Heritage renewal

Specially Unknown and heritage renewal

Some backgrounds and policy recommendations for cultural institutions and organisations


1. Introduction

Design of the project

Specially Unknown is a two-year oral history project that focuses on the contribution of refugees to the development of four European cities (Antwerp, Bochum, Paris and Turin). The project has two main tracks: collecting, recording and making accessible 140 life stories of refugees and making artistic public presentations to show the content of the project to a wide audience. In four urban steering committees, representatives of the museums, archives and other heritage organisations together with refugees make the main choices for the implementation of the project.


Motivation and purpose

Stichting BMP and the other partners in the project focus with this oral history project on the relationship between refugees, the city and the heritage institutions (museums and archives) of the city. The project aims to contribute to the representation of this group in the heritage of the four major cities. These are various communities that have been living in the city for a number of decades, but whose heritage can hardly be found in the city archives or city museums. How were they received, how did they experience the city, how was their identity formed in interaction with that city? The stories of refugees are part of the stories of the city where they live. With the methodology of oral history, stories that have not been told can be traced and lead to source material that can be used by archives and (future) researchers.

The source material will be offered to archives in the four cities and will be streamed and made accessible for further research via the Data Archiving and Netwerked Services (DANS) of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences (KNAW). They can also be found on the project’s website: www.speciallyunknown.eu In addition, the collected material (content, images and themes) will be used to create exhibitions and other public presentations by people from various refugee communities, in collaboration with artists. The aim of this project was to encourage refugee and other city communities to use oral history as a method for recording their own heritage, to contribute to recognisable heritage and to establish lasting relationships between heritage institutions and refugee communities.


Relevance to city archives and museums

City museums and archives cannot ignore the impact that globalisation processes have on the city and on their role as urban heritage institutions. The vision of the big cities is that there is no longer a majority of native Dutch people. The era of super-diversity, in which other cultures, other ways of thinking and other identities influence our ‘self’, has brought concepts such as identity and cultural heritage back into question. At the same time, technological developments are blurring the boundaries between ‘here’ and ‘there’. The question is how city museums and archives can relate to the new dynamics and diversity of the transnational city. With their collection policy and projects, both the archives and the museums aim for representativeness and recognisability, and are seeking to do so. How can they collect and exhibit all the different values, beliefs and daily cultural expressions? On the basis of this topicality, Specially Unknown wonders how the Unprecedented Special project can contribute to representative, recognisable and innovative urban heritage.


2. Framework for thinking: Heritage institutions, place and identity


Social context: complex connectedness

Heritage institutions are interpreters of national or local identity. However, they are confronted with a reality in which identity is becoming less and less unambiguous. The interplay of globalisation, mobility and technological developments means that society is increasingly subject to change. The almost unrestrained access to new places, knowledge and opinions has made the world more accessible and more complex for people at the same time. Because of the ease of maintaining contact via new media, social interaction and relationships are less and less bound to place. Events from far beyond our own environment can more than ever penetrate our environment and experience. The complex interconnectedness of people with places all over the world has consequences for the relationship between place and identity.


In the increased complexity, people are looking for meaning and connection. What is striking is the occurrence of fragmentation and fluidity. People are increasingly temporarily connecting to various things that are important to them now. As Hans Boutellier puts it in his book “The Improvisation Society”: “We are faced with the not insignificant psychological task of identifying ourselves with a multitude of roles, positions and connections. Where obvious forms of identity are lacking, we have to look for shelter ourselves.” This does not go well for everyone. As Boutellier says, there is a tension between the desire for an unambiguous self-image and the constantly fragmenting forces of the outside world. Where can people still take root? And what role can heritage institutions play in this?


Refugees and polyphony

This is where the theme and structure of the Specially Unknown project come into play in relation to the issue facing heritage institutions. The project can be seen as a case study for investigating the relationship between identity, place and complex connectedness. An interesting framework for this is the diaspora theory from the social and cultural sciences. Being ‘in diaspora’ refers in a narrow sense to (groups of) people who have been forced to leave their native country. Unlike migrants, refugees are usually unable to return. The connection with the country of birth remains, not fixed in the past, but as the basis for dealing with the new setting. In their lives in the here and now, refugees carry with them memories and experiences of the past. Maintaining contact with people from their ‘own group’ is an important factor in developing new forms of identity and roots and in recreating the past in the present. The country of birth was not simply left behind, but one of the sources of available discourses in a ‘polyphonic present’ (Ghorashi, 2004).


Diaspora, identity and the media

An important aspect of diaspora communities is that they have become separated from (shared) place as a (historical) context for social relations. In the case of diaspora, social interaction and communication take place to a large extent in the virtual space. Virtual connections, made possible by modern media, have thus become defining elements for the formation of identity and community. The starting point in the literature is that loosening the connection between place, community and culture offers space for imagination. In the virtual space that connects diasporas, narratives about place, history, culture and identity emerge. The importance attached to this idea is that diasporas question mainstream images of (national) identity.


Cities as places where diaspora identity is expressed

Research on diaspora identity usually focuses on communities in cities. It is the (world) city with its transnational character where people with different origins and visions of the future meet and form new communities. As sociologist Kevin Robins puts it nicely: The nation we may say, is a space of identification and identity, whilst the city is an existential and experimental space’. It is in the dynamics of the city, with its demographic diversity, cultural differences and heterogeneity, that people come into contact with difference and where they look for their own representation. Globalisation processes are accompanied by a desire for recognition and connection with the immediate environment.


In what way can urban heritage institutions interpret the character of the city if it mixes more and more identities from elsewhere? What are the binders of identity within a city as a place is increasingly influenced by space? Where does the interpretation of identity begin and where does it end?


Refugees as forerunners in ‘diaspora consciousness’

In cosmopolitan literature, the concept of diaspora is further stretched and is also interpreted as a metaphor for life and identity in a cosmopolitan era. In contemporary art, too, a great deal of attention is paid to the ‘diaspora consciousness’, the mentality needed to be able to ground in an environment that is constantly changing.  The reasoning behind Specially Unknown is that refugees are forerunners in the diaspora consciousness. Refugees have been forced to leave their homeland and are usually unable to return here. They are forced to give meaning to the desire for their roots in other ways.



3. The contribution of Specially Unknown: relationships with refugees and heritage


Urban heritage institutions need to relate to these changes. They look for ways to account for the backgrounds, identities and needs of the public they want to reach and serve. Specially Unknown wants to make a contribution to this by creating new material, offering an opportunity for a joint search and new forms of expression, and establishing (lasting) new relationships.


Implementation of the project in brief

In the four urban steering committees of the Specially Unknown project, representatives of the city’s museums and archives, together with refugees and other relevant organisations, make choices for the implementation of the project, such as the selection of communities, relevant topics for the interviews and the design of the final presentations. Between October 2017 and October 2019, 140 oral history interviews were held by field workers with a refugee background. Based on these interviews, 9 cultural presentations were held. The content of the interviews and the experiences with the public presentations provided input for this memorandum.


Creative presentations in co-creation

By making the artistic presentations, refugees are challenged to work together on the diaspora theme of uprooting and connecting with the new environment. The routes provided space for different (artistic) ways to get the discussion going. The search of refugees “who are we” runs synchronously with the search of museums and archives for how they should represent the topicality of contemporary super-diversity. The final presentations have provided ample opportunity to bring both movements together. The challenge of the project to make the super-diversity of the city tangible, visible and recognizable with the final presentations in a co-creation between the heritage partners and refugee communities has been well succeeded. Together they investigate the relationship between place and identity in the current urban context and come up with new forms to solidify the issues raised by this in products and presentations. This process can be of significance for the heritage of the future. The intention of the partners involved to continue along this path and to continue to work on presentations that are created in co-creation with refugees, even after completion of the project, can serve as an example for other heritage and cultural institutions.


Policy recommendations for cultural organisations and institutions

On the basis of experience to date, the Specially Unknown project has produced the following policy recommendations for cultural organisations and institutions:

  • A core element of city policy development should be: to help and motivate refugees to participate in culture and society, build up their self-confidence and motivation to use their talents and competences
  • Be careful not to create competition between migrants and refugees. Find ways to incorporate different experiences into our societies. How do we share the space we have for different groups?
  • Create “Diversitude”: the ability to work together with people with different backgrounds and to  ensure that the different talents are acknowledged
  • Overcome “refugee-ness” (considering people as citizens instead of refugees, focusing on skills and what people know and can do, and not on the refugee status);
  • Facilitators/cultural abridgers are needed for cultural participation (people who help establish connections between different groups, such as second-generation migrants/refugees)
  • Influencers (people with a refugee background) are needed on the positions in which they can achieve change (within existing institutions)
  • Incorporate refugees in the structure (of the decision/policy making institutions) and receive equal payment;
  • Make it possible (find funds for) refugees to get influential positions within institutions;
  • Establish a diversity officer in all institutions, with a task to “hold a mirror” and ensure equality and diversity of staff, public and productions / products;
  • Co-creation is not only working together, but it is working on the principles of equality in everything, especially in decision making during the whole process;
  • Stop to do “for” and start to do “with” and give a real space to refugees and people from other groups (some ideas can be stolen, or reshaped by policy makers);
  • Co-creation also requires equal payment / funding;
  • It is essential for co-creation that everybody knows that everybody is a stakeholder;
  • Integration is not co-creation. Integration is usually one-sided. Integration could be co-creation, if it refers to all (both, two) sides, if both sides would need to integrate, not only one;
  • Change the narrative – not the protagonists! – of our Western system through arts;
  • Use arts to create a new society, a new narrative and in the end a new educational system