Searching for the Soul of ‘National Heritage’ in 2014

 In October 2012, during a speech in the Imperial War Museum, PM David Cameron outlined plans to spend £50 million to support the commemoration of the Centenary of the First World War in 2014: http://www.number10.gov.uk/news/speech-at-imperial-war-museum-on-wwi/

These activities will see a complete overhaul of the permanent galleries of the Imperial War Museum itself, but most of the spend will be on schools programmes and community initiatives across the country, running alongside some central ‘set pieces’ to commemorate significant events, such as the first day of the Battle of the Somme, and the unofficial ‘armistice’ and legendary football match on Christmas Day 1914. Even 100 years after the actual events, the First World War has an immediate resonance with people. This is heritage that can do things. The idea of heritage having ‘agency’ – in the present and for the future – is not new, but these are interesting times for the ‘soul of national heritage’ within these islands, and so the stakes appear to be higher than usual.

I am sure the sentiment to use the Centenary commemorations as a moment to reflect on the meaning of Britain and ‘Britishness’ was bolstered by the broadly positive media comments (no doubt supported by focus group analysis), about the Olympic Effect on national identity in 2012. David Cameron himself identified the opportunity that the First World War commemorations will afford: to underline the ongoing process of reconciliation between the people of Britain and Ireland, as well as a chance to celebrate the connections enshrined in the British Commonwealth on a global scale. These commemorations, however, also need to be pitched into the context of identity politics that operate on other scales. How will the marking of First World War heritage within Britain work with respect to the UK’s relationship within the European Union? How will the fostering and support of so many local community heritage initiatives connect with a national ‘heritage narrative’? After all, the power of First World War heritage to provoke a reaction and cement a bond, these days, would appear to reside within the emotions of the personal and familiar, at least as much as the more traditional sentiments of ‘King and Country’.

But why is this information appearing in this blog now – more than 5 months after David Cameron’s speech?

In trying to understand how this narrative of national heritage might operate at differing scales more fully, it should be placed within an emerging story of devolution, and cast alongside an unfolding arena of competing national heritages within the British Isles more broadly. On the 21st March 2013, the Scottish First Minister, Alex Salmond, announced the date of the Referendum for Scottish Independence, which is to be held on 18th September 2014.

This referendum is perhaps one of the most significant events in the history of state government within these islands – and it is a vote that is being played out in the context of potentially competing versions of national heritage. First, the Referendum comes just a couple of months after Glasgow hosts the Commonwealth Games. This will see ‘Scotland’ competing independently on the sports field, and will possibly act as a totem of Scottish national galvanisation, akin to what the London Olympics did for ‘Britishness’ through ‘Team GB’ in 2012. Following the Opening Ceremony in London, therefore, we should perhaps prepare to see a show of Scottish heritage, supporting a national narrative of independence and distinction from England. In terms of commemoration, however, the key Scottish heritage event of 2014 will come on 24th June, which will see the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn, perhaps the most famous victory of the ‘Scots’ over the ‘English’. In October 2012, as David Cameron was giving his speech in London about the First World War commemorations representing an opportunity for ‘British’ national reflection, the old Visitor Centre at Bannockburn, near Stirling, was preparing to close for redevelopment. The Scottish Government is spending £5 million, matched by £4.1 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund, building a new Visitor Centre at the site, to be opened in time for the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn. See http://www.battleofbannockburn.com/Home/

The summer of 2014 will witness some interesting practices of ‘heritage soul searching’, in preparation for perhaps the most significant democratic vote over the very being of the nation state in the history of these islands. This is an unfolding heritage story that will be worth watching closely over the next 18 months.

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Preserving ‘change’ along the Jurassic Coast

I went for a walk at the weekend to a stretch of the South West Coast Path, in west Dorset. The first weekend that I have really felt the warmth of the sun on my face – though there was the odd passing heavy hail shower to dampen things a little. This stretch of coast has been titled the ‘Jurassic Coast’, and received UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2001. UNESCO status tends to carry some political baggage, often seen as reflecting a distinctly ‘western’ viewpoint, and a determination to stabilise and preserve the tangible elements of ‘special’ sites. The Jurassic Coast is tagged as “England’s First Natural World Heritage Site” – I have a slight problem with each of the 6 words in this phrase, but this is a problem of ambiguity that leads one to think more openly about the meaning of heritage more broadly. And it is a line of thinking that leads towards the Jurassic Coast being seen as a heritage example that challenges the very notion of what ‘heritage’ is meant to be.

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The role that the Jurassic Coast has had in developing an understanding of earth sciences and Darwinian evolution, in particular, would seem to render its supposed ‘Englishness’ meaningless. Furthermore, defined by tide-lines and cliff edges, which change with each winter storm or landslide, the Jurassic Coast cannot really be called a ‘site’, and certainly is never something that can be described as ‘stable’. Indeed, for its scientific value to be realised, the Coast must be allowed to erode. In many ways, this is a World Heritage Site that has an over-riding imperative: to preserve the dynamic processes of destruction and wholesale change.

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‘Stability’, such as it is, is a set of processes, which involve the interaction of sea, weather and land. While traditional conceptions of ‘heritage’ sometimes seem to struggle with a notion of heritage-as-process – as dynamic and unbounded – ordinary people have tended just to get on with things. And so it is the people (and animals) that ought to be stirred into this mix of interacting elements, which go together to form the ‘Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site’. People have farmed on, fished off, quarried in, lived along, and generally experienced the dynamic coastline of Dorset and East Devon for many centuries. The Jurassic Coast, therefore, is not a stable and ‘natural-scientific’ certainty, but a participatory and open-ended entity. In many ways it acts as a neat (literal and metaphorical) mirror to the Wadden Sea region of Holland and Northern Germany, declared a UNESCO Natural World Heritage Site in 2009, where people have been building polders and extending ‘land’ for many centuries. (See the work of anthropologist, Werner Krauss, for an exploration of this region).

For more on the work of the Geography Department at Exeter’s work on the Jurassic Coast, see the Jurassic Research website: http://jurassicresearch.wordpress.com/