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Ricardo Fernández Gracia, Director of the Chair of Navarrese Heritage and Art.

Heritage and identity (1). By way of introduction

Fri, 28 Sep 2018 10:15:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

The year 2018 has been declared the European Year of Cultural Heritage with the goal to encourage discovery and engagement with heritage, reinforcing the feeling of belonging to a common space. The motto adopted has been "Our heritage: where the past meets the future". Through various initiatives and planned activities, the aim is to make citizens understand that cultural heritage is linked to their identity.

Heritage, tradition and identity are three concepts that are related but have their own scope. By tradition we mean what has been transmitted to us from the past, although it must be taken into account that it is not immobile and unalterable, but dynamic, changing and adaptive. Heritage, tangible and intangible, and cultural assets are an expression of the culture of a human group and constitute a link between generations. Identity refers to tradition and heritage, always bearing in mind that the human being is gregarious and seeks coincidences, in order to feel like a member of a collective and to develop a sense of belonging.

The cultural identity of a people is defined through multiple aspects in which its culture is embodied, such as historical-artistic heritage, language, social relations, rituals, ceremonies, collective behavior and other intangible elements. Precisely for this reason, the monument and the objects are specifically effective as condensers of values. Because of their material and singular presence, as opposed to the incorporeal character of the aforementioned elements, objects or monuments, as concrete cultural assets, have a high symbolic meaning, which assume and summary the essential character of the historical context to which they belong. Cultural assets help to deepen the history of peoples and outline their own identity, staff and collective.

The concept and idea of heritage took shape in the 19th century, after the experiences of destruction caused by wars and revolutions, which made many traces of an abhorred past disappear. A circular of the French National Convention of 1794, after the multiple destructions, recalled: "You are only the depositaries of the property donated to the great family, which has the right to call you to account. Barbarians and slaves detest science and destroy artistic monuments. Free men love them and preserve them".

The main point of support for the evaluation of heritage, from the nineteenth century, was the classification of the most important thing to be protected as "historical monument", although over time the term of cultural property has been imposed in various categories, significantly expanding the concept itself. Different authors have written in recent years on the theory, history, classification and management of heritage, such as professors Alfredo Morales, Francisca Hernández, Ignacio González-Varas, Mª Pilar García Cuetos, or Josep Ballart. All their works are essential enquiry.

By appreciating our cultural heritage, we can discover our diversity and initiate an intercultural dialogue on what we have in common with other realities. In this regard, nothing better than to recall this reflection by Mahatma Gandhi: "I do not want my house walled in on all sides or my windows sealed. I want the cultures of the whole world to blow into my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be swept away by any of them".


The past of a town and its heritage belong to all its inhabitants.

Julio Valdeón affirms that the history of a town belongs to all its inhabitants and constitutes the best support to know where we are heading. If this past is linked to material testimonies, to cultural goods, the collective conscience will be much stronger. Alex de Toqueville expressed it in this thought: "If the past no longer illuminates the future, the spirit walks in darkness". Octavio Paz affirmed that "architecture is the least bribable witness of history" and Francisco Umbral wrote that "painting is the great slate of history". Both thoughts can be extrapolated to the rest of the arts and cultural heritage.

Losing the references of the past is tantamount to erasing the path and favoring disorientation. Faustino Menéndez Pidal reminds us that "the people who do not know their past, who ignore the ways by which they came to be where they are and to be what they are, are at the mercy of those who want to show them a falsified history for sectarian purposes. The installation in history is the most solid base of man, because it conditions all the Structures that situates him in society. When he loses it, he is left without roots, deprived of elements of judgment and choice". source In this regard, it should be borne in mind that history and heritage itself have also been used by political power, on numerous occasions, as a means of legitimization and justification, since the past is often rewritten according to the needs and interests of the moment.

The monuments, pieces and various objects that we have received defy time, constitute a door to the past and are a form of travel through history that, on many occasions, entail something transcendent. Without all these testimonies of the past, the individual runs the risk of getting lost in a world lacking tangible references, where the present can seem eternal. Contemplating, thinking and reasoning about cultural assets financial aid to understand the past, live the present and project oneself into the future without complexes.

The historical heritage as the most important evidence of the cultural identity of a people is a non-renewable wealth and constitutes an evident test of the existence of links with the past because it constitutes the report on which one has to reconstruct one's own history. J. A. Alzate wrote in Mexico, in 1790, the following reflection: "the architectural monuments of ancient nations that remain despite the insults of time serve as a great resource to recognize the character of those who built them ...., as well as to make up for the omission or bad faith of historians".


Discover, learn about and enjoy cultural heritage.  

The cultural heritage is susceptible to different looks for its complete understanding: from its purely historical aspects (promotion, execution, creation, prices, dating ... etc.), to the aesthetic, technical, iconographic (meaning and message) and use and function. Complementary and first-hand protagonists in our vision and recreation of the past are the cultural assets in the form of bridges, cathedrals, monasteries, stained glass windows, goldsmith pieces, reliefs of a cloister, organs, shawms or an engraving.

In 2009, publishing house Chair published, among its essays, a delightful book by Victor I. Stoichita graduate "How to savor a painting", in which he discusses the joy produced by the contemplation of a work of art and how the pleasure increases as we get to know the context in which it was created and its promoters. Its pages are an example for the understanding of the effectiveness and strength of images, in times when the time for their observation was abundant, and their contemplation generated different sensations and valuations. With time and without haste, among the more or less obvious, we find elements that lead us, as signs, to discover and savor paintings, reliefs, engravings, etc.... The reading of images and heritage on core topic cultural leads us to interpret, and thus to understand, taste and enjoy the more or less hidden contents of the works.


"To be surprised and amazed is to begin to understand".

This beautiful reflection from the pen of José Ortega y Gasset illustrates the importance of the curiosity with which we should approach the contemplation of cultural heritage. This quality is characteristic of avid people and, in general, of anyone who wants to learn and investigate. In addition, on many occasions, this curiosity is the cause of finding ideas to realize something that no one has done before. Along with curiosity, it is necessary to sharpen the capacity of observation, in tune with the statement of A. Dumas: "he who reads learns a lot; but he who observes learns more".

The diversification of cultural strata in traditional society, with very high levels of illiteracy, can lead us to some areas of artistic and literary significance reserved for cultured minorities, in a phenomenon that we can call "semantic discrimination". There are, therefore, different levels of reading, both to please the masses and the more elitist and refined minorities. In the theatre there were also quotations and erudite references inaccessible to the understanding of the unlettered. Alongside an immediate, narrative and "linear" storyline, there were subplots and symbolic elements that acted as a rhetorical complement that could only be understood by the educated. Something similar occurred in certain artistic compositions, particularly when the patron or the artist possessed literary and cultured resources.

It goes without saying that there were different tastes, on the one hand, the majority of the public enjoyed everything that vividly impressed their senses and, on the other hand, a cultivated minority that, behind appearances, sought to go beyond and distrusted what the majority approved of. A whole world of symbols and signs of difficult interpretation turned book covers, commemorative medals or some paintings into authentic exercises of wit and sharpness.


An advanced and free society must safeguard and properly manage its heritage.

An advanced, cultured society with high levels of well-being cannot allow its cultural heritage to be absent from its daily life. Progress, to a certain extent, can be measured by the cultural level it has reached. This has led to a great social demand in developed countries for the use and enjoyment of cultural goods. This has become a demand on institutions, which has translated into the right of citizens to culture, as recognised in various constitutional texts. The latter has also led to an assessment of the risks posed by overcrowding and the positive and negative aspects of cultural tourism.

The historian, the archaeologist, the anthropologist, the bibliophile and the art historian have their social responsibility, since they must refund to society what they have come to understand and value after years of study and specialization. Naturally, to do so, they need the good work and partnership of those who hold responsibilities in the educational and cultural spheres.

The knowledge and evaluation of the heritage is the best guarantee for its protection and conservation and thus to bequeath it as the best gift of what we received from the generations that preceded us as the testimony and report of the meaning that the places and objects had for them.

Finally, it is necessary to insist that the use and enjoyment of cultural heritage can and should be profitable from a management that implies its research, conservation and dissemination. The guidelines of UNESCO and other organisms insist on the knowledge, diffusion and sensitization around the cultural goods, proposing to the states programs of Education and information by means of courses, conferences and seminars in all the Degrees of the teaching, regulated and not regulated, in order to promote and to enhance the cultural value and educational of the same one.

source Among the numerous texts issued by high institutions, we will highlight one of the 1985 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Architectural Heritage of Europe, which calls for "raising public awareness of the value of architectural heritage not only as an element of cultural identity, but also as a source of inspiration and creativity for present and future generations". As Leopoldo Alas, Clarín, said: "the first thing that is necessary to say what is new is to know well what is old".