Cities and Citizens writing History

Cities and Citizens writing History
Giving meaning to the past in a digital environment
In 1999 the Dutch government introduced a policy in which cultural heritage no longer was the exclusive
domain of curators, but in which citizens would have a say what artifacts should made part of the collective
memory of The Netherlands. This policy was translated into a dynamic “cultural biography” in which objects
no longer dictated but served a story of cultural traces left by people in their environment. If cultural objects
no longer fitted that story they could be erased from the collective memory. The city of Maastricht was one of
the first local governments to implement this policy together with cultural heritage institutions and the
University Maastricht. Moreover, its scope was extended from material artifacts in museums to the city as a
whole. Experts (urban planners, curators architects, historians and lay experts ( “citizens”) were invited to
describe and to assess the qualities and identities of the historical city and its future urban extensions. This
dynamic “cultural biography” is written in two ways, in the form of a website and in the form of events on
location in which cultural expressions add stories and give meaning to the chosen sites. The Flemish
Government adopted in 2002 the concept of the cultural biography in a specific way for her cultural heritage
policy, followed recently by the province of Limburg. Therefore the cultural biography is represented both in
The Netherlands and internationally, and on several administrative levels ranging from local to national
governmental policies.
The purpose of this post-doc project is to address theoretical questions relating to the digital production and
storage of material contributing to the biography of a city. Moreover it studies the web based participation of
expert and lay-experts in the urban planning and cultural heritage of cities from an international perspective.
It explores boundaries between material and virtual cities, cultural heritage and future planning, local history
and international “collective” memory. It follows four possible lines of inquiry. These lines are interrelated but
depending on the background of the researcher involved, there might be more emphasis on some lines of
inquiry than on others.
Cities and citizens as narrators: What does ‘biography’ actually mean when referring to a city?
Cities and citizens as historians What is the role of the historian in the changing landscape of the city
and what is status of the lay-expert writing local history?
Cities and citizens as curators and as planners: What is the role of experts and lay-experts in
dynamic cultural heritage in relation to future policies of urban planning of cities? Is this a local matter or
goes the collective memory beyond the city limits?
Cities and citizens as writers on the web: What is the status of user-generated content in an
historical project?
Cities and citizens as narrators
What does ‘biography’ actually mean when referring to a city? At the beginning of the 20th Century members
of the Annales school argued that history can not be separated from the geography of the landscape,
agriculture and the city. Since then scholars in the historical, philosophical, sociological and anthropological
traditions (Nora, Halbwachs, Bourdieu, Geertz, Douglas, Turner) have studied the “urban rituals” of citizens
in the landscape of the city. The concept of lieux de mémoires that Nora studied in the 1980s was adopted
recently by H.L. Wesseling in the series Plaatsen van herinnering in de twintigste eeuw. Memory places are
creations of personal and collective experiences. They are stored in photographs, videos and weblogs.
Since collective memory in our society is determined by such media the question rises, how are (digital)
representations and narratives of the city and of its history constructed?
Cities and citizens as historians
The invitation of cities to citizens to participate in writing their history of the city stands in various traditions
within the historical disciplines like political history (organization of participation and democratization), local
history and oral history (codification of experiences over time). What is the role of the historian in the
changing landscape of the city (compare The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (2004): by
John Lewis Gaddis) and what is status of the lay-expert writing local history Is the story of the expert such
as the historian or urban planner more credible than the one of the citizen? What happens when there is a
conflict of interests?
Cities and Citizens as curators and as urban developers
The cultural biography is seen as a form of dynamic cultural heritage in which individuals and groups both
(re)-define and create the identity and quality of (the memory of) the city. Maastricht sees its cultural heritage
as way of branding the city and to attract both new inhabitants and “culture” tourists.
What does it mean for the role of the expert like a historian when the city initiates and subsidizes a new way
of describing history ands participating in cultural heritage and at the same time is the most powerful actor in
the urban planning and cultural heritage of the city? Is the decision which objects are relevant for the story of
the city where the European Treaty was signed, just a matter for the inhabitants of Maastricht or have
national and international keepers of its collective memory a say in this as well?
Cities and Citizens as writers on the web
In 1993 the Balie and the Hacktic-Network decided to create an electronic platform for discussions between
citizens, politicians and the government which resulted in De Digitale Stad Amsterdam (DDS). It was
formalized on the 15th January 1994 by the alderman of Amsterdam, F. De Grave as an experiment for 10
weeks. However within a couple of weeks ten thousands of people registered and occupied the 20
telephone lines of DDS for 24 hours. With the support of The City of Amsterdam, the Ministries of Economic
Affairs and Internal Affairs and several sponsors DDS became a permanent website that still exists today.
Since the creation of DDS, many (international) examples followed. Moreover several alternative digital
media are developed in which citizens can share experiences and actively participate in the policy making of
their city. Ubiquitous computing, gps systems and annotation tools allow citizens to map and to write their
(experiences of) the city in an active way. The ability of lay-experts to participate with a home computer
means that on the one hand decisions on the collective memory and future of the city are passing out of the
hand of experts. On the other hand global access to the collective memory and future plans of the city ask
for additional expertise. How can the citizen be facilitated best to participate actively on the web in policy
making on cultural heritage and future urban planning? What is the status of user-generated content in an
historical project? How can archives of user-generated content be created, used and shared effectively?
What are the implications of technical choices about storing and representing digital data for the biography?
Who participates in such an endeavor, and who are the gatekeepers? What are the relationships between
different groups of experts, who assess quality, how is the editing organized and what constitutes expertise?
An comparative analysis of (inter)national computer assisted projects, websites and web 2.0 research
initiatives in which lay-expert citizens, alone or together with experts, write about history and participate
in/react to cultural heritage policies can provide valuable input to the cultural biography.
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