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Cultural heritage is a vital issue today

Cultural heritage is a vital issue today

A recognition of the progress made in the work with cultural heritage. That's how the Ministry of Culture describes the new Cultural Heritage Bill. What do researchers working with the issue think? We ask Astrid von Rosen, researcher at the University of Gothenburg and coordinator for the Archives Cluster at the interdisciplinary Centre for Critical Heritage Studies (CCHS).

What do you think of the bill?
– It's both inspiring and a challenge. I think it's good that it's based on a so-called expanded concept of cultural heritage, that is, on a theoretically up-to-date and reflective approach that challenges the somewhat inflexible earlier ideas about cultural heritage, and affirms complexity. In this way, cultural heritage becomes actively co-creative and performative; it's more about what it 'does' than what it 'is'. What I find lacking in the bill is a deep-going and critically aware revamping of the concept of the archive, which I believe will be needed when concretising the cultural heritage policy in the near future. It will be exciting to see what emerges in the comprehensive investigation of archives that is also coming.
How does it relate to the work being done at CCHS?
– CCHS and the bill share, as I see it, a similar fundamental view of cultural heritage. This view is based on post-colonial theory and research, the struggle for human rights and social justice, and aboriginal people’s understandings of culture and heritage. The bill accordingly allows for a pluralisation of perspectives and contexts. Emphasising knowledge, creativity, participation and collaboration requires new competencies and instruments that facilitate navigating in an area that is, and must be allowed to be, shifting and complex. In this regard, CCHS can offer critically up-to-date, internationally recognised and theoretically grounded research. CCHS also possesses the competence to examine key concepts and debates, as well as to develop theoretical tools and methods to facilitate navigation in the unstable – and therefore also transformable – field of cultural heritage.

Why are questions of cultural heritage so important today?

– We live in a world that often is described as global and digital, but that also is filled with severe conflicts and deep social injustices. Studying and working with cultural heritages involves giving attention to the reverberations of the past in the now and its influence on the future. This task may always have been important, but it is absolutely vital today. If humanity is unable to name and symbolise – speak, write and live together with – questions about history, memory, identity and power, then it will be difficult or impossible to uphold a democratic society and human dignity. Cultural heritage is also an issue for universities because it stresses the need for research and higher education that can encounter and enrich cultural heritage policy, not least in the humanities.

Cultural heritage is often described as an emotionally laden and polarised issue. Do you agree?
– People are different and live in different circumstances, so it’s not surprising that views on the ownership, representation and accessibility of cultural heritage can differ enormously and that conflicts arise. One example is how the selection of a tangible or intangible heritage always has a back side in the form of what isn't chosen, given resources, or seen as valuable. Another example concerns how the ongoing mass digitalisation of society, with its great potential to enhance democracy, also risks falling into technological utopianism. Parts of the cultural heritage cannot easily or adequately be digitalised – and this poses an important challenge, not least in relation to migration. Also, the new cultural heritage policy reflects a paradigm shift where previous institutional viewpoints and structures are challenged, which can give rise to frictions. In my view, it appears to be of crucial importance to strive to better understand and name the powerful forces that can be unleashed in and by archives. This might happen, for instance, when examining a belief in an archive that does not actually exist, or investigating emotionally charged aspects of what otherwise appear to be neutral or objective archival sources. In this lies an important future task for researchers and practitioners. One must be able to think in new ways without forgoing the important function of archives in legal processes.

Read more about the new proposition: Snack och verkstad i regeringens kulturarvspolitik
Read more about CCHS: Centrum för kritiska kulturarvsstudier
Photo: Astrid von Rosen together with Fredrik Linder/Ministry of Culture, Karl Magnusson/Heritage Academy and World Cultural Museum, Mats Persson/Swedish Museums, Rolf Källman/National Archives of Sweden and Britta Söderqvist at Kulturförvaltningen during a panel discussion at heritage Academy's Spring Conference where the Cultural Heritage Bill was presented.