Europe is a diverse place, comprised of a multitude of cultures, each one of them making their own small contribution to a single European identity, be it French wine, German cabaret or British binge drinking. For nearly three years, the CoHERE project has attempted to understand European identity with greater clarity using ten areas of focus, including museum work, ethnolinguistics and ‘musicology’. This thoroughness was recently applied to a conference designed to look at the unity and divisions created by the continent’s heritage.
The Who is Europe? conference took place from 22nd-23rd November at the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw, and a brief glance over the itinerary gives an insight into its sheer variety. Alongside topics as varied as colonialism, performative practices and multi-culturalism, the conference also took time to consider Europe’s museums – and the parts of the continent’s history that they overlook, as well as the parts they over-emphasise – and the relationship between cultural diversity and human rights. The conference – which was organised by Dr Susannah Eckersley, lecturer in Museum, Gallery and Heritage Studies at Newcastle University – included an hour long film made by Dr Ian McDonald – another Newcastle academic, heading up the University’s Research Centre for Film.
Clearly, it was a busy couple of days, which perhaps speaks to the complexity of European identity, and how tricky it is to unpack. After the UK took the decision to leave the EU in 2016, many saw the conference as especially timely for British attendants, who perhaps stand to learn the most from a conference that looked at Europe as a single entity comprised of several moving parts, as opposed to a group of distinct countries coincidentally neighbouring each other; in the run up to the referendum, The Observer found that just 15% of Brits identify as European. It appears that those living in the UK – cut off from Europe geographically as well as politically and culturally – find more identity in their country than their continent (the same Observer research found that a far larger 58% identify as British, and 64% as either English, Welsh, Scottish or Irish/Northern Irish).
Either way, the conference seemed guided by an ethos that could benefit all Europeans, regardless of which side of the English Channel they live on. Namely, the key to solving Europe’s problems lies in unity, not division: the conference brought academics together from across the continent, ready to tackle thorny issues including the rise of the far-right and Europe’s “selective memory” of issues such as its history of imperialism.
Ultimately the conference seemed to show that deeper connections with Europe are possible, provided we work hard to forge them.