How should we embrace the future?

Earlier this week, the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games Organising Committee scrapped their plans to demolish the Red Road Flats as part of the Opening Ceremony at this Summer’s Commonwealth Games, citing ‘safety and security concerns’.


The Red Road flats were once Europe’s tallest residential tower blocks, and the programme of demolition and development, which has been on-going for the last few years, has been the subject of numerous heritage, arts and museum projects in recent years:

 In March, it was announced that 5 blocks would be blown up as part of the opening ceremony of the Commonwealth Games, which is being held in Glasgow in July 2014. The demolition would be streamed live to the Commonwealth Arena at Celtic Park, and broadcast to (a hopefully estimated) ‘one billion TV viewers’. The Commonwealth Games organisers believed that this event would be “an unforgettable statement of how Glasgow is confidently embracing the future”.

A spokesperson for Glasgow City Council went on; “Red Road has an iconic place in Glasgow’s history, having been the home to thousands of families and dominating the City’s skyline for decades. Their demolition will all but mark the end of high-rise living in the area and is symbolic of the changing face of Glasgow”. Criticism of the projected demolition event was as swift as it was sharp. It was also very local in origin and action. As one resident and writer/comedian commented; “the north of the City has had no real involvement with the Commonwealth Games – until they decided to blow up our buildings as entertainment”. It seems to me, therefore, that this week’s announcement that the demolition of peoples’ homes as a form of public entertainment was to be scrapped is to be welcomed.

A great deal can be said, of course, about the vagaries of ‘creative destruction’ and the forces of Neoliberal economics at play in all this, but this is also an event in which issues of heritage play a central role. It is interesting that by invoking a particular image of the past as a prompt for a ‘bright and better future’, the initial plans for the demolition drew heavily on notions of place-heritage: David Zolkwer of the 2014 Organising Committee said that the demolition would be a “bold and confident statement. […] By sharing the blow down with the rest of the world, I hope it will be seen as the noble, respectful and celebratory send-off that it is intended to be”. In other words, this episode was intended to be a sort of ‘live heritage performance piece’.

In many ways, however, such official plans have demonstrated just how wilfully ignorant such professional development corporations can be when it comes to understanding ‘heritage’ – not as a development industry, but as a community focussed and experienced process. It seems that the last people to be notified of the ‘celebration’ were the local residents themselves: the communities, their lives, and their experiences were all largely ignored. The scrapping of this slightly preposterous gambit of developer and city marketing hubris can be seen, therefore, as a triumph of ‘small heritage’ over instrumentalist development and Authorised Heritage Discourse. Rather than the narrative of ‘Glasgow: the competitive city within the new global economy’, we have a Glasgow where ordinary people experience life, and have memories, as well as hopes and dreams.

Of course, there is also a Glasgow-based ‘heritage’ of such city-boosterist tendencies. Back in 1990, Glasgow was the European Capital of Culture. Alongside this ‘shop-window’ centre piece, the city was also subjected to a sustained period of ‘regeneration’ under the branding tagline Glasgow’s Miles Better. Millions of pounds were spent on turning the ‘Tron’ into the ‘Merchant City’, as deprived areas were cleared and up-market shops and services pulled in. Glasgow became almost a by-word and blueprint for how large European Cities could redevelop along Neoliberal lines. Many local people were ignored and swept aside – and it doesn’t seem that much has been learned in the intervening quarter of a century!


Although he is talking about early Modern Gloucestershire, I feel David Rollison’s (1992: 73) comment about the ‘turning of land into property’ has a great deal of resonance when it comes to understanding the relationship between heritage and large-scale urban redevelopment activities:

“Turning land into property [can] be done in one or both of two ways. First it [can] be done by turning its people off, as occurred in some 16th century enclosures and in ,say, the Highland Clearances of the 18th and 19th centuries. But it [can] also be done just as effectively by changing the physical face of the land, eradicating (in one or two generations) many of the signs of the old culture, and making it difficult for people to imagine a time when the land was anything other than a commodity to be converted into cash. The massive manipulations and transformations of landscape that have resulted from the spread of capitalist values destroyed human memory”

Rollison, D. (1992) The Local Origins of Modern Society: Gloucestershire 1500-1800 (Routledge; London).

Heritage claims and heritage rejection: from Irish-British relations to Ukrainian-Russian relations and back again

I have previously posted a few items on issues of national heritage, and of how heritage becomes a potent weapon in proverbial battles within the Atlantic archipelago – with relations between Ireland and the UK, or the experience of a sense of Scottish nationhood within the polity of the United Kingdom. Indeed, mirroring the Queen’s heritage-heavy visit to Ireland in 2011, the Irish President this week has been visiting London with both ‘sides’ keen to construct and support a singular heritage narrative that emphasises a cordial partnership between a diversity of flavours, amid a broader sense of common inheritance. With more dissonant overtones, this summer will also see the commemoration of the Battle of Bannockburn as a centre-point of claims to a Scottish heritage that is distinct from and perhaps antagonistic to a sense of Britishness. But this is a ‘heritage battle’ in which no shots will be fired, and no-one will get hurt.

In Eastern Europe, meanwhile, recent weeks have witnessed an altogether more serious and troubling confrontation over issues of heritage; between Russia and Ukraine. These recent experiences can be related to heritage issues on two levels. Firstly, these events have displayed the very real contemporary power of purposefully conjured and deployed heritage images: from the calculated use of notions of the Peoples’ will and democratic mandates for political circumstance, to the conscious use of terms regarding fascists, and revolutionaries. Heritage provides a deep rhetorical resource that has tremendous affective power. Secondly, however, the Post-Soviet heritage experience has long provided fertile ground for such metaphorical and increasingly real conflicts.

One of the key elements of Post-Soviet experience over the last 25 years has been the rise of seemingly cut-and-dried senses of nationhood. Indeed, a sense of national identity has long been one of the key axes through which change in the 1980s and 1990s was prompted and occurred – arguably, it was a crucial element in the break-up of the old system and the expansion of social freedoms. But this also left a residue in the form of heritage being seen as easily categorise-able into supposedly stable and homogenous national units. In trying to account for and manage the numerous elements of Second World War and Soviet-era sites and artefacts that litter the region, many heritage resources in the Baltic States and Eastern Europe have been categorised – implicitly or explicitly – as heritage that is not ours: German cemeteries, Cold War era bunkers, Soviet buildings and institutions. Whether military installations or collective farm buildings, this has become a category that is specifically not of the nation state in which they are located, be it Estonia, Moldova or in the Crimea.

Such a narrative places the nation at the heart of all heritages and as the key axis of identity that all citizens should recognise as their primary loyalty. On the face of it, the question of what we should do with these items of Soviet heritage – a heritage that is not ours – seems fair: another group of people left it here and we don’t want it. But there are pitfalls. Should Scotland deny its Norse heritage on the basis that it represents a group of raiders that we would rather forget? Should Britain deny its Neolithic heritage on the basis that the builders of Stonehenge would not have known the words to the national anthem? The temporal proximity, specific power relations and rawness of feeling of the events in Eastern Europe gives a different quality to the issue in comparison with the Neolithic in Britain, but there is still a lesson to be learnt, in terms of how heritage is categorised and claimed – or specifically not claimed.

The process of delineating a category of heritage that ‘is not ours’ seems to invoke heritage as something to be rejected. One could argue, however, that the act of rejecting the heritage as specifically ‘not ours’ is actually a powerful means through which to claim it as being most definitely ours: ours to interpret and present in a certain manner – through a process of rejection. And of course, the act of rejecting heritage tacitly invites another group to claim ownership. Indeed, the act of rejection – whether of physical artefacts and buildings, or languages, practices and customs – arguably paves the ground that legitimises a set of practical ‘rescue’ procedures by whoever is making this claim of ownership. They perhaps may even send in a gang of hooded militia-men to undertake this rescue operation.

It has taken the best part of a century for the Irish and UK Governments to agree on a common ‘heritage message’, and many thousands of people have died in the process. As the Irish President Michael D Higgins put it, during a speech in Westminster on the 8th April 2014: “[A]s both our islands enter periods of important centenaries we …. must reflect on the ethical importance of respecting different but deeply interwoven narratives. Such reflection will offer us an opportunity to craft a bright future on the …. common ground we share and where we differ … to have respectful empathy for each other”. President Higgins was referring to the on-going and up-coming Centenaries of the First World War and the Dublin Easter Uprising, both of which have often been used to cement the building of boundaries in the intervening 100 years. Rather than laying the foundations for yet more walls and boundaries, let us hope that heritage might be used in a more creative and peaceful means for the sake of people in Eastern Europe.