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The “European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018” and its implementation: from social cohesion to nation-branding

The “European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018” and its implementation: from social cohesion to nation-branding
2018 will be the European Year of Cultural Heritage, as proclaimed by the European Union. The kick-off event for Luxembourg took place on 29 September.

The Neimënster, nestled in the Grund valley district in Luxembourg City, was once a Benedictine abbey, then a military headquarters and, during the Nazi occupation, a prison. In 1988, the government decided that it should become a national historical monument. The idea of turning it into a cultural centre dates back to the 1980s, under Cultural Affairs Minister Robert Krieps. Today it hosts the Pierre Werner Institute and also the Council of Europe’s European Institute of Cultural Routes. So the former abbey was the ideal place for the presentation of the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018 on 29 September, attended by many representatives of the cultural sector.

The event started with a welcome speech by Guy Arendt, Luxembourg State Secretary for Culture, who emphasised the strong role of cultural heritage for social cohesion and noted that “the history of Europe is also our history”. He mentioned the participative aspect of the European Year of Cultural Heritage and argued that citizens should identify themselves more with their shared cultural heritage.

The 2018 event at EU level: #EuropeforCulture

After Arendt’s speech, Catherine Magnant, project manager for the European Year of Cultural Heritage in the European Commission’s Directorate General for Culture and Education, provided an overview of the implementation of the Year of Cultural Heritage at EU level, from the overall objectives to the financial aspects and the communication strategy (which will focus on social media). The year will be based on ten initiatives, divided into four goals – engagement, sustainability, protection and innovation – and will include a broad notion of heritage (tangible/material, intangible/immaterial, and environmental or nature-oriented). This broader definition has already been around for many years, as shown, for instance, by UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Magnant also stressed the importance of collaboration between several players – between EU institutions and Member States and between public authorities and NGOs involved in heritage protection. In other words (though this was not specifically voiced during the presentations), governance is key to the organisation of the 2018 event: the aim is to include various players in the decision-making process, not only to create the feeling of being part of this event but also to strengthen its legitimacy, even more so in these current troubled times. The EU will also draw on pre-existing programmes and structures, first and foremost Creative Europe, a programme that seeks to develop and support creative industries, which are seen as an important factor in the economy and tourism while also contributing to innovation. This can be related to recent discourses within the framework of European research grants, such as Horizon 2020, aiming to support innovation and improve Europe’s competitiveness. With regard to the European Year of Cultural Heritage, as mentioned several times during the event, creative industries are also perceived as a social and economic resource. Projects funded by the EU in connection with the year should either focus on the ways heritage deepens a sense of belonging or create a link between heritage, contemporary artistic creation and emerging new economies and markets.

The Year of Cultural heritage at national level

Uwe Koch (Deutsches Nationalkomitee für Denkmalschutz) discussed the implementation of the year in Germany and stressed the participative aspect of heritage. Indeed, the German version of the initiative will use the slogan/hashtag #SharingHeritage, instead of #EuropeforCulture as promoted at European level. He deplored that the heritage sector had often played only a minor role, but he also welcomed the current interest in the European Year of Cultural Heritage even at the highest political levels (for instance Jean-Claude Juncker in his State of the Union address in September).

In the last presentation, Beryl Bruck, Luxembourg’s coordinator of the year, outlined how it will be implemented in Luxembourg on the basis of three key aspects: cultural heritage and education/raising awareness, cultural heritage and sustainable development, and cultural heritage and technologies. All three are certainly in line with the EU’s approach to cultural heritage, especially as the trope of “future” plays a prominent role and younger generations are specifically targeted. The hashtag #HeritageForFuture certainly synthesizes this view, but, as in the case of Germany, it is again different from the slogan used by the EU. Like previous speakers, Bruck also underlined the participatory aspect. However, this currently seems not to include the idea of involving the broader public (e.g. migrant groups), but to be limited to a call for projects and collaboration with the European institutions. The official Luxembourg web page for the European Year of Cultural Heritage,, is still in its early stages, but at the bottom, the “Luxembourg – Let’s make it happen” nation-branding logo is already prominently displayed, as well as the logo of the ALAC (Agence luxembourgeoise d’action culturelle), a non-profit association created following Luxembourg’s stint as European Capital of Culture in 1995.

Nation states and national heritage

Is the European Year of Cultural Heritage simply another nation-branding project? Once 2018 is over and it will be possible to look at the event with hindsight, it will certainly be interesting to analyse the discrepancies and similarities between implementation and discourse at European level, focusing on transnational shared heritage, and at Member State level, concentrating on national heritage. Since their emergence in the 19th century, nation states have always been keen to promote and strengthen their national communities. They have embedded in their policies a whole series of instruments to justify their existence, many of them acquiring highly symbolic meanings, such as flags, anthems and prestigious buildings. This whole apparatus (or dispositif in Foucauldian terms) of forging an “imagined community” (Benedict Anderson) was also linked with the idea of using national heritage as a means of identity formation, demonstrating power and selecting what the nation should be proud of and why it stands out – and Luxembourg did not differ in this respect. The rationale was that cultural heritage did not only physically showcase the nation; it also presented intangible values shared by its citizens. The country was very keen on protecting national monuments, sites and artistic and historical objects, as illustrated by the legislative framework put into place in the 1920s and 1930s at a time when the expression “cultural heritage” was not even used in political debates. During this period, politicians were also very interested in protecting natural sites and landscapes, especially for tourism. The importance attributed to cultural heritage today as a factor of social cohesion still carries the same underlying idea of rallying people behind a common idea and shared identify. The European Union, though a supranational structure, reuses the apparatus of nation states (heritage making, flag, anthem, representation of power through architecture and illustrations on the common currency). The increasing interest in a shared European heritage (and its constituent elements) simply reflects this philosophy.

A look back at 1975

During the event on 29 September, some speakers referred to the European Year of Architectural Heritage in 1975. The situation in 2018 will certainly be very different, as the 1975 event did not even take place in the context of the European Community but was proclaimed by the Council of Europe. The 2018 event will be another example of the EU’s nascent cultural policy, which began in the 1980s with the creation of the European Capitals of Culture (ECOC). In Luxembourg, the impact of the 1975 event was measurable to a certain extent, especially on the legislative/administrative level (creation of the Service des sites et monuments nationaux in 1977). It also took place at a time when the concept of architectural heritage was changing: the view was that it was not only isolated monuments that should be protected but whole sites, districts and even historical towns. Still, it was much more restricted than what the EU and other supranational organisations mean today when referring to “cultural heritage”. Other aspects from the 1970s reappear in Luxembourg’s strategy, including the idea of reusing old, decommissioned buildings (sustainable development), a topic on which a conference will be held in 2018. This idea is a reappraisal of a statement by Jacques Santer, then State Secretary for Cultural Affairs, in 1972.

In sum, it is interesting to note how cultural policies were and still are a crucial part of political action in times of crisis. Cultural policy and diplomacy have always had a key role to play, not only during the Cold War when East and West were eager to convince by their cultural achievements, but also during the current EU crisis.