Report of the conference Tangible Pasts

Report of an international conference, Rotterdam June 6-7 2013

Are the uses of heritage as primary instructional resources in education compatible with critical historical thinking? If so, how can we use heritage in history education? These and other questions were discussed by about 120 people who attended the international conference in Rotterdam, Tangible Pasts? Questioning heritage education. The Centre for Historical Culture (CHC) at Erasmus University and the National Institute for Cultural Education and Amateur Art (LKCA) organised this event. The conference was one of the results of the research program Heritage Education, Plurality of Narratives and Shared Historical Knowledge (2009-2014), funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research and conducted at the CHC with Maria Grever as programme and research leader and Carla van Boxtel as research leader.

After a warm welcome by Dick Douwes, dean of the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication, two keynotes speeches started the first day. Maria Grever introduced the conference theme. She pointed out that heritage suggests the idea of bringing history alive, offering possibilities to ‘experience’ and to ‘touch’ the past. Although this ‘sensory experience of history’ might be a successful way of evoking students' historical interest, critical historical thinking concepts are necessary, therefore Grever elaborated different modes of staging ‘historical distance’ in exhibitions and other educational resources for analysing the possible dynamic effects of heritage education. She concluded by giving four conditions for being able to assess the value of heritage education.

Professor Peter Seixas from Canada, founding director of the Centre for the Study of Historical Consciousness, explained the situation in Canada as a multinational country. He showed the complexity of Canadian history, often being projected on varying dates in the past. Seixas is the initiator of the famous Historical Thinking Project that contains six concepts of historical thinking, such as continuity and change, cause and consequence, evidence and significance. Despite great differences in the quality of school history in various countries, the increasing international research on the didactics of history education is hopeful.

After an interesting discussion with these two, the conference continued with the different paper sessions. Each session focused on various central questions: What are students’ diverse backgrounds and how do they react to ‘sensitive’ heritage? How can you mediate between different dissonant perspectives? Through what kind of strategies do heritage institutes construct distance and proximity and how does this relate to the making of identities? In the afternoon it was possible to attend a panel on heritage in a digital environment or follow a workshop. In the workshops museums showed some ‘good practices’ of using heritage in education. Moreover, the relation between historical accuracy, museum goals and public expectations was explored. The day ended with a keynote talk by Peter Andersson from Sweden on national history museums. Furthermore, Stephan Klein, member of the CHC research team, launched his beautiful educational website Slave Trade in the Atlantic World. 

The second day started with the keynotes papers of Bruce Van Sledright from the United States and Carla van Boxtel. Van Sledright explained that history education in the US was in fact ‘heritage education’ due to its uncritical manner of remembering several heroic events and persons. Van Boxtel offered various concrete opportunities of integrating heritage in history education. She also spoke about ‘heritage education’ however, with a different meaning. She showed how heritage can be used in order to improve historical thinking, to support historical imagination, historical inquiry and reasoning. Furthermore, historical objects can give more insight into the relation between past and present.

In the afternoon these time levels were an important topic. What are the consequences of making identities based on this past-present relationship, and what of heritage itself? Which perspectives are present in World War II heritage - perpetrators or victims? To what extent does affection constrain or encourage understanding and learning? The afternoon offered an optional programme, full of sessions, workshops and a panel on how to professionalise history teachers and museum educators. At the end of the day, Brenda Trofanenko from Canada summarised the whole conference. Due to the variety of themes, she focused on the use of objects in history education and the balances between distance and proximity. She also stressed that it ‘warmed her heart’ that so many different disciplines and countries were gathered in Rotterdam. 

The conference ended with lively discussions: the results of Tangible Pasts? Questioning heritage education were already tangible. People from different countries talked to each other and they explained to me that it was important ‘to speak the same language’ in order to overcome the differences between the various disciplines. Indeed this variety was quite exceptional, as were the encounters between public history experts and academic scholars. Museum educators, teachers and researchers agreed that it was indeed possible to combine heritage with history education. It all depends on the questions that are used and on the professional training of educators and teachers. 
The conference ended with lively discussions: the results of Tangible Pasts? Questioning heritage education were already tangible. People from different countries talked to each other and they explained to me that it was important ‘to speak the same language’ in order to overcome the differences between the various disciplines. Indeed this variety was quite exceptional, as well as the encounters between public history experts and academic scholars. Museum educators, teachers and researchers agreed that it was indeed possible to combine heritage with history education. It all depends on the questions that are used and on the professional training of educators and teachers. 


Tina van der Vlies (Erasmus University Rotterdam)

Click here for the conference photo gallery.