Heritage at an arm’s length

Room:    Teaching room 1
Time:      13:30–17:30
Format: Standard paper session
Organisers: Elisabeth Niklasson (University of Aberdeen) – Herdis Hølleland

In this session we are interested in bringing together speakers to reflect theoretically on the ‘arm’s length principle’ and its influence on how we govern and manage heritage in the Nordic countries. The arm’s length principle was first coined by chairman of the British Arts Council John Maynard Keynes after the second world war. The principle was an end to multiple means: to stabilise funding for the arts, to give experts rather than politicians or officials final say in what art to support, and to prevent the use of art in political propaganda. The idiomatic phrase signifies that which is attached yet distant; organisations that are connected to the government, operating at distance from the centre of politics. At its core lies the ideal of political neutrality as a guarantor of legitimacy. Whilst the principle has its origins in the arts, it has come to define heritage governance in many liberal democracies.

Notwithstanding the awareness in our field, that there is really no such thing as apolitical heritage, today’s burning discussions about the power of representation prompts us to revisit the role of the arm’s length principle. In the UK, the arm has shrunk recently as heritage organisations have been urged by the government to “Retain and Explain” in cases where heritage is contested. In the Nordic countries, we have seen attempts to lengthen the arm, with laws forbidding political intervention in museum matters. What is the meaning of the arm’s length principle in the Nordic countries today? How long is the arm? How long should it be? We look forward to discussing this based on both case studies and conceptual papers.

1. Political neutrality in theory and practice – a case study from Scotland

Author(s): Peter Stewart (University of Aberdeen)

This paper explores various definitions and notions of political neutrality, and how they are articulated in UK heritage governance. I shall begin by setting out the theoretical definitions of neutrality as debated by philosophers Alan Montefiore and Leszek Kolakowski, and the internal political spectrum of meanings that result – is neutrality a moral stance, or an evasion tactic? Picking up on the interchangeability between the terms neutrality and impartiality, I will develop my argument with reference to bureaucratic neutrality such as applied in the British civil service, and scientific neutrality as suggested by processual archaeology. I then explore neutrality in the context of heritage through a case study of the National Trust for Scotland (NTS). The NTS is a non-governmental conservation charity founded in 1931. It manages 88 heritage properties, 300 000 artefacts, and 76,000 hectares of land. As an organisation it attempts to be politically neutral despite the fact that it manages politically charged material in an increasingly polarised political environment. Various factors complicate the process of maintaining political neutrality, not least the origin of the Trust and its many sites that link to contested topics such as Scottish independence and Scotland’s involvement in chattel slavery in the Caribbean. 

2. Cultural heritage policies and the creation heritage values in Norway

Author(s): Anna Marlene Karlsson (University of Bergen)

Cultural heritage is being ascribed more and more functions and roles and is to contribute to both direct and indirect effects on individuals and society in general. On a national policy level one main focus over the last 15 years has been on how investment in cultural heritage can create additional values (economic, social, cultural, and environmental). This paper will look more closely at this aspect of heritage policies in Norway, with a particular focus on what is often referred to as the societal values of cultural heritage, as expressed in national policies and strategies from the Directorate for Cultural Heritage, and how these are promoted by funding. Examples will be taken from the value creation programme that was run by the Directorate for Cultural Heritage between 2006 and 2010, and have afterwards remained as a budget post, where private owners, municipalities or organisations can apply for funding to create or increase the cultural heritage values of a site or building by investment. What heritage values are prioritised on a national level? And how do these types of incentives affect what cultural heritage is prioritised to invest in on a regional and local level?

3. Not Hip Enough? The betrayal of the Arms-length principle and the closing of the Museum of Movements in Malmoe, Sweden

Author(s): Lizette Gradén (Lund University)

This paper is part of a larger project investigating how economic realities, coupled with the cultural contexts in which museums operate, affect how museums organize, manage and develop their operations to make themselves relevant in society. This project asks the question, “When the budget is tight, whose heritage counts most?” This paper discusses the opening and closing of the Museum of Movements in Malmoe, Sweden.

Between 2015 and 2020, the Swedish Ministry of Culture, the Southern Swedish city of Malmoe, and a mixture of regional actors explored the possibility of establishing a museum whose mission was to highlight questions of cultural heritage linked to processes of migration and democracy. Following a 2016 nationwide study among museums, archives, interest groups, and the general public, the Museum of Movements opened in Malmoe in 2018. The museum leadership knew that they had to quickly create a buzz around the museum that would gain the attention of the citizens of Malmoe and the world beyond. Within a few months, the museum became the locus for a diverse stream of grassroots-based activities initiated by the citizens of Malmoe. From the perspective of the leadership of the Museum of Movements and the people visiting it, the institution seemed to be a significant success. Then in September of 2020, the Ministry of Culture announced a permanent cut of national funding of the museum at the year’s end. Museum leadership had the remaining months to empty the facility and lock the doors.

4. Swedish Remembrance of the Holocaust: Museums, Politics, and Materiality

Author(s): Britta Geschwind (Lund University)

On the Holocaust Remembrance Day 2021, the Swedish Government stated that a Holocaust Museum will be placed in Stockholm. The collecting has begun, and the first exhibition will open in 2022. A vital question is why here, right now?

The instigation of a state museum is a rare event which provides an opportunity to investigate heritage in the making (Smith 2006). The creation of a heritage implies a moral perspective on the past in relation to the present, which calls for commitment, in that it constitutes an identity-forming reference framework for society.

The Holocaust is used as catalysts for a wide range of political-ideological, and existential issues. It takes on shifting meanings in different countries, depending on their involvement in WWII, and their current political situations. Sweden has been late to process its role. For a long time, the Swedish WWII history was framed as a story of neutrality, and the Holocaust as detached from Swedish history. After the war Swedish foreign policy took on the role of a “World conscience” to counter the “bystander” reputation. Migration policies became generous compared to earlier when Jews and Roma was targeted as unwanted immigrants.

The paper explores in what ways the instigation of the Swedish Holocaust Museum is situated within a national and political context. In the light of right-wing parties advancing their positions, increasing ziganism and antisemitism, and the law stressing culture at “an arm’s length” from politics, the meaning-making processes of instigating a Swedish Holocaust Museum calls for investigation.

A challenge for the new museum is the conflicting definitions of the Holocaust, and how to handle differing views on who should be included as victims. Apart from Jews, Roma and groups were also systematically murdered by the Nazi terror regime. In collecting, priorities will have to be made, activating issues of identity (e.g., national, local, ethnic). Hostility directed towards Jews, Roma and other groups persecuted by the Nazi regime is evident also in the present. The way the Holocaust is framed will have consequences for survivors and their relatives.

5. Conditions of influence in Scandinavian heritage governance: reflections on a survey

Author(s): Elisabeth Niklasson (University of Aberdeen) and Herdis Hølleland

In this paper we look at how national heritage governance in Sweden and Norway is politically situated in relation to the so called ‘arms-length principle’. Anchored in research that addresses wider changes in the Scandinavian political systems and social climate, we reflect on the integrity of national heritage sectors in times of political polarization.

Since a couple of decades back, the historic environment has become primarily connected to its use-value, as an ‘asset’ for market-oriented activities like tourism, and for political goals such as social equality, integration and wellbeing. But what happens if a new government wishes to redefine the societal relevance of heritage, by introducing new directives or letters of allocation that goes against taken for granted ideas of heritage democratization? As a base for discussion, we draw on the results of a transnational survey aimed at staff employed at heritage agencies in Norway and Sweden. The survey asked how they perceived the relationship between their agency and the government, as well as the balance between expert authority and political decision-making.

To round up, we address the related question of how to go about researching questions of political influence and political-bureaucratic relationships. Reflecting on the difficulties of making this survey happen in the first place, we argue that institutions that take pride in transparency and evidence-based policy, ought to be willing to work together with outside (and not just in-house) researchers. Especially in order to develop long term knowledge-based approaches that can strengthen institutional preparedness in times of polarisation.

6. One hand on the wheel? Heritage statistics as means of governing

Author(s): Hilde Sofie Frydenberg (Statistics Norway)

Statistics as a tool for governing cultural heritage is no doubt necessary to oversee and regulate state funding, input versus output. In many instances’ ministries and/or directorates are the ones procuring statistical data. Who collects data, which definitions are used, and data collection principles and methods, will have an impact on what is measured and what the data output contains of information. If the offices of government determine the criteria of what is to be measured, by whom and how, can it not be argued that they are in fact steering a political development?

In this paper I wish to explore the role of statistics in cultural heritage management through these three questions:

  • Does heritage statistics differ from other sectoral statistics?
  • What effect does the increasing use of statistics in the cultural heritage sector have on the arm’s length principle?
  • What role can Statistics Norway play? Can the Norwegian Act of statistics and The European Statistics Code of Practice give some guidance?

7. Looking beyond ‘arm’s length distance’

Author(s): Birgitta Johansen (Örebro County Museum)

‘Arm’s length distance’ is a basic principle not only in the cultural sphere. Politics should respect professional knowledge. The management of covid19 is a current example.

In Sweden, there is a museum law since 2017, a directional law. An analysis shows that every fourth museum has experiences of politicians having tried to influence cultural content. But how often the museums have given in to politics, or political actors have realized they risk crossing a border, is not clear. In addition, civil servants sometimes carry on while forgetting that the law also applies to them.

Threats can also come from both the political left and right. The threats from the left have long been ignored and rather seen as legitimate interests that have created a commitment to culture. Cultural policy is governed through mandating several horizontal perspectives – sustainable development, gender equality, diversity, the rights of different groups and the importance of culture in other areas of society. Culture should increase people’s awareness of certain issues and make visible and change norms in society. Such governance is problematic, regardless of the relevance of the topic. It restricts the freedom of culture. Steering from the left opens for steering from the right. Seen from this perspective, politicians/officials should refrain from assignments, criteria and initiatives that seek to achieve certain societal effects, or to steer the topics or angles on the content. 

The question, however, is whether there are worse threats to culture than to the arm’s length principle. Maybe disinterest and misunderstanding on the part of politics is a bigger problem? A lack of knowledge among politicians and cultural officials about the actual activities in the heritage sector and their role/significance in society? That the critique of cultural heritage is underdeveloped and intermittent?

Is it possible to develop the societal role and significance of cultural heritage without it becoming a political instrument? Sociologist Hartmut Rosa’s use of the term resonance to explore our relationship with the world inspires. History is part of the vertical axis of existence, connectedness the world as a whole, relating to something beyond the individual. In the encounter with history, places where it took place, or its artifacts, resonance arises, an adaptive transformation process starts, the past and future meet in the present, feelings of commitment, engagement, and gratitude come into play.