‘Heritage plays an important role in a society in transition'

Interview with Professor Jan Kolen, scientific director of the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for Global Heritage and Development

The term heritage usually conjures up images of artefacts, monuments, archaeologists and museums. But heritage is also about identity, social cohesion, spatial planning and economics. This has been demonstrated by the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for Global Heritage and Development, in an original research project carried out in recent years, which brings together several different academic disciplines. We spoke to the Centre's scientific director, Prof. Jan Kolen.

Jan Kolen

The Leiden-Delft-Erasmus collaboration focuses on four societal themes: Sustainable Society, Digital Society, Healthy Society and Inclusive Society. Where does the Centre for Global Heritage and Development fit into this?

Jan Kolen: ‘We represent two of those four themes. The first is Inclusive Society. Heritage is important in forming an identity, and this in turn is important to any society in a state of transition. A good example of a society in transition is a conflict area. Take Syria, for example: in that country, heritage is being intentionally destroyed or sold for weapons by terrorists. Their actions are damaging the values of other groups there. Mass migration is another example of a transition. This is an issue in major cities where social cohesion is already weak. Heritage can bind people together. That makes this an interesting question: migrants bring their own heritage with them. How does this work its way into a dynamic multicultural society?

The Centre also represents the theme Sustainable Society. Very directly in fact, when you realise that recycling industrial heritage or renovating monuments prevents the unnecessary use of new materials and helps to reduce waste. You can also see old customs and traditions as heritage. This is less tangible. The Vloeiweide concept is a good example. This is an old system whereby water in rivers is retained upstream, via stream valleys and other small water systems, in order to irrigate the land. Climate change and the expected peaks in periods of drought and rainfall have made this an interesting prospect again.’

The Leiden-Delft-Erasmus profiling themes effectively reflect wider social developments and social agendas. What developments and themes are important for your centre?

Jan Kolen: ‘The heritage theme is often closely linked with other themes such as a sustainable, inclusive society and resilient cities. Horizon 2020 is an interesting programme, particularly the Innovative Training Networks in the Marie Curie programme. We're currently preparing a major grant application. Living Past is an important line within the Dutch Science Agenda (Nationale Wetenschapsagenda). I can only endorse the description given by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO): Studying the past can give insight into our actions, provide inspiration when seeking creative solutions to societal problems and create cohesion. Together with the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for Sustainability, we are preparing a proposal concerning the life course of rivers and river systems. The great thing is that it fits in perfectly with the region, the delta, in which our three universities are based.’

What is the basis on which your centre can now go on to build from the first phase of Leiden-Delft-Erasmus?

Jan Kolen: ‘Our research programme consists of three main lines: heritage under threat, heritage and environment and heritage and identity. We've managed to build up a good reputation in all three fields thanks to the commitment of the researchers working in our Centre. For example, researchers from Leiden and Delft worked together to create 3D prints from old moulds of stolen clay tablets for Syrian heritage that was under threat or had been partly destroyed. During the Summer School organised last year by the Centre for Global Heritage and the Grotius Centre, the relationship between human rights and heritage under threat was given a lot of attention. The cross-pollination of disciplines that the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus partnership enables (archaeologists working with engineers, materials experts, lawyers, administrators, historians, economists) is highly productive.’

How do you want to grow further as a centre? Can you give some examples of activities envisaged for the next phase of Leiden-Delft-Erasmus?

Jan Kolen: ‘The combination of archaeology and technical expertise, let's call it heritage technologies, is our Centre's trump card. Interest in it is growing; we saw it in the Scanning for Syria project. It's a card we intend to keep playing.

In addition, we want to expand the role that heritage plays in spatial planning, urban development and water management. We are doing this with the faculties, for example with the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment at TU Delft. It includes consultancy assignments, such as Heritage Impact Assessments.

We're also going to do more with teaching, perhaps even post-initial education. Alongside the existing Summer School and the MOOC in ‘Heritage under Threat’, we want to convert the Delft Minor in Heritage and Design into a joint Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Minor.

The Centre is keen to stress the importance of heritage to the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The heritage and identity programme focuses on the role of heritage in creating inclusive societies, and studies creativity and craft as a means of promoting social cohesion. Erasmus University Rotterdam plays an important role in both of these topics.’

How do you view the relationship with your regional partners?

Jan Kolen: ‘Our partners operate in and outside the region. ICOMOS, advisor to UNESCO, is an important party. But municipalities and the Province of Zuid-Holland are also important partners because they are often the client and the party implementing research and policy. We recently received an interesting request from the Province: to investigate the relevance of heritage to the business climate in Zuid-Holland. We already know that heritage can have economic value. Take houses built in a historical environment, for example, which are often more expensive.

The Dutch National Museum of Antiquities and the Provincial erfgoedhuizen (heritage centres) are important partners in this respect too. But so are parties such as the Port of Rotterdam Authority. We are conducting research into the impact of the oil sector on the development of Rotterdam and, in broader terms, on port cities in general.

But we are also joining forces with increasingly more international partners. For example, we are working with the Centre for Critical Heritage Studies, an initiative of universities in London and Gothenburg.’

What is your greatest challenge?

Jan Kolen: ‘I was recently appointed as dean of the Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden University and will be passing this job on to someone else in the spring. So if you don't mind, I think I’ll leave that question to my successor, the new director of the Centre for Global Heritage and Development.'

More information:
Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for Global Heritage and Development

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