Last edited 04 Aug 2019

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Conserving Europeanness

At a time of uncertainty about the UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe, the history of conservation can show us ways of re-imagining a community and achieving reconciliation.

Historic map of europe.png
A map of Europe by Abraham Ortelius (1527-98)

At a moment of crisis of the European project, the aim of European Heritage Year 2018 (to ‘raise awareness of the opportunities that cultural heritage brings, mainly in terms of intercultural dialogue, social cohesion and economic growth’, Council of the European Union, 2016) invites us to reflect on the links between heritage conservation and a sense of Europeanness from a historic perspective.

Heritage’ tends to be associated strongly with national identity and nationalism. However, after the world wars it has also increasingly been used for cultural dialogue or, as Unesco put it, to build ‘peace in the minds of men’. In Europe heritage has long been seen as ‘a powerful tool towards integration’ (Europa Nostra, 2005). When the European Parliament decided to support common cultural activities in 1974, it did so notably by making 1975 the European Year of Cultural Heritage. In many countries, this initiative is today seen not only as a milestone in cross-border collaboration but also as a key catalyst for the formation of heritage movements at national level (Falser and Lipp, 2015).

Heritage is appealing not only because it makes tangible the movements which have overstepped political borders for centuries, but because it can enable dialogue by increasing the appreciation of cultural diversity (European Parliament, 2018).

There has been reason to conclude that the multitude of pan-European heritage initiatives have achieved their community-building function. A survey commissioned by the French Ministry of Culture in 2007 across France, Germany, Italy, Hungary and Finland revealed that eight out of 10 Europeans found their heritage to be part of a European heritage; and 60 per cent believed that the sense of a common heritage would create a greater sense of belonging together. If, with regard to the economy, social services and food control, Brussels was often seen as a threat, when it came to ‘heritage’, 63 per cent of those interviewed responded that they did not feel their ‘identity’ threatened by Europe. On the contrary, 58 per cent believed that the European Union helped to preserve their cultural heritage. The fact that the feelings were then particularly strong in older member states was seen as an indication that common cultural activities were bearing fruit (IPSOS, 2007).

A special Eurobarometer Survey on Cultural Heritage compiled on the eve of the 2018 European Heritage Year, comparing attitudes towards heritage across all 28 member states, reveals that relationships between length of membership and pro-European feelings are not straightforward. However, despite some variation, ‘cultural heritage’ remains ‘considered a positive force in Europe: living close to cultural heritage can give people a sense of belonging to Europe, and can improve quality of life. Respondents think cultural heritage creates jobs, and that it engenders a sense of pride.

This feeling of pride is not just related to cultural heritage in the respondent’s own country: although more than eight in 10 feel pride in an aspect of cultural heritage from their region or country, seven in 10 say they feel pride in some aspect of cultural heritage from another European country. The majority also agree culture, and cultural exchanges, are important to promote learning and a greater feeling of being European, as well as developing greater understanding and tolerance.’

More than eight in 10 (84 per cent) agreed that culture and cultural exchanges should have a very important place in the EU so that citizens could learn more from each other and feel more European. Almost as many (82 per cent) agreed that culture and cultural exchanges could play an important role in developing greater understanding and tolerance in the world. However, respondents were less likely to agree to these statements than they were in a survey about cultural understanding posing the same questions in 2007.

The proportion that agrees now that culture and cultural exchanges can play an important role in developing greater understanding and tolerance in the world, even where there are conflicts or tensions, decreased by six per cent. There has also been a five-point decline in the proportion that agrees that culture and cultural exchanges should have a very important place in the EU so that citizens from different member states can learn more from each other and feel more European (European Commission, 2017).

This decline in the belief in the possibility of understanding and tolerance through culture should give us pause. It not only reflects the current political crisis of Europe (and a more general turn away from the principles of international dialogue) but also replicates a familiar pattern of crisis response during the last century. While there is no historic survey data that allows us to trace the development of opinions towards cultural heritage and European feeling in a statistically sound way, and systematic long-term, post-project analyses of cross-border projects are woefully lacking, the history of conservation can give us a longitudinal perspective.

My own work has traced the ebb and flow of internationalist aspirations for heritage since the French Revolution, demonstrating how the tension between nationalist and cosmopolitan visions informed the development of professional networks, state institutions and individual historic conservation projects across Europe. I try to make visible the multitude of connections – within and beyond Europe – that have shaped the processes of heritage making through the study of professional networks, popular movements, and particular sites. These refute isolationist visions of history or a narrative – to stay with the British example – of heritage making as solely a ‘battle for Britain’s past’.

Connections across countries are equally important on a conceptual and institutional level as they are in shaping conservation as a profession. There would, for instance, be no concept of ‘national heritage’ in Britain without the heritage politics of the French Revolution. In turn the generation that created the conservation institutions that shape France to this day might not have been able to do this without their time in exile in Britain. When moving from the policy level to the conservation of individual sites, the picture is just as rich.

Even in continental Europe, where the European history of architectural sites tends to be more emphasised than in Britain, few sites have a public history that extends the transnational narrative to the buildings’ afterlife in conservation. Yet sites that play important roles in the founding narratives of national conservation movements, such as Cologne Cathedral in Germany or the clifftop in Barmouth that became the first property donated to the National Trust in 1895, were profoundly shaped by transnational networks (Swenson, 2013, 2015, 2016).

There is a need for researching, displaying and discussing these connections to enrich the understanding of particular sites and refute lopsided nationalist visions. We must further ask what was the impact of transnational connections for ideas about identity within and beyond national borders? Which ones lead to peace, which to war, and which were perhaps simply taken for granted and not seen in relation to identity politics at all? Finally, as a third step, and the one that matters here, how can this history be used to inform practice?

What appears across case studies is a periodisation in which strong professional links and incantation of the peace-bringing capacities of heritage were repeatedly built, severed and then revived. Having dominated the late 19th century, they became one of the first casualties of the first world war, were resurrected as soon as post-war rebuilding began and even more so after the second world war. The quick disappearance of apparently strong links and ideas teaches us that emphasising the peace-bringing nature of heritage alone does not achieve anything.

It should not be reduced to empty rhetoric, however. The mobilisation (and re-use) of the idea in post-conflict situations, and the rediscovery of transnational links in historic building preservation that went with it, shows that the history of conservation itself offered an important narrative to re-imagine a community if there is an underlying desire for reconciliation. Perhaps a starting point can be to tell these stories with all their fractures and contradictions.

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This article originally appeared in IHBC's Context 157 (Page 26), published in November 2018. It was written by Astrid Swenson, professor of history at Bath Spa University.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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