Future Making in the Anthropocene Blog | The urgencies in the field of heritage

Written by Azadeh Arjomand Kermani

Bricks inscribed with the name, date of birth and age at death of Holocaust Victims, Amsterdam. Credit: Alana Castro de Azevedo

“Training a new generation of researchers, practitioners, policymakers and educators in a diverse range of sectors with transnational perspective, who can change the field of heritage planning, was the main aim of Heriland”. This interview article with prof. Gert-Jan Burgers and prof. Ana Pereira Roders, respectively project leader and partner at the Heriland project, reflects on their experiences and perspectives towards heritage and its implications for society. They openly discussed the lessons after 3 years of teaming up with other key scholars in Europe to train a new generation of professionals.

Gert-Jan Burgers, Professor in Heritage and History of Cultural Landscapes and Urban Environments, works at the faculty of Humanities at the VU Amsterdam, and Ana Pereira Roders, Professor in Heritage and Values works at the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment at TUDelft. 

The focus of the Heriland project is on the training of a new generation of professionals and admits its urgency for the field. This new generation, also named by the ITN funding program, as the ESRs (early-stage researchers) have been selected from hundreds of applicants, with a background ranging from history and archaeology to architecture and planning, each with a keen interest in the role of heritage. They’re proven with their motivation and excellent results to be tailored for the ambitions of the project, soon to obtain their PhD thesis, all tackling societal challenges facing historical cities and landscapes.

In addition, during Heriland, a graduate school on heritage studies was created and the final conference of Heriland gathered more than 40 Master students. The Heriland graduate school will continue to organize events and act as a platform for knowledge exchange on new perspectives and critical thinking on heritage planning. Burgers believes the Heriland graduate school, and its activities will act as a stand for training in the field of cultural landscape in the future. 

Democratization of heritage (valuation)

While the objectives of the project were reached and assessed, Burgers and Pereira Roders emphasize that “we are taking baby steps in this field. Most of the issues that researchers have tackled, such as democratization and shifting demographies, are still in their first steps in heritage studies and planning, with governments and scholars growing attention towards them.”

The view towards heritage is changing and that broadens the types of heritage and its definition. On the other hand, we are exposed to various discussions around societal challenges on a daily basis, such as mass tourism to negative heritage. The field is however still very expert-oriented and what is defined as heritage is mainly dependent on experts and professionals. Communities can also have a voice in the definition, management, and planning of heritage. 

Multivocal approach in practice

Interior of holocaust memorial of names, Amsterdam. Credit: Alana Castro de Azevedo

“Heriland ESRs have an exceedingly difficult task of applying their innovative and new way of thinking to practice. Most of their research topics from empowering communities to multivocality and co-creation needs capacity building and change of mindset within experts and policy makers community and is a long-term transformation process”, explains Pereira Roders. ESRs have been exposed to various perspectives and experiences during their workshops and secondments (a secondment is a temporary transfer of an early-stage researcher to another workplace or office) to be prepared for this role in society and to tackle sensitive issues in tangible and intangible heritage fields. For example, Alana Castro de Azevedo’s research focuses on colonial heritage, [conflicting] Sites of memory (Namenmonument) and negative heritage in Amsterdam.

However, according to Pereira Roders the discussion around the needed reform of the heritage field is only in the beginning, and seldom addresses its fundament, which is electing for conservation, whatever category it might be, only a selection of resources. Would we really want to tackle the environmental crises, we need to question if such an anthropocentric approach is not hampering heritage from playing a greater role in the sustainable development of cities and communities. There is still a long way to go in this respect, but she hopes programs like Heriland are raising a generation of heritage specialists who can play an important role, whenever the society and practices are ready for it. 

Burgers gave examples of students who have found a job or have been approached by Dutch organizations such as Mooi Noord Holland to implement a more multivocal approach in heritage: “The change of perspective in practice and society towards heritage is happening but much slower than in academia. We are pushing in the right directions.”

In Pereira Roders’ experience, governments and national agencies are changing towards promoting multivocality in heritage planning; more funding and research have become available for the heritage field, but sectorial approaches are still the mainstream. The policy and regulatory framework are yet to be reformed in most of the cases Pereira Roders and her team researched, so there is a great dependency on the person who is responsible and their motivation. Moreover, when personnel changes, as happens often, one needs to start from the beginning. The empowerment of a more diverse group of stakeholders in heritage planning as intended by the 2005 Faro Convention, is still not part of most heritage laws we researched, but there is definitely progress.

Resilience and flexibility

Working on a pan-European project with an international team of ESRs and a diverse range of universities and practitioners has its own challenges. Burgers highlights the difficulty of working with an intercultural team but at the same time, he emphasizes the importance of establishing an international working group. “It is challenging to find a common working language both culturally and professionally, but it has its benefits. It gives you a chance to look at problems and issues from an analytical distance.”

Resilience and flexibility to change are according to Pereira Roders the most important lesson learned from Heriland. Due to the Covid pandemic, many of the ESRs had to rethink their secondments, case studies, and even their study methods. “We have had an ESR studying mass tourism, Tinatin Meparishvili, and suddenly during the pandemic, there was no tourism at all. The ESRs have to come up with new methods and innovative techniques to carry out their research. Resilience of a PhD or researcher is an important lesson in this level of training.” Burgers also mentions the flexibility of the Heriland program. Due to Covid, some of the meetings or secondments had to be cancelled and most activities happened online. “It was challenging, but we all had to find innovative solutions to carry out the program.”

A workshop with a local municipality in the Brindisi province in Italy. Credit: Marta Ducci

Disconnect in funding

Another main objective of the Heriland program is to strengthen the connection between academia and practice. According to Burgers the lack of connection between practice and academia is in general a “humanities problem”. Researchers in this field tend to conceptualize strongly and if their research is not steered towards a practice-based issue, they go far from practice and stay theoretical.

Burgers explains how Heriland planned to achieve this connection between theory and practice through secondments and practice-based research and close collaborations with local governments and regional authorities. “For example one of our ESRs, Marta Ducci has organized a series of map-based workshops with local municipalities in the Brindisi province in Italy. It is still on a small scale, but these municipalities are now experimenting with it”.

A workshop with a local municipality in the Brindisi province in Italy. Credit: Marta Ducci

For Pereira Roders’ ESRs in Delft, the situation is different to some extent. The ESRs, Nan Bai and Moses Katontoka, worked with large datasets and very innovative methods (e.g. remote sensing and spatial statistics, AI and social media). Even if the results are very useful for local and national governments, seldom do governments have the human capacity and resources to directly apply these methods in heritage planning.

On the other hand, DLR (German Aerospace Center), a partner of Heriland, specifically for the research developed by Moses Katontoka is interested in experimenting with a broad variety of applications to their methods. Pereira Roders believes the connection between practice and research can be strengthened with funding opportunities.

Thinking forward

Cultural heritage is threatened by various factors, from climate change and rising sea levels to societal and environmental issues. However, in Burgers’ opinion, the most prominent threat to cultural heritage is abuse for the sake of political extremism, social injustice and ecological unsustainability. “For me, the issue with heritage is not how we define cultural heritage but what we do with it. The most important threat is doing wrong with cultural heritage and simply said to harm others.”

He believes this is happening all throughout Europe, such as in the recent example of German extremists abusing the Weimar Republic period for their goals. This abuse is not limited to the built or intangible heritage, it also includes natural heritage and in general the nature around us and the ecological consequences of it.

In addition, Pereira Roders mentions two extreme behaviours towards heritage as a threat to the future of cultural heritage: extreme protectionists of heritage on one side who are denying any change to heritage and its interpretation, and people who associate no value to heritage and do not care about it on the other side. “In theory, heritage is defined when someone conveys value to resources and their attributes (tangible or intangible), and with value comes a sense of ownership, which may lead to a higher resistance to change.” “Would we accept the change and prepare to manage it instead of resisting it depends very much on the society and its cultural perspective towards heritage. As long as we keep discussing these issues, it is the baby steps that we should take to evolve,” argues Pereira Roders.  

To keep these discussions going, Burgers and Pereira Roders are planning to continue their work on heritage through the Heriland graduate school and beyond, to attract like-minded students and PhDs, organizing workshops, and training sessions. When and in which form Heriland 2.0 will come into existence is not yet being decided. Stay tuned!

Future Making in the Anthropocene positions itself in the mental space between heritage and spatial design and deep histories and future landscapes. The project aims to unravel histories and heritage perspectives that contribute to the conditions of the Anthropocene – the age of humans – in order to create better-balanced future scenarios for European cities and landscapes. Among the articles produced during this project there are five interview articles around the objectives and research carried out in Heriland project: the introduction interview with Prof. Gert-Jan Burgers, interview with ESR Marilena Mela and Dr. Linde Egbert, interview with ESR Tinatin Meparishvili, and ESR Maitri Dore. This last interview article serves as a closing to a series of articles that has involved interviews with the 30 young researchers in Terranova and Heriland.

The series of articles were made possible by the generous support of the Creative Industries Fund NL. They have been published by the European Heritage Tribune.