Gardening the Cultural Landscapes of European Heritage

Last week, I was invited to present a seminar paper in Amsterdam, at the ‘Sustainable Futures for Europe’s Heritage in Cultural Landscapes’ project, which goes by the splendid acronym of HERCULES. See:

Bringing together geographers, ecologists, archaeologists, sociologists and anthropologists from a dozen or more countries, this project is concerned with ensuring the resilience of heritage within the cultural landscape of Europe. They are doing this task by assessing existing knowledge and management systems and developing tools for ongoing landscape observation and modelling, bringing together some sophisticated GIS applications with a variety of quantitative material (including remote sensing, land-use and census data), and qualitative material (including old postcards and oral histories). Furthermore, they also have an ambition to define some recommendations for landscape policy and practice, engaging with a range of stakeholders, policy makers and ordinary people.

It strikes me that this project has a difficult task – both in terms of practicalities, as well as dealing with some complex conceptual conundrums. Around the room were representatives from all over Europe, with at least a dozen nationalities and native languages. Trying to understand and follow how concepts like ‘heritage’, ‘patrimony’ and ‘stewardship’ get translated and travel around the room – and around Europe – requires a great deal of patience and nuance. For some people at this meeting, the threat of land abandonment was the paramount experience from their home environment, while for others, the worries were more concerned with urbanisation and agricultural intensification. Institutionally speaking, it always strikes me as a ‘continental paradox’ – common in many ‘European projects’ broadly defined – of squaring the desire to create a “unified vision” (singular) of a diversity of “pathways” (plural) towards their policy and practical ambition. After all, the celebration of diversity and multiplicity is always close to the surface of any workable sense of a singular European identity.

Indeed, categorising and even locating a ‘European Cultural Heritage Landscape’ would seem to be a proverbial can of worms, with the celebration of ‘local heritage and distinction’, seemingly rubbing up against a common reification of ‘national’ containers, and all set within a Europe-wide ambition that tries to articulate supposed ‘universal values’. Personally, I would neither dismiss, nor uncritically support, any heritage categorisation merely on the basis of its scalar rhetoric (of local, regional, national, or global/universal). Rather, we need to identify power structures and engage with all sorts of place-bound loyalties and heritage practices, so as to encourage a more open-ended and progressive understanding of the world.

Cultural heritage landscapes are always context-bound, and such contingency requires recognition of temporal depth; of movement; of complexity; of multiple narratives. In many ways, an authoritative narrative of European cultural heritage landscape was being constructed through this HERCULES meeting. But what was this narrative like? Who/what did it include and exclude?

Certainly, there was a recognition that the articulation of this task brought with it a great deal of responsibility – a recognition, for instance, that any typologies and categorisations would necessarily reflect the data available, which would inevitably be partial in its nature. This meant that while judgements would have to be made, we need to show a great deal of humility and avoid being ‘judgemental’.

A phrase that came up in discussion, which I liked, was that of ‘gardening opportunities’: that small-scale, humble and nuanced interventions can provide the most flexible and reflexive accounts of European cultural heritage landscapes; accounts that can cope with some of the seeming contradictions and paradoxes at the heart of European landscape of heritage. It struck me that in terms of landscape management, it is through such a ‘gardening’ activity that space might be found that values the European dream of tranquillity, alongside the very noisy cultural world that also characterises European heritage, and which also demands celebration. It is an approach that seeks to place people and everyday practices at the centre, together with an ambition towards empowerment and engagement over division and exclusion. Most importantly, this is a celebration of a heritage that seems to be co-constructed, with a sense of future-orientated potential, rather than one that is self-satisfied, and which has a backward-looking sense of complacency.


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