Cultural heritage and participation

Morris Festival at Upton on Severn

There was a time when I thought that community art had to be rooted in contemporary forms of art. I didn’t see how traditional and craft-based culture could engage people in the urgent issues of contemporary life. I was mistaking my own experience for reality, allowing my enthusiasms to become prejudice—and the one thing prejudice prevents you from seeing is itself.

It was the fèisean movement that helped me get past that particular blind spot. Since 1980, there had been a revival of Gaelic cultural teaching in the highlands and islands of Scotland, mostly through short festivals called fèisean, in which children could spend a week of their holidays learning traditional songs, airs and dances. In 1995 I spent several months researching the fèisean in the Western Isles, Ross and Cromarty and Inverness. I discovered a series of grass-roots organisations who were passing on a rich cultural heritage to the next generation and in doing so having all sorts of wider effects on local confidence, community organisation and people’s sense of identity. Despite, or perhaps because of their commitment to Gaelic culture and language, the fèisean I saw were very inclusive, welcoming those who spoke only English and musical beginners.

Fèis Rois, Dingwall, 1995

A few years later, I worked on a programme in South East Europe, whose aim was to support community development through cultural resources. Living Heritage was, I came to see, a kind of community art programme without professional community artists. In their absence, we supported communities directly, with training, advice and small grants. Naturally, the projects they created grew from their own culture—weaving, pottery, music, carpentry, food, architecture, dance, festivals, embroidery, landmarks, sculpture, and drama all featured. Again, I learnt a lot from this experience, including how power dynamics change when people work in their own culture. In every project, the people involved were, literally, the world experts in the artistic work being done. The only thing outsiders like myself could offer them was technical knowledge, for instance about how to plan a project, and an external perspective. We had nothing to teach them about art because it was their own art they were making.  Our input was to help them make what they could do more powerful. And they did – many of those projects continue today, while the programme itself is sustained in Bulgaria by the Workshop for Civic Initiatives Foundation.

Living Heritage project, Bulgaria, 2004

2018 is the European Year of Cultural Heritage, and the European Commission has just published a brochure featuring 15 initiatives that bring heritage resources into the heart of community life. You can read about projects focusing on archives, carnival, museums, , puppetry and textiles. Others confront painful aspects of the past, such as the legacy of communism, or controversial ones like migration and the long presence of Islam in Europe. Each one, though, underlines the potential of heritage for creativity in the present. Art is an act of meaning-making. The legacy of the past can be an extraordinary resource for artistic participation today.

European Year of Cultural Heritage

PS My prejudices about traditional culture were challenged again when my then teenage daughter joined a Morris team: she was the youngest by 40 years and the only Goth: she gave up only because it was too exhausting.