Local and Global Heritage of Protests – Tiananmen Square 30th Anniversary

30 years ago today tanks rolled in to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and violently ended a pro-democracy protest. The 4thJune 30thanniversary is being talked about in the press, and being commemorated by many people; some publically and many, no doubt, through private reflection. Marked by various events and media stories in many parts of the world, in China, the anniversary is being marked-by-implication, through being a non-event, of heightened security in many city centres – a curtain of official silence alongside, perhaps, a dignified reflective silence among those who remember.

30 years ago, I was an undergraduate student in Exeter University. I was very much involved in campus politics – at the time, this meant the “Grants-not-Loans” campaign to protect the student grant and rights to benefits (the idea of paying tuition fees seemed ludicrous), together with a broader on-going commitment to stand up to Thatcherism and the rise of what I would find out later to be called Neo-liberalism. We had recently staged a sit-in, taking over the Vice Chancellor’s office; we had been on protest marches in Exeter, London and Manchester. In June 1989, the student-led protests in Beijing seemed to be part of our movement, protecting student rights, and seeking a progressive and more inclusive future – indeed, similar in nature to the protests from behind the Iron Curtain and the fall of the Berlin Wall, which were still some months away.

Towards the end of May and start of June in Exeter, I remember students gathering on the lawn outside the Devonshire House Student’s Union building. I am sure that we all knew that signing a petition in support of our brothers and sisters in Beijing was hardly going to change anything in itself, but somehow there was a genuine feeling of connection; that lighting a tea-light candle in a jam jar actually meant something – even if just a material and public display of solidarity with those protesters in China. Their struggle and our struggle were one.

But then, on the 4thJune 1989, everything seemed to change.

We came to understand that their struggle was of a different nature, and was something that could lead to death or imprisonment. At first sight, all that sitting around strumming on guitars, signing petitions and lighting candles seems incredibly stupid and banal. But, while those vigils on the lawn outside Devonshire House in Exeter were certainly naïve, they also made the connection with those in Tiananmen Square somehow momentarily more real. When the shock came, it seemed to be more painful, with a profound sense of bereavement. Naïve, we might have been but our tears were honest and heartfelt.

The construction of a monument to mark those feelings seemed to be a natural response. I don’t know whose idea it was – it doesn’t actually matter – but I think we all felt a sense of genuine investment and connection to that monument, which ‘sprang up overnight’. I remember that the University authorities were not keen on it at all and wanted it removed, but everyone knew that it would be unmoveable. At least for a few years….

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Tiananmen Square memorial, on the lawn outside the Devonshire House Union Building, Exeter University

By definition, the student collective memory at any University is always fairly short-term and in constant flux. Most students are only at a University for the duration of their degree, and so by the mid 1990s, very few people at Exeter University could remember the circumstances of how the Tiananmen Square statue came to be where it was – nor why its location, on the lawn in front of the Union Building, was so significant. Furthermore, while the material nature of monuments is often seen as a very tangible and unchanging medium of commemoration, the Tiananmen Square memorial at Exeter University had a knack for changing! First, being made of textile, the flag deteriorated and fell off. It was replaced a few times, but with half-hearted protection, the figure very much transformed from being ‘Marianne’ in nature and representative of a cry for freedom and comradeship across the world, to being more baton-wielding ‘special forces’ in nature. Indeed, the loss of the flag seemed to run alongside the decrease in the angle of tilt in the figure’s arm, producing an ever more frightening pose.

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Memorial Statue, late 1990s – still on the Devonshire House lawn, but in a more menacing pose

Then the memorial statue disappeared completely. The lawn was earmarked for development, but the University authorities would find a ‘suitable location’ for the memorial statue – nevermind that it was the actual location that was the key element in the memorial, much more so than the now-transformed warrior-like statue.

Perhaps with an eye towards diplomacy, with the University actively seeking Chinese partnerships and wanting to attract more and more Chinese students to take courses in Exeter, the University’s ‘suitable location’ turned out to be a field on the edge of the main campus. The statue is still visible from the road, but there are no paths to the statue and very few regular passers by. The memorial now stands as a largely forgotten curio. It is on the Exeter University Sculpture Trail, though without reference to the connection between student protests in the UK and China, which meant so much back in 1989. And the lawn area that once stood just at the bottom of the entrance steps to the Union Building is now an outdoor seating area of a Costa Coffee shop. The memorial statue itself seems to be an empty vessel, though I guess it is still representative of the very real and profound connection that some people in Exeter felt with people across the world 30 years ago.

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The memorial statue, now relocated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Framing UNESCO Heritage: New ‘Danish’ World Heritage Site(s) in 2018

 

I usually have a quick look each year at the additions to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, partly to see what trends may be detected, and which oddities catch my eye; perhaps a cause célèbre (such as with the Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan, listed only after they were blown up). This year’s list has 18 inscribed properties, delineated in the usual UNESCO frames of reference. First, the sites are categorized as being ‘cultural’ or ‘natural’, with a third category of being ‘mixed’ always seeming to make the other categories redundant. Each site is accredited with a list of ‘criteria’ under which the inscription was made, with some declared as displaying 2 or even 3 criteria. And then each of the sites is ascribed to a nation state, since it is ‘states parties’ who sponsor the nomination process.

Of the 18 sites, 13 are described as being ‘cultural’, 3 ‘natural’ and 3 ‘mixed’, and in broad terms, there are 6 cultural landscapes (3 coming under the ‘mixed’ category), 3 archaeological sites, 3 religious sites, 2 cities, 1 industrial site and 1 ensemble of buildings in Mumbai described as ‘Art Deco and Victorian’. All three of the ‘natural’ sites are mountains. In terms of where they are, just 1 is in Africa, all three of the mixed sites are in the Americas, 6 are in Europe, and 9 are in Asia – of which 4 are located in west Asia/‘Middle East’, which is interesting. So, in spite of clear efforts to overcome a long established ‘Eurocentrism’ in the location of ascribed ‘universal heritage’, Europe still seems to be hugely over-represented (considering its size and population), there is nothing in Oceania, and only one site in Africa (a ‘natural’ site). The Americas seem to supply the sites where ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ become blurred, or where the ‘indigenous’ is somehow closer to ‘nature’ than in the supposed cradles of ‘civilisation’ in the ‘Old World’. In other words – from this 2018 list at least, it seems that archaeological landscapes in the ‘Old World’ are ‘cultural’, while similar landscapes in the ‘New World’ are ‘mixed’.

But what sense does it make to frame sites according to the nation states in which they are located today, especially when they are proclaimed as being ‘universal heritage’ on account of events, settlements and lifestyles from sometimes thousands of years ago? Even when looking at heritage examples that stem from more recent times, the national framing doesn’t seem to make sense, or at least testifies to greater complexity – as can be seen for instance with the case of the Victorian buildings in Mumbai; an imprint of British Imperial endeavor within an ‘Indian’ World Heritage Site.

Most conspicuously, however, the list of 18 World Heritage Sites includes an intriguingly ambiguous Danish element. On the one hand, there is one site listed as being located within the state of Denmark: that of Aasivissuit-Nipisat. On the other hand, another of the cultural heritage sites now inscribed by UNESO is the ‘Danevirk’ and Viking town of Hedeby; the border wall that once protected the southern boundary of Denmark, and one of the most important cities of Viking era Denmark – only, of course, these sites are listed under UNESCO framings as being in Germany!

It is interesting to click on the newly inscribed site of Aasivissuit-Nipisat  and see the Danish flag in the top right corner of the screen. Described as being an ‘Inuit hunting ground between ice and sea’, this site is located in Greenland. Indeed, the image of the Danish flag is slightly jarring – a strange remnant of imperial ambition that doesn’t sit well with the outward feel of the site’s inscription. The listing details describe how the site contains 4,200 years of human history – nearly all of which had nothing to do with Denmark at all. It seems a little ironic to proclaim how the area ‘bears testimony to the resilience of the human cultures of the region’, when the power and force of change against which this ‘resilience’ was measured was that of the Danish Empire! As with all World Heritage Sites, there is a slightly unreflexive section on ‘authenticity’, which focuses on material culture, though does mention that Inuit intangible cultural heritage and traditional knowledge contributes to this.

Since it is located in Germany, the nomination of Hedeby and the Danevirke was sponsored by the German state. It would be nice to know what Angela Merkel thinks about the proclamation of this ‘beautiful southern border wall’ (to coin a Donald Trump phrase) as universal heritage, especially with tensions over migration and border walls being so high up the political agendas in both Germany and Denmark. Once again, the material integrity of the site is the focus of the listing documents, though if you read various press reports, it is the ‘Danishness’ of the site that is most prominent. This is a key site for the Danish-speaking minority in the far north of Germany. I guess the question that is left hanging, is how such a definite boundary – a border wall – can be used to bring people together (German- and Danish-speakers, from both sides of the frontier), in the spirit of something called ‘universal heritage’?

Labelling ‘World Culture’ in a Museum

I was recently back in Exeter and decided to visit the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM), to catch up with how their recently renovated ‘World Cultures’ galleries were looking. There were a few new items that I hadn’t seen before, and a few items I thought I remembered were now missing, but on the whole, I was surprised by the lack of change from the old galleries. In particular, I think this came out in the labelling … so, instead of examining the collection itself, or even the explicit stories surrounding the collection of objects, I focussed on what the display labels revealed about the derivation of the objects. What do the labels reveal about the technology of display and how do these technologies of display can act to sustain a certain discourse?

 

Obtained 1884; Made Before 1880; Acquired 1912; Collected between 1885 and 1889; Acquired early 1970s; Voyage of HMS Discovery 1791-5; Acquired after 1879; Collected 1826-7; Acquired before 1893; Voyage of HMS Blossom 1826-7; Before 1863; Bought 1916; Acquired 1880; Taken from a shrine 1889; Collected 1864;

On the face of it, this is a curated assemblage of treasure, ‘acquired’ (or, perhaps, ‘plundered’) from almost everywhere and anywhere around the world. The collection is described in phrases that seem to hide as much as they reveal. In the old gallery, one item was described as being ‘captured’, which suggests an act of theft and probably a certain level of violence. In the new gallery, one item is described as having been ‘taken from a shrine in 1889’ – tantalising, perhaps, in what it intimates without saying – but what is the difference between ‘obtained’, ‘collected’ and ‘acquired’?

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One gap in the collection is filled with a label, that ‘Out of Respect’ a feather bonnet, which was identified as sacred by a visiting delegation of indigenous Blackfoot people, was removed and is now kept in the store. But what else does this store contain? And why is this material culture that is sacred to people living thousands of miles away kept in a storeroom in Exeter anyway? Indeed, how did all these things end up in the RAMM Collection?

There were also a few understated non-references to colonialist and imperialist histories, including a copper manilla that the label described as being ‘exported to Nigeria for use as a means of exchange’, without mention either that the ‘exchanges’ in which manillas are usually associated with were for human cargo, or that Exeter itself was an important producer of such manillas.

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Peter Aronsson (2011) write about how discourses of nationhood are promulgated through museums displays within imperial and conglomerate states such as France, Spain, and Great Britain. The British Museum, for instance, does not seek to tell the ‘story of Britain’ as either an eternal entity or a certainty of emergent destiny. Rather than reflecting any pretence of humility, however, Aronsson (2011: 47) sees this as a demonstration of ‘how a universalist approach is identified with a successful national power and reinforced by the sheer magnitude of its collections’.

Bringing a critical perspective to understanding these types of display, one can often tell a lot from reading between the lines of what the displays say and what they do not say; what they show and what they hide. With very little direct reference to ‘Britain’ within the RAMM World Cultures gallery, a 30 minute perusal of its label leaves one with a strong understanding that Britain has the power to ‘collect’, ‘obtain’ and otherwise ‘acquire’ material from anywhere in the world – and that everywhere in the world is categorised according to British value judgement. Through the construction, management and display of knowledge, the gallery reveals a great deal about Britain – British identity narratives, British values and British imperialism – with hardly any mention of Britain.

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.

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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’.

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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!

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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.

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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.

 

 

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.

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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.

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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”.

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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