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:

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’.


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: 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.




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!


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.



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:

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.




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.





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’.


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.

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.


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?


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.


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.


Roskilde Viking Ship Museum (Author photo, Dec 2015)

In a newspaper report in January 2016 ( 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

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.


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”


“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


Absence makes the heart grow fonder: Modern iconoclasm and the meaning of heritage

It has taken me a good while to put together this blog post – since it has taken me a while to try and make sense of the ‘destruction’ of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palmyra, in Syria, by the ‘So-Called-Islamic-State’ (IS) last August. Indeed, the fact that I am writing it now doesn’t mean that I have somehow found ‘sense’ in these events, only that I feel that I am getting to a point where I can make some connections that can place the actions into a meaningful cultural, political-economic and longer temporal context, which I hope has some useful purchase. The pause has also enabled me to have several very interesting conversations with students – MA Sustainable Heritage students in Aarhus, Denmark, and final year BA Geographers in Exeter – and the thoughts in this blog have very much benefitted from these stimulating discussions.


It is testament to the power of UNESCO branding that many front pages of newspapers and slots on prime time news were taken up by reporting on the ‘destruction’ of Palmyra, and particularly the Temple of Bel. ‘UNESCO’ has become a globally recognized brand and a valuable commodity for a heritage site to possess. According to the UNESCO Website for Palmyra ( “An oasis in the Syrian desert, north-east of Damascus, Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences”.

In other words, ‘from’ the 1st/2nd century, whose value is founded on specific cross-cultural architectural elements, recognized through expert aesthetic judgements. It is a site that is in Syria, but valued for its cross-cultural (tansnational) associations, though very little mention is made of the site’s story outside of a block of time of a few hundred years, around 2000 years ago.

The notion of a World Heritage Site conveys a sense of universality of certain values and heritage assets that should be treasured and preserved. But what are these values? And what is universal about them? Despite some broadening towards the intangible in recent years, much of the literature and policy documents surrounding World Heritage Sites focus almost entirely on physical objects and buildings, especially those of prestige nature, such as temples. It is on this basis that the newspaper reports on Palmyra in late 2015 focused on the ‘destruction’ of heritage. But what was actually happening with regards to ‘heritage’? Is ‘Palmyra’ really being ‘destroyed’, and what are the consequences of this action? And, if we make room for recognizing the intangible, and the value of certain practices, then can the practice destroying the remains of already ‘ruined’ buildings (and a fairly new heritage centre) be considered as ‘intangible heritage’. After all, there is a very long tradition around the world of such iconoclastic destruction, as a meaningful cultural practice.

In the first place, why did the blowing up of a visitor centre, a few old statues and some dusty ruins merit more coverage – in terms of column inches and airtime – than the brutal murder of Khaled al-Asaad (aged 82) the Principal Keeper of Antiquities at Palmyra, or the execution of many other civilians and captured soldiers at the World Heritage Site?

Khaled al-asaad

Khaled Al-Asaad, executed by IS fighters

Without wishing to sound slightly shrill with moral outrage, the murder of this man, together with the daily (and largely unreported – beyond the generic) killing and maiming of individual civilians in Syria is far worse than the bull-dozing of a few old ruins. Certainly, we have seen too many newspaper front pages with terrifying images of death in recent years. But these make the front page images of Palmyra all the more strange, since almost every newspaper went with a version of showing the space where Palmyra used to be – presence, marked through absence. Indeed, many of the newspaper images required a ‘before’ and ‘after’ shot, so that the viewer could ‘see’ what they were (literally) not seeing; a photo of ‘nothing’, where the lack of anything is the point being made.

Palmyra relote sensing images

Before and After Photos of Palmyra


But what is Palmyra? The UNESCO description notes simply that it is a city and temple complex from the 1st/2nd Centuries AD – as though it is somehow ‘stuck in time’, which somehow does not exist in any other period.

If we take a look at the longer ‘biography’ of the site, we find that the ‘Temple of Bel’ (destroyed by IS in 2015) was also destroyed over 1700 years ago. It was actually only the ‘Temple of Bel’ for a few hundred years. It was ‘destroyed’ first in the 3rd Century AD; repaired as a fort, and then converted into a Christian Church during the Byzantine era. It was transformed again into a Mosque in the 7th century, and then a citadel/mosque in the 12th century. By the time of the Ottoman Empire, in the 16th century, Palmyra was just a small village within the ruins of the old ‘temple’, but it was used as a garrison and prison in the 19th century, before the French turned it into a ‘site of antiquity’ in the 1920s. By removing the local population (and transferring them to a newly built village nearby), it is the French who made this site a declared item of ‘heritage’, to be understood within the context of colonial power structures and western-European renditions of architectural categorization – and a site without people.

The ‘Temple of Bel’ has only been The Temple of Bel for about 200 of the last 2000 years; a ‘universal’ site of heritage that is now universally known as a ‘former World Heritage Site’ – an empty space; now more famous and well known in popular culture around the world than it ever was as a built edifice. This ‘destruction’ is just the latest phase of the site’s ongoing biography, and for most of this time the Temple has been in ruins. Like the Atlantis of legend, the site is now generally known through its destruction – more in the public mind than ever. Like Atlantis, the non-existence of the site conveys a sort-of lesson – it perhaps has agency and an affective capacity. In its absence, it is perhaps more ‘present’ than it ever was as a managed ruin.


In the absence of tangible buildings, perhaps the heritage of Palmyra can do more work, and carry more burden of meaning, than it ever could as a ‘well preserved ruin’ of a once-destroyed Temple complex?

For IS, it stands for ‘the West’, and so its destruction can potentially send a powerful message of anti-Western sentiment. For the West, the World Heritage Site stood as a representative of universal human spirit and ingenuity and its wonton destruction is heinous barbarism – only that it is perhaps a bit more difficult to be so angry about the destruction of a former colonial prison and a heritage visitor centre than it is about the ‘Temple of Bel’.

In some popular reports, the destruction is portrayed as being ‘unparalleled’, but of course it isn’t. Perhaps the most famous parallel in recent years is the Bamiyan Statues in Afghanistan, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001



Bamiyan Statues: before and after ‘destruction’, and as simulacrum, ‘better-than-the-original’ 3D laser image

Western commentators were very upset by the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan – but, of course, the West is not really an innocent party when it comes to ‘destroying’ heritage in a purposeful manner.

In the 20th century, the easiest parallels, perhaps, can be found in the so-called Baedeker Raids of the Second World War, in which the Germans bombed several ‘heritage cities’ in the UK, including Bath and Exeter in 1942 – in response to the RAF bombing the heritage city of Lubeck in northern Germany.


Lubeck in Flames

March 1942, Lubeck in flames (above); April 1942, Bath and Exeter bombed (below)


But the history of such iconoclastic activity is actually much longer and more ingrained than these iconic events from the practices associated with colonial violence to the obvious examples connected to the Reformation and Wars of Religion; of Reformers tearing down and destroying what they saw as the imagery and memorials of ‘idolaters’. Interestingly, in the case of some iconoclastic acts carried out in the 16th/17th centuries, the actual destruction has ended up being a valued component of ‘heritage’ – an important element of the life history of a site. In other words, making reference to iconoclastic actions becomes a powerful means of managing the past in reference to the present and future.

As my blog post from December 2014 notes, such activity can raise an interesting paradox:

“If an authentic medieval statue is damaged, perhaps with iconoclastic zeal, then what should be conserved?: Should such a badly eroded statue be left to its own devices (eventually to dissolve into nothing)?, be replaced with a ‘new’ – but similarly damaged – replica (thus ‘preserving’ a semblance of the iconoclast’s authentic ire)?, or be replaced by a replica that tries to copy the medieval original (assuming that the design is known)?”



Exeter Cathedral-statue

Preserving iconoclasm (Exeter Cathedral)

If referring to the ‘heinous nature’ of an act of iconoclasm has such power, then it is in the interests of those that are shocked by such apparent barbarity that we should ‘preserve the memory’ of the iconoclast; as warning and/or as memorial. While much of Lubeck has been carefully rebuilt – to erase the memory of the RAF’s ‘visit’ in March 1942 (and perhaps to gloss over the memory of Nazism) – there are also many examples where ruins are preserved ‘as ruins’ to act as meaningful memorial marker.


Charles Cross Church-plymouth2

Charles Cross Church ruin, Plymouth

When managing built heritage, remembering (and preserving?) iconoclasm is vital. In the case of the World Trade Center in New York, the absent building has become an iconic element of heritage through the process of its destruction. In other words, its resonant meaning as heritage relies on the narrative of its destruction; and so destruction precedes its meaning as heritage. The World Trade Center is now marked both by a very large building, and by a memorial space on the site of the old World Trade Center footprint. Entitled ‘Reflecting Absence’, it is a prompt from the past, which is managed in the present with an eye to the future.



‘Reflecting Absence’, World Trade Center, New York

Perhaps this is more like martyrdom, in which an act of destruction and death is required to produce something more potent. The site of a martyrdom might be marked by memorials and buildings (etc.); monuments to an act of destruction, the memory of which requires preservation to be powerful and meaningful. The death of a saint is often a crucial element for their memory to be powerful: ‘this is the site on which an event took place. Look on and be a witness to destruction’.

In many ways, the easy dualism between ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible’ heritage draws a false distinction; all heritage, ultimately, is intangible. With Palmyra, we are asked to look and witness a space of absence – a space of destruction. We are witnesses to the power of heritage, not as a tangible thing, but as an idea.



What should we do with the statue of Cecil Rhodes?

Back in April 2015, I wrote a blog about the high profile politics surrounding the Cecil Rhodes statue in Cape Town University. After becoming a focus of protest, alongside a good deal of social media pressure, the Cape Town University authorities removed the statue. The high profile of the case, however, has since provoked some similar public debates within Oriel College, Oxford; Rhodes’s Alma Mata.

Cecil John Rhodes

On the one hand, while Cecil Rhodes was a philanthropist for Oxford educationalists and international scholars, he was undeniably also a leading imperialist and racist – but would it be fair to cast judgement according to 21st century moral sensibilities? On the other hand, whatever we might think about Cecil Rhodes as a human being, would the removal of his statue actually achieve anything?

Many voices within the media have been uncomfortable about what they see as the anachronistic application of 21st century value judgements on historical figures. A reading of late 19th and early 20th century debates, however, would soon reveal how reviled Cecil Rhodes was by many sections of society at the time. Indeed, William Morris’s News from Nowehere (published in 1890) contains a blistering critique of late 19th century imperial expeditions by leading figures such as David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley. As usual in such debates, however, the application of critical heritage perspectives pertains less to historical anachronisms or otherwise, but rather to the contemporary politics of the past, and to the unfolding life history of the monument.


In some of my previous blogs, I quite liked the playful embellishment of the Wellington Monument in Glasgow, as well as the more overt critique of the General Buller statue in Exeter (November 2014 and July 2015) – the ‘victim’ of some ‘guerrilla memorialisation’ tactics. I was supportive of the removal of the Rhodes statue in Cape Town (April 2015 blog), viewed within the context of contemporary politics in South Africa, but what does this mean for Oriel College, Oxford?


Dena Latif, writing in the Guardian, has written persuasively that the removal of the Rhodes statue might act as a sort of problematic attempt to draw a veil over the past, making ourselves feel better now by pretending that the embarrassing Cecil Rhodes didn’t exist: “The statue should stay – and remind us that Oxford has much to do to redress its racial imbalances … Keep Rhodes up. And let’s admit that racial inequality lives on”.

This is a strong argument, and certainly one that we have seen elsewhere, such as with the case of the Jan-Peter Coen statue, in the Dutch town of Hoorn (reported in an excellent academic paper by Lisa Johnson). In Hoorn, the JP Coen statue was literally ‘put on trial’ in the town’s Museum, and a public vote led to the decision to keep the statue as a reminder of the highly problematic colonial past within the town. As Johnson notes, however, while the public debate and mock ‘trial’ stimulated a good deal of recognition and soul searching over the legacy of Holland’s slave trading past, it also arguably allowed other on-going post-colonial debates to be glossed over.

According to this line of thinking, the act of keeping the JP Coen statue as a reminder of colonial enterprises of the 17th century might act somehow to package up ‘colonial horror’ as a set of issues that had been dealt with. For Lisa Johnson, this meant that the public display of ‘contrition and regret’ during the ‘trial’ of JP Coen’s statue meant that more recent Dutch colonial wrong-doings in Indonesia (for instance), and the wider on-going legacy of Dutch imperial experiences and ambitions are somewhat side-lined. In other words, this most recent phase in the life history of the JP Coen memorial has seen it change from being a problematic monument to a past colonialist, in to being a celebratory monument to contemporary liberal anti-racist Dutch social attitudes. This is a potential by-product of ‘critical contextualisation’ practices, such as fixing an extra (critical) plaque onto an existing monument.

With respect to the Rhodes monument at Oriel College Oxford, therefore, we need to ask ourselves what a strategy of ‘critical contextualisation’ might actually do. In other words, if a plaque was added that outlined the more unsavoury colonial endeavours of Cecil Rhodes as a means to encourage some critical reflection, would this be OK? Within the confines of the overwhelmingly white spaces and privileged realms of Oxford University, I would worry that such a gesture might just act as a self-congratulatory epitaph of contemporary liberal idealism.

I think the debate has been a good thing. Rather than being about what we ought to do (or not do) with a memorial in an Oxford College, however, it ought to be prompting us to reflect more broadly about issues of race, inequality and marginalisation in present society, and spur us to call for a transformation in the future.


Beckham to play for ‘Britain’ in ‘England’ vs Germany nostalgic memorial re-enactment

Following my blog entry from March, about the use of heritage within contemporary identity politics and devolution debates in connection to the upcoming First World War centenary, there have been rumours that David Beckham might star in the proposed re-enactment of the Christmas Day truce football match:

For such an icon of English football, taking on the mantle of representing a celebration and coming together of Britishness might not be straightforward, especially in the aftermath of the September 2014 referendum for Scottish independence, whatever the outcome of the vote. And the fact that the match will be against German opposition is hardly going to cool things down. The Daily Mail reports that the game will be televised on Boxing Day – it makes a change from watching re-runs of films such as The Great Escape or Escape to Victory at least (or does it?!). There is also very little mention of any wider context of the event, either militarily (as the soldiers returned to their trenches to resume fighting), or socially (in terms of the broader understanding and experience of the First World War). Furthermore, however, the actual practice of using the re-enactment of the legendary football match of Christmas 1914 opens up further questions about the meaning and use of heritage.

The Christmas Day football match might be a neat way to demonstrate how ‘ordinary people’ could wrest control of and re-interpret the very meaning of armed conflict and competition among nation states in a manner that was contrary to the demands of imperial authority: these soldiers were defying their superiors on either side. In many ways, however, the very unusualness of the Christmas truce hardly makes it representative of everyday wartime experience, while the manner in which it has become so central in the official commemorative agenda would seem to undermine its potential for critical reflection. In some ways, the state-directed celebration of the unofficial truce, particularly translated through celebrity cultures, can be seen as a means through which the power and meaning of an essentially anti-national and critical geopolitical action might be tamed.

With such a centralised and increasingly politicised direction of ‘National Commemoration’ taking place and threatening to suffocate alternative heritage messages, therefore, maybe people should take a leaf out of the Christmas 1914 book, climb out of the officially choreographed trenches and explore some alternative means of understanding the First World War.

We are going to see a lot of First World War heritage being deployed for a variety of ends in the next four years and David Cameron exclaiming that Your Country Needs You, will just be one. This process will inevitably blur the boundaries between past, present and future, and will result in sense of ‘productive nostalgia’. Whether this nostalgia will be critical and progressive, or reactionary and exclusionary, however, is still an open question.