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

 

What future?

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

 

What role?

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

 

Any role?

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

 

Here’s to the future of Europe.

 

 

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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