Last edited 26 Jan 2021

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Can the heritage of Europe help to integrate the UK

The UK must again become a leading actor in heritage action on the continent of Europe, despite – or perhaps because of – of its future more distant relationship to the EU.

European Architectural Heritage Year.jpg
In 1975 the EU came together for the first time in a joint European Architectural Heritage Year.

Examining the value of a pan-European heritage and what it can do to foster feelings of integration appears precarious, and not just from a British perspective. There is much confusion and anxiety about the relationship between the UK and the European Union, and this situation is unlikely to be resolved any time soon. Brexit is the kind of political upheaval which touches on questions of heritage as it is so closely connected with national identity.

Ferdinand von Quast, the first civil servant instructed with the preservation of built heritage in Prussia at the beginning of the 19th century, conducted his activities very much on the understanding that it was part of a political process to convey meaning and identity, and to shape behaviour in the pursuit of Prussian identity. This is how the modern heritage understanding evolved in 19th century Europeit underpinned the striving for national identities. In the context of contemporary heritage debates it may be useful to remember that; as well as the fact that in the history of Europe this is also a relatively recent phenomenon.

For over a thousand years, large parts of the territory which now makes up the area of the European Union belonged to the Holy Roman Empire, an empire, which Peter H Wilson points out, ‘was never a unitary state with a homogenous population, but instead a patchwork of lands and peoples’ [1]. The UK was notably absent from this territory, which may explain to a certain extent its reluctant membership of the EU and its recent decision to leave.

However, even within the future remaining members there is less and less clarity about the meaning of Europe as represented by the EU. Although currently particularly vehemently challenged in the UK, it is an increasingly contested concept overall. We are going through a phase where national identities are reinforced and, as previously, national heritages can easily be used and misused in that process. This raises the question to what extend there is such a thing as pan-European heritage, how it manifests itself and how it can be used to instil a sense of unity rather than separation; and which role will the UK will play in this?

In 1975 the EU came together for the first time in a joint European Architectural Heritage Year. It was specifically designed ‘to make Europeans conscious of their shared treasures… The hope [was] that the people who live in landmark cities and towns will become aware of the dangers which threaten the monuments they often take for granted, and will be ready and willing to take action to preserve them.’ [2]

The European Architectural Heritage Year was announced in 1973, the year the UK joined the European Economic Community. The UK played a key role in its implementation in 1975 through chairing the organising committee. The UK also marked its commitment with a series of special stamps, depicting a range of iconic buildings which even included Denys Lasdun’s National Theatre in London, which was due to be completed only in the following year. European Architectural Heritage Year 1975 without doubt became a great catalyst and rang in an era of increased heritage awareness and conservation activity in Europe.

This was partially fuelled by a heightened sense of loss following the destruction not only by the second world war, but also by the comprehensive rebuilding programmes in the decades after. The 1970s, 80s and – particularly in the former eastern bloc – the 1990s saw much money and effort spent on saving what still remained of the rich heritage. In addition to statutory protection and conservation support at national, regional and local levels, organisations like Europa Nostra promoted the idea of a European Heritage. Since 1963 it has been active in the field of heritage as a pan-European federation of non-governmental organisations, ‘to defend the cause of heritage and its role as an essential and dynamic component of European identity, which constitutes for European citizens both a unifying factor and a guarantee of the protection of their cultural diversity.’ [3]

This twofold mission was also implicit in the motto of the most recent pan-European initiative, the sequel to the 1975 European Architectural Heritage Year. The 2018 European Year of Cultural Heritage was conducted under the subtitle ‘Our heritage: where the past meets the future’ and its overarching motto was ‘Sharing Heritage’. This aimed at ‘celebrating cultural heritage as a shared resource, raising awareness of common history and values, and reinforcing a sense of belonging to a common European cultural and political space’.

In stark contrast to the one 43 years earlier, but not surprising in the political context, European Year of Cultural Heritage seems to have stayed very much under the radar in the UK. At least that is what the official website implies. While the web contents for each EU country vary, in comparison with other countries, the dedicated space for the UK is painfully empty and unloved. The North of England Civic Trust had agreed to perform the role of national coordinator, responsible for encouraging participation and publicising events during the year, but it appears that it struggled to fulfil this role, judging by its web presence.

The UK heritage appears not to have made a concerted effort with representation on the official EU platform. This may be not so much a reflection of the trust, but possibly of a lack of optimism, purpose and funding for the entire project in the UK, which also did not host any of the key European events of the year. The apparent lack of a coordinated interrogation about the meaning of European Heritage in the UK seems to have mirrored the political paralysis the country is finding itself in.

While this would need to be researched differently, it raises the question whether heritage activities in the UK are now following an agenda which is more inward looking, reverting to traditional notions of heritage. In 2003 an American heritage expert, Antoinette J Lee, stated that ‘the United Kingdom’s heritage preservation and conservation programs… now seem narrowly focused on architectural and classical archaeological values’ [6].

Although I do not consider this an accurate analysis of the time, there is now a danger that this might become true when heritage is limiting its (European) connections, and moreover is forced to reduce its remit following the severe and ongoing funding cuts for heritage organisations and respective resources in local planning authorities. Such a tendency would be particularly regrettable given the progressive role the UK has played in expanding the heritage agenda in the last few decades.

Sharing Heritage was also the title of a conference which took place in Tallinn, the capital of Estonia, in October 2018. It was organised by the Association for Theory and Higher Education of Architectural Heritage [7]. Founded and based in Germany since the 1970s, this is a group of university lecturers in the fields of architectural conservation, history and heritage which holds annual conferences in different European locations. Originally almost exclusively German-speaking, it has evolved as an increasingly European platform, although for many years now regrettably with no active original membership from the UK.

In her key note talk ‘Re-nationalisation or Sharing Heritage?’, Ingrid Scheurmann, who has extensively researched and publicised the value of heritage, went straight in with a critique of the project: The European Year of Cultural Heritage was not fully exploring the fundamental question of what sharing entails, who was included and who was excluded, and what exactly the cohesive power of our shared heritage was. This was surprising given not just the broad spectrum of events, but also the nature of coordinated efforts such as the workshop ‘Cultural heritage overcomes boundaries’, which took place in June 2018 in collaboration between the German Unesco Commission and the European Movement Germany as part of the European Cultural Heritage Summit in Berlin. In line with the overall year that workshop focused on how heritage in Europe can contribute to mutual understanding and strengthen the idea of a shared Europe.

Hosted by the Estonian Academy of Arts, Tallinn had been carefully chosen to explore the notion of what it means to ‘share heritage’. At this conference some of these notions where critically examined. The validity to the limitation to Europe was discussed and the question of ‘Fortress Europe’ came up. Feeling European: is that still timely? Should heritage focus on the global instead? Or is it more important to strengthen the local and regional, where the lived experience for most people is? Is populism the result not just of demagogy, but also a legitimate limitation in an ever-expanding and un-navigable life? It is perhaps here that the UK can play a future role in facilitating dialogue between an ‘internal’ EU view and ‘external’ considerations of heritage.

Notwithstanding other paradigm shifts of heritage management which – particularly in the built environment – come from the devaluation of the object and the devaluation of expert knowledge and professional experience, a very pertinent question regarding nationalism and sharing heritage came from the observation that heritage understanding in the former communist bloc is acutely based on the renationalisation process after the fall of the iron curtain. How relevant is transcultural heritage interpretation and sharing heritage for these young states who assert their sovereignty and cultural independence? In the case of Estonia, it also became apparent that the heritage is at least divided – if not shared – by four different ethnic origins: Swedish, German, Russian and Estonian. Ethnic Russians seem to be the least integrated community in the heritage debate, illustrating the very task which should come from a project like EYCH.

Something that is always prevalent on the continent is that the regional is at least always border-crossing. That, however, largely excludes the UK, which is surrounded by the sea on all its borders other than the one between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Counter to this stands the conviction that history is always entangled, so heritage is always shared in one way or another. To discover that shared aspect can be a fascinating and enlightening experience, possibly one of the most important tasks in today’s world, and not just Europe. One of the most-shared recent heritages in Europe is of course that of post-war rebuilding: something that unites all countries, irrespectively of the political side they ended up on. Predominantly the heritage of modernism, with its perceived character of placelessness, is currently also one of the least understood and least appreciated heritages. However, it has the potential ultimately to foster a sense of sharing.

In Tallinn, Kerstin Stamm outlined her theory of a blind spot in the perception of European Heritage: that of the mere spatial scaling up or down – local, regional, national, continental, global and return – of heritages. According to her, what we need is not a persistent self-assurance of our shared (European) identity, but a constant reassessment and a fluidity which shares multiple identities in multiple places at the same time. An entire conference in Paris was also dedicated to this challenge. ‘The Cultural Heritage of Europe @ 2018: re-assessing a concept’ [9] examined what is understood as an ‘unquestioned core assumption of the validity of Europe’s territorial status with simply interconnected borderlines of its affiliated member states and of a given collective “we”-identity within the European Union’.

In those contexts the following aspects require continuing investigations in conjunction with each other: the integrative power of heritage; the validity of the notion of European heritage; and the benefit or otherwise of this notion for Brexit Britain.

The European Cultural Heritage Year 2018 has come to an end. At the closing conference in December 2018 in Vienna, the first-ever European Framework for Action on Cultural Heritage was presented. The conference called for a mobilisation of all stakeholders. Although the UK played a very marginal role during the year, this does not mean that it cannot play a bigger role in the future. If heritage is interrogated as a force for good in any sort of rEUnaissance, the UK must again become a leading actor on the continent of Europe, despite its future more distant relationship to the European Union if not, indeed, more so because of this.


This article originally appeared in IHBC's Context 159 (Page 39), published in May 2019. It was written by Sabine Coady Schäbitz, associate professor in architecture at Coventry University, who trained as an architect at the Bauhaus-University in Weimar and studied architectural conservation at ICCROM.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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