In her Cultural Heritage Agency video on the Faro Convention, Michaëla Hanssen says ‘the idea is to give heritage back to the citizen.’
Great! Drop me off at Het Loo Palace, and I’ll pick out the bedroom of my choice. But I’m pretty sure a royal sleepover is not what she was getting at. The palace probably doesn’t have a bedroom for every Dutch citizen, and I’m not about to share my palatial four-poster with anyone.
Heritage as a ‘means to an end’
So what exactly is Michaëla getting at? How do we give heritage back to the citizen? It’s a question that reminds me of recent news stories with angry crowds milling around statues with colonial connections. Statues of ‘the great and good’ that no one gave a second glance a year or so ago. Yet suddenly they have become integral to one person’s identity, while someone else is determined to see them torn down. Is this battle really about statues? Or about something much bigger? Colonial-era statues – along with Zwarte Piet, paintings of nudes and depictions of slaves on the Dutch monarch’s ceremonial coach – seem to have become symbols in a battle for Dutch identity. It’s heritage as a means to an end, a means to achieve social goals… which brings us right back to the Faro Convention!
Buildings that matter
But what about heritage that’s more robust and enduring? How do we give built heritage back to our citizens? I found inspiration in an idea expressed by Gertjan de Boer, policy officer for cultural history in the municipality of De Ronde Venen.
When the Cultural Heritage Agency asked me to do twelve interviews, he was the frst person I called. Gertjan believes that, often without being aware of it, we all have some connection with built heritage. Why else would we fock to historic cities when we go on holiday? Yet it’s something we engage with without fully realizing it. Partly to raise our awareness, Gertjan has launched a project in which he asks residents to designate listed buildings for the municipality.
Identity seems to play a major role here as well: people often opt for a building they live or work in or buildings from their own village. Wiesje, a non-professional heritage expert for the project, believes residents are perfectly capable of identifying buildings that matter: ‘We feel a connection, they have an effect on us.’
I must admit, this got me feeling a bit uneasy: as an architectural historian of the future, where does that leave me? Thankfully, Gertjan has a few reassuring words up his sleeve: ‘It takes a professional to know what people will value years from now.’ Whew, thank goodness for that! Life as an architectural historian has a sense of purpose after all.
Do we really need to give heritage back to the citizen? Everyone already has their own treasured building, village or city, or their own tradition to be proud of. Heritage is already ours, if only we stopped to think about what that means.