Archaeology and the European far-right. Attitudes and responses from heritage bureaucracies

Report on Session #55 at the 23nd Annual Meeting of the EAA in Maastricht, the Netherlands


by Elisabeth Niklasson (Stanford University: and Herdis Hølleland (Norwegian Institute for Cultural Heritage, NIKU:

On Friday afternoon, September 1, 45 people met in a hot conference room in Maastricht to discuss an equally hot topic: what does the rise of the European far-right mean for archaeology? Over three hours, a range of thought-provoking contributions were offered. Invited speakers from Finland, Hungary, Macedonia, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden, addressed everything from the nitty gritty of heritage bureaucracies to the impact of the far-right on heritage management in different parts of Europe. The papers were received by a very active audience that commented and contested the points made, as well as enriched the session by providing their own examples.

The session started with a short introduction in which we, the organizers, outlined common traits of the European far-right party family, gave examples of how heritage can figure into far-right ideology and political strategy, and raised some questions for discussion. Particularly we asked: What characterises far-right heritage policy? How have national heritage bureaucracies responded to the rise of the European far-right? And how can we, as civil servants, professionals and researchers, address this issue? We then proceeded to present a case study of the far-right’s heritage policies in Scandinavia. A key point made was that in this region, the language of the far-right often overlaps with the language and aims of the heritage sector at large, stressing the need for democratization and increased funding, albeit from an exclusionary standpoint. Johanna Enqvist (University of Helsinki) then offered insights into the strategies of the far-right Finns Party, which views on heritage, she argued, is of little actual consequence. Instead, as the revision of Finland’s Antiquities Act draws near, the real threat to heritage governance lies in prevailing neoliberal policies. Anna Källén (Stockholm University), followed up with an analysis of a new heritage proposition put forth by the Swedish government in reaction to the rise of the far-right. Specifically, she highlighted the paradox inherent in the government’s wish to embrace the heritage sector as "unpolitical" while simultaneously arguing (based on their own political ideals), that heritage is politically relevant and valuable for dealing with contemporary challenges in society. This sparked great interest. One participant in the audience who worked for a regional museum in Sweden explained how important the new regulation was, allowing them to stand their ground against political actors trying to meddle in exhibition themes. Next was Nanna Løkka (Telemark Research Institute), who introduced us to ‘modern Vikings’ and far-right extremist groups in Norway. Despite the legacy of ‘the Viking’ in Norway’s liaison with Nazi ideology, and its continued presence among right-wing extremists, Løkka demonstrated how most modern Viking groups actually work against exclusion, promoting tolerance and collaborating with public institutions. Next up, Gertjan Plets (Utrecht University) dived into the bureaucratic technologies that define the relationship between the modern nation state and archaeology, drawing examples from Europeana (EU) and heritage governance in Flanders. Regarding the latter, Plets argued that although the Flemish government – because of far-right nationalism – takes care not to politicize archaeology, the last decades’ changes in bureaucratic procedures have paved the way for a nationalist focus, by presenting Flanders as a bounded historical space. The talk provoked several reactions from the audience, giving Plets the space to nuance and further develop his points. Eszter Banffy (RGK - Romano-Germanic Commission DAI) then gave a sobering paper on the demise of heritage administration in Hungary – a direct result of populist right-wing rule. As a warning, she outlined a step by step guide to how such parties can dismantle the heritage sector once in power, by institutionalizing alternative historical narratives and continuously dividing and defunding expert organizations. This prompted concern amongst the participants, who reflected on where their own countries may be in this downwards spiral and how to stop it from happening. Finally, Ljuben Tevdovski (presenting author, Goce Delcev University) and Angela Sokoloska (Institute of Cultural Heritage and Archaeology) pointed to the fact that the historical narratives used by the far-right are part of the legacy of the archaeological discipline, and that unless we want them to continue to enable extremist movements, we need to become more "populist" ourselves: to make sure our new stories exceed our old ones in popular imagination.

In the final discussion, participants reflected on the questions set out at the start of the session, sharing their experiences and views from different European countries: A Greek participant argued that in order to address the far-right we need to act as activists in a personal capacity, working outside the formal structures of management and governance. Brexit also crept into the discussion, but instead of being treated singularly it opened up for an engaged conversation on the general need for better education and public communication. The session confirmed both the archaeologists’ and heritage professionals’ need and desire to address these contentious, contemporary issues.

As organizers, we will therefore revisit this topic in workshops and forums within the years to come, and hope that the participants of this session will join us again to continue the discussion. As a start, the case study we presented on the Scandinavian far-right will be published in Journal of Social Archaeology in 2018 (Niklasson and Hølleland, forthcoming June 2018).

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