Harmony, dissonance, silence: a journey through European capitals of culture

I was happy to deliver this keynote speech for the 12th Conference of the University Network of the European Capitals of Culture (UNeECC) in Valletta in November 2018. These are the slides that accompanied it.

In her 2013 European Cultural Foundation award-winning research on governing heritage dissonance in the Balkans, Višnja Kisić notes how recent EU heritage policy is inspired by the definition of heritage as expressed by the Faro Convention, while reproducing cohesion and integration models inherited from nineteenth century national agendas. She claims that the intrinsic value of European heritage in search of a common identity on the continent, its instrumental value for economic development, and its social value in seeking a sense of belonging, oscillates between jingoistic political discourse and open-ended interpretative efforts towards our cultural identities.

Therefore, is culture invented or inherited? As argued by David Lowenthal on numerous occasions, the fabrication of heritage entails both activities. In 1983 Hobsbawm and Ranger reminded us that what determines the selection of heritage to be cherished and what is innovated upon depends on who is carrying out the process of the interpretation of history and the management of culture. And for what purpose.

The European Capital of Culture programme of the EU is a piece of invented cultural heritage in itself, with various instrumental uses. Over more than thirty years, the various governance structures implementing the process of celebrating European culture at trans-European, national and local levels have varied greatly, with regenerative, economic priorities struggling to accommodate and respect social needs and sensitivities. In recent years, the branded profile of the programme has also attracted greater political attention by the authorities. In doing so, it has arguably strained to balance localised and at times even exclusionary communitarianism with a vision for diversity, inclusion and social engagement that is underpinned by mutual respect and openness towards each other. At times, it seems to have followed the populist flow, rather than inspired people to stem it. At others, it has offered us glimpses of a Europe that truly values cultural, and hence human, rights.

Eric Hobsbawm, Terence Ranger, The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge University Press, 1983

Višnja Kisić, Governing Heritage Dissonance: Promises and Realities of Selected Cultural Policies, European Cultural Foundation, 2013

David Lowenthal, ‘Fabricating Heritage’, History and Memory, Vol. 10, No. 1 (Spring 1998), pp. 5-24

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