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The European significance of local heritage

15/02/2018
by Susanne Witt
Language: EN

Challenges for heritage interpretation as a non-formal educational service

This blog post is written by Patrick Lehnes, Cultural Heritage Coordinator at Interpret Europe - European Association for Heritage Interpretation. It is based on findings of the Grundtvig multilateral project InHerit and the Erasmus+ project HIMIS.

The last decade saw a surge of identitarian populism which threatens to undermine European cohesion and fosters divisiveness in European societies. Cultural heritage can play an important role in this context. This is obvious for heritage sites of European significance. But such sites are rather rare. It is much less obvious though, that heritage which is not directly linked to “big history” can offer many opportunities for cultural education relating local history to the EU’s core values.

Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union states that “the Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the Member States in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.”

These values are vital for the cohesion – or maybe even the survival – of a union which transcends national boundaries and encompasses a high degree of social and cultural diversity. These values are considered universal, i.e. they apply to every human being, regardless of race, ethnicity, cultural background, religion or gender. It is not just the “EU bureaucracy” which populists oppose, but they attack these values by divisive WE-against-THEM thinking patterns. Cultural heritage can be used, or misused, to support either view.

It matters how we interpret cultural heritage

All forms of cultural heritage, be it tangible objects such as monuments or artefacts, be it intangible such as traditions, music or places of memory, have one thing in common: it is deemed meaningful and significant by people. That’s the ultimate reason to preserve it for future generations.

But different people may deem a concrete heritage meaningful for different reasons. It is a matter of interpretation why a particular heritage is considered significant. For some people a castle may symbolise the greatness of a local noble family while others conceive it as a memorial for exploitation of the poor. It depends on a person’s knowledge and attitudes how he or she interprets cultural heritage. People link what they experience to conceptual frameworks and beliefs that are meaningful and relevant for them. Through interpretation people make sense of heritage.

Popularization and the risk of feeding populism

Many tourists and locals have only little background knowledge about a particular museum collection, heritage site or event.  But without such background knowledge it is difficult to find any relevant meaning in a particular heritage. Mere information about dates, names and figures does not help much either. Therefore most heritage sites offer heritage interpretation as a non-formal educational service facilitating deeper understanding. This may take very different forms such as guided tours, first person interpretation by “historic” characters, performances or media based interpretation through exhibit labels, panels or interactive new media.

To reach laypersons on leisure heritage interpreters need to popularize complex scholarly findings about the history of a site or collection. At first curiosity must be aroused and then an interpreter needs to hold the visitors’ attention. Interpreters use catchy headlines, they highlight those aspects that are relevant for their audiences and they carefully select which facts to include in order to create a meaningful but concise story.

This inevitable popularization can lead to unintended effects: framing heritage and history within a predominant narrative that is widely appreciated in a given society, e.g. of national greatness, heroism and enemies of the nation. But such interpretive framing is at risk to unintentionally reinforce stereotypes and prepare the grounds for populist movements. Indeed, anti-liberal and authoritarian regimes in the past as well as contemporary populists deliberately try to control the interpretation of history and heritage in order to support their political agenda.

Thought provoking interpretation from multiple perspectives

On the other hand, heritage interpretation offers many opportunities to counter such tendencies. Heritage sites and events are crucial places for ongoing life-long cultural learning, they can stimulate personal growth even for grown-ups. 

Interpreters can tell stories about heritage that involve the perspectives of various historic stakeholders: the rulers and the ordinary people, the majority view and historic minorities etc. Instead of giving simplified answers they can highlight those incidents and aspects that arouse deeper questions. Cultural heritage can be interpreted in inspiring ways that provoke visitors to think outside the box. Such multiple perspectives interpretation aims to help visitors broaden their horizons instead of reinforcing stereotypical beliefs. 

While universal values of human dignity, non-discrimination, solidarity etc. are rooted in European Humanism and Enlightenment, they are at the same time relevant for every human individual, not just for a certain group. Interpretation of historic events linked to a heritage site or a local tradition can therefore often be framed in connection to these values. Heritage interpreters can look for possibilities to relate their stories of the past to aspects of tolerance or intolerance, freedom or suppression, struggle for equal rights or suffering from inequality. All this happened during history of any local community. Furthermore, cultural heritage is often linked to historic persons who stood out, who acted as individuals in an unexpected way transcending the social and cultural conventions of their time.

Many local heritage sites offer possibilities for such multi-perspectives interpretation that brings the roots of European values closer to people. Especially local residents will frequently pass by such a local heritage site. Again and again it can act as a subtle reminder to those values. Hence local cultural heritage can contribute a lot to foster mutual understanding and cohesion among and within European societies, provided it is interpreted accordingly. In times when Europe’s core values are under threat, heritage interpreters need to be aware of how they frame heritage.

Some further reading

Engaging citizens with Europe’s cultural heritage: How to make best use of the interpretive approach

Digging deeper: Exploring the Philosophical Roots of Heritage Interpretation

What do populist victories mean for heritage interpretation? In: Interpret Europe Spring Event 2017 – Proceedings, p. 68-92

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