Professor John Oldfield
Emeritus Professor and Former Director of the Wilberforce Institute
Now the ECHOES project has formerly ended, Professor John Oldfield reflects on the aims and objectives of the project, its relevance, and its impact.
What was the inspiration for this project and what did you set out to achieve?
The inspiration for this project was what the team regarded as the often problematic ‘silencing’ of Europe’s colonial history and heritage – problematic not only for Europe’s global status and reputation but also for those marginalized by these historical processes, many of them migrants from Europe’s former colonies. By confronting this entangled history, we set out to ‘Europeanize’ difficult colonial heritage. While there are significant barriers to the creation of a shared European narrative of our colonial past, some of them political or related to different interpretations of the colonial past across member states, we believe that we need to arrive at a more equitable representation of colonial legacies across Europe.
What are the challenges/dilemmas that colonialism presents to official narratives of European heritage?
Colonialism was not an event or moment in time but a process involving the often-brutal subjugation of others – a process that created an unbridgeable gulf between colonizer and colonized. Transatlantic slavery, the treatment of indigenous peoples, the imposition of Eurocentric legal and constitutional norms on colonial subjects; all of these are examples of historical processes that were inseparable from ideas of Eurocentric power and racial (and cultural) superiority. Many of these ideas and attitudes live on – as echoes of the colonial past. The recent COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, exposed deep economic inequalities. It has also exposed worrying Eurocentric tendencies, not least when it comes to the treatment of the pandemic – as witnessed by the suggestion by two French doctors that Africa should be used as a testing ground for the efficacy of vaccines. While this was an isolated incident, research and thinking in this area have led to accusations that the Global South has been all but absent in scientific and/or medical collaborations related to COVID.
Or consider the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, which triggered massive protests across the Global South and beyond, focused on anti-racist and social justice messages, most of them embracing the rhetoric and slogans of #BlackLivesMatter. Here again, these protests – pulling down statues associated with European colonialism (Edward Colston in Bristol; King Leopold II in Belgium; Cecil Rhodes in Cape Town and Oxford), calls for the repatriation of colonial objects, renaming roads and buildings, etc. – were fueled not only by the ongoing presence of monuments of a colonial nature in public spaces across Europe but also by the marginalization and structural racism encountered by non-white communities living in Europe’s cities, many of them long-term victims of prejudice and discrimination.
The empty pedestal of the statue of Edward Colton in Bristol, the day after protesters felled the statue and rolled it into the harbour. The ground is covered with Black Lives Matter placards. Caitlin Hobbes, 7 June 2020 at https://twitter.com/Chobbs7/status/1269682491465576448/photo/1
How did you go about achieving your objectives – and what did the project consist of in practice? Any approaches that made this project unique?
Conceptually, our starting point was the notion of colonial heritage – what does it mean? What does it stand for? We understand heritage not as a ‘thing’ – a specific set of (white) achievements — but rather as a discourse: a way of thinking and writing about objects and phenomena that constitutes them as ‘heritage’ through formal and informal acts of recognition. So, in effect, we are talking about a much more expansive and inclusive notion of heritage, both in terms of objects and actors.
To this end, we looked in-depth at a number of different contemporary heritage discourses that aspire to restore, renew, rediscover and acknowledge the multiplicity of lives, experiences, culture and knowledge of formerly colonized peoples. Museums, for instance – particularly those like Amsterdam Museum and the Museum of Warsaw, two of our case studies – have been at the forefront of efforts to decolonize their collections, looking afresh at how they interpret familiar objects and/or imagining new ways of telling familiar stories. In the same way, many contemporary artists – particularly those from non-white backgrounds – have interrogated the colonial past in new and exciting ways, offering insights that act as a form of reconciliation and healing.
Citizens groups, too, have challenged official narratives of European heritage, whether through walking tours, performances or cultural events designed to acknowledge different/difficult ‘pasts’. Again, we mapped a lot of this activity in detail, from Bristol to Marseille, from Lisbon to Rio de Janeiro, from Cape Town to Amsterdam. Indeed, one of our objectives was to give voice to these groups, while at the same time documenting the ways in which their varied interventions have helped to advance our understanding of contemporary heritage discourses. In this sense, our project was multi-vocal, deeply attuned to different types of knowledge, as well as different epistemologies.
What are the key lessons or approaches to emerge from this work?
While recognizing the importance of top-down initiatives, the ECHOES project emphasized the importance of grassroots movements and independent cultural actors – whether artists, curators or heritage practitioners. Such ‘mid-space actors’, we believe, bring with them a wealth of experience and knowledge that needs to be incorporated into heritage practices and treated on equal terms with other forms of knowledge. Our work also stresses the importance of intercultural ‘contact zones’, spaces where actors from different cultural backgrounds and with different resources and power engage with each other on equal terms. This necessarily involves ‘Europe’ opening up to and acknowledging the different modes of transculturation practices by marginalized groups and granting them far more agency. It also involves ‘active listening’, an approach to listening that is based on a genuine interest in the other’s perspective. Listening, we believe, is the primary characteristic of two-way communication. Who does the talking and who does the listening is key to this approach, as strengths and weaknesses are part of the positionalities of ALL diplomatic relations; not just in Global-North and Global South relations but in relations within the Global North and Global South. This applies as much to broader debates about cultural co-operation, as it does to the restitution of colonial objects, or the decolonization of museums and galleries.
In what fields might these results have an impact? Why, in the current context of globalization and regional tensions is this work so important?
We see our work having a major impact in a number of related fields, among them history and heritage, political science, museology and curatorship. We also set out to inform current debates around International Cultural Relations, which since 2016 has been the EU’s adopted policy framework, emphasizing (as of 2019) the importance of ‘co-operation with local stakeholders and civil society at all levels’. Our work supports this emphasis, hence the importance we attach to ‘contact zones’ and ‘active listening’ (see above). Indeed, we advocate a ‘new diplomacy’, a kind of reinvigoration of International Cultural Relations that renders the policy/programme fit for purpose. 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 into diplomatic activities and involving them in policy processes.
This work is important for the reasons outlined above. The so-called migrant crisis, COVID and #BlackLivesMatter have all energized debates — across and within Europe — about culture, heritage and Europe’s reckoning with its colonial past. We have also seen how polarized these debates have become; indeed, the use of the word ‘heritage’ itself often gives rise to suggestions that dominant white European cultures are under attack from non-white protesters and radicals. So far from being threatening, we believe that these debates provide an opportunity for Europe to rethink its relations to its colonial past. ECHOES, in sum, proposes that the history of colonialism needs to find its place in our contemporary narratives of Europe. Crucially, it needs to do so in ways which makes this difficult history a productive element in Europe’s and the EU’s engagement with the wider world, rather than an uncomfortable silence haunting its past, present and future.
What is the long-term legacy of the project?
We hope that the ECHOES project will not only shape academic and cultural debates surrounding Europe’s engagement with its colonial past but also have a decisive influence on shaping policy and practice, both within EU institutional activities and programmes. In addition, we hope that Europe and the EU will go further in advocating the acceptance of a multicultural Europe as a precondition for thinking in terms of intercultural relations.