Promoting inclusion by rethinking Europe's heritage
At a time when consensus on Europe's past is breaking down, EU-funded researchers are rethinking the continent's heritage. The aim is to develop inclusive ways of viewing identity which counteract disaffection and promote civility.
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Although heritage has benefits in terms of fostering belonging, ideas about the past are also used to sow division. The challenge this presents can be seen in phenomena such as the rise of populism and rejection of cultural diversity, as well as disaffection with the EU and the prospect of its actual fragmentation.
The EU-funded COHERE project is exploring relationships between identity and representations of history, and ways in which heritage is used to unite and divide. Thus, the research aims to improve understanding of the different manifestations of Europes heritage to better examine their socio-political and cultural significance.
This is vital for addressing weakening attachment to historical ideas of Europe and the European Union itself. Therefore, COHERE is tackling an intensifying problem within the EU by contributing to the development of more inclusive and communitarian forms of identity.
We study representations of European heritage, the ideas about collectivity that they contain, tensions between them and their purchase at local levels across numerous cultural forms, explains project coordinator Chris Whitehead of the University of Newcastle in the UK. The idea of European heritage is understood differently in different places and at different levels of society. While embraced by some, it is resisted by others, and has a weaker relevance for collectivity than is assumed in European-level cultural policy. Forms of collectivity, such as national communities, often have greater purchase and can be appropriated for identity politics, particularly by right-wing populist parties.
Diverse cultural forms
COHERE explores a range of European territories and contexts both comparatively and in depth. The research is based on the understanding that heritage is enacted at different levels not just at official sites or museums but also in political discourse, music, language, food, school curricula and daily life.
The team is working with museums to design ways of encouraging public dialogue on critical issues of European heritage through exhibitions, events and displays. A musical composition, documentary films, a festival presenting the research themes, workshops for young people and online educational material will be created during the project, which also provides training and career development for junior researchers. The results can be used by heritage professionals, schools, cultural centres and policymakers to develop new methods of engagement and to frame cultural policy.
At a basic level, COHERE is finding ways of complicating peoples ideas about the past, as Whitehead puts it, in order to challenge monolithic understandings of history that support exclusive identity politics. Through such practices, the project is looking to change how people link the past to their sense of self, with the aim of fostering a more reflective outlook on the issue.
We aim to promote a wider, more complex understanding of European heritage among key actors, including politicians, policymakers and heritage professionals who are in a position to engage public audiences, says Whitehead. A core purpose is to help such actors consider how this might be conceptualised in a way that recognises difference but brings potential for a critical and pluralised identity politics conducive to civility and peaceful intergroup relations.