What is the scope of your project and which its focus and relevance in view of contemporary social, political and economic issues affecting Europe and its inhabitants?

CoHERE explores the ways in which identities in Europe are constructed through heritage representations and performances that connect to ideas of place, history, tradition and belonging. The modes of representation in question are phenomenally varied, including: cultural policy, museum display, heritage interpretation, school curricula and political discourse to music and dance performances, food and cuisine, rituals and protests.

When CoHERE was first articulated (particularly in the first half of 2015), there was already significant attention to the potential of cultural heritage as a powerful means of overcoming an ‘EU crisis’ marked by social and cultural divisions, disparities of wealth between nations, regions and groups, and reduced confidence in the political and social project of the EU itself. This was largely before the Refugee Crisis revealed the real difficulties of achieving a unified approach to contemporary humanitarian disaster that lives up to the ideals embedded within historical constructions of the EU. It was before Brexit, which for some has symbolised or even presaged the further deterioration of the communitarian ideal. Along with (apparently) new divisions across the EU, fissures within the social fabric of individual states come into view, as political polarisation results in seemingly irreconcilable oppositions between groups. Though rooted in history and often powered by historical mythologies, such antagonisms have a new visibility and new effects, such that in some contexts (like the UK), it is hard to think that anyone could imagine, in Benedict Anderson’s terms, a single national ‘community’ anymore. While always as attentive to divisive uses of heritage and memory as it was to inclusive ones, these events overlay a new frame to the CoHERE project, and it takes on a pressing relevance now.

What roles can and should heritage play to address social division and crisis in Europe? 

In Horizon 2020, the European Commission posits the importance of cultural heritage for communitarian social relations, individual personal development and inclusive senses of belonging. These positions are reflected in the report of the Council of Europe’s Conclusions on Cultural Heritage as a Strategic Resource for a Sustainable Europe(2014) and the Horizon  2020 Expert Group onCultural Heritage: Getting Cultural Heritage to Work for Europe (2015). In the latter heritage is presented not as a cost to society and a financial burden but as a boon to the European economy and a means of fostering ‘greater unity and cohesion of European citizens’, overcoming the challenges of demographic change, migration and political disengagement.

While we recognise and respond constructively to instrumental perspectives such as these, the project also explores problematics relating to the notion of ‘European identity’ that are, as indicated, particularly visible now in some contexts. This means attending to reactionary practices, retrenchments, xenophobia, racisms, nationalisms, religious tensions and the raft of non-‘European’ place identities. Also, while key EU public-facing institutions (e.g. the Parlamentarium and the House of European History opening in 2016 in Brussels) may present a coherent image of a historically-founded, shared European identity, the actual social purchase of this can be weak. Investigating these dissonances is a key part of the project. Cultural constructs of Europe, and forms identified and/or construed as shared or shareable heritage (e.g. particular musics), need to be studied relationally with socio-political realities and people’s identity and subject positions across Europe.

The CoHERE project does not shirk from an awareness of the contested nature of the political, and indeed moral and philosophical, terrain to be explored, where there is a commonplace attachment of ethics to heritage that often manifests in tacit or overt prescription. This leads inevitably to axiological discussions about exactly which human and social values, if any, constitute absolute goods. Following this, other questions emerge: why, and (sometimes) where and when did such values develop, or through which historical processes and memory practices—for example through reflection on ‘never-again’ iniquities such as genocides? To address this, CoHERE involves scholarship, but also public-facing dissemination activities and the development of instruments (e.g. models for policy, curricula, museum and heritage practice, digital applications). These concern the valorisation of European heritages that enable: the development of identities based upon communitarian and egalitarian attitudes; non-prejudicial openness to difference; a commitment to peace; historical awareness; and equal opportunities for social and cultural participation. Alongside these, we must recognise that heritage can be and often is active within quite different ethical constructs—some classifiable as malign. While these rarely figure in authorised representations, we ignore them at our peril and it is necessary to find techniques to represent and understand them plurally, relationally, historically (even as they happen) and critically.

Interview by Francesca Lanz and Michela Bassanelli

*Christopher Whitehead is Professor of Museology at Newcastle University and member of the University’s Cultural Affairs Steering Group and the Great North Museum’s Board. He researches in the fields of museum history, interpretation, knowledge construction, place and identity, memory and heritage studies and museums and migration. A major strand of activity relates to education and interpretation practices in art museums and galleries, and includes several government-funded and policy-relevant research among which the ongoing research project CoHERE – Critical Heritages: Performing and Representing Identities in Europe (April 2016-March 2019).