Academic journal article Ethnologies

Patrimonial Reflections: From Burning Buildings to Bodies of Heritage

Academic journal article Ethnologies

Patrimonial Reflections: From Burning Buildings to Bodies of Heritage

Article excerpt

On 18 April 2007, fire laid waste to two buildings in the heart of downtown Reykjavik, Iceland. One of them, built in 1801 or 1802, housed a dance club called Pravda. It was the second oldest building still standing in Reykjavik. The other building, from 1852, had a restaurant on the upper floor, Cafe Romance, and a Kebab-joint on the ground floor. The fire engines were there within minutes after the fire broke out, followed in short order by reporters and camera crews. Two out of three TV stations interrupted their programming to bring hours of direct footage from the fire. To make television out of the crackling spectacle, reporters lined up interviewees on the main square against a smoking background of fire fighters hosing down the flames: from the fire marshal to the building owners, from historians to patrons of the burning dance club, and from the mayor of Reykjavik to anonymous passers-by, the audience was treated to the live reactions of each. To most of their interlocutors, reporters posed some variation on the question: "are we witnessing the destruction of priceless cultural heritage ?" From the fire marshal to the mayor, everyone concurred that, yes, before our very eyes, the cultural heritage of the capital was going up in flames.

I sympathized with the clubbers facing their Disco Inferno, but I was more intrigued by the smoldering heritage; or rather, by the metamorphosis of house to heritage, as yellow flames licked the red Coca-Cola sign on the facade of the Kebab-shop. Born and raised in the capital, I live and work downtown and I pass by those buildings every day. This was the first time I heard anyone refer to them as cultural heritage. I knew they were old--relative to other buildings in Reykjavik, that is--but to the best of my knowledge, before these two buildings caught fire, no one ever spoke of them in the language of heritage. As smoke engulfed the city center, however, as flames burst through the roof and water spouted from red hoses, all of a sudden the language of heritage rolled off everyone's tongue. Before the flames were doused, television audiences witnessed the mayor--in full firefighter's uniform--pledge to rebuild the house from the ground up, exactly as it had stood.

Something in all this was like a siren song for the folklorist in me: since the inception of the field, folklorists have been driving an ambulance from the scene of one cultural disaster to the next. As Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett notes, "the time of our operation is the eleventh hour" (1996: 249). Racing at breakneck speed, we arrive only to find we have come too late--the angel of history has always already wafted by and we are left to pick our way through the landscape of smoldering ruins in his wake (Anttonen, 2005; Dundes, 1969; Gamboni, 2001: 8). With my windows firmly shut to keep the smoke out, I sat glued to the television screen and tried to recall the significance of rebuilding the Temple of Jerusalem. Is it a sign of the end times?

Destruction and preservation are surely two sides of the same coin, so it is no surprise that a fire should trigger a discursive eruption about heritage (Gamboni, 2001; Holtorf, 2010). In the weeks following the fire, intense debate raged in the papers, on the radio, and on television talk shows about cultural heritage, preservation, restoration, and about objects and buildings that suture the past to the present. Such discursive eruptions are not an everyday occurrence, to be sure, but neither are they particularly unusual. Heritage discourse is not all in the form of eruptions, however. It is not all fire and floods. There is also the steady purr of heritage claims, in and out of the public ear: urgent, melancholic, resigned or resistant, a variety of people regularly claim that this or that constitutes important heritage that we must preserve. Such heritage claims may not make the news, but they certainly make other sections of the paper.

Cultural heritage, it seems, is suddenly at every turn. …

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