Critical ethnographies of cultural heritage in Mediterranean cities

Convenor: Nick Dines (Middlesex University UK)

The aim of this workshop panel is to bring together researchers who use ethnographic methods to critically explore the construction and experience of cultural heritage in urban settings in the Mediterranean region (i.e. southern Europe, northern Africa and western Asia). Heritage is understood here in its broadest sense as any tangible or intangible dimension of the past that is defined and used in the present. In mainstream public and academic debates, especially in southern Europe, cultural heritage tends to be considered an intrinsically positive “thing” that possesses a set of social and economic attributes, such as local identity marker or tourist attraction. The conservation and valorization of heritage is hence often promoted as a benevolent pursuit and can be endowed with politically progressive connotations when deemed to serve the interests of the common good.

Over the last two decades, and across a range of disciplines, a more critical approach has emerged that has interrogated the positive essentialism inherent within mainstream discussions and has instead highlighted the various power relations through which all forms and expressions of heritage are constructed and classified. Scholars have indicated, for instance, how the “heritagization” of the built environment is often intimately bound up with the neoliberal restructuring of cities, such as its role in processes of gentrification in popular neighbourhoods of historic centres. At the same time, attention has focused on how different groups of people renegotiate, reject or simply ignore dominant discourses about heritage and, moreover, how they formulate alternative notions of heritage that not only challenge hegemonic values about the past but also contest the ways in which cities are governed in the present. The workshop intends to examine the complex relationship between heritage and power in the context of Mediterranean cities. Proposals are welcome that draw on original ethnographic research and which address wider theoretical debates about cultural heritage. Papers should ideally engage with one or more of the following themes:

  • Critical genealogies of heritage discourses: when, why and how do places, people, traditions, memories, etc. become ‘heritage’?
  • Political and everyday contestation of ‘official’ heritage sites.
  • The heritagization and social/discursive construction of historic centres.
  • The relationship between heritage and neoliberal urbanization.
  • The impact of the Eurozone crisis and the Arab Spring upon cultural heritage management and consumption.
  • The impact of UNESCO and other cultural institutions upon the governance and experience of the built environment.
  • The strategies and ambiguities of ‘grassroots’ campaigns for heritage protection.
  • Heritage management and transnational migration.
  • The potential and limits of theorizing heritage as a commons.
  • The biopolitical nature of heritage politics and the governance of conduct.
  • Dark and ugly heritage: commemorating and contesting past conflicts and unwanted pasts.

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