Posts Tagged ‘intangible heritage’

Recently, I strolled through my local woods and came across a carved Irminsul leaning against a tree some way back from the path. Intrigued, I made my way over, to find that the Irminsul had runes carved across the top. Now, my rune reading skills are a little rusty. But after a while I established that two people had been married here and this marker left as a witness.


I was absolutely thrilled at this point, and also a little disturbed. I was thrilled because this was such an unexpected display of heritage. It was the first of May, too, a day which in Germany is full of traditions, from Maypoles to dances. That had already made me think about intangible heritage, and what importance it has in creating not only a sense of identity but also a sense of place. Through the First of May events going on all around me, it really felt like being back in Germany proper. It was, and felt, entirely different from all the other places I had lived in.


The Irminsul of course has further interesting layers. I have come across this symbol before since returning to Germany. I found out at the time that it is meant to represent an actual column of sorts which in the 8th century AD stood in a town in North Rhine-Westphalia. What exactly it represented, or what purpose it served, cannot, as far as I understand, be established through any historical sources.


In other words, for the Irminsul to be used today means a reappropriation and reconstruction, and certainly to a degree a reinvention that fills in the blanks of a past symbol and associated meaning. And in this way, it illustrates a lot of what has been written about heritage as a selection and appropriation of the past for present-day needs. In the case of the Irminsul in the woods, for the couple that placed it there it clearly has a ritualistic meaning, perhaps a religious one, and perhaps one that connects them to the time and people of the historic column.


Here is where my discomfort had its root. For of course, we’re talking about a German context here. And the last time I came across this symbol was in a news item about an Irminsul that had been erected on top of a protected, natural stone formation called Externsteine on New Years Day this year. Unlike the Irminsul in the woods that I found, this one was painted in white, red and black, colours that were used by the German Reich (although in a different order). For this reason, but also because the symbol is used by a neo-nazi organisation in Germany, the Irminsul was seen as a right-wing symbol, and the Staatsschutz,  a special police force dealing with politically motivated crime, went to investigate.


On one hand, one might of course argue that any symbol can be misused by anone. After all, even the Arthurian legend, of generally harmless association in the UK, is shamelessly misused by clearly far-right groups, without the tale itself being tarnished. But the sensitivities and fears are strong in Germany when it comes to anything potentially far right. And so in the news article about the Irminsul on top of the Externsteine, management of the monument put right-wing, reactionary positions in one sentence with all and any interpretation of the site that is not fully scientifically proven, saying that they equally distanced themselves from both [1]. Thus the connection is made: the symbol is intrinsically suspicous, the right-wing interpretation the most likely.


The discursive process that begins its work, then, is a forced framing of a symbol that in itself really has no association whatsoever with right-wing views. Objectively speaking, one must acknowledge that with so little known about the historic Irminsul, one may disagree with the reappropriation, reproduction and reinvention of the symbol and its meanings by some folks, but one cannot reasonably assign to them a far-right attitude by default. And while the Irminsul on top of the Externsteine had other characteristics that do seem to make a far-right intention likely, never mind disrespecting a scheduled monument, the strength of this reframing applied to all uses of the symbol quickly becomes a form of censorship.


I was relieved when I realised the runes on the Irminsul I saw in the woods merely referred to a wedding celebration. I was relieved because actually, in the back of my mind I had applied that censure. And that makes me wonder about the impact of such ever-present pressure on this couple’s practice, assuming, as I have every reason to do, that they are not, in fact, right-wing radicals. It is an impact that also lacks objective justification in and of itself, just as the scientists accuse reconstructions and reappropriations of lacking a scientific basis. As I found out, it clearly puts groups in a position where they feel they must justify themselves (which is of course what many people constantly demand of Muslims today as well).


As a society, and definitely as heritage managers, we should be weary of allowing such processes to run their course without critical examination. A more distinguishing attitude is called for, and I cannot help but feel that this is a task for interpretation: to represent the diverse perspectives without pre-judgment, and to help people gain the skills to be critical for themselves, and to not jump to any conclusions.



[1] I could write here about the Authorized Heritage Discourse asserting itself in this attitude. But that’s not the point of this post.

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Yesterday I attended ICOMOS-UK’s World Heritage for Tomorrow conference that marked the 40th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention.  For me, the most interesting theme that ran through the presentations and discussions was the apparent tension between tangible and intangible heritage, and how to deal with it within a system that is concerned with designation.

Baroness Andrews, Chair of English Heritage, opened the conference with reflections on what the impact of the World Heritage Convention has been nationally. What struck me about her speech was a statement she made about heritage being finite: ‘we’re not making it anymore,’ she said.  She didn’t elaborate, so I’m not clear about what exactly she meant by this.  For even if we narrowly define heritage as tangible, and as buildings or monuments in particular, then surely that statement isn’t true.  We are still creating amazing buildings, if not monuments, all around the world.  Should these not be considered heritage?  Should we only assign heritage status to things that are hundreds of years old? My answer is a resounding no, but perhaps this is still the underlying concept of heritage that powers the World Heritage List – even despite inscriptions of sites of more recent history.

At least this is what I gleaned from the two speakers that followed Baroness Andrews. Susan Denyer is World Heritage Advisor at ICOMOS, and she talked about how the understanding of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) has changed since 1972.  She said that people’s views about the values of a site are receiving more consideration, but it is the World Heritage Committee that decides what the Outstanding Universal Value of a site is – in other words, those values that make it relevant to all of humankind. Denyer emphasised that the committee recognises that the OUV isn’t fixed: it changes over time.  Consequently, inscription is merely a statement about OUV at that particular point in time.  The question that she left unanswered was what consequence this has for the enduring relevance of the World Heritage List.  Shouldn’t we review it regularly, and change inscriptions, or delist sites altogether?  Professor Christina Cameron of the University of Montreal reported that a 25-year review cycle has been suggested, but so far, no commitment has been made to this.  In my opinion, this is a clear statement.  It does imply a view of heritage as something of the past: It can be assessed and fixed in time, and the present’s claim on it takes a backseat to what experts have declared its overwhelming value.

The other interesting question that arose in Denyer’s talk was that of intangibility: can ‘sacred nature’, she asked, ever be seen and inscribed as heritage?  She implied that this concept of sacred nature was not associated with tangible attributes.  Leaving aside for the moment whether or not this is so, Denyer’s answer to the question was no, we cannot see or inscribe something as heritage without tangible attributes.  The World Heritage List ultimately is about place.  She’s probably right about this, but the question that this raises for me is again one of relevance.  Can the World Heritage List, which seems so concerned with expert values about materiality, really be meaningful to the rest of us?  Or are we actually dismissing the listing, or at best using it as another version of the Visit Britain awards?

That is in a nutshell what James Rebanks of Rebanks Consulting suggested.  He’s done quite a bit of research into the benefits of World Heritage Status (WHS), and unsurprisingly he found that WHS alone doesn’t do anything – it’s about how you use it (well, and what your starting point is too).  One of the key benefits of WHS emerged to be as a label, both for attracting funding and for marketing.  It could also serve as place-making, in that the process of submitting a site for subscription requires those preparing the submission to do a lot of work with people.  For Rebanks, heritage is first and foremost about local people.  He gently criticised many authorities responsible for using heritage for the public good for narrowly focusing on tourism.  I found it really refreshing that he made a point that we don’t hear often: tourism doesn’t bring jobs of high value, and the money a heritage site brings in isn’t actually spent at the site, but entirely around it, in the infrastructures of transport and accommodation.  It was great to see someone being unashamedly economic about assessing heritage benefits, and yet coming to an insight that many heritage professionals still don’t have: that the value of heritage lies in what the people think, not in experts’ assessments of material attributes.

To a degree, this was also echoed by Adam Wilkinson, Director of Edinburgh World Heritage.  He didn’t talk much about tangible versus intangible, or expert versus people values of heritage.  In a way, it seemed that in Edinburgh they know that what makes Edinburgh special is all of the above together – there was no need to take it apart.  Wilkinson talked about restoration projects and projects with disaffected youth, and most importantly, he made the point that heritage is about how you use it.  What came through very strongly was the need to work with all the stakeholders, because, as Wilkinson said, ‘if we try to go it on our own we fail.’

So getting back to the question of tangible versus intangible, it seemed to me that those actually working with sites – trying to manage them for people, rather than being concerned with inscription – have a much more fluid understanding of heritage.  It may be that materiality is an unfortunate concept that we cannot escape when talking about listing, and all the historic overviews that we got at the conference made it very clear that conservation of fabric, and thus listing, is important if we want to have a framework to guide our day-to-day decisions about planning and development.  And yet, I worry that this material concept of heritage is actually sabotaging our effectiveness when keeping heritage alive.  For me, all heritage is intangible, but generally linked to a tangible attribute, such as place.  That’s not even a philosophical issue for me, but perhaps we need to make it one.

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