Over recent years, official bodies such as the European Commission have used 'heritage' to create a shared historical narrative and sense of belonging for citizens, in order to mitigate the effects of a 'European Crisis' marked by social and cultural divisions, nationalisms, tense insider-outsider relations, economic disparities and reduced confidence in the political and social project of the EU.
Far from forming common ground, the liability of this is that it represents a top-down engineering of subjectivities that relates poorly to some people's understandings of the past and their own positions and predicaments. As many have noted, crisis is upsetting, causing people to look critically at the world around them, to understand what went wrong and, often, who is to blame. At such times, people may call on heritage as proof of crisis, as a measure of the degeneration of the past into the present and as a desired point of return, when history can revert to its proper course.
Meanwhile, heritage is central to the existential crisis of 'Europe' itself, as the backstory to the geopolitical and axiological reality projected today. Contests over this backstory (and the futures which can be drawn from it) play out in a multitude of dimensions: from European heritage policy, nationalisms, museum displays, heritage listing and memory work at official and non-official levels, to politicians' speeches, protests, terrorist violence, school curricula and festivals. The situation of European historical subjectivities is also important: European heritage appears different according to where (and when) people locate themselves to construct senses of 'self-in history'.
The tense interplay of multiple - often discordant - identifications and imaginations of the European past, present and future is one explanation for the failure of European heritage practice to create an effective transnational demos, connecting to the fragility of the EU itself. Top-level agencies propose heritage as a cure for crisis but fail to recognise that it is embedded in the very conditions and affects of crisis. To cut the knot, new, probably challenging and uncomfortable, understandings of European heritage need to be advanced.
Chris Whitehead is Professor of Museology at Newcastle University (UK) and Professor II in Cultural Heritage Studies at the University of Oslo (Norway). He has written on museum history, art interpretation, migration museums, communities and co-production, knowledge construction, museum display and the politics of heritage and memory. His latest book is Dimensions of Heritage and Memory: multiple Europes and the politics of crisis (Routledge 2019), resulting from the EU-funded CoHERE project that he led from 2015 until 2019. He is co-director of the Newcastle University Centre of Research Excellence in Heritage, and is currently experimenting with sensory, creative, design-led and playful ethnographies of heritage at the peripheries ('edgy heritage').