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.

 

 

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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.

 

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.

 

hygge-book1

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.

 

hygge-book2

 

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.

 

hygge-book3

 

 

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.