interpret Europe does not define what constitutes ‘Europe’ for its purposes. However, much of IE’s work is focused on the frameworks of the EU and much has been made of recent successes in working with EU institutions and representatives – and rightly so [3].

 

I do not believe in an abstract sense of ‘Europe’. The only European nation there is is the European Union. The only European citizenship there is is citizenship of the EU. And so I support Pulse of Europe in defining ‘Europe’ exclusively as the ‘EU’. I support their fight, which is a fight for the EU, and not any other construct of ‘Europe’. It is now more than ever that we must stand up for this project that is the European Union [4].

 

Going to the UK now sends the wrong signal, as far as I’m concerned. It suggests that when all is said and done, ceasing to be a member of the EU will change nothing – you will still be part of ‘Europe’, which is why Interpret Europe will come to you for a European Conference on Heritage Interpretation.

 

I know that some in IE see going to the UK at this point in time as a symbol of defiance, a gesture of resistance by the cultural sector. It is meant to say, You will not divide what belongs together. But there is a deep irony in this. The cultural sector in Britain was woefully complacent during the EU referendum. To anyone paying attention, it had been clear for months, if not years, that the political climate in the country had changed, and Brexit was a real possibility. From UKIP to the Immigration Act, things had been happening in the UK that went against everything the cultural sector claimed to stand for: promoting understanding, providing inclusion, supporting equality. And yet there was utter silence from all quarters, publicly and privately.

 

When the Brexit vote happened, a shockwave went through the cultural sector. Suddenly, people everywhere were saying that they wanted to stay in the EU and that the whole campaign had been reprehensible. I understand the sentiment – trust me, I do. But at the same time I do lack sympathy. The sector not only had its chance, it had a duty. And it did not come up to scratch. So while I feel for British colleagues who now face losing their European citizenship and all the rights that come with it, my concern is for the EU. I want to do everything in my power to protect and nurture the EU. And I am prepared to put everything else secondary, including reassuring British colleagues that they will not be excluded and to that end taking the Interpret Europe conference to their country despite the decision for Brexit.

 

The matter would be entirely different if the theme of the conference were the social and political responsibility of interpretation in the context of the Brexit vote [5]. We need this kind of critical and uncompromisingly honest self-assessment, because if anything, the Brexit referendum revealed considerable gaps between our ideals of interpretation and our practice. Let’s talk about that. Let’s grapple with what happened, why the cultural sector remained silent, why only a few months before the Brexit vote, British colleagues seemed surprised to hear of my fear and devastation in the face of the constant anti-immigrant rhetoric. Taking a stand is difficult, I know. But there is something seriously and deeply amiss when our vision papers say one thing, and our actions (or lack thereof) something else entirely. For me, the question that will move us forward now is not, ‘How can we stay together?’ It is, ‘How the heck could we let this happen in the first place?’ Because the answers will be important to interpreters everywhere, including in Germany right now.

 

However, I am not sure I would have returned to Scotland for this conference whatever the theme. The reason is that I cannot bear to go back to the place that was my chosen home, and from which I was expelled by a hostile environment. There are real victims to this failure of our sector to respond to the challenge it faced. I don’t know if it could have prevented the vote for Brexit, and thus my leaving. But it sure would have made a difference to me personally.

 

Interpret Europe taking its first conference since the vote for Brexit to the very place that rejected Europe and vilified European citizens, without addressing what happened, feels like a personal and professional betrayal all over.

 

Notes

[1] The reason is that I am IE’s Research Co-Ordinator. Technically, the conference is a joint conference with the British Association of Heritage Interpretation, or AHI. However, it is the only “conference” that IE (co-)hosts this year, and IE’s General Assembly will take place there. The conference’s URL is also the usual http://www.interpreteuropeconference.net/. In other words, it is also IE’s annual conference – there is no other.

[2] I did briefly mention my concern about taking this conference to Inverness in an email to IE in September 2016. However, I was not involved in previous discussions about the conference, which apparently began in November 2015. The final agreement with AHI wasn’t signed until October 2016 – plenty of time, therefore, to take Brexit into account.

[3] The notion of “European values” has also been an important aspect of IE’s recent work, and IE point out that these are shared by the Council of Europe also. The Council of Europe is of course larger than the EU.

[4] I feel so strongly about this that I feel the need to reiterate this point once again: The UK may consider itself to still be a part of Europe after Brexit. That, however, is no Europe that holds any meaning for me. I want the European Union. Not the Council of Europe. The European Union. I want a future for the EU as even closer together, stronger. Not giving up our national identities, but more integrated, a federal union.

[5] The topic of the conference is ‘Making Connections: Re-imagining Landscapes’. There is no reference to Brexit on the conference website. This, to me, is utterly unacceptable. There has also been the suggestion that a prime motivation for holding this conference in Scotland now was to celebrate the 10 year anniversary of AHI’s The Vital Spark conference. If that is indeed the case, then I am, simply put, speechless. To completely ignore one of the most seismic events since the Second World War in Europe for an anniversary just flies in the face of all our profession supposedly stands for.

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Karl May and his creation, the fictional Apache chieftain Winnetou, make a great example of heritage that is built on appropriated selections of the past, not necessarily one’s own and not necessarily historically accurate either, for a purpose that is far removed from the original source. It is an example of heritage as emotional, social and as a process, and it is also an example of heritage as dissonant.

 

If you weren’t raised in the German-speaking world, you won’t know Karl May or Winnetou, and to you it will likely seem clear-cut once I explain: a 19th-century chap from Saxony who’d never set foot on American soil invents a Native American world. It is a world with flat, stereotypical characters that nearly two centuries later are still cherished by Germans, historical inaccuracies and cultural stereotypes be damned. Evidently, this is cultural appropriation of the worst kind, and an insufferable white European simplification of history that – typical! – refuses to engage with the shameful reality of colonisation of the American continent.

 

And you wouldn’t be wrong, either. In July, I took my mother to the Karl-May-Festspiele, where they put on an elaborate open-air theatre adaptation of one of May’s stories. There, you have everything that would make any Native American’s blood boil: non-Native actors wearing black long-haired wigs to impersonate Native characters, with dubious representations of Native American spiritual traditions. It was bad, and it made me squirm.

 

That is, until Winnetou rode onto the stage, accompanied by the opening theme of the famous 1960s movie adaptations, which have been part of most Germans’ upbringing in one way or the other, and I found myself wiping away tears. You see, that is the thing about Karl May and Winnetou: it is not about Native American reality, past or present. It is about a German cultural phenomenon, a series of stories and also a series of films that have accompanied most Germans through their childhood.

 

I would suggest it is these memories of childhood that still make Karl May and Winnetou such a strong component of German popular culture. The stories’ universal motifs of adventure and friendship also play a role, no doubt, as does the exotic escapism they provide. However, I think for many adults it is less about the actual content of the stories than it is about that which they remind them of. It’s about what the stories and the Festpiele allow us to do: like my mother and I, I saw lots of families with and without children around, and they laughed and spent time together. Winnetou was a conduit for something else; a gathering, a bonding, a memory and an identity shared and reaffirmed.

 

It is not about Native American reality. This also became clear around Christmas last year, when one of the broadcasters showed their new adaptation of the Winnetou trilogy. The first clue was in the trailer: referencing not only the books, but also the 1960s films along with the title theme, it announced that, ‘Every generation has its Winnetou’ [1].  But, as the director pointed out, this Winnetou is ‘not a real Indian’ [2]. He is a ‘totally romanticised idea of being an Indian’. And that’s why he didn’t cast an indigenous actor, the director said when pressed on the matter, because ‘this somewhat fairy-tale character’ of Winnetou couldn’t be captured by a Native American.

 

I actually think he’s right. An indigenous actor would have forced a different gaze onto this story. He would have brought with him the demand and the necessity to make it realistic, and making it realistic would have meant to make it different. And with that difference it would have ceased to be Winnetou and part of German heritage. For Winnetou to stay Winnetou it needed not only an Albanian actor, as was the case this time [3], but also a return to the Croatian landscape of the previous films, standing in for the American Southwest. Winnetou, you see, also has a European dimension. In a bizarre way, this fits right in with Germany’s post-WWII identity.

 

As I said, it’s a German story. Karl May’s legend, of him having been in jail, of not having been to the US before writing the books, and of having lived in a bit of a dreamworld of his own making, is as much part of it as are Winnetou and all the other characters in May’s stories. All these ingredients come together to form a unique little package of German culture.

 

But.

 

The story’s origins are still a romanticisation, and thus a misrepresentation of another culture. Such a misrepresentation is not a harmless thing; it suppresses, denies, and colonises. If tomorrow it weren’t hundreds of thousands of Syrians coming to live in Germany, but Native Americans, and if they felt insulted, because this part of the story for them outweighs the ingredient that is Karl May, then what? Would I let go of it, of the great opportunity it offers to connect with my mother and my childhood? I honestly don’t know.

 

Notes

[1] I wonder whether these films will become the new cultural reference for a new generation. They didn’t do it for my mother and I.

[2] I’m using this term here, ‘Indian’, because in German ‘Indianer’ is the term they use. It sounds a bit rude to my ears, though.

[3] In the 60s, it was a French actor who played Winnetou. Oh, and the German was played by an American. I love it.

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