Heritage is often embedded within socio-political crises and identity contests | CoHERE project

CoHERE (Critical Heritages of Europe: performing and representing identities) was a large, European Commission-funded project responding to an instrumental drive to solve critical social and political problems in Europe through recourse to heritage. The project was one of the largest investigations to date into the politics of heritage in and of Europe. Concluding in March 2019, it comprises three years of research conducted by a consortium of institutions over nine countries, including eight universities, one research institute, two museums and a non-profit cultural network, led by Newcastle University in the UK. The project sought to identify, understand and valorise European heritages, engaging with their socio-political and cultural significance and their potential for developing communitarian identities. Addressing multiple senses of political and social crisis in the EU, researchers explored the ways in which heritages can be used for division and isolation, or to find common ground and ‘encourage modern visions and uses of its past’ as hoped for in EU and Council of Europe policy

CoHERE involved a general subscription to the idea that heritage can produce civil and societal benefits, but that this should be tempered by a realist understanding of the ways in which heritage can be used against civility, against EU values, against unity and against difference. CoHERE challenged the dominant narrative of European policy and discourse. This presents heritage unequivocally as a social good and as a means of creating communitarian identities likely to counteract division within and disaffection with the EU. Instead, heritage – the symbolic valorisation of the past in the present by social actors, whatever their position and type of agency – is often embedded within socio-political crises and identity contests, and instrumental policy and practice need to recognise these difficulties in order for substantial communitarian and civil benefit to become possible.

The implication of heritage in social division is readily illustrated by mobilisations of European pasts in right-wing populism, in discourses around belonging and bordering connected to the Refugee Crisis, and in contemporary seismic shifts such as Brexit. It is at its height in cases of othering, exclusion and even terrorist violence, where notions of European heritage and identity are used to justify political and socially divisive action in the present. Much of European heritage and memory policy attempts to create unity from situations of conflict and disharmony between and within diverse populations. However, the recognition of past and present differences, of marginalisation and of imbalances of power within difficult memories (as well as a difficult present) is crucial to preventing alienation from the idea of a harmonious EU. Contemporary population movements, political polarisation and populism all feed into and from notions of who or what is or is not part of a ‘European heritage’. Historical explorations of diversity that show longer histories of inter- and trans-cultural exchange and negotiation may ameliorate social tensions in the present and combat mistaken views of a harmonious, monocultural past ruined by present-day multiculture and the incursion of others into Europe. Typical narratives of European heritage can be exclusionary and researchers argued for the need to entertain a more complex set of stories as an account of the European past. As an example, the Classical past is often presented as one of the touchstones of European heritage, exemplified by the idea of ‘heritage’ as ancient ruins, historic texts, significant figures, etc., but contemporary Europe comprises  people with diverse and multi-layered identities, connected to places within and beyond the boundaries of the EU.

the recognition of past and present differences, of marginalisation and of imbalances of power within difficult memories (as well as a difficult present) is crucial to preventing alienation from the idea of a harmonious EU Click To Tweet

The project explored these issues across multiple areas, including museums and heritage sites that represent European history, uses of the past in party politics (such as Front Nationale’s use of Joan of Arc, or references to Magna Carta as part of Brexit ‘Leave’ campaigns), heritage festivals, school curricula, historical re-enactment, folk music traditions, digital and online heritage practice, and the importance of food for understandings of European and national histories. This shows that heritage is more widely significant than current European heritage policy recognises. In place of an idea of heritage as embodied only in historic buildings, landscapes and practices, researchers argued that heritage is more like a force circulating through all sorts of cultural practices – from official uses of the past by governments, to the everyday ways in which people rely on a sense of history to position ourselves and articulate their identities and belongings. Current heritage policy is dispersed and disconnected, yet heritage itself is connected to many aspects of European life today – to our politics, society, places and people and to the ways in which EU member states are perceived, positioned and bordered.

Another novel aspect of the project was the development of the research over multiple cultural forms. As well as producing conventional academic research in the form of books and journal papers, researchers also made films, composed and performed music, designed videogames and developed new ways of working for the heritage sector. The film Who is Europe? by renowned documentary filmmaker Ian McDonald was commissioned as part of the project to explore the complex ways in which the past circulates in the present, not always with the positive connotations of ‘heritage’ as a valuable legacy of the past. Ethnomusicologist and composer Valdis Muktupavels composed the oratorio Rivers of our Being as a way of exploring both the confluences of European folk musics and the contemporary politics of EU fragmentation. As part of the EU-research funding, many of the book chapters and publications are freely available as open-access online documents, including the keystone book for the project Dimensions of Heritage and Memory: multiple Europes and the politics of crisis. In addition to this, researchers contributed to the CoHERE Critical Archive, which was built to be a fast-response, searchable platform to offer free online resources, work in progress and short reports on the key research topics about European heritage to a wide audience. The Archive contains films, music, essays, reports and links to a range of other project outcomes.

CoHERE was built to be a fast-response, searchable platform to offer free online resources, work in progress and short reports on the key research topics about European heritage to a wide audience Click To Tweet

The results should be exploited by politicians, heritage policy makers and practitioners with a view to their wider effects upon general heritage audiences, broadly understood to include all those who engage with representations of the past in the present via museums, sites, commemorative events, re-enactments, historic festivals, formal education, food culture, and politics. The specific aim is to inform policy and practice about the nature of identity contests in which heritages are important and generate ideas about how to respond and intervene with responsible and innovative strategy, particularly at the level of official heritage. This has the connected aim of influencing public attitudes in ways that ameliorate social division where heritage is implicated and mobilized, and to equip practitioners with the tools to respond constructively to identity contests, othering and fast-moving socio-political change.

Recordkeeping and museum professionals – the same but different? A retrospective musing on the Archives and Records Association annual conference 2017

The author of this article co-planned and participated in a panel presentation and debate on this topic in August 2017, and now in spring 2019, it seems an excellent opportunity to look back at the professional climate as it was 18 months ago and how professional activities in this area have progressed since then.

‘Everybody is a Heritage Professional Nowadays: Should Archivist and Curator Remain as Separate Professions?’ – this was the title of the panel session which took place at the ARA’s annual conference in London, chaired by Adrian Steel (then Director of the Postal Museum), with Charlotte Berry (then Hereford Cathedral Archivist) and Iain Watson (Director of Tyne and Wear Archives & Museums) as co-panelists.

Each of the three panellists presented their response to the question of whether archivists and curators should remain separate professions or not. Suggested topics included whether:

  • each profession had skills that were unique
  • the job titles of archivist and curator empower or stifle professionals
  • it is just the professionals who retain this distinction, whereas the public see archivists and curators as much the same thing
  • two very similar and overlapping professional roles are necessary in times of increasing economic pressures
  • there is a need now for the ‘super’ heritage professional who can do both roles archivists and curators are managers of resources or producers/editors of content?

The viewpoints of the three panellists were diverse and wide-ranging, reflecting their own varied individual professional experiences – two as qualified archivists who now work widely with object collections and museum professional colleagues, and the third as a widely experienced museum professional who now manages a joint service employing museum and archive professionals in tandem.

Charlotte’s slot focused on the very many areas of professional overlap – the importance of collection expertise, understanding provenance and interconnectivity, and cross-sectoral standards of best practice and excellence. Technology and digitisation offer increasing opportunities for public access but also potentially can erode the unique skillset of the archivist – where thorough training in and understanding of legal history, palaeography/diplomatic, administrative history, original order and record types come under pressure as budgets buckle and services shrink. There are also fundamental differences between the two sectors, partly reflecting differences in the development of museums and archives, governance at a national level following the split of MLA and also in different routes for education, qualification and entry to the sectors. Charlotte feels strongly that ongoing workforce and professional development should celebrate the key differences and core skills within our two sectors, whilst encouraging archive professionals to learn from their museum colleagues in areas such as sustainability and resilience, engagement and advocacy. “The same but different” is a useful catchphrase embracing the numerous synergies, encouraging expertise within each profession and recognising the overly generic and homogenous nature of the ‘heritage professional’. With two feet placed firmly within both textual and material culture, archives are well placed to bridge the gaps between the two and to act as a conduit between the museum and library sectors.

Adrian’s viewpoint developed from a wealth of experience working in a trailblazing joint heritage organisation navigating complex governance and legal requirements, where curators and archivists use one Collections Management system which enables one single public access catalogue – a huge benefit to both staff and the public alike. Definitions of the material being cared for can create both synergies and problems – paper material increasingly appears in both archive and museum collections, but is catalogued differently according to existing best practice – for example, a greetings card would be catalogued by colour, dimension, weight etc by curators, but only by recipient/sender by archivists. Handling the original collections is another area of different professional practice – although handling collections enable some museum object duplicates to be handled by the public, most items are accessed via exhibitions or viewing digital surrogates online and it remains the curators who can handle the originals. Conversely, archivists will typically encourage readers to come to the archive and do their own research, or to use digital surrogates and do their research from the comfort of their own desk at home. Professional approaches also differ within interpretation – Adrian suggested that archivists are trained to be more neutral and detached from the narratives held in their collections, and opt to leave the user to take what they will from their archival research and to put it into a wider historical or social context. Curators often have a stronger sense of duty to interpret on behalf of an object, to engage with wider campaigns which increase the social impact of the sector’s work and to engage in museum activism. Although often co-existing happily in mutual contradiction, these distinct aspects of the two professions should not be ironed out but should be facilitated and embraced through increasing collaboration and cross-sectoral working.

Iain explored how using physical definitions to create professional distinctions between curators (objects), libraries (published material) and archives (documentary materials) can be problematic in practice. The dividing lines between all three sectors are becoming increasingly blurred and indistinct at institutional levels, but the fact remains that archivists and curators’ shared responsibility is to make evidence available – “bad archivists write hiding aids”, not finding aids. Iain advocated strongly for introducing broad generic roles in a professional context where specialist skills, knowledge and experience can co-exist and be valued. Three roles would cover the principal functions – information/knowledge manager (holding knowledge about what the item is, what it contains and its significance), the conservator (responsible for physical care and preservation of the item) and the interpreter/learning officer/producer (interpreting and engaging with the item). He urged the archive sector to embrace a more proactive user-based and user-generated approach, where the recordkeeping professionals renounce their expert role and hand some of their power to the public. Archivist and curator are inherently inward-looking terms – instead, the key concern for us all is the user and now to find new ways and means of creative engagement within museums and archives.

Since summer 2017, archivists continue to develop professional and academic interests in managing museum collections. The spring 2018 issue of the ARA’s journal Archives and Records was widely oversubscribed and featured a wide range of international articles looking at sharing best practice and theory across archives and museums. Sessions on museums continue to appear at the 2018 and 2019 ARA annual conferences. A special issue of the ARA’s monthly membership magazine Arc celebrated object-centred engagement and projects in January 2019, and in the magazine, a call went out to assess membership need for training in managing object collections and to set up a new ARA Section. The first training day will take place in May 2019 and Charlotte is currently setting up a new Section for Archives and Museums for the Archives and Records Association (UK and Ireland).

Please contact Charlotte for further information if you’d like to find out more on what is proving to be an area of developing professional interest: archives@magd.ox.ac.uk.


Banner image: MC: MP/1/24 Map of Romney Estates, Kent, 1614. With kind permission of the President and Fellows of Magdalen College, Oxford. ©Magdalen College Oxford