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The construction of the past and forms of historical culture in contemporary urban spaces

Priority areas of development: humanitarian

The goal of this research was theoretical understanding and empirical study of the ways historical culture works in modern urban environment.

This goal was to be achieved by following steps: (1) analyzing the existing concepts of ‘historical culture’ and the role of urban issues in them; (2) identifying the capacity of various fields of modern humanities (urban studies, public history, sociology of culture, cultural geography, ethnography and archeology of modernity, architectural history, tourism studies, etc.) to contribute to a research in the historical culture of the modern city, to conceptualization of temporal and historical heterogeneity of the urban environment and to classification of historical objects and methods for their conservation, appropriation, etc.; (3) understanding the forms of historical imagination and commemorative culture involved in settling in the urban space and in the formation of the modern man’s identity; (4) analyzing historical culture’s institutionalization and local identity formation in modern cities within the context determined by interacting educational and cultural institutions (archives, museums, universities, etc.), on the one hand, and informal communities, on the other; (5) studying the influence of globalization on the historical culture of the modern city; exploring novel uses of urban heritage for urban development; studying the management of cultural resources, area marketing practices, the place of history and historical activities in creative industries, etc.

Methodology: The methodological design of this project combines methods of multiple fields that constitute today’s urban studies (history, archeology, sociological urban studies, cultural geography, culture theory, visual studies, media studies, etc.). Thus, ample use was made of tools used for empirical analysis of historical culture in various disciplines. As a result, our study has a strong interdisciplinary character, combining traditional approaches with perspectives of novel research fields. It incorporated different levels of analysis, from theoretical and methodological issues to case-studies drawing on field research data and using middle-ground theories. The methods applied included: approaches used in social history and modern urban sociology and anthropology which implied analysis of the organization of urban communities and way of life of people living in various cities and suburbs; methods for analyzing urban space and for visual analysis of urban environment, developed in cultural geography and urban studies; methods of field research (participant observation, in-depth interviews, etc.) as used in ethnology and anthropology; approaches to the study of cultural resources developed in culture management theory; communicative analysis of various forms of representation of the past and historical sites that have been developed by students of historical culture and public history; methods of media studies, allowing to analyze the characteristics of different means of communication and different communication situations and, in particular, communication about the past; analysis of different collective memory strategies developed in modern sociology of culture; hermeneutic text analysis methods as used by students of medieval and ancient culture, etc.

Empirical base of research.The study drew upon a wide range of raw data: (1) field observations and a variety of visual sources reflecting changes in the urban environment and practices of institutions involved in shaping historical culture; (2) buildings and monuments, which serve as forms of historical experience fixation; (3) archival documents reflecting changes in everyday city life and forms of its regulation; (4) regulations governing the practice of historical heritage protection; (5) mass media and Internet forums reflecting the perception of temporality and historicity of urban environment in the mass consciousness and popular culture; (6) memories, interviews and archival documents reflecting the activities of urban communities in the field of historic preservation; 7) travelogues, travel guides, excursions records reflecting the perception of the city as part of the tourist practices.

Results of research: The main innovation about this project was that it regarded the past as one of time modes within a particular context – the urban environment, and placed the findings of this analysis in a larger framework provided by theories describing temporality in modern and postmodern era. Such analytical strategy best suits the practices of advanced social sciences and humanities who insist on the need to develop sensitivity to multiple forms and logics that govern the existence of phenomena in space and time, and to their local peculiarities. The present report shows the importance of urban environment as one of the most important arenas of modern and postmodern society that shaping and reveal time policies and different modes of temporality. An equally important innovation is the use made in the project of analytical resources of different disciplines and subject fields to create an interdisciplinary perspective on the past and on historical cultural forms in urban environment. Thus, the project provides an assembly model for different perspectives on studying the past in urban environment, as it designates both heuristic possibilities and areas of conflict and confrontation between disciplines. The following theoretical propositions can be considered the main results of the methodological revision and development of conceptual foundations for the study of the past and forms of historical culture in urban environment:

First, the description of differences between such concepts as ‘city’ and ‘urban phenomenon’ (A. Lefebvre), their new understanding and filling them with contents in relation to the study of modern and postmodern city can be seen as a methodological innovation. The report shows that the use of the concept of ‘urban phenomenon’ is extremely helpful when analyzing modern and postmodern urban life. This concept and categories related to it make it possible to describe the nuances, the multiplicity, variability and internal contradictions of the modern city which eludes fixed schemes and unambiguous categories.

Second, the city was studied as a space in which special time modes are produced and legitimized. Changes in the economic foundations of urban life (creation of industrial plants with their strict schedules), the technologization of cities (development of transport and communication means), and changes in the built environment (standardized large-scale urban projects) combine to provide a basis for the domination of presentism in urban life of the modern era and for its special sensitivity to the complex present and its being fascinated by the future (futurism). In a modern city, the past is subject to thorough control and specific urban policies governing its presence. Changes to urban time policies are largely due to the designation of new grounds of postmodern urban life which normalize asynchrony and multiplicity of rhythms and establish the appreciation of diversity.

Third, cities are viewed as dense semiotic and material environments which entice special symbolic and material forms, including ones that reveal and/or establish relationships with the past (urban planning and urban heritage). They solidify and materialize the idea of the modern city as coherent, scaled, standardized and provided with an effective control system. The past is being evaluated primarily through the prism of these temporal vectors, and its significance is largely determined by pragmatic interests of the present or by plans for the future.

The city’s evolution from modernity to post-modernity means a number of important changes in the understanding of such urban environment components as architecture, heritage, and memorials. In architecture, locality and style pluralism triumph over unifying and historicizing strategies. Concepts of architectural heritage are extended to encompass a wider range of its forms and types (including recently built objects which are attached a new cultural status), and new ideas of authenticity are put forth. Changes affect the very nature of memorial sites. They become more diverse from the material and aesthetic point of view, and their relationship with the recipient changes too, implementing the "different history" and “different memory” concepts by celebrating local and everyday figures as opposed to national and heroic ones, and commemorating what may be a discomforting and traumatic past.

Another vector of change concerning time policies is associated with the evolution of urban agency. The right of urban communities and action groups to participate in municipal government is increasingly acknowledged, their activity is expanded and, not less important, increasingly legitimized. This is a fundamental change which includes as its parts the establishment of multiple relationships with the past, the constant competition of different groups striving to exercise their right to the past in an urban environment, and the increasing value of the local. This democratization is supported by overall changes in contemporary culture in general, which transform it into a culture of participation thanks to mass media increasingly shaping society and to the growing expertise of citizens. The latter turn into ‘strong publics’ articulating and defending their interests in various social arenas, including urban ones.

Fourth, such significantly modern process as formation of institutions and communities specializing in creating images of the past and preserving historic heritage is also reflected in the urban culture: new spaces of historical representation (museums, memorials, anniversary celebrations, etc.) are constructed, local knowledge about the past (local history) is fostered, and urban heritage protection practices are developed, their variety broadening increasingly. At the same time, touristic practices of visiting and contemplating historically and culturally significant places acquire greater importance over time, which leads to differentiation of tourist experiences (mass touring, romantic touring, etc.). At the turn of the 21st century, touring practices come to play a key role for the structure of modern society and for the formation of citizens’ cultural experiences. Becoming a highly differentiated mass practice, tourism becomes also a most important factor for the transformations of historicity described above.

These provisions have been illustrated by a set of case studies describing different aspects of the transformation of historicity in metropolitan areas as well as in small townships. They examined the real and virtual dimensions of the urban space, its different loci (residential areas, parks, holiday villages, etc.), the activities of various communities and institutions (city authorities, museums, churches, local history lovers’ organizations, pop-music fandoms, pilgrims, etc.), cultural practices (cultural tourism, recreational practices, subculture activities, etc.). Enabling a comparative analysis, the combination of Russian and foreign cases highlights topical issues in Russian urban culture.

Methodologically, studying modern city life through the prism of historical culture involved a variety of research strategies from analyzing the transformations of urban environment and constructing ‘biographies of places’ to the analysis of tourist experience and practices of culture consumption.

Case analysis confirmed the hypothesis that the pace of modernization is accelerating, which is particularly noticeable in small towns trying to take their historic chance by joining in the system of global tourism. On the other hand, we were confronted with a broad variety of modern urban phenomena that can be observed not only in the cities themselves but also in suburban spaces (e.g. holiday villages) and in the countryside. Cases studies showed the inherently contradictory process of heritage expansion to be typical of modern culture. This process is not limited either to emergence new themes concerning the past on public agenda or to new actualization modes and forms of constructing the past. The very concepts of monuments, landscapes and historical sites are changing: it is no longer the past to which they refer that matters, but also the conditions in which they acquired their shape and their status as heritage sites. Along with the value of the objects themselves, significance is attached to the varied practices of their appropriation and use that render them that new quality of being historical. Of particular importance to the public interest in history and in the past is their event-actualization (e.g., in the case of landscapes, it is in the form of thematic festivals which attract tourists).

Another important subject for analysis was associated with relationships between the spaces that shape the image of the past in the city (e.g. museums) and the evolution of urban temporality and transformation of urban environment. In some way or another, our case-studies have shown, heritage in general and museums in particular are inscribed in processes of urban transformation: they can ‘draw the modern urban environment into the past’, but they can also themselves become markers of that past. Along with museums and other institutions designed to represent the temporal mode of conserving the past, there are traditional institutions such as the Church involved in forming historical heritage and constructing images of the urban past.

Level of implementation, recommendations on implementation or outcomes of the implementation of the results.

The main conclusions and findings of the project have been presented in numerous articles published by members of the Poletaev Institute for Theoretical and Historical Studies in the Humanities (IGITI) in international and Russian periodicals. A number of new arguments and completed studies have been presented at international conferences and symposia, the most important of which was the international conference on HistoriCity: Urban Space and Changing Historical Culture, sponsored by the HSE on May 23–24, 2014 within the framework of the project. Findings of the research done by the authors, novel methods and new empirical knowledge are already being widely used in dozens of training courses offered by IGITI members at the Higher School of Economics. Results of practical use can be applied in the activities of cultural institutions in charge of working with historical heritage in urban environment and cultural life of the city in general.


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