Cultural Heritage Revolution?

In the midst of global protests and demonstrations in connection with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and in the immediacy of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, statues to imperialists, racists and the traders of enslaved people are finally coming down.

In Bristol, the statue of Edward Colston was toppled on Saturday 6th June, rolled through the streets and tossed into the harbour. By Wednesday, several more statues have been taken removed, some with official sanction and watched by cheering crowds. More than 100 city councils across the UK have signed up to holding a review in order to consider removing statues, and even changing street names, and in America there is a growing hope that the end is nigh for racist memorials.

Many of these things have happened before, in some guise, some stories of which have appeared in this blog (including blogs on a Tiananmen Square statue, the Buller Statue in Exeter, and the Wellington Monument in Glasgow). But there seems to be something ‘different’ about this moment. Perhaps it is the context of Coronavirus?

The ‘traditional’ official answers tend revolve around platitudes towards disadvantaged communities – their pain is ‘felt’, their sense of injustice is ‘understood’ – but now is not (and never is) the ‘right time’. And, of course, any direct action from a crowd is always ‘completely wrong’!

So, when can the completely wrong be ‘right’? Does the removal of statues represent an ‘erasure of history’? And should we always champion the ‘Voice of the People’?

When the completely wrong is ‘right’?

In the first few hours following the (un)ceremonial dumping and dunking of Edward Colston in Bristol, many commentators lined up to tread the fine line between supporting the ‘sentiment’ of the protest, while deploring their actions. The Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, for instance both said that the statue ‘should have been removed a long time ago’, while also saying that its removal as part of the weekend protests was ‘wrong’. Such public figures do not want to be associated with ‘criminal acts’, but an official sanction of popular sentiment – perhaps even when this sentiment is expressed through direct action – has many precedents. Perhaps most famously, the toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein in 2003, or the removal of Soviet statues in much of eastern Europe in the 1990s was a moment that was widely endorsed by many official representatives. Queen Victoria was taken away in Dublin a century ago by the Dublin Corporation (and sold to the city of Sydney), while in 2012 a statue of Jimmy Saville was removed from a shopping centre in Glasgow. Perhaps more prosaic is the implicit (or even explicit) acceptance of what might be termed the creative critical engagement of many statues, such as the famous Wellington Monument in Glasgow or the (less famous) Buller Memorial in Exeter, which both habitually are allowed to be adorned with traffic cones.

A pandemic in which black, Asian and minority ethnic communities have suffered so badly together with an event of Police brutality in America, provides a context in which deeply ingrained and institutionalized systems of racism and systematic oppression can be acknowledged. This has prompted a more general reflective exercise about which elements of heritage are to be cherished – and given permission to remove symbolic statues.

Is this ‘Erasing History’?

Several commentators have decried what they see as an ‘erasure of history’, but we need to think about what ‘history’ is. Far from ‘destroying history’, David Olusoga has talked about this moment as one of creating history. What better way to commemorate the world of today than by ‘displaying’ an empty plinth? What better way of honouring the many millions of people who suffered as enslaved people, and who have been elided in standard historical narratives, than by removing the monuments to their oppressors? There is an interesting debate to be had as to whether the obliteration of these statues is better than some nuanced attempts to address them in other ways, Lisa Johnson, for instance, has written about the Dutch monument of JP Coen. Following a debate within the Dutch town of Hoorn (including a legal ‘trial’ for the local slave trader, JP Coen), a decision was made that the statue was ‘guilty’. Rather than remover the statue however, JP Coen’s ‘sentence’ included the addition of extra text at the monument (and a permanent Museum exhibition), which would make Coen’s guilt clear and be a constant reminder of this dark past in the present townscape. This certainly sounds positive, though Lisa Johnson reflects whether the focus on an obviously racist man who lived several centuries ago was just an easier (and ‘feel good’) thing to do; and that ongoing racism, exclusion and oppression (particularly with reference to the Dutch decolonization process in the 20th century) was largely ignored as a result. In many ways, this can be read as a warning – that we should not allow the present focus on the removal of monuments to nasty people who lived hundreds of years ago, mean that we (continue to) turn a blind eye to present injustices around us.

Is the ‘Voice of the People’ always right?

Reading some of the press reports and commentators about the destruction of the Edward Colston monument, one might think that the ‘Voice of the People’ is now always correct – that direct action of the crowd should never be critiqued. But a story I read this morning about how some people in a small town in Derbyshire has decided to protect what many people would see as a racist monument, provides a more critical prompt to this question. The justification for protecting the monument seems to be rooted in the idea that the wishes of ‘local people’ must always be correct – though the journalist also includes a quote from a local who wishes to remain anonymous who questions whether the ‘wishes of the local people’ are as clear as the would-be protectors of the monument would have us believe. This case reminds me strongly of many examples of local/community festivities that include practices of ‘blacking up’ – such as the Darkie Day Parade in Padstow, Cornwall. The idea of local-ness is sometimes difficult to challenge, since it tends to carry ideas of ‘authenticity’ and democracy – the sort of material that most liberal-minded people tend to cherish. Rather than ‘localness’ acting to insulate practices from outside scrutiny, however, I would argue that we should always be attendant to the politics and power structures that are inherent within any such practice, at whatever scale they operate. On occasion, therefore, I would say that it is OK to be critical of local ‘direct action’.

What now for Edward Colston?

The last few days have seen many suggestions for what should happen in Bristol now. The Mayor of Bristol does not seem interested in putting Edward Colston back on to his pedestal, but what should be there in his place – if anything? So far, the best suggestion that I have seen has come from the street-artist, Banksy. Perhaps unexpectedly, Banksy has argued that the state of Edward Colston should be fished out of the harbor and replaced back on to his plinth – only with the addition of some ropes and protesters-in-bronze, so as to create a permanent memorial to the removal of Edward Colston.

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Norwegian Wood: Planned and Unplanned ‘Re-wilding’ in Norway and Scotland

I have just returned from my summer holiday, cycling along the coast of Norway from Kristiansand to Bergen; a beautiful part of the world, which strongly reminded me of many holidays spent in the NW Highlands and islands of Scotland. At least, I say that “it reminded me of Scotland”, less because of its similarity and more due to the fact that I kept on asking myself “Why is Norway so different from Scotland?!”

Of course, there are many similarities – of topography, geology, climate and traditional economies – which one might expect of two regions that are not too far apart, in the wet and temperate, Gulf Stream affected coastal highlands of the north Atlantic. But what struck me as more surprising was just how different the two regions were, particularly since the seemingly more luxuriant in flora and fauna (as well as perhaps the more populous) was the region lying further to the north: Norway. One might expect that the more northern region – more climatically inhospitable, wetter, more mountainous and more isolated – would be the tougher place to live, both for humans and for flora/fauna, but this doesn’t seem to be the case.

This isn’t the place to get into the politics of concerted massive regional State spending in a comparatively equal society (just yet!), but it struck me that there was something more going on in Norway, in terms of landscape and ‘natural’ heritage management, than it just being the product of the oil money bonanza. Put simply, while much of the NW Highlands and islands of Scotland are fairly bare of forest, Norway seemed to be almost entirely forested – and without the densely-packed plantations that seemed to be favoured by the old Forestry Commission in the UK.

These questions reminded me of a blogpost I write back in May 2017, about issues of afforestation and ‘rewilding’ in Scotland and on Dartmoor. But, while many ‘rewilding’ debates in the UK tend to revolve around the twin issues of sheep farming and deer stalking, cast as a sort of zero-sum game, coastal areas of Norway seem to have plenty of sheep (mostly with bells around their necks) as well as plenty of forest.

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Typical forested coastline in Norway

While on our cycle tour, we stayed at a mix of ‘cheap’ (by Norwegian standards) hotels, hostels and campsite cabins, many of which had old photos on their walls; showing what their location looked like in the late 19th and early 20th century, before the Second World War, and before the oil bonanza. And the thing that immediately struck me was just how bare the landscapes were – these black and white photographs really did look just like Scotland. In Mandal, we stayed in a hostel that was once the town’s gaol. In their historical notes, I found a reference to how the gaol was planned to be built out of wood, but had to be built in brick due to the scarcity of timber in the region. Really?! … Norway ‘scarce of timber’?!

This was certainly a very different-looking landscape to what we were cycling through today. So, how did the paths of Norway and Scotland diverge so sharply in the later 20th century when it comes to forest cover?

On the face of it – following a few discussions with a professional forester, and some critical reflection on what I know, the following observations seem pertinent:

First: While both regions saw a general depopulation and experienced wholesale emigration in the early 20th century, the nature of this experience, together with the implications for landscape management were different. While it seems that land abandonment in Norway led to afforestation, the emptying of tenanted crofts in Scotland did not lead to a similar expansion of forests. This might be connected to differences of land ownership and tenure – with Scotland (in)famously divided up into huge estates owned by just a few hundred people, and Norway known for its small holding traditions. And/or I might be connected to the power and continued prominence of deer stalking in Scotland, which requires the wide open ‘empty’ spaces that you find in the Scottish Highlands.

Secondly, and connected: while walking and mountaineering pursuits seem to be popular in both regions, it struck us that forests were at the heart of expectations for walkers and backpackers in Norway – while the Scottish Mountaineering Council have (controversially) made a few strong statements about how the ‘empty spaces’ of the Scottish Highlands are what is expected.

Third: while George Monbiot and other rewilding enthusiasts seem to see sheep farming as a root of all evil, we saw a lot of ‘forest sheep’ in Norway. We presumed that the stocking levels and management systems of Norway must be different (?), but it suggests that sheep farming livelihoods and ‘Caledonian forestry’ can go hand-in-hand.

Lastly: we assumed that a wealthy State and strong regional policies were behind the apparent fertility and abundance of the Norwegian experience, but this has some interesting heritage paradoxes – that the experiences of so many marginalised and impoverished people in Norway can be largely forgotten and elided, partly due to the ‘success’ of contemporary landscape management. While we should cherish all that rich biodiversity, we should not forget that this resulted from abandonment and emigration – something that it is difficult to ignore in Scotland.

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Remains of old settlement, Glen Carnoch, Knoydart. Difficult to ignore the human story behind this ’empty’ landscape

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The memorial statue, now relocated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Landscape Painting and the Invention of the Danish Landscape

I recently saw a very good seminar by Dr Gry Hedin of the ARKEN Museum of Modern Art, in Copenhagen. Entitled “Can landscape painting influence climate change?”, Hedin’s paper explored the development of landscape painting in Denmark from the 18th to the 20th century. (See also Hedin, G. (2018) ‘Anthropocene beginnings: entanglements of art and science in Danish art and archaeology, 1780-1840’, in G. Hedin and A-S.N. Gremaud (eds) Artistic Visions of the Anthropocene North: Climate Change and Nature in Art, (Routledge; New York), pp. 15-40).

This was a period in which ‘deep time’ was discovered, and this narrative was communicated to the public partly through art. It was an excellent paper, lavishly illustrated with images of many of the period’s most famous artists, from Jens Peter Møller and JL Lund in the early 19th century, through the work of Skovgaard and Lundbye in the mid-nineteenth century, and Peter Hansen at the turn of the 20th century, with works such as Ripe Rye (1891):

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Peter Hansen’s ‘Ripe Rye’

It was the images of the paintings of this last group that struck me as being familiar, but I couldn’t place it at the time. According to Hedin, it was in the 1890s that a genre of Danish landscape painting developed that focussed on fields of cereal crops. These monochrome fields of industrial farming act as a celebration of human control and the practical marshalling of landscape resources epitomised for Hedin, in Peter Hansen’s The Ploughman Turns. Nature seems to be reduced to plain surfaces; a modern and thoroughly engineered landscape of production, clearly portrayed in Hammershøi’s Landscape from Falster for instance:

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Vilhelm Hammersøi’s ‘Landscape from Falster’

This is not a ‘natural’ landscape – and nor is it an ‘ancient’ landscape, unchanged for millennia. Rather this seems to be a narration (or ‘curation’) through which the rapidly industrialising landscape of late 19th/early 20th century Denmark can become naturalised, and legitimated as the authentic landscape of the Danish nation. Certainly, this genre of landscape art seems to go hand-in-hand with the development of modern Danish agriculture, which, through the attendant growth of influential agricultural co-operatives, lies at the heart of wider Danish modernisation and economic expansion during the 20th century. Harald Slott-Møller’s Danish Landscape (1891) is typical of this style of painting – the ‘natural’ national Danish landscape is a field of cereal crops:

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Harald Slott-Møller ‘Danish Landscape’

There are three ‘critical heritage’ points that I would like to make from this:

First, while the landscapes depicted in these paintings appear to be thoroughly modern – give or take some technical machinery, they could have been painted yesterday – one should always remember the side of things that they do not show, but which they are completely connected to. Most obvious to me – at least when I am cycling around the countryside near Aarhus – are the huge pig factories; covered barns and silos (to store all that cereal-based feed), which dominate the Danish rural landscape. Pigs are everywhere; you may sometimes hear them, you always smell them, but you never see them!

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Modern ‘pig factory’, near Odder, just south of Aarhus

Secondly, while these modern landscape paintings depict a thoroughly recent landscape, they seem to have instilled themselves within the psyche as to how the Danish landscape should look – and perhaps even as always looked. Most oddly to my mind, this industrial landscape has come to be seen as the epitome of a Danish landscape even among landscape historians and archaeologists who are working in entirely different eras. The Slott-Møller painting was familiar to me because I had seen something like it on the cover of a book: Fabech et al’s (2000) Settlement and Landscape. Skimming through the 54 chapters of this landmark publication by Aarhus University Press, I see that the vast majority of chapters deal with the Prehistoric era, with just a few chapters on the medieval era, and next-to-nothing on the post 1500 landscape, whether in ‘Denmark’ or elsewhere. It is perhaps ironic that the stork seen flying low over golden fields in Slott-Møller’s painting, is now extinct in Denmark – for reasons that I would assume are connected to all that modern industrial farming! It is a nice painting, but it seems odd that it somehow stands for ‘landscape’ to a group of archaeologists who are mostly engaged in Prehistoric subject matter.

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Settlement and Landscape, front cover, Aarhus Library

Lastly, as I cycled home from Gry Hedin’s seminar, it suddenly struck me why those images were so familiar. Of course, I had seen such an image, countless times, last Summer and early autumn. Mostly in magazines, newspapers or perhaps on bus shelters – connected to a massive advertising campaign by Danske Folkpartiet (the Danish People’s Party). Throw in a church and a flag, and for the Danish People’s Party this modern, recent and industrial version of the landscape is Denmark.

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Danish People’s Party poster

This is Denmark

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Labelling ‘World Culture’ in a Museum

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boundaries and Heritage of Distinction part 5 – the House of European History: a sad celebration of the echo chamber

Last month I visited the House of European History, in Brussels. Opened in May 2017, the House of European History is located in a refurbished dental hospital. The bill for the total refurbishment and exhibition development was something approaching 70 million Euros – and for that sort of money, I had high hopes for something better than a trip to the dentists.

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The exhibition spaces follow a fairly traditional and not exactly innovative layout of chronological linearity, with a floor that pulls together various historical strands before embarking with the French Revolution and traveling on a upward trajectory through a series of floors towards the present. I have written before about such a chronological layout in the National Museum of Scotland – and almost teleological story to explain how we get to ‘today’ through an inevitable progression of ‘great events’ (often associated with great men), with each floor dealing with a succession of chronologically ordered events, which lead inexorably to ‘the present’.

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For a museum that claims to focus on transnationality and the experiences of ordinary people, such a linear pathway is a little disappointing. Indeed, in many ways the museum can be seen perhaps as being a little too faithful to French Revolutionary ideals, in the manner through which 1789 becomes ‘Year Zero’ within the inevitable progress towards the point at which the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to the European Union in 2012. The 2012 Nobel medal and diploma were the first objects within the Museum’s collection, and it is perhaps a little alarming (especially for Europhiles) in the way that they appear to form a sort of ‘end point’ to the story. Is that it?!

In the first galleries, which document various strands of European culture before 1789, amid various displays of Classical material, about democracy and politics, trade and industry, religion and ‘civilization’, there is a very small section about imperial endeavor and the trade of enslaved people. The role of Europe within the slave trade and some reference to wider imperialism and colonization, therefore, is acknowledged – almost in passing – and this forms almost the only reference to non-white people in the entire building. More on this later.

Many Brexiteers will probably feel a sense of self-justification in the way that the Code of Napoleon – in various translations – is given such a central and prominent role as the basic root of the European Union. Indeed, within these sections of the galleries, the Museum sometimes seems to provide a proverbial red rag to a Brexiteer’s bull: culminating with the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, it seems that the EU was really Napoleon’s idea and that his peaceful intentions were just a bit ahead of his time?

The Museum is, to my mind, more interesting (and more successful) when it narrates the stories of the First and Second World Wars. While certain elements – of muddy trench warfare in the First World War, and a juxtaposition between Hitler/Nazism and Stalin/Bolshevism in the Second – are perhaps inevitable, the galleries work hard through these sections to tell a story of total war without getting bogged down in military history. It is vital not to loose sight of individual people and their experiences, particularly in relation to dealing with the Holocaust and the Shoah. However many languages the Codes of Napoleon were translated into, surely the memory and realization of holocaust lies at the heart of the so-called European project in the later 20th century.

Within the Museum, however, we are soon heading to the next ‘key event’, as the Cold War division of the continent is ‘inevitably’ reconciled through the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Again, these sections generally work through comparing the experiences of ordinary people, the availability of consumer goods and the growth of the welfare state. Conflicts in the former Yugoslavia form a backdrop to the post-1989 era, but where does it end? The Brexiteer might again be happy with that, since it seems to end in 2012 with Nobel Peace Prize!

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.

 

 

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.

 

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 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