La Ponte Eco Museum, Asturias
Jesús Fernández Fernández of Villanueva, Spain, is a social entrepreneur and director of La Ponte Eco Museum near Oviedo, in the beautiful region of Asturias Spain. This is an archaeological-museological community project in Asturias, a region in the northwest of Spain known for its rugged coast, mountains, religious sites and medieval architecture. The area was also profoundly impacted by the Spanish Civil War, a conflict with far-reaching and long-lasting effects for the cultural identity of those who survived.
If you find yourself looking for things to do in Asturias Spain then we recommend taking a trip to La Ponte and visiting the interesting La Ponte Eco Museum. The excursion can be done as a day trip from Oviedo or other nearby towns.
That legacy inspired Jesús’ career and fascinating work in the realms of the dynamics of memory, marginalized heritage, and “pacts of silence” within cultures. He is a proponent of heritage as a socio-economic tool, and raises questions about heritage policies that are akin to ‘copyright strategies.’
Jesús recently completed postdoctoral research as a Marie Curie Co-Fund fellow at Oxford University, where his work centered on cultural landscapes and social innovation in cultural heritage. He is also an honorary research fellow at UCL Institute of Archaeology, the largest and one of the most highly regarded centers for archaeology, cultural heritage and museum studies in Britain.Since 2008 Jesús has been the director of several archaeological fieldwork projects and a member of research projects in various universities.
“Best Cultural Destinations” as defined by this site are those that teach us, and help us grow in understanding, compassion, and capacity for connection. Whether you are a cultural heritage professional, or simply a student of history and humanity, Jesús’ perspective can’t help but broaden your own.
Interviewing Jesus Fernandez-Fernandez
Meg: Can you share your definitions of 'ecomuseum' and 'social entrepreneur', and describe that role in the context of your work with La Ponte-Ecomuseum?
Jesús: The purposes of an ecomusuem and a social entrepreneur are closely related. Huges de Varine, a French archaeologist, historian and museologist, invented the term ecomuseum, which is composed of four fundamental ingredients: an action, carried out by a community, based on its heritage, that benefits its development. Therefore, an ecomuseum is, first, a social project and then cultural and scientific. A social entrepreneur is a person who promotes projects in which the social and community goal is the priority, rather than other purposes, such as cultural, scientific or economic.
According to De Varine's definition, an ecomuseum could be described as a form of social entrepreneurship. In my case, there is the additional qualifications of being a researcher and resident of a small village in the Asturian mountains in Northwest Spain--an area that is economically underdeveloped and experiencing a strong demographic crisis, with a rapidly declining population. I believed that with the creation of La Ponte-Ecomuseum, we could generate cultural, social and economic activity that benefited in some way all the inhabitants of these territories. This was the idea of the ecomuseum originally.
Meg: Your work with La Ponte Ecomuseum has included a study of the 'dynamics of memory' in the context of the 'marginalized heritage' of Spain's Civil War. As a personal historian who has a fascination with people's stories, this area of inquiry is of great interest to me...as is the concept of a 'marginalized heritage' which I fear is becoming a greater reality in the world today. Can you talk about what is meant by the dynamics of memory and marginalized heritage?
Jesús: Collective memory is neither fixed nor given, is constantly in flux, and permanently under discussion and debate. Thus, collective memory is dynamic and it is influenced by the social forces that make it change. We live in stratified societies, which by their nature, inherently imply marginalization and exclusion. In many cases, that comes with certain unpleasant and violent memories. All material and immaterial elements associated with these memories is what we call 'marginalized heritage'. And the processes that resignificate these memories is what we call "dynamics of memory". To resignificate is to change the accepted meanings of something by contestation, discussion, redefinition. To share or speak about these topics is a form of resignification: hidden heritage is transformed into visible heritage, indisputable beliefs are discussed, argued and revised.
The Spanish Civil War and the Asturias
Meg: Your work in the dynamics of memory and marginalized heritage centered around Spain's Civil War and the caves of Asturias. For those who aren't familiar with the backdrop of the Civil War, can you describe the cultural conditions that led to the war and its outcome...and offer any cautionary observations for cultures today that are experiencing dramatic polarity?
Jesús: The Spanish Civil War was part of the dramatic interwar tensions following the 1929 crisis and subsequent Great Depression, an era of tremendous social and political instability that led to the emergence of European Fascism and finally triggered the Second World War. Social inequalities in Spain were much more severe than in the rest of Europe and the conflict was directly related to this fact, with forces that were fighting to create a more egalitarian society--Republicans, anarchists, socialists, Communists, etc.--and the forces that wanted to preserve the old status quo--monarchists, Fascists, conservative Catholics, etc.
The lessons for today are obvious. Inequality continues to be the world's main problem, and exploded after the economic crisis of 2007, both in the developed and the less-developed world, as well as within the Western world. The consequence is the potential emergence again of essentialist, nationalist, and populist discourses that do the same thing that Hitler did in Germany in the 1930s: take advantage of the desperate situation of the social majorities to sell speeches of salvation. The solutions are more complex but always require same thing: we cannot build a consensus society without reducing inequalities. The message is the same in the 1930s and now: without equality, a solid democracy cannot be built.
Meg: Do you see the theme of 'marginalized heritage' as becoming an increasing phenomenon, or has it always been present in its current scale, but rather has just not been examined as a phenomenon?
Jesús: Both things are true. On the one hand, the growing interest in new heritages has to do much with the academic dynamics. Heritage studies have multiplied exponentially in the last decades as a result of the increase and internationalization of researchers. Globalization has contributed to more people entering universities, and those people have more diverse origins, intellectual interests and sensibilities, so, heritage studies are increasing. On the other hand, what these researchers are doing is to record and interpret processes that always having been there.
All minority communities have sought to preserve their heritage in some way. Let us think of the Sephardic Spanish Jews as an example, who were expelled from Spain by the Catholic Kings in 1492 A.D. There are families who, as part of their marginalized heritage, have preserved for five centuries objects such as the keys of their homes or synagogues in Toledo. Until recent years, the anti-Semitism in Spain was significant. For example in the Franco era references in the dictator's public speeches to the Judeo-Masonic collusion were habitual and we can find examples in books for children of this period with references against Jews.
This view has changed a lot in recent years. You can see Spanish musicians collaborating with locals from Tangier in performances of the traditional music of 15th century Castilla, which was preserved by Spanish Jews. Considered 40 years ago as enemies of Spain, now Sephardic Jews are recognized as Spanish citizens by law. The preservation of culture, language and music of medieval Spain and its memories was important for this recognition. That tradition is now recognized as part of history. To me these are great examples of marginalized heritage that today have been resignificated, valued and recognized.
The silent cultural taboos
Meg: Can you talk about the phenomenon of "pacts of silence" within cultures? As someone of Irish heritage, I am familiar with this cultural response, and have friends who are Armenian who have grown up with it. Do you have any observations about the cause, impact and consequences of this collective cultural choice?
Jesús: I do believe that in all societies there has been a pact of silence. It is a way to hide the traumas. In psychology, the term "avoidance" refers to the strategy in which a person substitutes a recurring negative thought for another thought that is more positive and pleasant. At the social level, we do the same. We avoid talking about certain things that have been unpleasant. However, psychologists recommend that people who use "avoidance" instead face their fear by looking at it head-on through the opposite attitude: "acceptance". At the social level, to recover a painful heritage and forgotten memories can be considered a form of "acceptance", in learning to live with those traumas and normalize them. A society that has not "accepted" this type of past is a sick society, which deceives itself.
For example, in Spain it is still taboo to talk about the Civil War. Many people claim that doing so is to "reopen" old wounds, which is a clear symptom of "avoidance". Thus the "trauma," instead of being healed through closure, extends over a longer period of time, and becomes a chronic disorder. At this point it should be noted that in Spain's Ciivil War, more than 100,000 'disappeared'—after Cambodia, that’s the world's second largest number of victims of enforced disappearances whose remains have not been recovered or identified according to the Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory (Asociación para la Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica). What do we tell those families whose relatives still lie invisibly on roadsides or under landfills? Can we think that a wound can be closed by pretending? I do not think so.
Meg: The collection of oral histories for this project was your personal initiative. Can you share what about preserving these histories called to you on a personal level?
Jesús: I live in this area, I was born and raised in the small village of Villanueva. Since I was little, I heard stories about the Civil War, some of which made a deep impression on me. I grew up and matured, I graduated as a historian, but I soon realized that nothing could replace oral and life stories. Thanks to them, I was able to understand the Civil War better than through what I learned in my classes at university.
That's why I also decided to start recording and collecting the heritage in the memory of 80-year-olds--people who are now deceased. It seemed to me important to preserve this part of our local history in some way. I compare this work with the knitting technique; to make a garment, it is necessary to make thousands of stitches. In order to recover all the marginalized heritage, thousands of activists are required to work on a local and daily basis to construct a different plot of history, not based on the great men and the great battles, but on the suffering of the victims of conflict.
Meg: Can you share a couple of specific recollections your interview subjects had that were particularly meaningful to be a witness to, and the response they elicited in you?
Jesús: I was particularly struck by the stories of women who were raped. I had never heard these stories before and when I recorded them up I began to understand the importance of this kind of work.
One of these women whose story I was told had committed suicide, and yet her death was not counted as a victim of war. I immediately thought that if in my small area there were no more than 15 victims of the repression after war, but there were at least three women raped and one of them committed suicide, that represents an additional impact of 20%. That led me to think that if in Spain there are more than 500,000 war and repression victims, the correlation is chilling; the implication is that thousands of women were raped, murdered or committed suicide. It is a purely speculative data, but the worrying thing is that we cannot know for sure, there is no data because these investigations are pending in many cases. Those who advocate the "pacts of silence" continue perpetuating this injustice and choosing that these victims remain hidden for history. This is something abhorrent and unjust.
It is worth emphasizing this because there are still prejudices that maintain the argument that these acts were isolated and punctual. Of course, this is completely untrue. In the area under the right wing forces, the military high command encouraged soldiers to commit rapes. Talks on Radio Sevilla by General Queipo de Llano are well known. In one of his speeches he said: "Our valiant legionaries and soldiers have taught "red" cowards what it means to be a man. And, by the way, also to women. After all, these communists and anarchists deserve it, have not they been playing free love? Now at least they'll know what real men are, and not sissy militiamen. They will not be able to escape no matter how hard they struggle and kick”.
These words make it unnecessary to add any more arguments.
Meg: Can you describe how the militia caves in the area are being preserved and presented, and their relevance to the area’s heritage?
Jesús: Militia caves were occupied during the end of the Civil War in Spain by members of the Republican army who were eluding the post-war repression.. In our municipality these caves were discovered and studied by me and my colleagues. There are no public policies of conservation or preservation for them, this heritage site depends on the work our community and La Ponte-Ecomuséu is doing. With regard to raising visibility about the caves, we are working on it. Last year we did a small field trip in which we visited these caves with various neighbors, experts and collaborators of the ecomuseum. The objective was to discuss what we can do with this kind of marginalized heritage. The consensus is that we must indeed make it visible, but it is a challenge because these places are inaccessible to the public. In any case we are always thinking about it and trying to create the widest possible awareness. It is not easy to do dissemination work talking about women who after being raped committed suicide ... is a challenge, but one we have assumed.
Not all this heritage is unpleasant. We also collected a song from the militia men, a very nice story that tells of the survival story of the militia men in their caves, a song they kept alive in their collective memory. It is a story about their time spent in the cave and how they returned to their normal lives… very simple, no political content, no vindictiveness. This piece of intangible heritage allows us to introduce and communicate something pleasant into this difficult period of our history.
Work at La Ponte Ecomuseum
Meg: With La Ponte-Ecomuseum, you are also doing some really interesting work around governance structures of heritage and the political economies that give rise to them, and the struggle over what is 'common heritage' and who has access for their rights of use. Can you give us the bird's eye view of the core issues at stake here?
Jesús: The example of the caves and graffiti of the militiamen and their intangible heritage is clear. It is we who discovered it, investigated it and put value on it, it is declared heritage by the community itself. Who claims this forgotten heritage? Ourselves, because is our common heritage.
Not only do we claim this site, we also believe that heritage resources must be governed with the participation of the local communities. Only in this way can the heritage be connected with its vicinity and ensure that the community loves it instead of ignores it. Often the macro-level cultural heritage agendas are so disconnected from the interests and visions of local communities that area residents are actually opposed to or disinterested in the initiatives.
With La Ponte we have gone a step further. Not only do we claim the right to use the heritage that exists in our territory, but also we claim the right to determine what constitutes our own heritage.
Preserving Local Heritage in the Asturias
Meg: You compare most heritage policies as akin to copyright strategies, where common heritages embodied in local traditions serve to reinforce national identities and memories and to position those in the market. You cite the declaration of the Gastronomic Meal of the French as World Heritage being an illustration of this and make the point that Asian countries like China openly treat intangible heritage as a commodity in development strategies. You've also observed that the value of heritage increases based on circulation and sharing, not on the creation of artificial scarcity. This is a really interesting point of view, and counter to the law of supply and demand. Can you share your thoughts on the implications of this for cultural tourism, and how this reality could or should be leveraged?
Jesús: Yes, the key is to decide whether we want a copyright heritage or a copyleft heritage. In the former, the heritage value is a exchange value, in the second one is a value of use. In the first instance, cultural heritage is treated as a rare thing, like a fetish, and its value would have to do with its scarcity, something of experts and freaks. In the second instance, cultural heritage is viewed as something accessible, as an instrument, and its value would have to do with its use, utility and availability.
The best way to defend the heritage is to give it a useful value, making it beneficial for local communities. And when we speak of useful value, I don’t mean only economic use, but cultural and social use. This change of definition does not imply that new economies can be built on this basis and do business. Today there is a lot of talk about sustainable tourism, ecotourism, etc., which can be a path, as long as this is not a strategy to turn local populations into mere souvenirs and fetishes for the consumption of the wealthy urban classes of the West.
Meg: You consider it necessary to develop alternative strategies of heritage management and call for a new framework in which the public sector, the local community, and private entrepreneurs establish a new set of relations in a dynamic way. Can you elaborate on this and share your vision for a new framework?
Jesús: It is necessary to transform the role of the citizen who is in close proximity to a heritage site to move from a mere passive actor, consumer or user, to a more active role: creator of heritage and new heritage use values. Only in this way I think we will be able to give a new impetus to this sector.
For this, important changes of mentalities and, above all, of procedures are necessary. The government and the decision-making about heritage is currently an "up-down" equation and what I propose is that the processes of "bottom-up” are also present. It is not a question of ignoring the actors who have been traditional in heritage management, but of making other voices heard that have been ignored: those of local communities. This can only be done by creating intersecting meeting spaces where all these agents are present. Who takes the initiative or how the type of space is determined depends on many factors, such as local culture, rural or urban, the degree of development ... there are multiple formulas to carry it out, such as the creation of citizen laboratories. The most difficult thing is whether there is both interest and willingness on the part of all the actors to create these spaces, the rest is easier.
Meg: You recently concluded postdoctoral research in conjunction with the Marie Curie Co-Fund at Oxford University, with your work centered on cultural landscapes and social innovation in cultural heritage. Can you define both cultural landscapes and social innovation in the context of cultural heritage, and describe this research?
Jesús: Cultural Landscapes is an emerging and interesting concept, since it views the landscape as a type of heritage, because it is a product of cultural activity, and therefore is a material heritage--agricultural terraces, farming systems, plantations, etc., and immaterial heritage--crop management systems, place names, sacred spaces, etc.
But it is especially interesting because it offers avenues for the incorporation of new agents in the decision making on the management of the landscape, as I have claimed is necessary. For example, the European Landscape Convention, which is becoming an international reference in the creation of landscape policies, say in its article 5, section "c": "to establish procedures for public participation, as well as local and regional authorities and other stakeholders in the formulation and implementation of landscape policies ... ".
This is a step, although we are far from that integration actually occurring. We cannot stand idly by. Now that legislation has proposed the creation of this cooperative engagement in managing cultural landscapes, we need to make it real. Public spaces for political action, fortunately or unfortunately, are not a gift. Activism has to win them. This is why I found it interesting to incorporate the cultural landscapes in my research.
On the other hand, social innovation is a process in which the beneficiaries play a decisive role. Again, we have a scenario in which the beneficiaries move from a passive role to a more active role.
Let's say that social innovation is the strategy to activate these processes of change, to allow us to move from theory to action.
Meg: You are leading The Heritage and Social Innovation Observatory (HESIOD), a platform aiming to identify, analyze, give visibility and disseminate socially innovative experiences in the field of cultural heritage. Can you describe a couple of different examples of what constitutes a 'socially innovative experience in the field of cultural heritage’?
Jesús: It seemed to me, in the first place, important to know about initiatives that had already triggered social innovation processes based on cultural heritage. From this idea came HESIOD. Over the past two years I have been mapping this type of initiative, and I have found all types of such projects, from purely institutional proposals with very little social innovative to absolutely transformative and revolutionary projects.
What I found is that in order to find more innovative projects, I had to overcome the conventional barriers of what is meant by "cultural heritage". Precisely, as an academic, I also had to move from a more expert and limited notion of what heritage is to a more open attitude, one in which what is or is not heritage depends on the vision of the community that creates it. By this definition, I can share two good examples.
The Rey Heredia social center is a former school, which was occupied by a number of radical groups brought together under the name of Acampada Dignidad Cordoba and transformed into social center in October 2013.
The core element of this process is the building itself, built in 1918. The first non-religious school in the city, it followed a rationalistic approach, seeking to create a quality secular education for the popular classes. Despite this value, a city of Córdoba plan made provision for its demolition to turn the area into a large square that would enhance the environment of the Calahorra Tower and the Roman Bridge, with obvious touristic expectations. This decision met with resistance from the different civic organisations that had already been calling for community use of the building. Finally, the building was occupied by these groups, brought together under the name of Acampada Dignidad Cordoba, on October 5, 2013.
After several years of struggle between neighborhood organisations and the city, an agreement was reached in January, 2015. The occupation has now changed to a legal footing and the building is managed by different neighborhood groups.
Today the center provides important services to the neighborhood, such as a soup kitchen, library, computer room, lecture hall, remedial classes, urban garden, work and social counselling, etc. The governance lies with a general assembly of people.
Through this example, I can show you the conflict between two different kinds of cultural heritage. One of them is ruled by the experts, technicians, and administrators, who, through a speculative project, were willing to destroy a historic building to create a good quality touristic product for urban middle class consumption. The other is led by a group of unexpected voices, non-experts pertaining to different social groups for whose benefit the public authorities were going to destroy a public building. The combined group represented those less affluent urban classes and, in a self-organised manner, launched its own heritagization process and built its own subjectivity, socio-political process and community service. These people identified with the "anti-heritage" concept, and they re-appropriated, saved and restored the building. Above all, they provided a real social function for the heritage, beyond the paradigm of touristification and the conversion of cultural goods into a mass consumer product.
Social innovation is a binding concept, useful for analyzing very diverse experiences under the same perspective that would not otherwise be analysed together. Not only this, but the concept of social innovation allows us to connect heritage studies with a range of new political, social and economic trends and movements—in science, for instance, with the concept of citizens and living laboratories, in expanded research, or in the economy, with the emergence of the fourth sector economy, etc. Such concepts and definitions truly help us to connect the heritage sector with emerging grassroots movements and with the social, political and scientific realities of our time, beyond nominal illusions or restricted fields of knowledge.
Another project of great interest mapped by HESIOD is a start-up by my colleague Ángel Portolés in Castellón. In this case, the project has born of an institution--a university--in response to the demand of local and rural groups from Castellón in Valencia. It is very interesting because it shows me that institutions can actually encourage and respond to this kind of process. It is a good example of the creation of intersecting agendas I referred to earlier.
Patrimoni is a collective process of revaluation of the cultural heritage and citizen dynamization in rural environments. This is the response of the University Extension Program (PEU) of the Vice-Rectorate for Culture, University Extension and Institutional Relations of the Universitat Jaume I de Castellón to the explicit demand of a whole series of volunteer groups with local projects to define a space for analysis, reflection and collaboration on knowledge, rescue, protection, defense and dissemination of cultural heritage.
Patrimoni is a laboratory of participatory construction of projects based on cultural heritage and is characterized by the voluntary nature of the members of the local groups, the unique character of each action, the continuous reformulation and updating of the training, strategies, methods. The constant contributions of the groups and collaborators serve to redefine and rethink the project.
If in the case of Rey Heredia the building has been won by force and with strong antagonisms; PEU Patrimoni was a project of conciliation, where the method was more of an encounter than a confrontation. This does not mean that one is better or worse, it would be absurd to make that kind of judgement.
What interests me is to see what these processes have in common and I see that they coincide in three ways: First, they involved discussing notions of heritage and doing so openly. Second, in both of these projects, heritage can be described as a common good. Third, they are not macro-projects that look for solutions to big things, the focus is the short-term, and they simply solve problems through ongoing micro-projects.
In short, these are initiatives in which heritage is an engine for social initiatives and change, and this heritage has a value of use rather than change.
Meg: Can you share the impetus and vision behind HESIOD? What are its goals, and why is there a need for its work?
Jesús: The goal of HESIOD is to create a network between projects that have as a priority to create social innovations through heritage--even if that is not their express purpose. HESIOD is trying to identify the people and organizations involved in this work, and then communicate with them--and encourage them to communicate with each other--by proposing to them to take on the language of social innovation, the role of social entrepreneurs and to embrace the creation of social technologies and new political economies around heritage.
Using a common lens of social innovation through heritage will allow us to do two things: to be stronger and to create more leverage on the one hand, and on the other to claim that in the areas of the humanities there is also innovation, although its nature is different, its not less important. We must claim the importance of humanistic disciplines at a time when they are being overshadowed by focus on exact sciences like engineering and technology. It is said that applied science and technological innovations are useful. Well, the humanities are useful, too. And through heritage projects, the most necessary kind of innovations can be made: social innovation.
HESIOD aims to identify, map and create networks among projects of this type. It was created as a result of my postdoc research; originally, I was looking for similar projects to La Ponte in order to identify our own weaknesses and potentials. Over time I started to reflect on some common concepts shared by these “sister” projects, and “social innovation” and other concepts emerged, so I designed HESIOD as a platform to facilitate this process of mapping and contacting. Today HESIOD is not active, because I finished my postdoc and I do not have the support to continue, particularly from a country like Spain, which it is not committed to research. Most likely my idea will be pursued by an Englishman, an American or a German and then developed.
Meg: Why do you do what you do? Why is all of this important to you? And what are your hopes for communities having a more vital role to play in determining their own cultural heritage...and benefiting from it economically?
Jesús: If we want to build more democratic, plural and inclusive societies, we need to start by recovering the history and heritage of all those who have been systematically hidden. I very much identify with the words of the popular writer Yuval Noah Harari, who studied history at Oxford University. He said "Historians study the past not in order to repeat it, but in order to be liberated from it". Recovering hidden and marginalized history enables us to overcome it, it is not an act of nostalgia, but a way to move towards a richer, more diverse and democratic future. Do you think Spain can take that step with more than 100,000 disappeared people buried by Fascist repression in its soil?
From my point of view, intelligent policies are those that favor multi-vocality and multiplicity. Diversity enriches, the opposite is to return to the darkness of the ancient cave: exclusion, inequalities, war and conflict. Unfortunately intelligent policies are missing in some cases; for these policies to come about, activism is fundamental. The work of small projects like ours is seemingly invisible, but added to that of many other people, little by little, the old ideas get transformed. Other visions of history and heritage can contribute to this and improve our world closer. From my little corner of the world I send this message of hope!