Building a Global Citizenship from Cultural Heritage

Ximo Revert

Doctor in Cultural Heritage from the Universitat de València and Director of the Taller Universidad–Ciudad–ODS

The past is important for human development. We can contribute to the expansion of an active global citizenship, with the capacity to have a social and political impact through our approach to cultural heritage. We can endeavour to understand this heritage as the creative contribution of people to their own development and as milestones of the achievements of those individuals, communities and peoples to overcome poverty, inequality and injustice. Beyond knowing or consuming heritage, beyond our own well-being, we are called upon to make our commitment to human development insofar as we understand the legacy of those achievements in the form of cultural heritage manifestations that we are able to recognise, use or create.

Cultural heritage, as an object, is subject to diverse and contradictory functions in our societies. Its immense versatility to adapt to the personal and collective reasons that we attach to it makes this “object” a powerful resource for our existence. Therefore, this cultural heritage can and should contribute to a sustainable and peaceful human development for which humanity has been struggling for centuries. We can interpret cultural heritage generically as those manifestations of the interrelation of human beings with the natural and social environment of the time in which they live. To do so, they have had to combine their creativity and ability to make an impact; they have had to develop their own form of expression combining their excellence, their knowledge and their way of overcoming the drawbacks of the environment. They have had to dialogue with their own past with the aim of affecting their present or imagining their future. Many of these testimonies (tangible or not, immaterial or otherwise) survive among us due to that symbolic value that we attribute to some things of the past and that, in a great deal of legislation (national or regional), we call appreciation or esteem: it is our way of adhering to “things” from the past because we consider them important (UNESCO, 2005).

Beyond the affectionate and voluntary exercise of our attachment to certain expressions of cultural heritage, we agree that these “relics of the past,” as David Lowenthal called them (1995), are, in some cases, interesting springboards for the development of a community and of each person therein. They are also objects that express our cultural right to that heritage (Bennoune, 2016); they are, therefore, possible anchors of the right to ensure respect for ourselves before given attacks on our person and our community. In many cases, this heritage is not even conceived in our list of possible affections on which to project a part of our existence or to enhance some of our essential human capacities. For 21st century citizens, cultural heritage is not just an object to be consumed or contemplated.

Whether we realise it or not, we have an amazing ability to turn things, places, events and expressions of our own or others into heritage (Ariño, 2009). Our success in this endeavour will be enhanced if that capacity is collective. For it to be collective, we will be immersed in social processes such as combining the forms and expressions of that esteem and converting that relic into an element that contributes to our sustainable human development: this is how we express our will for heritage to last among us. In other words, heritage is not only a place of memory, but we also want to conceive it as a field in which to exercise our capabilities.

For this to happen we will have to learn to recognise that past, project discourses and adherences on it, extract knowledge, place it in the environment of our dignity, position it in the configuration of our identities. But, above all, we will have to learn to use it personally and collectively, to make it our own by balancing its transcendent dimension, its symbolic value and its constitutive versatility to use it for what we want to be and do in life.

Whether we realise it or not, we have an amazing ability to turn things, places, events and expressions of our own or others into heritage. Our success in this endeavour will be enhanced if that capacity is collective

We objectify the remnants of the past of our surroundings to make it something that can be easily exchanged, such as money. In this solution we run the risk, evident in many cases, of overlooking the subject: those who, with their esteem, provide the genuine support that shapes the various values of the relic made heritage; but, above all, those are the fundamental users of that heritage because it is part of their resources and entitlement to be and do what they set out to do in their personal or collective lives (Revert, 2017).

A cursory glance at our societies reveals the need to search for, create and generate references in which to recognise ourselves. Those references may have been passed on to us. As a granted heritage, we accept that what we inherit is interesting for us. We have not chosen it but move with it because others chose it and considered it important for their lives, and that is how it has come to us without us questioning its presence. During the individual’s learning period, over the years, our society has been teaching us its virtues. These virtues, in the western and capitalist world, are usually associated with a concept of value, a sign of identity that often also gradually establishes an aesthetic canon for us.

As other scholars have already analysed (Benavides, 2010), these values are linked to concepts such as originality, antiquity, uniqueness, exceptionality, material and artistic quality, and so on. These are values with a scope that does not escape market laws. What we propose here is to emphasise that cultural heritage granted, inherited or created and chosen is also an enabler of human capabilities, an endowment for development that is within our reach. Looking at the past becomes particularly necessary when we talk about sustainable human development. Among other reasons, because from the manifestations of this heritage we can continue to extract practical and useful (even verified) examples to achieve the life goals we seek.

2030 Agenda, Cosmopolitan Citizenship and Heritage

The proclamation of the United Nations 2030 Agenda and its materialisation in seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), invites all human communities to rethink how much development and how many human rights there are in what we identify as cultural heritage. It is a reflection that we propose in spite of the fact that culture, and specifically cultural heritage, is poorly represented in the strategies and goals of the agenda to achieve the objectives set out (Revert, 2017).

When we endeavour to understand or experiment with cultural manifestations of our environment or other ways of being and doing in the world, we can stop to observe how this heritage legacy is passed on to us: how it is presented to us and how it is interpreted. The ways in which cultural heritage is conveyed to us and taught evolve with time and social concerns. These interpretations of heritage used to stand as an expression of power, or they contained the elitist flavour of what is out of reach of ordinary people, or the sense of a treasure within the reach of a few. Heritage may contain the alienating discourse of a diversion; it can substantiate the excluding discourse and has even acted as a legitimating thread of orthodoxies and totalitarianisms. However, we have already begun to understand that turning elements of the past into heritage is a generous gesture to share what we recognise ourselves in, as long as we admit that we are generating a common asset (Pureza, 2002, Houtart, 2015). This common asset is ours because it is also humanity’s and because we accept that the sources in which it is constituted are not exempt from interference, contributions, influences or adherences from other cultures, from other beings that are different and diverse but as worthy as ourselves.

Fortunately, the democratisation of culture has not only come to stay in the multiple forms of participating in the cultural reality of a democratic community of citizens (Arenas, 2009). This second generation right (such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966) should allow us to go beyond the concept of participation understood as concurrence, consumption or observation of what happens culturally. We also talk about participating in the generation and production of culture. These concepts of production or creation are usually associated with the level of results of the so-called cultural industries in a given society: shows, audiovisuals, visual arts, publishing. But we can also think that, at this point in the 21st century, we are undoubtedly called on to identify, create and regenerate cultural heritage wherever political power, religions, markets or dominant cultures in a territory indicate that heritage is something else.

How can cultural heritage transcend its immanent, or sometimes static, character to dynamically contribute to the demands of people and human communities in favour of their development?

Given this analysis, we consider that cultural heritage and things of the past are important to human development. Under this premise and in keeping with the above, we can think of heritage as a series of manifestations of the achievements of a human community in order to prosper in its own human development and with the environment. We can understand that the cultural heritage that we are able to identify is the expression of that development and the scope to obtain inalienable rights of people and human communities. The question we can ask ourselves is: How can we democratise cultures not only in their inclusive access but also comprehensive, empowering and transformative access? How can cultural heritage transcend its immanent, or sometimes static, character to dynamically contribute to the demands of people and human communities in favour of their development?

A simple exercise that we can do is to try to interpret the cultural heritage of our environment in the spirit of Agenda 2030. Studies on culture for development (Martin-Barbero, 2010, Martinell, 2017) have been analysing this symbiosis for decades, and indicate that it is not possible to think about human development without taking into consideration the cultural dimension of the active subject that seeks that development. To analyse this development, we need something more than the gross domestic product of a territory, employment rates or the presumed oscillating rhythm of a country’s budget balance. For some time now, since the 1990s, development has not been measured or observed in this way. Nor is it a matter of satisfaction or happiness of fellow citizens. It is a question that has to do with our ability (Sen, 2004) to live a long time, to be well cared for, to learn to express ourselves creatively and logically, and to feel ourselves to be agents of the necessary transformations not only to obtain our own well-being but also to understand responsibly and jointly that our development cannot impoverish the resources and options of other people and territories.

We can continue explaining this or that heritage element through its materials and constitutive, stylistic or formal aspects. We can continue to be extraordinarily precise in assigning this or that cultural manifestation of the past to a dynasty or an artistic era, and we can also explain that heritage element as the contribution of people to a human right or one of the 169 goals of the 2030 Agenda.

Performing this civic exercise can lead us to identify a cultural heritage that we were not entitled to, can lead us to humanise (Nussbaum, 2010) existence and our living environment, can teach us that without the diversity of people and sensitivities and without secular human transit major advances for the community and the life of each citizen would not be possible. Many manifestations of tangible or intangible property, moveable or immovable, can tell us a lot about this.

Approaches to Cities with Heritage in Terms of SDGs: Valencia

In the city of Valencia, a small group of people set about promoting this civic awareness and these reflections on cultural heritage from the cultural references disseminated through our streets, archives and squares, from our associative and work environments and also within the education institutions, such as the university itself.

As a pilot experience, some years ago we designed a route through the city, concentrating on those events related to human development and rights. This does not mean that in our urban environments there are not dozens of initiatives that highlight specific aspects of this development, such as the local people (professionals or not) who explain the achievements of women who have contributed so much to the freedom and justice of their communities in the past. Or, to give another example, the dozens of initiatives concerned with recognising and caring for the physical and natural environment from which we extract knowledge, resources and examples of good practices of the past to conserve the planet.

Understanding when and why the first woman entered and graduated from university; explaining and understanding how the access of the first students to the decision-making and governing bodies of the university took place; or understanding that it has been possible for over a thousand years for the users of a common asset such as water to resolve their conflicts over its use in a public court through commonly accepted procedures and norms that go back to the Muslim era and that survive with full validity and jurisdictional capacity recognised today, it is important to incorporate citizen awareness of human development. And, above all, the proactive awareness that it is possible to transform things with our actions.

Undoubtedly, one of the areas of greatest impact for the expansion of this global citizenship are universities. The objective that I have set myself is to help create a global university citizenship.

This proposal to disseminate civic know ledge among locals and visitors aroused interest because of its multiple educational, social, professional and research applications. Understanding that the past and cultures are important for development is not only linked with how development cooperation projects with other local partners are oriented (Cabrero, 2006). It must be important for its application in the expansion of a global citizenship and the cultivation of the humanities in generations of individuals who are joining active citizenship in search of fairer and more equitable living conditions of people in all parts of the world. We are talking about university people who are aware that the important thing is not to be competitive, but to be capable. Hence we understand that poverty cannot only be defined as the lack of means to lead a dignified life but also as the lack of opportunities, declining knowledge, the loss of cultural and biological diversity, the erosion of common assets, the lack of ideas and initiatives to peacefully solve conflicts or the difficulty of empathising with what is different from ourselves. Following that foundational UNESCO postulate that says “building peace in the minds of men and women” has a powerful ally in the cultural heritage of peoples. The use we make of those testimonies from the past depends on us (García Canclini, 1999).

Undoubtedly, one of the areas of greatest impact for the expansion of this global citizenship are universities (Boni et al., 2012). The objective that I have set myself is to help create a global university citizenship. To this end, I have created a project that I have been able to lead and develop from the University of Valencia and that we have managed from its General Foundation and UNESCO Chair of Development Studies.

At the root of this project are the reflections that we discussed in another publication (Revert, 2017) and that basically have to do with the will to respond to at least two basic needs: on the one hand, to meet the demand of students to find throughout their studies a more humanised approach to their degree (whatever it may be) and with a human development perspective. This perspective must be in keeping with the challenges that these students identify and have to address civically and professionally in 21st century society (Iborra, 2018). On the other, to improve the capacity of the university institution and its people to welcome the hundreds of individuals who, in one way or another, interact with the life of the university itself, whether as new students, Erasmus generations, researchers and teaching staff participating in scientific congresses of any discipline, mobility of professionals who are responsible for management, and so on, and who, after passing through our classrooms, do not seem to know the heart that humanises the cultural heritage of the city that welcomes them. How can the university project a perception of its own institution and of the territory and society it serves more in keeping with development and human rights?

Other aspects of this project have been to create an environment as horizontal and transversal as possible for the creation of this global citizenship and to identify cultural heritage that can be interpreted in its contribution to sustainable human development. We are referring to the fact that this initiative should be stimulating, on the one hand, for any university person of any discipline (not only for those from humanistic or social disciplines) and, on the other, the project should be able to bring together (and address) people from any university level: students, university service staff, researchers and teachers without distinction.

The participants have been able to study examples of alliances against totalitarianism and to see how, just a few decades ago, their city was the cradle of the Alliance of European Intellectuals against Fascism (1937). In this respect, it is worth highlighting the immense effort made at the time by citizens and governing institutions to spread culture and education

The project I have created for the University of Valencia has had an eminently practical and applied training element that the participants have understood as part of their development in any area of their university life: personal, research, work or education. On the one hand, the project has consisted of participating in a long-term workshop where we have proposed topics directly related to human development, the 2030 Agenda, university social accountability and human rights-based approaches (Borja et al., 2011) and gender. On the other, the training imparted has dealt with aspects related to society’s capacity to develop heritage, the history of the city and the scientific evolution of the university institution itself to build, little by little, arguments and discourses that reinterpret cultural and scientific heritage through exercises and practical cases specifically designed for the uniqueness of the university and the city of Valencia.

The second part of the project has consisted of generating ways of disseminating and applying these results through publications (Revert, 2019) and digital platforms. In our case, it has been as stimulating for a professor or a medical student to know the causes and conditions of the creation of one of the first mental health hospitals in Europe in the 15th century as for an environmental science or geography student to know the medieval municipal provisions for the location of fur workshops and factories whose highly polluting tanning process was concentrated on the outskirts of the city to take advantage of the flow of the Turia River as it passes through the city as a prevention and hygiene measure. Moreover, the participants have been able to study examples of alliances against totalitarianism and to see how, just a few decades ago, their city was the cradle of the Alliance of European Intellectuals against Fascism (1937). In this respect, it is worth highlighting the immense effort made at the time by citizens and governing institutions to spread culture and education by safeguarding cultural heritage, threatened by war, or through literacy programmes and libraries that try to reach all parts of the population. To this end, the action of women like María Moliner was essential in her time organising the university library. For some participants, the figure of philosophers like Luis Vives, who through his tract against poverty clearly identified subjects of obligations (governors) and of rights (citizens at risk of exclusion), has been as revealing as for others understanding the healthy and economic significance of local consumption through urban vegetable gardens and the survival of municipal markets. The results of this theoretical training-practical experience are more than a hundred cultural references chosen by the participants, including students, professors and university service staff from diverse disciplines and degrees.

The Empathetic Awareness of Heritage for Development

This and other formulas of associating cultural heritage with the objectives and goals of the 2030 Agenda are, in summary, proposals easily applied in any city or territory. They can guide public policies (that is, they may be of interest to municipal policy-makers and officers) not only on cultural heritage but also the approach of tourism and heritage dissemination professionals. They can also, of course, be implemented at the initiative of education institutions through approaches that highlight, in any academic discipline, human achievements in support of the emancipation, autonomy and freedom of the people in building their own human development, personally and collectively understood. Interpreting and disseminating cultural heritage from an approach based on human rights and explaining it as a set of expressions and manifestations of people previously in the territory we inhabit not only makes it easier for us to empathise emotionally with our surrounding society but also helps to explain to us (and those who are with us) everything we have inherited in terms of freedoms, overcoming poverty, wealth redistribution, peaceful conflict resolution and human development. All of this can help us activate within ourselves a way of making an impact on our society in order to achieve better levels of global social justice. It also contributes to diluting mental barriers in the sense that what belongs to a given community does not make sense if it is not shared, because it is part of the universal basis of the concept of cultural heritage itself. It is also a way of considering the contribution of other cultures and expressions that grew in the territory and had an impact, and whose advances allow us today to understand our well-being in terms of social justice (Hodder, 2010). Finally, it challenges us to understand that cultures and their manifestations are essential to development and to carrying out any agenda that the states, in broad consensus, manage to agree on.

Interpreting and disseminating cultural heritage from an approach based on human rights and explaining it as a set of expressions and manifestations of people previously in the territory we inhabit makes it easier for us to empathise emotionally with our surrounding society

Addressing cultural heritage, so abundant in expressions in our Mediterranean environment, converts those “adhered layers of endless historical continuities” of Fernand Braudel (1966) into a dense fabric of more or less worn cross-linked strands whose fringes or hemlines can be stitched today by every citizen who wants to understand how much of the universal and human there is in that strong creative warp of all times and in each one of those strands. The threads of that weave may well be the micro discourses (Bañón, 2018) of each one of us when for a few moments we intimately appropriate the common assets that make up that cultural heritage in any of its expressions. Thus, we forge readings and understandings that help assimilate the global dimension of our citizenship from our small place in the world. Beyond the official, officialised or given discourse about each heritage manifestation, we have the capacity to provide narratives that are spread and shared popularly and perhaps contribute to rebuilding or mending what states, powers and media often strive to tear asunder. This exercise of combining heritage and human development, interpreting it from the human rights and 2030 Agenda approach, in the classrooms, in the streets, from the museum institutions or from our eagerness to communicate when we act as hosts, helps soften the borders between sciences and humanities (Edward Wilson, 2018). At the end of the day, as David Lowenthal (1985) reminded us, approaching the past is also transforming it. Learning about it and telling others.