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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Sighthill, Glasgow: a Megalithic Monument Going Back and Forth in Time

Earlier this summer, the Sighthill Megalith, close to Glasgow city centre underwent some serious restoration work, being moved, re-sited, and ‘re-sighted’, so as to be aligned with the sun on Summer Solstice.

Sighthill_Stone_Circle_2_1372849752_crop_550x264

The original monument was built in 1979 as part of a Glasgow Parks Department job creation scheme, but on the election of Margaret Thatcher’s government, the funding was pulled before the stones could be placed accurately, according to astronomical alignments. Indeed, the whole 1970s build-phase had some serious astronomical issues anyway, being placed in the ‘wrong location’ because the original site chosen was deemed unsuitable since it turned out that a large slab-block of flats would have obscured the view of the sun on the Solstice!

Sighthill with flats

The Glasgow Herald (page 8, 19th June 2017) described the realignment work that was taking place during the 2017 Solstice week as “recreating Britain’s first authentically – and accurately – aligned stone circle to have been erected in more than 3000 years”. The Herald highlighted the way that the Sighthill stones mirrored certain key Neolithic sites in Scotland such as those at Callanish in Lewis and at Stennes in Orkney. In many ways, this effort reflects a distinctly ‘national’ project, with a specific ambition to make links to famous ‘Scottish’ Neolithic sites, and is described by the project’s champion, Alasdair Gray, as work that “continues a Prehistoric Scottish tradition”. Thus, the building work acts to requisition the efforts of people from the Neolithic period (who would certainly have had no conception of a “Scotland”) into being a baseline of cultural and technological development for a distinctly ‘Scottish’ nation. In this respect, these actions mirror the Scottish National Museum’s attempt to place the Pictish carved monument at ‘Hilton of Cadboll’ within a distinctly ‘Scottish’ linear narrative of cultural development (see the work of Sian Jones, and also Harvey 2015). However, while the Hilton of Cadboll stone is a ‘genuine’ Pictish carved stone, placed at the ‘start’ of a story of national artistic progress, the Sighthill Megalith is a product of a 1970s urban job creation scheme, in search of ancient antecedents. Mind you, as Sian Jones notes, whatever the material origins of the Hilton stone, its meaning today should also acknowledge the adherence of the present day population to the stone as having contemporary meaning for the people in the village. So what should we make of the Sighthill Megalith?

Sighthill vision_.jpg.gallery

By providing a seemingly direct link to a suitable deep past, it seems to supply an air of legitimacy to the nation of Scotland; of originary solidity to a sense of linear inevitability in Scottish progress. On the other hand, the story also tells of a more recent past; one of post-war urban redevelopment schemes in Glasgow, the emasculation of local government and the attitudes of Thatcherism to local artistic practice, and perhaps a desire to do things better.

Rebuilding in the name of ‘conservation’ is a common practice that tends to overturn neat ideas about there being a palimpsest of archaeological layers. Wilkinson and Harvey (2017) found that the regular rebuilding of Tarr Steps in Exmoor after each flood was at the heart of what made Tarr Steps an ‘ancient monument’ (see also this blog: https://geographiesofheritage.wordpress.com/2013/02/19/how-to-build-an-ancient-monument-tarr-steps/). The Sighthill Megalith, however, differs from Tarr Steps (or the Hilton stone), since there is never a pretence of built material continuity – no-one would claim that the Sighthill stones are ‘Neolithic’ in a material sense.

Sighthill building work

The images of the Sighthill stones being re-positioned and re-alligned are reminiscent of the re-building of famous Neolithic sites such as Avebury and Newgrange. Indeed, at Newgrange, there was a similar effort to re-align the stones according to the Solstice – the Winter Solstice in the case of Newgrange. These efforts seem intent on producing what might be described (following Umberto Eco) as a ‘simulacrum’, where the copy is better and more real than the original. But I’m not sure that this is very fair either. For one thing, again, there is no pretence of the site being literally ‘from the deep past’, and for another thing, while sites such as Avebury and Newgrange were rebuilt in a stridently national cause, a deeper look at the Sighthill Megalith reveals a distinctly locally orientated and more humble initiative.

Thus, the Sighthill Megalith seems to be a much more open and future-orientated example of heritage-making in process. The re-siting and re-sighting efforts do not seem to be activities of ‘completion’, nor (despite some of the rhetoric in the Scottish press) do they seem to be overtly ‘national’. Rather, they appear to be commemorative of earlier skills (call them ‘Scottish’ or not!), and provide a canvass for future memory practice. Glasgow City Council officials talk brightly of how the “Sighthill megalith will be a key feature of the new Sighthill, [with] its new life emblematic of the rebirth of the area”; (I guess they need to say such things to underline the value of ongoing urban redevelopment work). But as an imaginative piece of heritage work that allows an open-ended sense of enchantment to bubble to the surface, I have a lot of time for the re-sighted Megalith site of Sighthill!

Sighthill _flowers-at-sighthill

Harvey D.C. (2015) ‘Heritage and scale: settings, boundaries and relations’, International Journal of heritage Studies, volume 21(6), pp. 577-593.

Wilkinson, T. and Harvey, D.C. (2017) ‘Managing the future of the past: images of Exmoor landscape heritage’, Landscape Research, DOI: 10.1080/01426397.2017.1315380.

(Pictures all from Google Images).

 

 

 

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’.

belfast-newtonards-road-ballet

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.

belfast-war-to-peace

 

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.