12 March 2009
Habib Saïdi (Laval University) and Sylvie Sagnes (CNRS France)
November 5, 6, 7 2009
Whatever their scale, territories rely heavily on memory, tradition and history to affirm their own specificity, that is their identity. This reality affects all aspects of cultural heritage, both material and non-material. Weighing more heavily than ever on the dynamic of territorial restructuring, cultural heritage stands out as a reference point – indeed, as the core concept in the identification of a country, a department, a region, a city, a town… That is the proposition put forth by IPAC (Institute for Cultural Heritage) and the CELAT (Centre interuniversitaire d’études sur les lettres, les arts et les traditions), both from Laval University and the LAHIC, in Paris, (Laboratoire d’Anthropologie et d’Histoire sur l’Institution de la Culture – Équipe du IIAC, CNRS – EHESS) for the symposium to be held in Québec on November 2009.
This symposium will focus on capital cities, as complex subjects of reflection and research. Capital cities do not exist exclusively in and of themselves. Rather, they exist in relation to one or more surrounding territories (Regions, Provinces, States, Confederations, Unions, the world…) in a mutual relationship characterized by domination, submission or competition. In this respect, the capital city is to be understood as much more than just a contemporary urban phenomenon. The issue of cultural heritage elements, their selection, preservation, instrumentalization and symbolic value are vested with a unique meaning, which fosters both cross-continental and cross-disciplinary comparisons.
The ethnologists behind this symposium, along with the sociologists, archaeologists, geographers and urban planners who will gather in Québec City will attempt to identify and define the relationship between the capital cities and their cultural heritage. Favouring an interdisciplinary approach, the sessions will attempt to understand how cultural heritage contributes to the distinguished status of a capital and the role it plays in terms of the select city’s identity, which is both rich and ever-changing.
Themes of the symposium
- Capital cities, between the past and the future
The first contradiction to be addressed will be the twofold movement toward both the past and the future. On one hand, all major cities place significant value on their past and take pride in their continued existence over time; on the other hand, the rise in the value of limited land, the increasing density and the escalating speculation leads to a contemporary usage of urban space. This central paradox generates another contradiction in the way traces of the past are handled in the urban setting. The capital city is forever torn between showcasing its past and putting a bold foot forward into the future, between its fascination with history and its need for growth and renewal.
- Once a capital city, always a capital city ?
When we think of major capitals like Rome, Athens, Cairo or Paris, we tend to forget that this prestige they enjoy can be temporary, with terms varying from several centuries to a few years or a few months. Status as a capital – political or otherwise – is not necessarily a “once-and-for-all” reality. As it is gained, so can it be lost. When a lapsed capital city (Lyon, Vichy, Bonn…) returns to its initial status, how do we then perceive its cultural heritage? Is its value merely a question of nostalgia? On the other hand, does concealing this loss of status not point to a denial of a shameful or painful history? And what of newly designated capital cities? What importance is placed on their cultural heritage?
- Between the particular and the universal
Capital cities seem inclined toward universality. Cultural heritage is especially well suited to this type of upward movement, not only in temporal terms but also in the hierarchy of space. Once recognized as a “World Heritage City” (Tunis, Algiers, Cairo, Mexico City, Quebec City…), these cities develop an identity that becomes entrenched in the psyche of the global tourist. While still projective, the identity as a capital obtained in this manner is not all encompassing or interchangeable. It relies on the global audience to experience and affirm its uniqueness and project its self-representation.
- The cultural heritage battle
This tension between the particular and the universal can be regarded as the consequence of the relative nature of the capital city’s essence, to the extent that “others”, within its boundaries are recognized and included. Dreaming of cultural supremacy – a dream accessible to those who have earned a “world capital” titles –the capital derives its identity from its status as a “chosen city” and asserts this plainly on an intermediate territorial scales (nation, federation). Actively involved in fulfilling this dream, local cultural heritage is then called upon to play a national role.
- From identity to identities
Capital cities are less clearly defined and more intangible spaces than the nations being supported by non-political interests. Hence, some capitals seem to be more determined than others to accept and promote their heterogeneous past: Tunis is thus simultaneously Punic, Roman, Arab-Islamic and Franco-European, while Montreal recognizes its heritage as Native, French, English, Scottish, Irish, Chinese, Italian, Greek, etc. The symposium will serve as an opportunity to identify the tenets of this diverse heritage rhetoric and try to understand what it seeks to express: is it merely the result of a defused, watered-down approach to identity, which promotes the expression and recognition of any and all differences?
Fundamentally comparative in nature, this international symposium will nevertheless pay special attention to Québec City, which, in 2008, provided us with the perfect observatory for the heritage issues under study. Lavishly celebrating the 400th anniversary of its founding, Québec’s political capital offered an opportunity to witness the relationship between thoughtful reflection and today’s most pressing heritage issues.