Skip to main content

Critical Heritages: performing and representing identities in Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - CoHERE (Critical Heritages: performing and representing identities in Europe)

Reporting period: 2017-04-01 to 2019-03-31

CoHERE seeks to identify European heritages, engaging with their socio-political and cultural significance and their potential for developing communitarian identities. It explores the ways in which heritages can be used for division and isolation, or to find common ground and encourage modern visions and uses of its past. Key aims of the research are: 1) to interrogate the meanings, frameworks and expressions of European heritages both in theory, practice and policy; 2) to develop relational perspectives on heritages and cultural politics in Europe; and 3) to provide intellectual, creative cultural and practical instruments (including digital ones) for valorising European heritages and promoting communitarian identities.


Overarching project objectives are to:
i. Critically review and theorise key concepts, such as ‘European heritages’, ‘European identity’ and ‘collective memory’ in relation to academic literature, museum and heritage practice, value cultures, politics and policy and EU structures and agendas.
ii. Understand the reach and purchase of ‘European heritages’ and ‘European identities’ and assess their challenges as well as the opportunities they contain for peaceful and communitarian social relations in Europe.
iii. Investigate how and why symbolic representations and performances construct ideas of place, history and heritage, tradition and belonging in Europe, identifying which of these representations and performances count as European heritage, to whom, where and when.
iv. Analyse, through key examples (e.g. musics, food, histories, curricula), how heritage representations ‘travel’ between different institutional, social and personal spheres and how identities are negotiated and produced through this.
v. Explore how and why relationships with and attitudes to the past inform identity positions, social orderings and moral values in Europe.
vi. Identify and propose governmental, policy, institutional, educational and community-linked heritage strategies that sustain and equitably transmit core social values of the EU.
vii. Disseminate the research in numerous spheres and develop instruments that demonstrate and model its application, reaching diverse communities from policy makers and museum, heritage and education professionals to different publics.
The work undertaken has established critical and methodological frameworks and dissemination structures through workshops, reviews of literature and practice and preliminary surveys. This has produced a number of results that are showcased on the CoHERE Critical Archive (http://research.ncl.ac.uk/cohere/coherecriticalarchive/).

The fieldwork, milestones and deliverables have all addressed the central issues of Reflective-2-2015, pertaining to the potentials of heritage in ‘providing a sense of European belonging and EU citizenship as distinct from, but combined with, national citizenship,’ and building the capability for ‘overcoming the current EU crisis’ with a view to revising EU policy.

However, the orientation of the CoHERE project has involved a critique of the assumptions underpinning the Reflective Societies programme. This critique involves recognition that although heritage can be used to create shared senses of identity in Europe, it is often also used to emphasise difference, division and conflicting ideas about who belongs. The ways in which people make attachments to the past and in which historical stories, symbols and identities they choose are often charged with identity politics that have connections with key contemporary issues concerning the past, present and future definition of Europe and Europeanness, what values should prevail in Europe, who should be allowed to live there and under what conditions.

Our overall ‘headline’ findings – pertaining to multiple cultural forms, from museums to party politics, from festivals food and music to school curricula – are that:
i. European heritage is complex, plural, diffuse and subject to multiple interpretations and mobilisations, not least in relation to populist party politics and discourse and nationalisms
ii. Systemic disconnections exist in policy and society, but also
iii. Systemic potentials exist in critical and creative practice to foster forms of historical consciousness likely to lead to civil and more inclusive models of belonging
iv. Instrumentalism needs different frames and approaches and policy frameworks need to be rewired; this requires emphases on:
a. Diversity (to counteract myths of historical endogeneity, homogeneity and monoculture whether in Europe or in national settings)
b. Recognising division (divided memories, divided society, and the link between them)
c. Training (for awareness of political dimensions of heritage and technical approaches)
d. Incentivising reflexive heritage practice (to overcome local motivation deficits)
The CoHERE project is the most comprehensive study of heritage, memory and identity in contemporary Europe, and aims to advance beyond the state of the art not just because of its currency in a changing political, economic and social landscape, but also because of its unique mix of disciplinary perspectives and types of output. Advances to knowledge include:

i. Heritage is more widely significant than current European heritage policy recognises. Current heritage policy is dispersed and disconnected, yet heritage itself is connected to many aspects of European life today – to our politics, society, places and people and to the ways in which EU member states are perceived, positioned and bordered. At the same time, heritage can contribute to the aims of many other policy areas, and this is not yet recognised at the European level.
ii. Much of European heritage and memory policy attempts to create unity from situations of conflict and disharmony between and within diverse populations. However, the recognition of past and present differences, of marginalisation and of imbalances of power within difficult memories (as well as a difficult present) is crucial to preventing alienation from the idea of a harmonious EU. Contemporary population movements, political polarisation and populism all feed into and from notions of who or what is or is not part of a ‘European heritage’. Historical explorations of diversity that show longer histories of inter and transcultural exchange and negotiation may ameliorate social tensions in the present and combat mistaken views of a harmonious, monocultural past ruined by present-day multiculture and the incursion of others into Europe.
iii. Heritage practices – whether group cultural practices or individual performances of identities – can be dynamic, responding openly to social and demographic change, rather than fixed in some ‘frozen’ or mythical past into which newcomers need to be integrated.
iv. Heritage and creative interactives within heritage locations can provide opportunities for constructive dialogue on difficult topics. Current digital heritage policy focusses on large-scale and high-cost digital solutions, but low-cost interactive and digital tools for dialogue can be valuable for engaging diverse populations constructively with challenging contemporary and historical topics.
v. The European heritage canon needs a rethink. Heritage and education policy for Europe requires updating to reflect the wealth of the multiple, mixed and moving identities of young people in Europe today.
Cohere photos 2
Cohere photos 1
Cohere photos 3
Cohere photos 5
Cohere photos 4