Cultural heritage and European values in 2018

Cartaditalia Special Edition cover.

BRUSSELS - Having declared 2018 European Year of Cultural Heritage, the EU have set about hosting a series of events to emphasise the continent’s array of treasures and the corresponding “European values” these places represent.

 The initiative is presided over by Tibor Navracsics, the EU Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport. However, it raises bigger questions about how countries should view their cultural heritage. Is it simply an economic resource to be managed? And is a concentration on the past always a benefit for cities such as Venice and Barcelona, overrun by tourists in recent years?

 On Jan 22, one such event took place in the European Parliament. Italian MEP Silvia Costa organised the event. Ms Costa is the former Chair of the European Parliament Committee on Culture and Education –the EU initiative originated last year when Italy presided the EU Council.

 In “salon n° 3” of the shiny Altiero Spinelli building, having passed airport-like security checks and awaiting the presentations, a well-dressed, middle-aged and all-white audience discussed holidays and city trips, sabbatical years and secondary homes. Hardly anybody browsed through the copies of the beautifully edited magazine that were available.

 Ms Costa opened the event. Then, two special advisors to the EU Commission in the field of cultural heritage gave details about the European Year of Cultural Heritage. In Dec, they launched the Year in an artistically reconverted bicycle factory in a gentrified neighbourhood of Milan. Now, the initiative would take them to equally splendid locations in Hamburg, Valletta and Paris.

 During the Brussels event, the “Istituto di Cultura italiana all’estero” presented a special edition of its Cartaditalia publication. After speakers who in unison Globish had praised Europe’s diversity and multilingualism, director Paolo Grossi received applause for speaking French.

 Paolo Grossi launched the Cartaditalia concept more than a decade ago. The quadrilingual (Italian, French, German and English) compendium maps contemporary culture. “Cartaditalia,” wrote author Claudio Magris in “La Repubblica”, “offers the very best in Italian culture being produced by the younger generation.”

 Each Cartaditalia publication accompanies a particular event such as an exhibition or a festival. This special edition, which is dedicated to heritage, appears at the launch of the European Year of Cultural Heritage. Special advisor to the EU Commission in the field of cultural heritage, Pier Luigi Sacco, curated the edition. In two volumes, he collected 25 articles written by scholars and experts from all over Europe. During the presentation of the special edition, director Grossi remarked: “This edition is not an Italian, but a European one.”

 Cultural heritage includes tangible as well as intangible features of a culture that have been created in the past and that have historical importance. In his own contribution, Pier Luigi Sacco reminds that Europe is “the incubator of the first modern cultural institutions, of the theories and techniques for its conservation and safeguarding, and of cultural policy itself.”

 The first articles link Europe’s cultural heritage to the mission of the EU and announce European Heritage Days, a Creative Europe programme, a Europa Nostra award and a European Heritage label. Unfortunately, the authors of these articles equate Europe with the European Union, a fallacy all people who live or feed off the EU (deliberately) make.

 In order to make “Our heritage: where the past meets the future” more than a slogan, several contributors refer to Joseph Schumpeter’s idea of “creative destruction” and put forward innovation, particularly through state-of-the-art technology. The second volume of the special edition contains case studies on, i.a., an innovative app that was developed by the National Archaeological Museum of Naples and the cutting-edge digitalisation of the “Archivio Storico Ricordi.”

 The event in the European Parliament was sponsored by internet giant Google and the media conglomerate Bertelsmann, the owner of the “Archivio Storico Ricordi” and former employer of the EU’s top civil servant, Martin Selmayr. Google’s spokesperson revealed that the company collaborates with 1,500 cultural institutions, 42 percent of which are situated in Europe.

 In 2014, the EU Council concluded that heritage is a key economic resource. Professor Pier Luigi Sacco, who lectures in Cultural Economics at Milan’s private IULM university, selected a number of articles that point out the economic potential of Europe’s heritage and that, obedient to the EU Commission’s dogma, advocate its privatisation (that evening, the European Parliament hosted two events: one sponsored by Amazon, the other, by Google).

 Sorbonne professor Xavier Greffe, however, in his article “Cultural heritage as a common good” opposes this neoliberalism and states that heritage is less a question of markets than of ecosystems. Urbanist Prosper Wanner goes even further and claims that heritage is a shared responsibility that is neither centralist nor privatised, but pertains to cooperation within a framework of public action.

 Two articles discuss the managerial aspects of heritage and museums  –seven of the 25 contributors of the special edition lecture Economics and/or teach at a business school. According to professor Christian Ost (ICHEC, Brussels) and exhibition coordinator Francis Carpentier, heritage management requires a paradigm shift: from conservation that is excessively concerned about the past to development in the form of creativity and innovation. Development will ensure that cultural heritage can be integrated in contemporary society in a meaningful way. With regards to museums, archaeologist Eckhard Köhne advises museums to adapt their mission to an audience that is ever more heterogeneous.

 Opposing their peers who herald the (economic) benefits heritage will bring to the EU, two authors treat its potential harms. While Greg Richards (NHTV University, Breda) warns about the negative impact heritage tourism has on cities and their residents, Lluís Bonet (University of Barcelona, Barcelona), points out the side-effects of an UNESCO classification –one third of UNESCO classified sites are in the European Union.

 Meanwhile, waiters had uncorked an impressive number of bottles of wine and started offering appetisers (“Salmon or cheese?”). Listeners not wearing a visitors badge had not shown interest in the subject itself, but only in what the subject can give them.

 Ms Costa closed the event. A full-blooded politician who had sensed the audience after the applause for Grassi, she switched to Italian. She reminded the audience that “Heritage preservation only represents 0.15 percent of total budget” and made a claim that the budget for culture should at least double. In that, the presentation in “salon n° 3” was no different from any of the presentations in the other salons.

 Yet, for those –specialists as well as amateurs– who have a genuine interest in cultural heritage, this special edition of Cartaditalia is a most useful guide to the European Year of Cultural Heritage. And beyond.

Cartaditalia is available at the “Istituto di Cultura italiana”. The following URL allows for downloading a digital version of the special edition:

In March, a presentation of Cartaditalia will be held in Rome.