A Renewed Impetus for Reflection on our Colonial Legacies in 2020

John Oldfield

Professor of Slavery and Emancipation

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

john.oldfield@hull.ac.uk

Dr Cristina Clopot

Postdoctoral Research Fellow (2018-2020), ECHOES Project

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

c.e.clopot@hull.ac.uk

Since 2018, members of the Wilberforce Institute have been leading the work on a Horizon 2020 research project named ECHOES: European Colonial Heritage Modalities in Entangled Cities. The consortium is  made up of a number of European institutions (Aarhus University, University of Amsterdam, University of Warsaw, University of Coimbra, University of Rennes 2), partners from outside Europe (UNIRIO (Brasil), University of Cape Town (South Africa), Department of Cultural Heritage and Museology, Fudan University (China)), as well as a set of non-academic partners. By embracing a decolonial approach, the researchers on the ECHOES project hope to address the lacunae in the interpretation and representation of our colonial heritage, both inside and outside Europe.

As part of the ECHOES project, researchers at the Wilberforce Institute have produced a series of deliverables, including materials for non-academic audiences. The last of these outputs is a policy brief for European policy makers interested in heritage diplomacy and international cultural relations. The point of departure for the brief was the realisation that 2020, with its intense challenges provided by the experience of living through a pandemic and the tragic death of African American George Floyd in May 2020, has exposed pervasive racist patterns and helped communities across the world problematise colonial legacies in a new way.

We were also mindful, when writing this brief, of how the social and economic inequalities that were amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as unequal access to healthcare, for instance (discussed here also), have exposed  old colonial (Eurocentric) approaches to international relations that continue to disempower the Global South.

Moreover, the tragic and important moment of George Floyd’s death has brought a renewed urgency to the Black Lives Matter debate and provided the impetus for countries across Europe to reconsider the representation of colonial memory in public spaces. A wave of protests and debates focused on monuments, especially those of historic figures connected to slavery and colonialism (such as the much-discussed case of Bristol’s Edward Colston), have subsequently enveloped Europe, creating in their wake contentious culture wars. 

These major events we have related to one of our long-standing concern within ECHOES, namely the production, representation and circulation of knowledge. The policy brief thus argues for a wider recognition of different types of knowledges in international projects, including what we define as ‘community knowledge’; the type of knowledge that cannot be classified based on a neat westernised scientific approach, e.g.  folklore, storytelling, myths and narratives – some of them traumatic — transmitted orally across generations.

We are mindful that across Europe there is a severe deficit in engaging with colonialism that is not present in the case of other major historic events, such as the Holocaust or the memories of the two world wars. At this time of reflection, it is important to continue the work to identify power imbalances in institutions of different types and reconsider the ways in which we interact with marginalised groups.

Although models for international cultural relations or heritage diplomacy are commonly represented by interactions between states (and state agents), we argue that there is a need for a more complex approach that includes a wider range of actors, including non-state ones. As research in ECHOES has shown, actors working on the ground (e.g. museum curators, artists and citizen groups) often create projects and develop activities that involve a deeper engagement with colonial legacies in their communities.  There is a great opportunity to further this agenda, we believe, by supporting and encouraging the work of such grassroots actors.  

We also highlight in this document the importance of meaningful inter-cultural dialogue unhindered by unequal power relations in such activities. Accordingly, we argue for the importance of adequate training of EU officials and other actors involved in international projects to ensure they approach cultural differences with sensitivity. We believe that such intercultural encounters are key to continuing to generate new interpretations of shared experiences of colonialism across Europe and address the deficit mentioned at the beginning of this blog.

Our key recommendations can be summarised as follows:

  • There is an urgent need for EU policymakers at all levels to confront the legacies of colonialism.
  • While there are significant barriers to the creation of a shared European narrative on our colonial past, some of them political or related to different interpretations of the colonial past across member states, we need to arrive at a more equitable representation of colonial legacies in different narratives of shared heritages across Europe.
  • While top-down approaches have their merits, grassroots movements and independent cultural actors (including museum curators and artists) are vitally important in advancing our understanding of colonial legacies and in addressing these legacies sensitively.
  • Such independent cultural actors bring with them a wealth of local knowledge, sometimes indigenous knowledge, that needs to be incorporated into heritage diplomacy efforts on equal grounds with other forms of knowledge (e.g. scientific knowledge).
  • Active listening and the ability to foster genuine intercultural dialogue are skills that policymakers and EU professionals at all levels need to exercise routinely. This includes an openness towards integrating a wider range of actors in diplomatic activities and involving them in policy development processes.
  • European institutions, representatives and policymakers should go further in advocating the acceptance of a multicultural Europe as a precondition for thinking in terms of intercultural relations. This includes addressing inconsistencies in the treatment of heritage across different areas of policy interventions (e.g. integration, development, etc).
  • Whether labelled as heritage diplomacy or ICR, international collaboration projects and initiatives that address the colonial past need to be based on a foundation of trust and mitigate against unequal power relations between partners. This should include actions or any reparations needed to account for the past.
  • Rather than being ignored, or addressed solely by grassroots efforts, colonial heritage needs to be mainstreamed at European level and should be included as a fundamental topic in existing heritage and arts and cultures initiatives.

Read the full policy brief here: http://projectechoes.eu/wp-content/uploads/ECHOES_heritage-diplomacy-policy-brief_3_final.pdf

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A Way Forward for Colonial Heritage in Europe?

Dr Cristina Clopot

Postdoctoral Researcher

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

c.e.clopot@hull.ac.uk

John Oldfield

Professor of Slavery and Emancipation

Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull

john.oldfield@hull.ac.uk

A headline in the media in recent weeks brought to the fore the lingering role of colonialism in current affairs. In a media show in France, two scientists were invited to reflect on the ongoing health crisis and the quest for a vaccine. The scientists are reported to have suggested at some point that the best testing ground for a vaccine study would be Africa, where weaknesses in local health systems might lead to more accurate results. While the reaction of the two scientists is solely reflective of their own views, not of their respective institutions or countries, it still raised some harrowing and, at the same time, interesting reflections on the persistence of colonial mentalities. In a press briefing, the Director General of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, condemned the comments of the two scientists as racist, adding that: “the hangover from the colonial mentality has to stop”. Part of the challenge we have set for ourselves on the EU-funded ECHOES project is to suggest some improvements in the way we address Europe’s colonial past, so as to hopefully prevent such embarrassing public displays in the future.

Heritage diplomacy at the centre
On the ECHOES project, we work mainly with the concept of ‘heritage diplomacy’ (for conceptual discussions see Winter 2015 or Clarke 2018[1]). We relate this to the currently used term ‘international cultural relations’ (ICR), or ‘culture in external relations’. Whereas the latter inter-related concepts have the potential to bring about significant change in engaging with partners across the world, our research has highlighted that official discourse and related practices in both EU institutions and member states’ representative institutions still reflect Eurocentric discourses.

We argue that drawing on long-standing narratives of European exceptionalism can be detrimental to addressing the deep wounds of Europe’s colonial past. Moreover, such narratives run the risk of occluding the experiences, knowledges and memories of those groups who might be described as the ‘victims’ of colonialism. It is for this reason that we believe alternative strategies are needed to address these pitfalls, while at the same time maintaining fairer international partnerships based on reciprocity and trust. For further details, please see our policy brief.

Official and unofficial agents
The ECHOES’ understanding of heritage diplomacy builds on a complex network of agents that operate at different levels. Relating our work on ECHOES with what we are currently experiencing in the ongoing health crisis, it is evident that information-sharing is not only happening at state level, but that scientists, medical research institutions and others are finding ways to collaborate that were not previously considered.

Similarly, a complex web of museums, artists and NGOs or community groups working on the ground can bring about significant changes in collective understandings of colonial heritage’s legacy. Addressing issues such as persistent racial inequality or disparities between North and South comes naturally to these agents, as does accepting and working through the resentment generated by former colonial relations. With current digital technologies, even individuals can spark international reactions, as the example presented at the beginning of this post shows.

On this point, we recommend that policy makers should ‘revise existing models for collaboration for heritage diplomacy to include networks and movements that are influential at local, national and international levels’. Research in ECHOES from different countries has highlighted time and time again how changes are brought about by such unofficial agents (see more in our prepared outputs).

Indigenous knowledge
One of the domains in which a Western bias is maybe most clearly seen is that of indigenous knowledge. Indigenous knowledges are often relegated to the margins and while official positions have been presented by different indigenous groups’ representatives, these have limited reach. In relation to the recent health crisis, the Chair of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues within the UN remarked:

“Indigenous peoples can contribute to seeking solutions. Their good practices of traditional healing and knowledge, such as sealing off communities to prevent the spread of diseases and of voluntary isolation, are being followed throughout the world today.”

The impact of such declarations is difficult to measure, as Western representatives and institutions dominate public opinion and knowledge production. In our work we emphasise the importance of intercultural dialogue that can bring new forms of collaborations to the fore.

Conclusion
At first glance, we are currently experiencing a health epidemic, yet its implications are much wider, spilling over into different fields of activity. Although ECHOES deals mainly with cultural heritage, we have found many parallels with the current situation. This is fittingly so, as different indigenous knowledge systems often emphasise holistic approaches, while at the same time rejecting Cartesian divides between nature and culture, or clear demarcations of scientific fields. The ongoing crisis with its impetus for international solidarity can therefore present a further opportunity to reflect collectively on the importance of colonial legacies in shaping behaviour and policy.

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[1] Clarke, A. (2018) Heritage Diplomacy. In Handbook of Cultural Security, edited by Yasushi Watanabe, 417–36. Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar Publishing.