The European Year of Cultural Heritage

Adele Gambaro © Council of Europe-Catherine Monfils
Adele Gambaro © Council of Europe-Catherine Monfils

Adele Gambaro, rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, talks about the European Year of Cultural Heritage 2018.

The Council of Europe (CoE) is the oldest European institution and is proud to defend democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Today, given the new political and societal challenges brought by the 21st Century, CoE action in the field of culture and heritage focuses on promoting diversity and dialogue to cultivate a sense of identity, collective memory and mutual understanding within and between numerous communities in Europe. Through its pan-European membership of 47 member states, the CoE connects citizens from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Vladivostok, Russia, with a common cultural bond.

What role do museums play?

In this cultural context, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) recognised early the important role of museums acting as a resource for human development and citizen engagement. In a recommendation adopted on 18 March 1977, the Parliamentary Assembly set out a basis for two European museum awards, comprising the European Museum of the Year Award (EMYA) and the Council of Europe Museum Prize, run by an independent committee and aimed at new small or medium-sized museums.

From the outset, PACE and the European Museum Forum (EMF) firmly believed that museums have to be visitor-orientated, putting the public increasingly at centre stage. Forty years have borne witness to some dramatic changes in the European museum landscape, and this stance has triggered many important changes for museums, from collecting policies, interpretation strategies and educational programmes, to museum architecture, governance structures and funding.

How does culture promote human rights?

Over the years, PACE has particularly promoted cultural rights as an integral part of human rights. Culture represents a fundamental base on which to build a stable, peaceful and prosperous society, where every individual can grow, be respected and valued. The assembly has underlined the importance of rewarding not only first-class museums working under very favourable conditions, but also exceptional achievements under less favourable conditions as a way of stimulating innovation and creativity across Europe; especially today in the context of economic crisis and increasing cuts in public funding in many countries.

This is particularly important in the context of reconciliation in post-conflict situations where cultural heritage as a symbol of cultural identity may have been a target for destruction. Examples exist in the Balkan states, in the former Soviet republics of the Caucasus region, and in Cyprus, but also in other parts of Europe where political, cultural, ethnic or religious divisions and intolerance are rapidly gaining ground. People’s fears and lack of confidence correlate with the erosion of civic bonds and the wearing away of established values.

However, culture and the arts can uphold democratic principles and values, build inclusive societies, and open the ‘protected’ public sphere in order to tackle societal conflicts. Museums and other cultural institutions exercise the faculty of memory by dealing with complexities of the past in order to innovate for the future. They can offer meeting places and safe spaces for dialogue, communication and personal development. Artistic freedom can make possible the expression of conflictual positions which might otherwise be politically difficult or unacceptable. This can prove more productive than silencing such political positions.

How is PACE supporting this?

Therefore, in a June 2016 resolution, PACE recommended that governments support the right of everyone to participate in cultural life as a core human right, seeking to offset barriers which hamper access to culture for women, youths, minorities, migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and other vulnerable groups. Additionally, specific criteria were developed for the Council of Europe Museum Prize to reflect this. The first represents the museum’s ability to highlight the value of culture and heritage and help people to understand them. The second is about the museum’s ability to promote human rights and democracy, and sharing our common values. The third refers to the museum’s ability to question individual and collective identity, enhance the understanding and appreciation of multiple cultural affiliations (complex identities) and promote bridging between cultures. These three pillars support and promote ‘cultural democracy’, and seek to highlight the specific role of museums in offering opportunities to diverse audiences in order to gain a better understanding of what each individual is and what we are collectively, as a society and as humankind.

This article first appeared in Government Europa Quarterly 24, which was published in January 2018.

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