Breaking Down Boundaries with Heritage in Belfast: a Titanic fix?

I visited Belfast last weekend for the first time in about 10 years – a beautiful couple of lovely sunny days. Having first visited the city in 1990, my visit last week gave a good opportunity to reflect on all the changes that have happened. A period of 27 years is quite a time to witness change in any city, but what with the formal ending of ‘The Troubles’, the Good Friday Agreement, and the Northern Ireland Assembly (albeit presently suspended), Belfast has witnessed more significant change than most. No more soldiers on street patrol, no more military (or paramilitary) checkpoints, no more combat helicopters. I walked towards the Falls Road, strangely disorientated by the lack of the Divis Flats, with its army fort keeping watch from the top stories. There are, of course, plenty of signs of the past conflict – and plenty of evidence of a continuing division between communities within the city, but what role does heritage play in this story – and what role might it play?

In many ways, a dominant narrative strand of the conflict was always about competing heritages; of two distinct communities, each with a powerful set of heritage stories that solidified an identity politics that seemed to be cast in stone. Much of these heritages remain as strong as ever, and continue to be expressed and broadcast through that most characteristic feature of the urban landscape of Belfast; the mural.

This is a heritage that requires constant attention; painted and repainted, renewed and touched up countless times over the years, many of these murals seem to have endured in aspic since my first visit 27 years ago. Constant presences, preserved through an almost ritualized process of renewal, shiningly brand new-and-immemorial. Most of the motifs haven’t changed a great deal over the years: in Republican areas, an appeal to an internationalist ‘freedom fighter’ connection, alongside a memorialization of hunger strike martyrs, the heroes of the 1916 Easter Uprising, civilian victims, and soldiers in the struggle, often conveyed with Gaelic script and nodding to Celtic and Irish legend.

In Loyalist areas, a sense of defiant ‘no surrender’ siege mentality of ‘ourselves alone’, alongside a memorialization of First World War bravery against the odds, through which futile death somehow found meaning through a century of memory work, and all conveyed in strikingly repetitive red, white and blue.

Love them, or loathe them, these murals seem to be a vital feature of the city, both in the sense of being a constant presence in the life of communities, and also as a central feature in the city’s ‘tourist offer’. Visitors to Belfast expect to see these murals; they go on tours, take photos and selfies. The ‘city divided’ seems to be a crucial aspect of what Belfast is, and so one could argue that the nurturing of heritage is a ‘problem’, holding back processes of reconciliation. Preserving the heritage of Belfast, seems to require the preservation of at least the outward emblems of conflict. Belfast is a city that seems to be united in its adherence to a heritage of division. One of the biggest changes that I noticed on my trip to Belfast last week, however, was the development of a new heritage story; Belfast as the home city of the Titanic.

In some ways, it might seem a little odd, to base a heritage story around a big ship that people only know as the unsinkable ship that sank: Iceberg, Dead Ahead! The Titanic story, however, is a story that has immediate and global recognition, so why not!?

A lot of resources have been ploughed in to the Titanic project in Belfast; the city has a ‘Titanic Quarter’, the centerpiece of which is a huge and excellent museum. This museum seeks to tell a story of how ‘the city of Belfast came together to build the world’s largest passenger liner’ at the city’s Harland & Wolff Shipyard. That tagline of togetherness is repeated often, and supported through some really engaging and innovative methods of museum display. I particularly liked the section on riveting; the process through which gangs of men constructed the enormous iron hull. The displays don’t exactly shy away from the city’s identity politics of Republicans and Loyalists, though I didn’t see that much critical examination of Harland & Wolff’s employment practices, which meant that Titanic workforce was almost entirely from the Unionist-Loyalist and Protestant side of the city (see: http://www.irishcentral.com/news/did-anti-catholic-sentiment-of-titanic-workforce-help-doom-the-unsinkable-ship-147293105-237441311)

One thing that I found particularly interesting, however, was the way that considerable efforts have been made to connect the Titanic heritage to the tradition of mural painting. It strikes me that this is an example of how the enduring heritage of mural making within the city can be tapped into, perhaps re-purposed – even ‘hi-jacked’ – away from the celebration of Republican-Loyalist difference, and towards a heritage story of togetherness and peaceful co-habitation.

I get the point of this. Indeed, I would strongly support the sentiment – it is a great example of how ‘heritage’ can be used to change things; this is a heritage that can engage. From some of the labels and notes around the new murals, these activities seem to be the result of a very conscious practice of ‘re-imaging’ – a re-working of heritage practice for the sake of casting a more positive sense of ‘prospective memory’.

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I can’t help thinking that some of the images look, well, a bit cheesy; like an aspirational mission statement designed by a particularly keen and trendy head teacher in a school that has recently been in ‘special measures’. … but, of course, Belfast has been in ‘special measures’ for a long time, so I think the re-imaging – or heritage re-imagining – activity is a really good thing. I don’t know the detail of how the individual murals came about, who painted them, or how local people view them (but see here for some detail: http://jamiebaird.squarespace.com/northterminal/2015/2/26/evolution-of-murals-in-east-belfast). Whatever the circumstances of their production, however, it strikes me that the key issue is whether there is the means that will make them endure, through the constant maintenance that will be needed to keep them there for forty years and more.

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Celebrating Boundaries and the Heritage of Distinction (Part 3): a bit of hygge would be ‘nice’….

Alongside the more predictable (and depressing) words and phrases of the year in 2016, such as ‘Brexit’, ‘post-truth’ and ‘alt-right’, was the much more positive-sounding Danish-Norwegian word hygge.

With very little hint of irony, this supposedly untranslatable Danish word was explained, described, examined and otherwise deployed again and again as the year wore on. The subject of many articles in Sunday newspaper lifestyle supplements and consumer magazines, and often illustrated through pictures of candles, wooly jumpers and beautifully presented open sandwiches, hygge tended to be translated as ‘something like a sense of coziness’. The authors and others doing the describing had always to underline the inexact nature of their translation since one of the key attributes of hygge is that it is ‘untranslatable’. Another of the key attributes of hygge is that it should be understood as a state that just ‘is’ – there is no sure-fire means of achieving it, and any blueprint for reaching a state of hygge would be an oxymoronic exercise. That certainly didn’t stop anyone trying, however, and as Christmas neared whole displays of self-help hygge instruction and lifestyle books appeared in bookstores across the land!

hygge-book-display

So far, so … normal and predictable, then?! There doesn’t appear to be much of ‘geographies of heritage’ interest here. Or is there….?

I am always suspicious when a word that is indicating a situation, an attitude or state psychological wellbeing is so easily related to a sense of nationhood, or supposedly natural character. Wikipedia suggests that hygge has a ‘unique definition’, but what does that mean? Surely any and every word can have a ‘unique definition’? Indeed, if I were being a bit naughty, I might put forward the English word nice as an untranslatable word with a unique definition, to be deployed both when something is liked or disliked, often used simply to fill a gap in a sentence, and probably only to be understood in the context of who is saying it and in which situation. But perhaps I shouldn’t over-think these things? After-all hygge is such a warm and glowing word, and is usually deployed in a manner that is as positive as it is sincere. It sometimes seems that 2016 brought precious little joy to the world, so we should cherish hygge as a word-of-the-year to be celebrated, in its suggestion of coziness and companionship that sometimes seemed to be in short supply.

 

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This happy acceptance of the word was fine for a while, but what I cannot quite rid myself of, however, is the implicit suggestion that the untranslatability of hygge might be used to create boundaries. And sure enough, when I was in Denmark in the Autumn an article appeared in the Danish newspaper Politiken, which included some interviews with supporters of the Danish People’s Party: hygge was Danish – and understanding it, and even doing it ‘correctly’ was in the preserve of the Danes. Immigrants to Denmark cannot have hygge because they are not Danish.

 

You need to be ‘Danish’ in order to understand what hygge really meant. The word is not just ‘untranslatable’, but is also unavailable to anyone but true Danes. Indeed, it can be deployed in a fashion that leaves it hanging out in front of you – as something wonderful, but forever out of reach. All of a sudden, the self-help guides seem to have a much more sinister overtone – manuals that carefully and lovingly describe how the reader can never be ‘Danish’.

As we approached Christmas, a very good article by Charlotte Higgins in the Guardian, added some further depth to the issue:

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/nov/22/hygge-conspiracy-denmark-cosiness-trend

It is through these means that hygge can become a device for marking distinction; of insider and outsider – of citizen and non-citizen. And since hygge is essentialised as ‘untranslatable’, then it can act as a social code that is forever out of reach for certain people. It would be overtly racist (and probably illegal) to cast non-Danes as explicitly ‘inferior beings’, but the deployment of hygge can perhaps sometimes herald a more subtle form of exclusion.

 

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Of course, the word hygge does not automatically contain any active sense of exclusion. Indeed, I would say that any attempt to use the word in that manner would be uhyggelig – ‘un-cozy’! But for this openness to be apparent requires an acceptance that what hygge means remains equally ‘untranslatable’ for everyone, and unhooked from any national stereotype, rather than as something that requires arbitration. If that were the case, then hygge would certainly be nice.

 

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Who cares about ‘Britain’s Oldest Hotel’? The Royal Clarence Fire, Exeter

A few weeks ago, Exeter was at the centre of a national heritage news story, when a fire broke out early in the morning of Friday 28th October in premises close to the Royal Clarence Hotel, on the Cathedral Green in Exeter.

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Night picture: the ‘Royal Clarence Hotel’ is the building on the right of this alarming picture; still in floodlights, and seemingly ‘safe’.

Although the main Hotel was a couple of doors along from where the fire started, unknown and unmapped air gaps and voids within the ensemble of medieval buildings allowed the fire to spread, so that by mid-morning, the seat of the blaze was focused on the Royal Clarence hotel itself. The fire raged and smouldered on for a couple more days, a large section of the city centre was closed off, and the national media took up the story.

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I don’t think I am exaggerating too much by saying that the event utterly dominated conversation in the city, both among friends and colleagues, and also with strangers, exchanging words in bars and cafes, or in chance encounters in the street. It was as though a strange sense of camaraderie developed, borne on a mutual understanding over a sense of loss – almost of bereavement. Many people felt a need to talk to each other, on buses, and in shops; not passing the day in banal comments about the weather, but as an urgent desire to express an idea that the Royal Clarence fire was something important, and that this event was terribly sad for something called ‘Exeter’.

Much of the news media coverage of the event, however, focused on the Royal Clarence Hotel’s status as “Britain’s Oldest Hotel”, and the “place where Franz Liszt once played a recital – as evidence by the blue plaque on the wall.

 

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While I watched the news coverage, and glanced at social media during that first weekend, all of the people interviewed or who expressed an opinion, were certainly very sad about the fire, but most of them had no idea it was the country’s oldest hotel; the place where Franz Liszt once played.

exeter-fire-smoke-at-rcOver the following few days, newspapers started putting inverted commas around their claim of the Royal Clarence being the “oldest” hotel, as a whole string of other hotels around the country sprung up to claim the title The Oldest Hotel in England (though maybe not the place where Franz Liszt once played).

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Over the next few days, it became more and more obvious that the actual age of the fabric of the building – and its claim to being the Country’s Oldest Hotel – wasn’t necessarily high up on the list of attributes that made the Royal Clarence Hotel a treasured item of Exeter Heritage. Most people talked a lot about the sense of community and immediately switched to talking about the spirit of the Fire Brigade; the Royal Clarence being ‘the heart of the city’. For the most part, it seemed that peoples’ sense of loss at the destruction of the “oldest hotel” was something that they had to be informed about by the BBC and other news media; it was external to their experience, even as it became part of the narrative. Ironically, therefore, as the mainstream media lost heart in the claim about it being the ‘oldest hotel’, the oldest tagline seemed to become more important to ordinary people in Exeter – so that by one week after the event, from a position where very few people knew that ‘the oldest hotel’ was present in Exeter’s city centre, media management led to a situation that everyone now knew that the ‘oldest hotel’ was now absent from Exeter’s city centre.

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Watch live, as the Royal Clarence becomes absent

 You could agree with David Lowenthal here, that there is nothing like losing something to make you realise how valuable that thing was, but that sounds a bit trite to me. I also think that this can gloss over how heritage is engaged with in the present; the work that it does, and the work that it might do.

I think we get too caught up with facts and figures over the apparent age of things; neatly pinned down and packaged. Indeed, while authoritative narratives seem always to want to package things up, and locate them with exact dates, at a national scale (BRITAIN’S oldest; built in 17-whatever), this doesn’t seem to reflect how heritage is really related to by people, even if most people soon end up using the language (of national reference and dated superlatives).

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People were genuinely sad about the Royal Clarence Fire – feeling that they had lost an important item of heritage; they didn’t need to be told something clever and contrived about how there’s ‘nothing like losing something to make you realise how valuable that thing was’, while they mostly did need to be told that it was the Country’s “Oldest” Hotel; the place where Franz Liszt once played.

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Maybe the Royal Clarence Hotel will be rebuilt ‘exactly’ as it was before – only better – a banal simulacrum that reflects the marvels of modern technology to confirm the supposed permanence of a structure by rebuilding it. The new Royal Clarence can still claim to be the “oldest’ (with inverted commas); a technological fix, acting as a means of conserving and regulating a stable sense of pastness. But I don’t think that would really capture how people relate to the Royal Clarence; people would still dream.

Personally, I’d be very happy if the Royal Clarence was rebuilt, not as a means to re-capture the essence of it being the “oldest hotel”, but as a context in which people can carry on dreaming.

Celebrating Boundaries and the Heritage of Distinction (part 2)

So – following on from my last post – how is the heritage of boundaries underscored and celebrated, particularly in ways that, at first sight, seem to be totally innocuous? How can a joyful and even positive-sounding sense of distinct cultural heritage get bound up and entangled within the politics of exclusion?

Sometimes these things can emerge as a by-product of an un-thought-through celebration of all things local. This is not a new idea, but I still find it startling how easy it is for unexamined ‘cherished local heritage’ to gloss over some really nasty implications. I have published on how a seemingly jolly piece of local heritage community performance activity can, even inadvertently, become a magnet and focus of racism (see Harvey 2015 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/13527258.2014.955812). On a national scale, one can often find traces of boundary-marking sentiment in most national museums, as (often singular) narratives of national struggle and achievement are displayed. My blog post from May 2016, outlined the competition between Denmark and Norway to claim ‘Viking Heritage’ as an inalienable part of the story that cements Danish and Norwegian nationhood, residing in defined boundaries. But I think that it is often the more banal, every-day, and popularly generated (as opposed to State-led and institutional) initiatives that often get ignored, but which can often be more influential.

A couple of weeks ago, the Boundary Commission in the UK published a report that recommended a radical overhaul of Parliamentary Constituencies across the UK. In order to reduce the number of MPs and meet strict guidelines about the demographics of each constituency in the South West of Britain, the Commission has proposed a new constituency that stretches across the county boundary of Devon and Cornwall. Unsurprisingly, this has yielded a lot of criticism, especially from people in Cornwall who feel that the distinctive cultural heritage of the county would be underlined by such official disregard of the (supposedly) ancient boundary of a Cornish nation.

“The people of Cornwall have fought long and hard to preserve their sense of identity”, a resident of Launceston has been quoted as saying – implying that the ‘The People of Cornwall’ neatly correspond to a singular identity, which is stable and unchanging, separate and most definitely bounded. I am not totally convinced that the boundary of a Parliamentary constituency is a make or break ingredient of there being an expressed sense of ‘Cornishness’. After all, the St Loyes suburb of Exeter was recently re-located out of the Parliamentary constituency of Exeter and placed in East Devon, but I expect most residents of St Loyes will still say they live in (and identify with) Exeter. But maybe this is a thin end of a wedge – and one that seems to run roughshod over recently acknowledged status of ethnic distinction that Cornwall now has within European legislation.

The idea of there being a distinct Cornish identity is certainly widely accepted, but where should a boundary to this identity lie – and should there be a boundary anyway? Looking at the historical evidence, there is a strong case for saying that the boundary between something called Cornwall, and something called England, should perhaps be much further to the east, with what-is-now Devon being included within a greater Dumnonia. On the other hand, if you take the place-name evidence seriously, then much of this north-eastern part of Cornwall, around Stratton and Kilkhampton, should perhaps really be in Devon! And in terms of the roll that Parliamentary constituencies are supposed to fulfill, then there is a strong case for saying that the small (Devon) towns of Holsworthy, Bideford and Hatherleigh together with their fairly isolated rural hinterlands have a good deal in common with the (Cornish) towns of Launceston and Bude.

But that is not the point: following the work of the Finnish geographer Anssi Paasi, we have to recognise and acknowledge the tremendous symbolic power of territorial shape. Supposed factual detail doesn’t matter – the idea that the border between Devon and Cornwall lies along the River Tamar has popular currency of near essential proportions. It is difficult to challenge this. Furthermore, there is a very real concern over the so-called ‘Devonwall’ syndrome – that the people of Cornwall are marginalised by always being attached to Devon as a secondary partner. Whether the issue is of Higher Education, of landscape or heritage management, or of policing, it seems that Cornwall doesn’t warrant any separate status, but must always be attached to a larger authority, which inevitably has its headquarters outside the county – often in Exeter in Devon. Sometimes – as with the maintenance (so far) of the Cornwall Fire Brigade – attempts to foster ‘Devonwall’ can be staved off, but there is a very real danger of a fairly marginalised region such as Cornwall becoming even more marginalised, and cast outside of decision-making processes as a result of always being linked to Devon.

This active process of marginalisation points strongly towards some important political-economic issues of inequality and governmentality. Cornwall’s popularity as a tourist destination and holiday-home location has led to it having a relatively high cost of living (especially housing), but with low wages and poor quality job opportunities alongside what are often poor services (whether it be broadband connectivity or social and educational services). People in Cornwall are relatively poorer, less healthy and more disadvantaged than further up country. ‘Devonwall’ exacerbates this cycle of inequality and marginalisation, and so partly explains the efficacy of supporting a call for Cornwall to be treated as different, and requiring some special measures in order to overcome the difficulties. But does the proclamation of a distinct Cornwall, founded upon an essentially separate, historically deep and bounded cultural heritage actually help the cause? I would argue that it often does not help; it gets in the way and – potentially worse – it seems to answer questions or even suggest a panacea, rather than actually address issues of inequality and disadvantage.

Issues of peripherality can be glossed over because a separate and bounded heritage provides the stable and essential answers. Indeed, potential commonality between the small towns of east Cornwall and the peripheral areas of NW Devon are ignored, while the very real economic differences and prospects between different towns in Cornwall – between (say) St Ives and Redruth; or Fowey and St Austell – are glossed over as they are all lumped together as being The People of Cornwall, distinct from the People over there.

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“Cornwall is passionate about its own identity … the Cornish are very aware of their separateness. It’s in the blood”, proclaims another commentator of the Parliamentary boundary commission recommendation. Cornwall is cast as a sentient and singular entity; no room for hybridity, for fluidity, for difference. Indeed, no room even for a heritage of migration and diaspora. The proclamation that Cornish identity is ‘in the blood’, buys in to some troubling Victorian views on race theory and suggests a natural exclusion of people with the wrong blood. What is worse, is that it sidesteps all of the crucial issues of economic marginalisation and political dependency. Peripherality almost becomes a virtue, to be enjoyed by weekend holiday home owners – and the very real problems of health and social inequality can be safely ignored.

To return more directly to the theme of the celebration of boundaries through heritage, leading figures within the Cornish nationalist movement are rightly proud of Cornwall being officially recognised by the European Union as a distinct national minority. But I am frightened by a Europe that celebrates cultural diversity if cultural distinction is always couched in terms of being made up of a mosaic (or patchwork quilt) of unique (and essentially unchanging/unchangeable) units. On the one hand, we should seek to get beyond some of the cosy narratives of essentialised heritage distinction and challenge differences, where there seem to be unjustifiable distinctions in wealth, health and opportunity. On the other hand, where appropriate we should be celebrating difference, recognising that we live in a hybrid and dynamically changing world – certainly recognising that there are differences between groups of people, but that all these differences are made up of blends. We have a responsibility to protect the rights of people to be different, even – or especially – when they are on the inside of bounded territorial containers.

Celebrating Boundaries and the Heritage of Distinction (part 1)

 

It is easy to put it down simply to “post-Brexit blues”, but the celebration of boundaries seems to have an enduring appeal, both to people in these islands and in Europe more broadly. The popular refrain that tends to accompany such narratives usually relies heavily on an expressed sense of ‘heritage’ … We are totally different to the people over there; we require ‘our sovereignty’, the inalienability of which is based upon a distinct ‘heritage’; the people over there should not come over here; these boundaries are sacred and unquestionable; these boundaries are our heritage and must be preserved.

Witnessing the Migration Crisis in recent years – how the issue is (not) engaged with and talked about – of course, makes me realize that these feelings are much more broad and deeper than ‘Brexit’. One could say that the ‘celebration of boundaries’ is what Europe is all about – it is an essential part of European heritage. Often, these narratives have a positive gloss – of ‘celebrating regional diversity’, and the idea that Europe is made up of a sort-of mosaic of nations and regions, each one a unique bounded entity, more-or-less tolerant of other, surrounding unique bounded entities, with stories of this uniqueness founded upon origin legends and claims to ‘distinct heritage’.

 mosaic

As so often is the case, heritage seems to answer questions, making the world seem clear and easy – divided into unique groupings of people, with ‘change’ and ‘movement’ being cast as an enemy to the supposed natural order of things. In seeming to settle issues so easily, people don’t tend to look much further, but instead they end up tacitly (or explicitly) supporting the building of razor-wire fences to ‘protect our heritage’. Is it really this stark?

I find it frustrating that the warm glow of a backward-looking sense of nostalgia somehow makes it easy for people to cry for the ‘return of our sovereignty’ without facing up to the very real and increasingly unavoidable globalized interconnections of Neoliberalism. Neither present political economics, nor the reactionary nostalgia of wishful (and often bigoted) imagination, are challenged. It seems strange that people cherish a governmental memory of nineteenth century free trade, but forget that it was only in 1905 that passports were first required to enter the UK. And it is especially disheartening to see any notions of a heritage of humility, common concern and empathy always being trumped by a forward-looking sense of destiny that resides in the heritage of our boundaries and borders. We are different to the people over there.

I would certainly not claim that ‘everyone is the same’, but we must be able to differentiate between celebrating difference, and celebrating the apparent distinction between ‘unique’ bounded entities that are part of a supposed mosaic of separate, stable and homogenous ‘cultures’, where ‘culture’ is a super-organically essentialised set of characteristics, often recognized through unchangeable ‘heritage’. Even when people talk about ‘tolerance’, it is often in a sense of being tolerant of something that is always ‘distinct’ and must be kept separate. … no space for engagement, for hybridity, for evolution, for change and ambiguity, for the celebration of differences, or for movement and flows – except for the flows of capital and the movement of privileged holiday makers intent on ‘experiencing the other’, from a safe distance.

“We love Viking greatness….”

Having just spent a very pleasant cycle holiday touring around Denmark, I can certainly vouch for just how important the Vikings are for Danish national identity. This is fully recognized by Danes themselves, and was explored a little in an article within the national broadsheet newspaper Politiken recently (page 3 of the Kulture section, Wednesday 27th July 2016), under the headline “Vi elsker vikingernes storhed”, which roughly translates as “We Love Viking Greatness”, (see: http://politiken.dk/kultur/medier/ECE3312983/vi-elsker-vikingernes-storhed/)

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Photo from Politiken (27/7/16); Nationalmuseet

In particular, the Politiken article explores the phenomenal popularity of Viking era re-enactments, in which thousands of people dress up and ‘live as Vikings’, for a day, a weekend, or even longer. I saw a good example of the longer-duration Viking re-enactment scene last year at the Fyrkat Viking Centre, near Hobro, North Jutland (http://nordmus.dk/vikingecenter-fyrkat), where visitors could watch ‘normal’ Viking families cook meals, make textiles or work in smithies. Often, such events last for just a weekend, such as at the Moesgaard Viking Moot near Aarhus, held over the last weekend in July each year (http://www.visitaarhus.com/ln-int/moesgaard-viking-moot-gdk644190).

Operating each year since 1977, the Moot this year involves over 600 families (and 65 horses) gathered for re-enactment activities, and visited by thousands of day tourists at the site.

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Working oven at the Fyrkat Viking re-enactment site

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A ‘Viking Welcome’ (information board at Fyrkat)

Mads Daugbjerg et al. have recently edited a Special Issue on the meaning and potential of re-enactment in the International Journal of Heritage Studies (2014, volume 20, issue 7-8). According to Daugbjerg et al (2014), re-enactment is a particularly effective means of heritage – ontologically intensive, performative and experiential – it can create a shared sense of knowledge that produces a collaborative heritage of possibility (Daugbjerg 2014: 728). But why are the Vikings a particular favourite for re-enactors?

Reported in the Politiken article, Anne-Christine Larsen (of the National Museum, and active Viking re-enactor) notes (roughly translated) that the Viking Age is a period that “we are often proud of because we were kings of a large part of the world, more or less for the first and only time in our history. And, moreover, it is also a period when a lot of significant things happen in Denmark – we get state building; we become Christian; towns emerge; rowing boats become sailing ships so that the world suddenly opens up”. She adds that the “surviving stories of the Vikings are full of heroes and heroines, and people lived more simply. So, when people are Vikings and cook their food over an open fire for a weekend, the go down a gear”. The archaeologist Jeanette Varberg adds that the “Viking period is a story about a time when our little country set the agenda in world history. It is not so often we experienced that in Denmark, so that’s why we like it”.

What strikes me about these quotes is how present-centred they are, in terms of the affirmation of self-identity today, both for the state of Denmark and for the community within Denmark. Being a Viking is a relaxing way to spend some ‘down time’, while also reinforcing a sense of communal identity. This works through the easy way in which the experiences of an era from more than a thousand years ago are made into ‘our experiences’: we are the Vikings, and the Vikings are us. The entire political and cultural entity of the Viking orbit of power is equated to ‘our little country’, and a narrative of Christianisation, urbanization and the development of world trade and travel is given a dimension of seemingly inevitable national destiny.

This was something that I saw during a visit to the National Museum site at Jelling, last November (‘Royal Jelling: Home of the Viking Kings’: http://en.natmus.dk/museums/kongernes-jelling-home-of-the-viking-kings/). A lot of money has been spent in a very interactive museum, which provides a means of exploring the past that is excellent fun. As with the Viking re-enactments, however, explorations of the past sometimes blurs with proclamations about the present; implying that Denmark’s status as a “Christian Country” is (literally) set in stone, and that people who are not “Christian” equally cannot be “Danes” (or Vikings).

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‘Royal Jelling’ Museum at Jelling, Denmark

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Royal Jelling Museum: ‘Today: the countries of Europe are all officially Christian’

These issues veer towards the controversy that arose when the Hollywood film Thor came out in 2011 and the black actor Idris Elba was cast as the Norse god Heimdall. There was a lot of criticism from some conservative circles (see: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/dec/17/white-supremacists-boycott-thor) who claimed that a Norse god cannot be played by a black actor. Rather than risk siding with white supremacists, therefore, it strikes me that the relationship between ‘Danishness’ and the Vikings requires some nuance, and a sense of openness about who can call themselves ‘Vikings’.

It seems to me that at the root of these debates is the fact that the Vikings have a powerful charm, perhaps only comparable to ‘Pirates’ (of the Captain Jack Sparrow variety). The Viking world is a composite of genuine macho-independence and self-confidence, alongside a seemingly quotidian sense of societal self. These elements are underlined through scholarship, with a good range of surviving archaeological evidence that attests to the sophistication of Viking art, ingenuity and navigation that is understandably celebrated. Maybe we all want to be ‘Vikings’ (and ‘Pirates’)? After all, when a relatively violent and perilous world is viewed through 1000 years of temporal distance, even massacres and slave trading can become ‘cool things’ to take ownership of and claim responsibility for? As Jeanette Varberg adds (in the Politiken article), despite an array of archaeological artifacts, the “written sources are not great and so this creates a space that we can fill with our imagination”.

Rather than being an ‘embarrassing aged relative’, the Vikings have become a ‘flexible friend’ – a vehicle for all sorts of contemporary hopes and desires. There is nothing inherently wrong with this sentiment, as long as we can all play at being Vikings.

Doing things with Viking heritage

A lot of apologies have been called for in recent years – and some have been made, even when not sought.

Often, these issues of apology and reconciliation are related to colonial endeavors, and particularly the exploitational tendencies of white settler communities. In the UK, the ‘public apology’ issue really came to prominence during 2007, the Bicentenary of the ending of the slave trade. Various senior politicians expressed ‘regret’, but no official apology as such, was deemed necessary by those in power. The issue is still raised by representatives of those that have undergone previous injustice – the recent call by the President of Jamaica for reparations from the UK for the crime of slavery seems to be ably supported by concrete evidence in the form of archived accounts of plantation profits, as well as records of compensation paid by the UK Government in the 1830s to slave owners whose ‘capital’ of human bodies had been deemed to be freed through an Act of Parliament. The existence of such an Act represents the proof of the injustice, but not apology – and no reparations are deemed to be necessary.

In such a climate, therefore, it is perhaps strange to see such a full and reflective ‘apology’ being freely offered from one of the wealthiest nations on earth, as happened when, in 1993, the Church of Norway sent a ‘letter of reconciliation’ to the people of Lindsifarne, Holy Island, Northumbria, reflecting on the devastation of the Abbey and community on Holy Island in the year 793AD.

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Lindisfarne (Author photo, August 2014)

This letter of reconciliation acts both as a sort of apology for the Viking raid in AD793, and also a reflective meditation on proceeding events. This ‘reconciliation’ took place exactly 1200 years after the  sacking of the monastery of Lindisfarne. What took them so long? Why now? And, what does it mean?

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Lindisfarne (Author photo, August 2014)

While the UK Government are clearly a little reticent to hold their hand up and take responsibility for the much more recent trade in human cargo that arguably laid the foundation for the modern world system and distribution of wealth and power, the Norwegian Church appear happy to take responsibility for the plundering of an early Christian monastery more the 1200 years ago.

Our understanding of the Viking Age has grown considerably in recent years. No longer are they seen as a bunch of hooligans with horns on their helmets. Indeed, their cultural currency as weighed in terms of identity forming capital for use in building nations is highly valued. In Scandinavia, the exploits of Viking ancestors provide a key foundational narrative of nationhood – an identity-forming vehicle carried forward by Scandinavian settlers in other parts of the world, from Minnesota to the Shetland Islands.

It is a powerful story, of bravery and blood honour; a cultural and economic high point enacted through heroic migration that was borne of a mixture of enterprising human spirit and economic necessity. It is a story that is very much celebrated, particularly in Iceland, Norway and Denmark. Rather than a crime to hide from view, or feel remorse for, therefore, the story of the sacking of Lindisfarne provides a direct tacit link to a valuable and powerful origin legend. Maybe the Danes should be kicking themselves that the Norwegians got their apology in first!

Rather than worrying too much about reconciliatory apologies, however, the Danes are busy cementing their Viking self-image through the building of a new museum and visitor centre at the remains of a ring fort in Slagelse, near Copenhagen.

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Proposed Viking Heritage Centre, near Copenhagen

According to the architectural magazine DeZeen: ‘Its green roof will angle up from the ground, and help it to mirror the fortress and blend with its rural setting. The shape also pays homage to the circular shields typically used by Vikings in battle’. “We have designed and placed the building as a lost shield casually left on the edge of the forest,” said [architect] Søren Mølbak. “We have recreated the Viking atmosphere with a gripping audio-visual universe of exhibition spaces, the crackling of the fireplace in the cafe, the tarred timber exterior cladding and the Viking sails decorating the facades,” explained Søren.

Not stopping there: according to the Danish newspaper, Politiken, the Danish People’s Party (an influential xenophobic and anti-immigration political party) has recently called for a complete refurbishment of the internationally famous Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. Built in the late 1960s to house the five famous Viking ships that were salvaged from the Roskilde Fjord in 1962, the present museum is now thought to look a little dated.

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Roskilde Viking Ship Museum (Author photo, Dec 2015)

In a newspaper report in January 2016 (http://politiken.dk/kultur/ECE3035037/df-vil-rive-vikingeskibsmuseet-ned-og-opfoere-nyt-i-vikingestil/) a Danish People’s Party spokesperson on culture called for a new museum to be built in ‘Viking style’.

While the same political party seem to have been very keen to confiscate the valuables of refugees entering Denmark in the name of shoring up stretched state finances, it seems that money should be found to build a brand new and suitably ‘Viking’ long-house/museum. The proposal has received some interesting (and very sharp) responses from both the museum community in Denmark, and several prominent architects – including suggestions that the Danish Peoples Party proposal corresponds to a sort of blinkered cultural vandalism that ought to be compared with the actions of IS and the Taliban! (see http://politiken.dk/kultur/arkitektur/ECE3037005/storm-mod-df-forslag-om-nedrivning-af-fredet-museumshal/)

They had better start building soon, however, since in May 2016, the Norwegian Viking Ship Museum announced the winner of the architectural competition to build their new museum in Oslo.

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Proposed extension of Viking museum, Oslo

According to DeZeen, the new building once again draws inspiration from ‘Viking Architecture’; “With its bold circular shape, the extension will create a new iconic signature for the museum, while making room for an intuitive flow of exhibitions and preserving the Viking Ship building as a prominent, totally integral part of the new museum and the surrounding countryside,” said the architects. Ironically, perhaps, the architects for this project are the Danish firm, AART!

So far, so good, in terms of there being such a widely held interest and investment in Viking heritage. It provides a source of succor within identity-forming narratives in both Norway and Denmark (and elsewhere), but what else can it do?

Rather than horned-helmeted hairy heathens, the Vikings these days, are more often talked of in terms of their skills, ingenuity and cultural achievements. They were international migrants, who travelled to the edges of the known world in search of economic improvement. In doing so, they had to adapt to all sorts of new environments, as a Viking diaspora spread throughout (and beyond) Europe. Perhaps there are some lessons here for how we understand migration stories today? The detailed circumstances of these migration stories are certainly very different, but perhaps the Danish People’s Party and other anti-immigrant groups in western Europe should reflect upon what they like to celebrate about their own heritage – and extend a hand of understanding towards the migrants of today.

[All the captions are correct, but I think I have got some of them mixed up on the photos below] 

We were out at sea for a long time

Climb on board a Viking ship

Genuine Sailing Experience

“We were out at sea for a long time – 15 hours – and the motor started to die. We thought we were going to die any minute”

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“Genuine sailing experience in a traditional, Nordic boat with oars, sail – and with the scent of wood tar in the nose”

Climb on board a viking ship

Refugees keep coming to Greece in overcrowded boats