Hygge to become UNESCO recognised as Intangible cultural heritage?

In a post from January 2017, I examined the Danish word hygge . I said at the time that such a subject matter seemed a little odd in a blog about ‘heritage’, but it seems that my suggestion that hygge be linked to heritage was fully justified, since Denmark is now submitting an application to UNESCO for hygge to be recognised as Intangible Cultural Heritage, and listed as UNESCO World Heritage.

In many ways, I see nothing wrong in this – it’s a nice story about how ‘being nice’ and ‘feeling cosy’ should be valued and recognised by UNESCO as something worthy to protect. On a very positive note, perhaps this should spur UNESCO and other bodies into recognising hygge as a ‘Universal Right’ of all human beings, alongside education, clean water and decent health care. But I can’t help feeling a little queasy about it – perhaps even a little Uhyggeligt – ‘uncozy’!

As I have said before, I worry that the untranslatability of hygge might be used to create boundaries, that perhaps hygge will be something that is ultimately available only to ‘Danes’ – that since the word is ‘untranslatable’, it is also unavailable to anyone but true Danes. In other words, just as with other forms of cultural heritage, hygge contains the possibility for it to be weaponised. Perhaps just as Facebook as turned ‘memory’ into a commodity to be marketised for private profit, then hygge can be a subtle form of exclusion, and be used as a social code to mark out otherness.

Reading the commentaries about the UNESCO application, there is a lot to be positive about: In the Daily Telegraph article, the invocation of intangible cultural heritage as a lived process is clear: “The importance of intangible cultural heritage is that you have to live it. While it’s something we inherit from our past, hygge is absolutely relevant today and will have real value long into our future.” Also quoting Meik Wiking of the ‘Happiness Research Institute’, the New York Post underlines the idea that cultural heritage can engage and be useful to the world, purposefully seeking a ‘better society’: “With increasing societal pressures and the growing importance of wellbeing, hygge’s emphasis on togetherness and equality can have real and tangible benefits not only to the Danish people but to anyone that practices this uniquely Danish social ritual”. With so much to be gloomy about in the world right now, then this seems to be a positive development. As Dennis Englund of VisitDenmark adds: “We also believe that the fundamental quality of life that hygge encompasses is more relevant right now than ever, where many see that quality as being under threat, with growing pressure on proper work-life balance, an increasing digital complexity of social relations and the pressure on everyone to be just right.”

I like the ambition that hygge is available to everyone and anyone, but why does it have to be ‘Danish’ – and just how ‘available’ is it to non-Danes?

In my earlier post, I pointed to instances where Danish people have argued that non-Danes cannot have hygge, and so perhaps the UNESCO listing will mean that the grip of ‘ownership’ of hygge is released somewhat, and that the idea of a necessarily Danish authority and arbitration be dropped? At first sight, however, I remain a little worried, especially when the non-Danish owner of the ‘Hello Hygge’ website defers authority: “I’m not Danish so I can’t comment with any real authority here, but as an enthusiastic bystander I will say that ‘hygge’ appears to be becoming synonymous with ‘things I like’ in the English-speaking world – and there’s nothing wrong with ‘things I like’, but to me, the English usage of the word doesn’t always capture what I feel is the true essence of the word”.

So, there it is, once again: hygge, ultimately as an ‘essence’ that is untranslatable and un-reachable for anyone but ‘Danes’, who have absolute authority on what counts as hygge. Even non-Danish people who write websites dedicated to hygge have no real authority.   That’s definitely Uhyggeligt to me.

Or, perhaps we can’t have it all: hygge should have a bit less hubris surrounding it – and make way for lagom (a supposedly untranslatable Swedish word conveying a sense of sufficiency-in-balance and simple moderation).

 

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Boundaries and Heritage of Distinction part 5 – the House of European History: a sad celebration of the echo chamber

Last month I visited the House of European History, in Brussels. Opened in May 2017, the House of European History is located in a refurbished dental hospital. The bill for the total refurbishment and exhibition development was something approaching 70 million Euros – and for that sort of money, I had high hopes for something better than a trip to the dentists.

HoEH1

The exhibition spaces follow a fairly traditional and not exactly innovative layout of chronological linearity, with a floor that pulls together various historical strands before embarking with the French Revolution and traveling on a upward trajectory through a series of floors towards the present. I have written before about such a chronological layout in the National Museum of Scotland – and almost teleological story to explain how we get to ‘today’ through an inevitable progression of ‘great events’ (often associated with great men), with each floor dealing with a succession of chronologically ordered events, which lead inexorably to ‘the present’.

HoEH2

For a museum that claims to focus on transnationality and the experiences of ordinary people, such a linear pathway is a little disappointing. Indeed, in many ways the museum can be seen perhaps as being a little too faithful to French Revolutionary ideals, in the manner through which 1789 becomes ‘Year Zero’ within the inevitable progress towards the point at which the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to the European Union in 2012. The 2012 Nobel medal and diploma were the first objects within the Museum’s collection, and it is perhaps a little alarming (especially for Europhiles) in the way that they appear to form a sort of ‘end point’ to the story. Is that it?!

In the first galleries, which document various strands of European culture before 1789, amid various displays of Classical material, about democracy and politics, trade and industry, religion and ‘civilization’, there is a very small section about imperial endeavor and the trade of enslaved people. The role of Europe within the slave trade and some reference to wider imperialism and colonization, therefore, is acknowledged – almost in passing – and this forms almost the only reference to non-white people in the entire building. More on this later.

Many Brexiteers will probably feel a sense of self-justification in the way that the Code of Napoleon – in various translations – is given such a central and prominent role as the basic root of the European Union. Indeed, within these sections of the galleries, the Museum sometimes seems to provide a proverbial red rag to a Brexiteer’s bull: culminating with the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, it seems that the EU was really Napoleon’s idea and that his peaceful intentions were just a bit ahead of his time?

The Museum is, to my mind, more interesting (and more successful) when it narrates the stories of the First and Second World Wars. While certain elements – of muddy trench warfare in the First World War, and a juxtaposition between Hitler/Nazism and Stalin/Bolshevism in the Second – are perhaps inevitable, the galleries work hard through these sections to tell a story of total war without getting bogged down in military history. It is vital not to loose sight of individual people and their experiences, particularly in relation to dealing with the Holocaust and the Shoah. However many languages the Codes of Napoleon were translated into, surely the memory and realization of holocaust lies at the heart of the so-called European project in the later 20th century.

Within the Museum, however, we are soon heading to the next ‘key event’, as the Cold War division of the continent is ‘inevitably’ reconciled through the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Again, these sections generally work through comparing the experiences of ordinary people, the availability of consumer goods and the growth of the welfare state. Conflicts in the former Yugoslavia form a backdrop to the post-1989 era, but where does it end? The Brexiteer might again be happy with that, since it seems to end in 2012 with Nobel Peace Prize!

HoEH5-tot-dem

Looking back at the exhibition as a whole, it is a little disappointing to see such a singular narrative: it breaks into two at various points (Totalitarianism and Democracy; East and West of the Iron Curtain etc.), but there seems to be a supposed golden thread from Napoleon to today. The exhibitions try hard to deal with the Genocide, but hardly scratch the surface of empire and colonialism. Indeed, there is hardly a non-white face portrayed anywhere in the exhibition. There is a passing acknowledgement of the slave trade, but surprisingly little reference to decolonization and postcolonial migration.

HoEH6-integ

The museum claims to provide a history of integration, transnationalism and multilingualism, but I can’t help thinking that they have grabbed the wrong end of the stick on these accounts.

The entire exhibition is almost entirely free from written material on labels and signage, but rather relies on people carrying I-pads through which the audience can obtain information that is spoken in 24 different languages. Enabling visitors to experience and explore the museum through 24 different languages must have seemed irresistible on the drawing board, but in practice these devices serve to draw divisions between the visiting public. This is a celebration of Europe, in which everyone’s right to be different to each other can only be realised by recognising everyone’s right to draw boundaries between each other. This is a Europe that celebrates division, and which builds barriers by emphasizing and solidifying what separates us from our neighbours.

While in the Museum, I might be standing next to someone from Greece or Spain, Finland or Ireland, Slovakia or Belgium but since everyone is listening to their own narrative in their own language, the whole experience ends up as working to cement a sense of isolation. Even within our own language groups, everyone has to listen to their own I-Pads – take the earphones off and the Gallery spaces are eerily quiet; no conversation, no discussion, no participation, and certainly no ‘transnational celebration’. … family groups walking around as groups of individuals hardly talking to each other. Maybe that’s a good metaphor, in a media-bubble world of echo-chamber politics.

 

 

Celebrating Boundaries and the Heritage of Distinction (Part 4): Norway, Finland and the gifting of Halti mountain

In this blog, I return to a theme that I have covered a few times before; that of how ‘heritage’ gets entwined with a celebration of boundaries. In previous posts, I have talked about (in Part 1) BEXIT and problems in Europe of how ideas of cultural ‘distinction’ becomes celebrated through notions of heritage; how heritage is used to justify seeing Europe as a sort of mosaic of necessarily distinct homogenous and strictly bounded cultures. I then followed this by tracing how this happens on the ground, (in Part 2) through various assumptions made about the distinction of ‘Cornwall’ and ‘Cornishness’. And a further blog (in Part 3) about how such tendencies can be seen through the unlikely lens of practising ‘hygge’ in Denmark (part 3).

In this blog, I am going to look at another ‘Scandinavian’ example; of how Finland is bounded, should be bounded and might be bounded, and explore some of the consequences of seeing the world in bounded fashion through a slightly paradoxical example, of how apparent disruption of boundaries actually seems to cement the idea of boundaries.

Last month (December 2017) saw the 100th birthday of ‘Finland’ – at least it was 100 years since Finland gained independence from Russia on 6th December 1917. As would be expected, the occasion saw many efforts on the part of the Finnish state and state supporting entities, to celebrate this centenary event. Not surprisingly, much of this effort worked through the management, curating and performance of various aspects of heritage.

The role of ‘heritage’ within these acts of celebration can be ably examined using the work of people like Anssi Paasi (‘institutionalisation of the region’) and Hannu Linkola’s work on the management of Finland’s landscape narrative. Even a cursory analysis of this material reveals a huge conscious and unconscious practice of ‘boundary marking’ through reference to items and processes of ‘heritage. Instead, however, I am going to focus on a seemingly unlikely (if not conscious critical) example of the efforts to give a piece of ‘Norway’ to ‘Finland’ as a birthday present:

Through more than 40 years of efforts on the part of local campaigners such as Bjørn Geirr Harsson in Norway, a proposal was placed before the Norwegian Government to gift a small piece of land along the Norway/Finland border to act as a birthday present. See this campaign video.

Halti1

At first glance, this example seems to be wonderfully celebratory of the idea that borders are always arbitrary. It turns out that the highest point in Finland was actually on the side of Mt Halti, which has two peaks; one at 1,361m (about one kilometer on the Norwegian side of the border), and one shorter peak –  Hálditšohkka’s – at 1,331m, which is still in Norway, but only about 31m from the border with Finland, which lies at 1,325m above sea level.

 The peak “would be a wonderful gift to our sister nation”, said the mayor of Kåfjord (in Norway) Svein Leiros, who with other local politicians has written to the government in Oslo to express enthusiastic support for the plan. “We want to reach out a hand to our neighbour that we will be able to shake across the summit.”

Halti4

As an article in The Independent (January 2017) put it; There is no real reason or need for the gift, but that’s kind of the point. “All over the world you find countries that fight or make war to enlarge their countries, but in this case Norway is willing to give away a small part without anyone asking for anything return,” Geirr Harsson added. “It is a gift from the heart of the Norwegians to Finland so we don’t expect anything back; we just want to give them something really nice when they celebrate 100 years as a free nation.”

Halti3-pic

This seems to be a story with a positive and warm glow, and which seems to be seeking ideas of peaceful sharing rather than of strictly marking territory. “On the surface, this is a cute film about a very unique kind of gift between nations. But at its heart is something real and relevant,” says David Freid, director of Battle for Birthday Mountain: “While we witness the rising tumult along international borders – from Ukraine and Russia, to the South China Sea, to Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico – the idea behind ’Birthday Mountain’ is a rare international gesture worth admiring.”

But what does this gesture really mean? And is this gesture really critical of borders?

In many ways, the gifting of this land both points to the arbitrariness of national boundaries, but also perhaps underlines their value and meaning in terms of how they naturally act to mark off supposed units of culture. The giving of this piece of land would be a correspond to a (tiny) altering of the supposed mosaic of national boundaries, rather than calling their essential territorial meaning in to question. This would be a gift from ‘Norway’ to ‘Finland’ – an exchange between two essential entities; the territorial detail of these entities might no longer be ‘set in stone’, but the singular authority, and their ability to bound areas of land by marking territory is enhanced. The metaphorical image of two nation states shaking hands across the summit of the mountain just acts to reinforce claims to the natural legitimacy of essential nation states. And one could add that such a gesture might be seen as a particularly ostentatious and maybe even aggressive form of gift giving on the part of Norway, which is both very wealthy and also very mountainous (with a multitude of peaks much higher than Halti). Even after the gifting of this land, the highest point of the mountain (at 1361m) would still be on the Norwegian side of the border. The giving of a gift such as this would be an act of incredible power.

Halti2

In practice, the gifting didn’t happen, since Norway’s constitution clearly stipulates that the country is a “free, independent, indivisible and inalienable realm” – and so the surrender by the state of any part of Norwegian territory to another power is prohibited. This hasn’t stopped a fairly high profile campaign. An American-based group of Norwegian ex-pats has started a Facebook page, which (so far) has garnered nearly 20,000 ‘likes’. But I found the statement around the edges of a comment in the Guardian newspaper (from July 2016) highly revealing:

“Public reaction has been overwhelmingly positive in both Norway and Finland, with the only objection so far coming from the indigenous Sami community, whose reindeer roam freely across the border and who argue that the land should belong to neither country”

Halti5

To me, this example highlights not only the arbitrariness of national borders, but also the practice of how marginalised people are airbrushed out of the debate. … the implication that the local Sami people who have lived in the area for generations before either (something called) ‘Norway’, or (something called) ‘Finland’ even existed don’t count. Are the Sami people some sort of killjoys by arguing that the land should belong to neither country?

The ‘birthday mountain’ story has a nice feel to it, but it carries an implication that the practices that count with respect to these landscapes is the clicking of the LIKE button on Facebook. The practice of reindeer herding is not as important – and we should carefully gloss over and ignore any colonial overtones of how the Sami people and Sami society have been abused and marginalized for centuries.

 

Marshaling the Vikings: the politics of the Viking Museum in Denmark

Back in May 2016, I wrote a blog on how the populist Danish People’s Party (Den Danske Folkpartiet, or DF; an influential xenophobic and anti-immigration political party in Denmark) were calling for the complete refurbishment of the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark. Built in the late 1960s to house the five famous Viking ships salvaged from the Roskilde Fjord in 1962, the present museum now looks a little dated. According to a newspaper report in Politiken, Alex Ahrendtsen, a Danish People’s Party (DF) cultural spokesperson, imagines an ‘iconic museum in Viking style’. “We are in an international Viking competition; Norway, especially, is far ahead. There, they have really invested. And then it’s annoying if we’re back in Denmark with a crumbling concrete museum that scares tourists away” he says.

Viking Ship2

The DF dream, however, appeared to be hampered by the fact that architect Erik Christian Sørensen’s Museum Hall of 1969 was protected under national heritage laws in 1997. The concrete museum cannot be replaced by a more ‘Danish’ building, because it is a building declared to as a ‘Danish’ architectural icon already! This is a debate about who the Danes are – or at least who the DF imagines the Danes to be. DF wishes the Danish nation to be architecturally represented by an iconic building in ‘Viking’ style (as re-imagined in the early 21st century), in a move that both makes a strong claiming of natural, direct and unproblematic Viking connection as well as an explicit rejection of the modern design aesthetics that Denmark is also often associated with and reflected in the 1969 building.

The most recent financial settlement in the Danish Government (December 2017), however, sees a new twist, with the Danish People’s Party managing to secure 23 Million Danish Kroner (DKK) for a series of their pet cultural heritage projects, including their vision of the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. According to a recent newspaper article in Politiken (11th December 2017), DF have secured 10 million DKK for the Roskilde project, for a two year examination of the possibilities of rebuilding the Museum in Viking style: “I’m pretty happy with that. It has taken some time, but now it begins to draw light. For now, the state has committed itself to preserving and safeguarding the Viking ships”, says Alex Ahrendtsen. The plan involves moving the ships and carrying out a full investigation as to whether the Museum building should be renewed in its present (modernist) state, or demolished and rebuilt in ‘Viking style’. The National Museum Board would prefer to preserve the central parts of the present museum hall, but the Danish People’s Party Alex Ahrendtsen, on the other hand prefers complete demolition and rebuilding: “we need a nice museum with the best of Danish architecture, which simultaneously exudes the Viking Age. It will in itself set a standard and attract many people”.

One might wonder what a building that ‘exudes the Viking age’ might look like. I don’t think that the ‘real’ Vikings a thousand or more years ago built any large museums – or at least there are none that survive in the archaeological record – so a museum ‘in Viking style’ is a blank canvas on which to sketch one’s dreams of self-identity. The Danish People’s Party’s ideal museum, therefore, would be a building that exudes the aesthetics and style of an imagined Viking origines gentium of the Danish people.

Viking Ship1

For this purpose of ‘imagineering’, the Vikings have been a remarkably durable vehicle over the years. The Vikings have been robust enough in terms of recognisability and consistency of image (of long ships, horned helmets and long beards) to sustain a powerful sense of imagined community, yet also flexible enough to fit changing tastes and requirements over ideas of civilisation and their positive cultural legacy. They also (helpfully) herald from a temporally distant-enough epoch to allow one to gloss over aspects of slave trading and pillaging, or at least to allow one to place them in context of a (once) violent world. The Vikings as brave and highly skilled seafarers and traders, who left a distinct cultural imprint across the entire continent of Europe, is a much nicer image to memorialise and celebrate. In this guise, they can be channelled as ancestors to be cherished – something that I guess the Danish People’s Party would probably like.

This seems to be at the heart of a speech celebrating the Vikings by Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the former Icelandic President, back in 2005. Likening the present day Icelandic population to the Vikings, Grímsson talked about how Icelanders “are risk takers. They are daring … We don‘t like bureaucracy, we travel the world without extra baggage; without ulterior motive; without military or political strength …. young entrepreneurial Vikings have arrived in London full of confidence and ready to take on the world”.

Viking Ship4

Imagined in this guise, Vikings are great – certainly ancestors to be proud of, adventurers ‘without baggage’ and ‘without political or military strength’. And since they traded and settled, intermarried and blended with populations all over Europe, then perhaps this is an image that we can all have a stake in? This is something that is probably a long way from the imaginations of Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson or the Danish People’s Party, but if the Vikings are flexible enough to accommodate the imagined community of 21st century entrepreneurs and business leaders, then perhaps they are also robust enough to act as a vehicle through which to understand – and celebrate – a broader community of people who travel to unknown lands?

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson (2005): “The heritage of discovery and exploration, fostered by the medieval Viking sagas that have been told and retold to every Icelandic child. This is a tradition that gives honour to those who venture into unknown lands, who dare to journey to foreign fields, interpreting modern …. ventures as an extension of the Viking spirit, applauding the successful entrepreneurs as heirs of this proud tradition…. [this is] demonstrated by the Icelandic term used to describe a pioneer or an entrepreneur, – “athafnaskáld” – which means literally “a poet of enterprise”.

I don‘t suppose the Danish People‘s Party intend their imagined Viking space to spread this far, but if we look at contemporary Denmark, perhaps it is the refugees and migrants who have found a home in Denmark that are the true ‘Vikings‘. These are the contemporary Vikings; poets of enterprise, who travel without baggage and without political or military strength. And if a new Viking Ship Museum does get built in Roskilde, perhaps its ‘Viking style‘ can reflect the immigrant communities as the true inheritors of the Viking spirit?

Poets of Enterprise

Poets of Enterprise

 

Another Chapter in the Continuing Life History of the General Buller Statue in Exeter, UK

I thought I had done with writing about General Buller following my initial reflections (here) in November 2014, and further thoughts (here) in July 2015, following the critical intervention (or ‘guerrilla memorialisation’) event that took place that Summer. In tracing the ongoing ‘biography’ of the General Buller monument, I argued that it can be seen both as a meaningful vehicle of contemporary politics, at which a critical and creative engagement with the past can occur, and also as a dynamic site, with an open-ended life history that has time depth. The General Buller Statue, therefore, is never ‘cast in stone’. The status ‘does work’, serving as a site of contemporary debate; it can engage, as well as be engaged with.

These observations accord with debates and critical comment about many statues around the world today, most recently through the high profile events and deliberations surrounding the fate of many statues and monuments to the Confederacy in the USA’s southern states, as well as debates in recent years about the fate of Cecil Rhodes in South Africa (or Oxford – see here). The question over whether we should manage such ‘difficult heritage’ by removing monuments, adding extra plaques, or leaving them be has certainly had a high public profile, matched by some interesting academic debate, such as Lisa Johnson’s paper on JP Coen’s statue in Holland. Indeed, the broader issue of how to deal with contentious pasts in the present formed a central theme of a recent Book Review forum in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers that dealt with David Lowenthal’s Past is a Foreign Country – Revisited. Whichever side of the fence one sits – whether arguing for the removal or preservation of a statue – most of these debates tend to focus on the subject matter of the statue or monument: should we or shouldn’t we ‘memorialise’ General Buller (or Cecil Rhodes, or General Robert E. Lee etc.)?

But late at night on 10th June 2017 in Exeter, a young man called Tom Calloway, aged 18, fell from the General Buller statue and died.

Exeter_Buller_Tom memorial1

Since Tom Calloway’s tragic death this Summer, there has been a more-or-less constant effort in maintaining his ‘presence’ through memorialisation activity at the site. How-ever ‘spontaneously’ this activity began, this seems to be more than the ‘spontaneous memorial’ practices that one often finds at the sites of recent tragedy. The statue is located directly outside Exeter College, and so many of Tom’s colleagues, friends, teachers and classmates regularly come past ‘his memorial’. And where does it leave General Buller?

Exeter_Buller_Tom memorial2

At the time of his accident, Tom Calloway was undertaking the ‘tradition’ of placing a traffic cone on General Buller’s head. This playful and creative engagement with formal memorial sites has a long tradition and many parallels, perhaps most famously at the Duke of Wellington’s horse statue in Glasgow. It was Glasgow City Council’s concern about the potential for accidents to happen (and threatened plans to prevent people from climbing the statue) that brought out the wider public’s fondness for seeing the traffic cone donned on the Duke of Wellington. Public heritage debate demanded the Duke of Wellington be adorned with his ‘customary traffic cone’, and so Glasgow City Council dropped their security plans and tacitly turned-a-blind-eye to nocturnal activities with traffic cones. In Exeter, General Buller has been adorned with traffic cones and other paraphernalia for as long as I can remember, whether in playful jest or as purposeful critique, but what will happen now?

In terms of representing something meaningful for the people who pass by every day, General Buller is now a site for remembering Tom Calloway. Debates over whether and how we should remember General Buller’s role in the Boer War; whether he was a ‘war criminal’ to be put on trial, or an embarrassing ancestor to be kept hidden from view, now seem of secondary importance. In its most affective guise, the statue no longer memorialises General Buller at all.

Fishing for Memories: the Material Consequences of Nostalgia

I recently gave a lecture on a ‘Sources and Methods in Heritage Studies’ course at Aarhus University on a theme of doing interviews and oral histories. It is a research approach that I have used quite often in my work; something that I enjoy and something that I feel has a lot of potential, both in terms of having analytical power in providing material through which to understand the world better, and also something that has a great deal of ‘traction’. Interview and oral history material can be exciting! People are always interested in conversational material as a lens in to a field of research – and people always enjoy hearing some interesting stories in class.

My task of putting the lecture together, one might think therefore, should have been easy. And I have plenty of really nice material to draw from as case studies in order to illustrate the lecture. However, I was also keen to get across to the students the importance of having a strict ethical code of conduct; of ensuring that such material should be collected fairly and the use of the material should be carefully thought through, so that interviewees should provide ‘informed consent’ for the material that a researcher collects. This provided me with a problem – I had lots of nice material (lots of juicy stories), but I have never done an interview with anyone in which I asked an additional question: Is it OK if I use some of the juicy bits for my teaching?” … I can hardly instruct all my students to adhere to strict ethical guidelines about the use of interview data if I cannot stick with the instructions myself! And so, despite having a lot of really nice oral history and interview material, I felt that I couldn’t directly use this material in my lecture.

Upon realising my dilemma, I was reminded by all those automated telephone messages I have sat through, which talk about how “this conversation will be recorded and used for training purposes”. Such phrases always annoy me, and I am not about to start asking such a question in my research interviews – nor go back and check with old interviewees whether it would be OK to use their material! So, what should I do?

I decided upon conducting an imaginary interview with my Gran (1912-2002), together with some commentary from my Grandad (1913-1967), who actually died before I was born. And since they were both born in the small fishing community of Mousehole, near Penzance in West Cornwall, then the subject of ‘fishing communities before the War’ was an obvious choice.

Mousehole2

Mousehole – a ‘typical’ Cornish fishing village

I guess this is a sort of auto-ethnography, since the interview narratives derive from my memory of stories that my Gran used to tell me, but there are also some archival materials. In practice, the exercise ended up being a strange personal monologue involving an intergenerational narrative stretching back over five generations of my family to the 1880s. The narrative contains several statements of ‘factual truth’ (some interesting and more widely relevant, and some banal and of interest only to a few people). As a whole, however, the power of the narrative lies in between the lines of what is said; within the margins of the ‘factual account’ produced from my memory of my Gran’s stories, and perhaps within what is not said – or remembered by me.

I did actually try to do an oral history with my Gran once. It must have been in about 1989 or 1990. I was an undergraduate student who had just done ‘oral histories’ in a University Methods course, and probably saw my Gran as an important ‘research resource’; a subject to be exploited for the sake of my course assignment. I wanted to ask her about her memories of the fishing industry in Cornwall during the 1920s and 1930s – but she wouldn’t tell me anything (and I don’t blame her!). Over the years, however, her stories gave me a lens into the history and cultures of fishing in West Cornwall, from the 1880s to the Second World War. …. Specific stories about the time that a whale got caught in the nets, which had to be cut loose and abandoned, or when my Great Grandfather’s boat got blown off course in a storm and nearly wrecked on the Isle of Ushant (Ouessant, in Brittany). These were the exciting stories for a small boy to remember. But the central narrative about the whole period, which remains with me today is this:

Gran: “In my grandfather’s day, [i.e. 1870s-1890s] all the fishing would be for pilchards…. Our boat was The Activity – that’s the boat in that painting [over the mantle-piece] He had that painting done after The Activity won the Mount’s Bay Cup, [in 1887] as the fastest boat in Mount’s Bay”

Me: [gesturing to the painting] “Is that your Grandad on the boat?”

Gran: “No, that’s my father as a boy – my Grandfather was ill when they ran the Mount’s Bay cup, so couldn’t go, so he made his son the ‘skipper’, even though he was only a boy, and made sure that the artist painted him in the picture as the ‘skipper’. They had the picture painted the following season, by an artist in Sunderland… the artist made sketches one year, and they collected the painting the following season, as they followed the shoals around the coast”

Activity_1885

‘The Activity’

I have always thought that The Activity was a good name for a fishing boat; the ‘Matthews’ family fishing boat, sailing out of Mousehole, owned by my great-great grandfather, skippered for the day by my great grandfather, Thomas James (TJ) Matthews. Intermixed with the family saga, is a story of pilchard fishing, not as an isolated and ‘placed’ activity, located within the fishing harbours of West Cornwall, but as a mobile – almost nomadic – industrial experience, taking place around the coasts of Britain. I asked my Gran about the pilchards, and she told me that they were mostly salted and sold to Italy, and so, while Mousehole (and west Cornwall) today can sometimes be packaged up and marketed to tourists as an inward-focussed and strongly ‘local’ place, it seems that it was built upon pilchard fishing as an international trade, and nomadic experience. And it is also slightly ironic that a fiercely proud and strongly Methodist sea fishing community was dependent on the fish consumption habits of Catholic Europe. But my Gran didn’t seem to know much more about the pilchards.

Gran: The Pilchards all went away before the Great War. When I was young [1910s and 1920s], all the fishing was for herring – that’s what my father caught in the Hopeful, and my Uncle caught in the William.

While The Activity is a good name for a fishing boat, I have always thought that The Hopeful is an absolutely splendid name for a fishing boat! We have several pictures and photos of The Hopeful – indeed, I always look out for it (PZ 634) in early photos of Mousehole Harbour, which can be purchased in postcard or print form today from ice cream and souvenir shops on the Cliff. My Gran’s recollections of the 1920s and 1930s are direct, lively, and supported by photographs that my Grandfather took. My Grandfather trained as a carpenter, became a schoolteacher, but died before I was born. He wrote a thesis about fishing in West Cornwall for his teaching qualifications, and was obviously a keen photographer, who actually took several photos while out on fishing trips.

Researchers nowadays talk about IK or TEK (Indigenous Knowledge, or Traditional Ecological Knowledge), to refer to the practices of a preindustrial way of life, in which sustainable human activities formed part of a harmonious relationship between cultures and natures, in which the landscape (and seas) were cared for and traditional communities were resilient. Reaching beyond the tangible heritage of wooden fishing boats and solid stone harbours, these photos speak of a more intangible heritage of skill, experience and knowhow. In the form of ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge’, perhaps these heritage narratives can provide instruction for policy makers today?

Within these photographs is a story that my Gran could illustrate from her memory, recognising faces, skills and practices – but it is largely a memory of how the herring fishery collapsed. The herring ‘went away’! Many boats went longlining and mackerel increasingly took over as the more important catch. But eventually, of course, the mackerel ‘went away’ as well.

Me: But Gran, you keep saying that these fish ‘went away’ … that the pilchards ‘went away’; that the herring ‘went away’; that the mackerel ‘went away’ – like they went away on holiday or something. But this is all just from over-fishing!

You have to remember that I was an arrogant and unthinking teenager (destined, it seems, to be a vegetarian animal rights campaigner) who was not very well trained or experienced in showing sensitivity during interviews, even to my own grandmother! (I went vegetarian in October 1989, and took up hunt sabbing in the 1990s!) Insensitive or not, the nostalgic story of ‘traditional fishing’ is actually a narrative of how fishing declined; a heritage of a community under stress, as fishing catches diminished, and as boats were decommissioned – even the perennially optimistic Hopeful was scrapped.

Pilchard catch-bad year Newlyn 1936

My grandfather’s notes describe this photo as ‘a bad catch’

This heritage of decline, of hardship, and of a fishing community struggling to cope and to comprehend is also marked within my Grandad’s photographs. A boat landing fish labelled as a ‘poor catch’, or accusatory suggestions of culprits to blame as fishermen look for answers to why stocks were declining – the sharks are to blame, or perhaps it is the French!?

This is the heritage of a community struggling with change – and a changing relationship between cultural practices and natural resources. It is also a heritage narrative that acts as a warning – that we shouldn’t over-romanticise them, or reify them as a salvation in the form of ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge’.

This is the heritage of a community that is struggling and slowly dying – but it is in that form that it perhaps becomes evermore powerful; not as a guide towards ecological resilience, but as a ready-made sense of injustice that can be tapped in to.

Skip forward to 2016: As a marginal, relatively deprived and under-developed region, Cornwall had a special status within the EU allowing it to receive all sorts of extra funding streams, through ‘Objective One’, or ‘Convergence Funding’. Such regional development aid helped to build roads, public facilities, business parks, and a large University campus. Indeed, the ‘heritage industry’ of Cornwall has been one of the region’s largest beneficiaries, in the form of the Geevor Tin Mining Museum in Penwith and the Heartlands Industrial Museum-Park between Camborne and Redruth. And during the EU Referendum in June 2016, yet Cornwall as a whole voted strongly to leave!

brexit-cornish-fisherman_Mousehole

Building roads, industrial parks, museums, a university (etc. etc.) is all very well, but the story that mattered in June 2016 was a heritage of fishing, articulated as a heritage of loss and injustice. The Cornish used to fish for pilchards (until the pilchards ‘went away’); the Cornish used to fish for herring (until the herring ‘went away’); the Cornish used to fish for mackerel (until the mackerel ‘went away’). The romantic sense of place (so carefully nurtured by the tourism industry) trumped any understanding of late 19th and early 20th century fishing as an (international and nomadic) ‘industry’, and the temptation to blame formed the core of the narrative: the fault lies with the ‘French’ (or Spanish etc.).

So: here is a ‘heritage story’, of surface facts and information – about fishing boats and harbours as well as more intangible elements about experiences, skills and techniques. Reading in the margins, however, it is a story of communities under pressure – struggling to survive, and struggling to comprehend changes that are taking place beyond their control. Further than this, however, this is also a story of how heritage narratives themselves circulate and travel – and what they do today, whether they are ‘true’ or not.

For more on the history of Cornish fishing, see: http://www.cornwallgoodseafoodguide.org.uk/cornish-fishing/history-of-the-cornish-fishing-industry.php

Future Heritage Past: Hans Rosenström’s Shoreline installation (ARoS Triennial, Aarhus, Denmark, 2017)

As European City of Culture (2017), Aarhus has been host to a series of significant exhibitions and other creative events this year. Perhaps one of the most ambitious has been the 1st ARoS Triennial Exhibition, entitled THE GARDEN – End of Times; Beginning of Times (June 3–July 30, 2017). Quoted in Isobel Harbison’s Art Agenda review (http://www.art-agenda.com/reviews/%E2%80%9Cthe-garden%E2%80%94end-of-times-beginning-of-times%E2%80%9D/) ARoS’s director, Erland Høyersten promised that the exhibition would “thematize man’s [sic.] coexistence with, and view on, nature … over a period of 400 years”, the Triennial exhibition focussed on depictions of nature throughout history over three sites. Representing ‘The Past’ are over 100 works of art (mostly painting) located in a series of galleries within the main ARoS Art Gallery. ‘The Present’ is represented through a half dozen or so installations down at the redeveloping Docklands area, while ‘The Future, is displayed through a couple of dozen installations strung out along the coast and through the forest to the south of the city centre. Apparently, the Exhibition’s opening coincided with President Donald Trump’s announcement that the US intended to withdraw from the Paris Climate Change Agreement. It is not the task of this Blogsite to pass comment on the artistic merit, depth or meaning (for me, some ‘worked’ and some didn’t), but one piece struck me in particular as having resonance with this ‘Geographies of Heritage’ Blog, both in terms of its subject matter, and (perhaps ironically) in terms of its demise (or destiny!?)

Aros_Hans-Rosenström-Shoreline-2017-Photo-credit-Anders-Sune-Berg-4

Shoreline, by Hans
Rosenström (Three channel sound installation, concrete, paint, view, 10:16 minutes. Photo by Anders Sune Berg

I cycle along this stretch of coast each morning on my way to work, and the last installation that I passed each morning was Shoreline, by Hans Rosenström. According to the artist (see: https://hansrosenstrom.net/shoreline/), the view of the horizon represents the future, and the constructed ‘ruin’ (or folly) cites a fragment of a Caspar David Friedrich painting (Klosterfriedhof im Schnee, 1817/1819). It is a nice way of confounding linear temporalities, especially since ‘The Past’ section of The Garden exhibition contained some Friedrich paintings:

“Grounded on the earth, gazing out to the shoreline, the viewer will hear disembodied but present voices, overlapping and interweaving raising issues of how nature’s and our own communities are formed and relationships between them. The text is written in collaboration with the Palestinian poet Farah Chamma” (Rosenström 2017)

Interestingly, Friedrich’s Klosterfriedhof im Schnee was itself destroyed during in Berlin during air raids in 1945 – and it is Berlin, of course, which has become a lens through which so many scholars (planners and architects, journalists and writers, historians and philosophers) have since pondered on the temporality of life, place and identity (e.g. Gunter Grass, Cees Neeteboom, Karen Till, Neil MacGregor). Indeed, in his essay on ‘presentism’ and relations between time and heritage, Francois Hartog (2005: 9) called Berlin a laboratory of reflection, and it is to Hartog’s reflections on the temporality of heritage to which I am prompted by Rosenström’s Shoreline installation. According to Hartog, we are living in a time of overwhelming heritagisation and museification, where the past is daily created and merchandised. This proliferation of heritage, Hartog argues, is a sign of rupture: “heritage has never thrived on continuity but on the contrary, from ruptures and questioning the order of time, with the interplay of absence and presence, visibility and invisibility. […] Heritage is one way of experiencing ruptures, or recognizing them and reducing them, by locating, selecting, and producing semaphores” (Hartog 2005; 15).

Shoreline-2

So, does this make Rosenström’s Shoreline a semaphore? … something that causes us to question the order of time, and to critique Western linear conceptions of inevitable progress? In many ways, perhaps this gives our engagement with heritage (and engagement of heritage) some positive potential – that heritage process and practice can do something. Hartog mentions that heritage can help us reduce or overcome ruptures by locating ourselves, and so by asking these questions, does it allow us to make an intervention? The ability to locate ourselves through semaphores, and make selections, is suggestive of a purposeful or mobile sense of nostalgia, situated in the present but with an eye to the future. Maybe this can be something that has promise – though Hartog seems quite pessimistic:

“The future is no longer a bright horizon towards which we advance, but a line of shadow that we have drawn towards ourselves, while we have come to a standstill in the present, pondering on a past that is not passing” (Hartog 2005; 16).

So what happened to Rosenström’s Shoreline installation? The Exhibition ended on 30th July, and over a couple of days, the ‘ruined’ folly was taken down, broken up and carried away to be discarded. The installation was dis-assembled and ‘skipped’ – a ruin was ‘ruined’! Not sure what that means!