Cultural Environments, Art History, and dark heritage

Cultural environments have proven a rich area for research, discussion and representation. This was demonstrated well in TAHITI6: the 2015 National Conference of Art History in Finland. It was an excellent event – and for me as a (still) relative newcomer to the Finnish academic community it was a rich and warmly welcoming experience. Also my first time visiting Jyväskylä – and definitely not the last.

I was told by several of the people involved with organizing TAHITI6 that the keynotes had been selected deliberately for coming from disciplines other than art history. And so we heard from Pauline von Bonsdorff from the University of Jyväskylä – a Professor in Art Education; Ola Wetterberg from the University of Gothenburg – a Professor of Conservation of Built Heritage; Tapio Heikkilä, a specialist from the Ministry of the Environment, and finally me – University Lecturer in Museology at the University of Helsinki, and an archaeologist and cultural heritage studies specialist by training, who also takes an interest, from time to time, in criminological issues.

I admired this strategy for inviting keynote speakers very much. For one thing, it meant I was invited to speak, and for another, it demonstrated just how interdisciplinary a concept like cultural environments is. And our papers were so varied as well. Pauline von Bonsdorff addressed the work of artists and novelists revisiting historical places and to get at the “invisible” stories as well as the dominant ones. Ola Wetterberg discussed how churches are managed and made use of as society changes, creating new uses but also new conservation challenges. Tapio Heikkilä talked about the study of and regard for landscape – noting the European Landscape Convention and its potential implications. These themes were all approached in various ways, situated in different disciplinary traditions, and all demonstrated how fluid, holistic and broad a term “cultural environment” itself is. Whose culture do we mean? What sort of environment? Can a natural environment also be cultural? Do landscapes have to be away from cities and built up areas? How does meaning and significance change over time?

For my own keynote, I chose to speak about the Academy of Finland Project with which I am currently involved: “Lapland’s Dark Heritage: Understanding the Cultural Legacy of Northern Finland’s WWII German Materialities within Interdisciplinary Perspectives” (, Lapland’s Dark Heritage, for short).[1] Back in February it was very much early days on the project still, before my research leave had even started. But speaking about the research at that early stage – and especially reflecting on the ways in which it relates to this concept of cultural environments – was incredibly useful.

Considering cultural environments within the context of what might be termed ‘dark’, ‘difficult’ or ‘contested’ heritage opens up possibilities for challenging the ways in which the “palimpsest of unspecified ‘history’ all around us”[2] can be understood. Scholars have already been discussing for some time how we might view and understand the ways in which heritage becomes “contested”[3], especially in cases where different political affiliations, or membership of different communities have a particular impact[4].

Another area of particular interest to our project and to tourism and social studies is the notion of ‘dark tourism’ – with Philip Stone’s “dark tourism spectrum”[5] a particularly useful tool in understanding how sites may become ‘lighter’ or ‘darker’ over time depending on how they are managed and the extent to which they become commoditized for touristic consumption.

In the context of Lapland’s Dark Heritage, as we encounter the ways in which different groups and individuals approach this historical period and its material remains, we have come across our own ‘spectrum’ of different types of engagement with the heritage. Among other actors, we have found hobbyist metal detectorists who engage with the material in the landscape in a very physical way, and we have found local history enthusiasts working hard to map and record Second World War sites, seeking means for preserving and raising awareness about them. We have also noticed an increased interest the Lapland War and the period before it generally – perhaps best illustrated by the Provincial Museum of Lapland’s recent exhibition “Wir waren Freunde” (, and on a national level by the release of Lapland War-based drama Kätilö in cinemas across the country in 2015. That this year saw the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War may also go towards explaining this interest.

I all the engagements we have come across – from collectors of militaria through to those who recall the mass evacuations of Lapland – a central issue that remains important to all is place; the cultural environment itself. The significance of place – in terms of physical location as well as social construction – is considered in many studies connected to museology and heritage studies.[6] In the cases of traumatic and difficult histories, the cultural environment takes on yet more dimensions – illustrated brilliantly in Nina Sääskilahti’s paper at TAHITI6 which discussed the “spectral geography” left in Rovaniemi by the “ghosts” of destroyed buildings.

We are still only part of the way through our project, and still have people to meet and information to process and discuss. In the summer of 2016 we plan a public excavation, and we look forward to working with local residents, visitors and colleagues, and to seeing how different people choose to engage with this hands-on activity. What we have learned so far, however, is that cultural environments carry all kinds of meanings and significance. We are uncovering some, while other nuances may remain unknown or not articulable. Our experiences as academic researchers – from different backgrounds both in terms of discipline and place of origin – enriches the ways in which we are able to approach and consider this research (I work with specialists in the fields of archaeology, geography, cultural heritage studies and ethnology, and bring with me my own experiences of museology and – before my current post – criminology, and the team comes from northern, central and southern Finland, and in my case from England). As my academic experiences expand and develop, I am more and more convinced of the value of embracing multiple disciplines. It worked for TAHITI6, and it is enabling us to explore cultural environments in exciting and insightful ways.


Dr Suzie Thomas is university lecturer in museology at the University of Helsinki. She has a PhD in cultural heritage studies from the International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies, Newcastle University, and has previously worked for the Council for British Archaeology and the University of Glasgow. She is founding Co-Editor of the Journal of Community Archaeology and Heritage. Thomas is on research leave to work on an Academy of Finland project until May 2017.

[1] See Herva 2014 for an early output of this project. Herva, V.-P. 2014: Haunting Heritage in an Enchanted Land: Magic, Materiality and Second World War German Material Heritage in Finnish Lapland. Journal of Contemporary Archaeology 1:2, 297–321.

[2] Shanks, M. & Tilley, C. Y. 1992. Re-constructing Archaeology: Theory and Practice. London: Psychology Press, 23.

[3] E.g. Smith, P. 2007: Frontier conflict: Ways of remembering contested landscapes. Journal of Australian Studies 31:91, 9–23; Heritage and community engagement: collaboration or contestation? Eds. Waterton, E. & Watson, S. London: Routledge, 2013.

[4] Breen et al. 2015 for example discuss collaborative and participatory approaches to heritage as a means of addressing and reconciling past conflicts – in their case at a site in Northern Ireland. Breen, C., Reid, G. & Hope, M. 2015: Heritage, identity and community engagement at Dunluce Castle, Northern Ireland. International Journal of Heritage Studies 21:9, 919–937.

[5] Stone, P. 2006: A dark tourism spectrum: Towards a typology of death and macabre related tourist sites, attractions and exhibitions. Tourism: An Interdisciplinary International Journal 54:2, 145–160.

[6] (for example Davis 1998/2011) Davis, P. (1998/2011). Ecomuseums: a sense of place. A&C Black.




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