Originally published in Flemish newspaper De Morgen on 18 April 2016
The dramatic events in Brussels are causing parliaments and governments to consider feverishly what they can do to prevent it from happening again. We find ourselves seeking ways of avoiding the worst: calling in the army, taking fingerprints, deterrents, more police patrolling the streets. So we go looking for what binds us as a community and a commendable European initiative will now begin to put together a learning program that will enable us to give our children in kindergarten a sense of citizenship and democratic values.
Heritage is a vital part of that and should not be underestimated, because it extends beyond borders. Heritage plays a crucial role in building communities, as well as in identity and self-confidence. World Heritage in particular. World Heritage, by definition, is all about universal values. One important criterion that must be fulfilled in order to be recognized as a World Heritage site is to ‘be an example of the exchange of human values’. It is no coincidence that in times of war and occupation, World Heritage sites are the first victims to fall by the wayside.
Last year, the Syrian archeological site of Palmyra was extensively destroyed by IS. In particular, the terror movement targeted historical religious buildings, ‘because they represent idolatry’. Until the outbreak of the war, the centuries-old site was visited by around 150,000 people per year. The giant Buddhas of Bamyam in Afghanistan were also destroyed by the Taliban in 2001 – again for the same reason. Bring down World Heritage and you strike at the very heart and soul of society. That much can be seen irrefutably from the recent ‘Cultural Heritage Counts for Europe’ scientific report from Europa Nostra, which shows that heritage provides social cohesion, as well as active participation in society and an identity for citizens. So, taking it logically: mobilize world heritage to tell the story of what binds us together.
Today, 18 April, is international World Heritage Day. On one day every year we focus the spotlight on buildings and sites that have special universal value. Flanders has the highest number of World Heritage sites per capita, with 13 beguinages, 26 belfries, the Plantijn-Moretus museum in Antwerp and the historic inner-city area of Bruges. Their significance extends well beyond the territory of Flanders. Beguinages are also about women’s rights and the sacrifices made in the name of religion; belfries tell the story of urban power; the printer Plantijn made a major contribution to the international spread of humanism. The cemeteries and memorial sites from World War I are seeking recognition as World Heritage sites. Being right at the very junction between heritage and conflict and terror: how relevant can this be at this moment in time?
For that reason we have to work hard on a properly considered and attractive way of opening up special heritage sites to a broad public. With just under a hundred thousand valuable and protected buildings and sites, there is some form of heritage on just about every street corner in Flanders. But the heritage sector has tended to slip off the radar over the years in terms of how we can appeal to new Flemings. And after the attacks in Brussels, things have not become any better. So, what have they got to do with our parish churches, castles, historical houses or mills? After all, we share very little past with them.
But we do share a future. And if there is one thing that gives people dignity and self-awareness, it is knowing who we are, knowing where we come from, knowing what binds us together. Anyone who is aware of those things is less likely to turn to hatred, weapons and terror. Herita wants more people – not just heritage enthusiasts – but more families with children, especially children, to come to realize that all of these monuments and listed buildings are worth troubling ourselves about, that they have a story to tell – and that that story is our story.
Opening heritage sites to the public deserves a place of its own in the policy on heritage. To quote Jeroen Brouwers: ‘Nothing exists that doesn’t affect something else.’ So, starting next year, Herita plans to organize a sister day for Open Heritage Day: Open World Heritage Day. Together let us reverse the roles and use World Heritage as a weapon against terror.
Kristl Strubbe, managing director of Herita, the Flemish heritage organisation