SIEF2017 13th Congress: Göttingen, Germany
26-30 March 2017

Heritage & place-making: crossroads of secularization & sacralization
Location KWZ 1.731
Date and Start Time 28 March, 2017 at 08:30
Sessions 2


  • Markus Balkenhol (Meertens Instituut) email
  • Ferdinand de Jong (University of East Anglia) email

Mail All Convenors

Chair Irene Stengs (Meertens Institute)

Short Abstract

Selecting cultural heritage is linked to belonging, place-making, and exclusion that seemingly matches secularist modernity. But heritagization also involves processes of sacralization. This panel looks at the intersections of de- and re-sacralization in the making of cultural heritage.

Long Abstract

The production of cultural heritage is inextricably linked to processes of belonging and place-making. Sites, objects and practices may be selected as cultural heritage when they are thought to express something fundamental about a 'nation', a 'people', or a 'culture'. As a consequence, cultural heritage has come to be understood as a crucial mode of binding, belonging, and exclusion that seemingly fits with the secularist outlook of late modernity.

However, while recognizing certain sites, objects and practices as 'heritage' involves a secular gaze (cf. Asad 2003), heritagization also involves processes of sacralization (Meyer & de Witte 2013). Cultural heritage has often, and correctly, been analyzed as part and parcel of processes of place-making, but it is of particular interest how people produce heritage in a religious framework. We understand late modern place-making as both a religious and secular engagement. This panel takes religion and cultural heritage as connected and looks in ethnographic detail at the intersecting tendencies of de- and re-sacralization in the making of cultural heritage.

As the process of heritagization involves a selection of those practices deemed central to past, present and future (and those that are not), heritagization is inherently connected to a wide variety of questions concerning inclusion, exclusion and the articulation of the contours of communities. How are religious sites, objects or practices taken up in processes of heritagization and, inversely how does heritage set up forms of sacrality itself? How does heritagization relate to contemporary conflicts in religiously pluriform secular nation states?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Heritagization of spirit possession as secular sacralization of the nation in Vietnam

Author: Oscar Salemink (University of Copenhagen)  email

Short Abstract

Tensions between scholars, officials and practitioners over whether spirit possession in Vietnam constitutes a religious practice or (secular) cultural heritage illustrate how heritagization of this spirit possession practice serves to define and sacralize the Vietnamese nation and its territory.

Long Abstract

Since the mid-noughties Vietnam has been very successful in getting various cultural practices inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) list. In 2016 it seeks recognition for "Practices related to the Việt beliefs in the Mother Goddesses of Three Realms" (see This pertains to a diverse set of performative spirit possession practices which until recently was condemned by state agents as "superstitious", but which has blossomed in the context of market reforms and which has been the object of much scholarly research by Vietnamese and international scholars, including myself. In this paper I describe some events during an international conference in Nam Định city, organized by that province in conjunction with the research institute of the Ministry of Culture in preparation for the dossier. Against the backdrop of the looming heritagization I pay particular attention to submerged tensions between scholars, officials and practitioners over whether lên đồng spirit possession constitutes a religious or (secular) cultural practice. On this basis I will argue that the heritagization of this spirit possession practice serves to define and sacralize the Vietnamese nation and its territory.

Secular passions for religious heritage: notes towards preparing ethnographic fieldwork on passion plays in postsecular Dutch society

Author: Ernst van den Hemel (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences)  email

Short Abstract

This paper investigates the ways in which religion and secularity, popular culture and ritual and heritage and sacralization interact in contemporary Dutch performances of passion plays. Particular emphasis is placed on the role of secular-religious affects in national identity formations.

Long Abstract

Since 2011, 'The Passion', an annually recurring televised performance of the last days of Christ draws millions of viewers. Simultaneously, each Easter, hundreds of thousands of people go to church to participate in or listen to performances of Bach's Mättheus Passion.

This increasing popularity of religiously-themed performances stands in apparent contrast with the secular self-image of Dutch society. Research done into the motivation of people to participate in these performances show a plurality of reasons, but conversion or faith-based participation are not among the majority reasons. As a result, passion performances are often seen as 'nothing more' than cultural enjoyment. In a frequently heard criticism, the many people for whom Easter or Christmas are the only times they would participate in religiously-themed processions or places, are seen as mere consumers of a cultural tradition which has little to no link with 'actual' religion.

Yet, from an updated perspective these divisions between enjoyment of cultural heritage and religion are a lot more complicated. This paper suggests approaching the secular passion of the Passion against the backdrop of a complex series of identifications in which heritage and religion, sacralization and secularization, and ritual and popular culture are important and by no means mutually exclusive ingredients.

This paper explores the conceptual challenges in doing ethnographic fieldwork against this backdrop. And, what conceptual innovations are needed to understand these phenomena? In what terms do people describe their participation in passion performances? What secular emotions does the passion create?

Ritual matters material excess and processes of heritage formation

Author: Irene Stengs (Meertens Institute)  email

Short Abstract

This presentation addresses the relationship between ritual practice, materiality and processes of heritage formation. Point of departure is the capacity of ritual to produce material excess. What processes make that such materials cannot be disposed of and processes of heritage formation set in?

Long Abstract

Literally loaded with promises of eternal love in the form of one million padlocks (45 tons), a part of the railings the Pont des Arts Bridge over the Seine broke off, in June 2014. Attaching a lock to the bridge and subsequently tossing the key into the river to seal a pledge of eternal commitment and faithfulness had become an important ritual for romantic couples visiting Paris. After the entire railings were removed, the city authorities decided to store them in a warehouse. We may ask, what stopped the city authorities from disposing the locks straightaway? The Paris padlocks are but one example of present-day public rituals that leave people in charge with huge quantities of ritual material that can neither be disposed of nor easily stored. Even stronger, in many cases this material is regarded as heritage and, accordingly, to be preserved.

This presentation addresses the inextricable relationship between ritual practice, materiality and processes of heritage formation. My point of departure will be an often-overlooked aspect of ritual: the capacity to produce material excess. Yet, to understand why such materials cannot be disposed of, I will bring in an additional focus on the ritual processes that charge - or maybe better sacralise - such material with new, extra or extraordinary values. Comparing various cases of ritual producing material excess ('secular' as well as 'religious'), it is my proposition that the management of excess ritual material will be a matter of growing concern for research institutes, archives, museums and other heritage organisations.

Making place in the French Pyrenees: cultural heritages, common good and secular salvation

Author: Arnauld Chandivert (université Paul Valéry - Montpellier)  email

Short Abstract

If heritage-based place making is now well documented, more attention can be paid to its links with the construction of a common good, as a set of values collectively shared. In weak areas, such a common good can be used to provide a better future, using culture for a this-worldly salvation.

Long Abstract

Based on the case of a rural weak area located in the French Pyrenees, this paper addresses the question of giving a sacred value to heritage in the context of a cultural "revival" especially perceptible here since the 1990s. Showcasing heritage has been a major interest for different actors, in order to regain a "pride of place" (Gerson, 2003), a feeling of continuity between generations, maintaining and/or producing a sense of belonging for local inhabitants or newcomers attracted by quality of life.

This sacralization of cultural heritage, visible through the emotions it provokes, the attitudes of respect it orders, has also been thought as a way to connect past, present and future, creating new paths for territorial development. This ambition has also been taken over by local politicians sensitive to heritage and culture, through participatory development programs. These programs gave rise to the necessity of identifying a common good: the territory, as an entity to work for beyond rivalries.

Given the age-old demographic and economic decline faced by this area, this strategy promoting cultural authenticity has been seen as a way to save this little Pyrenean "pays", regaining life against slow death, in connection with a global context where culture is an element of a "secular soteriology" (Stoczkowski, 2009).

The aim of this paper is to analyze the mechanisms of this secular sacralization of cultural value and examine the limits and processes of exclusion this cultural renewal includes (exclusion of non-participants to development programs, of categories of inhabitants downgraded by the social effects of this renewal, etc.).

A postsocialist palimpsest: on the restitution of property and the making of 'authentic' landscapes in contemporary Russia

Author: Tobias Köllner (Witten/Herdecke University)  email

Short Abstract

Focusing on the property restitution to religious organizations in contemporary Russia, the relation between religion and politics, and the contribution of the dominant Russian Orthodox Church to heritagization and the creation of an ‘authentic’ Russian landscape are highlighted.

Long Abstract

In contemporary post-socialist Russia, an important part of the religious revival is the increasing public visibility of Russian Orthodoxy all over the country. First and foremost, this takes the form of newly erected or refurbished church buildings with their typical golden domes. Since 2012, this process has accelerated with the adoption of a new law on property restitution to religious organizations such as the Russian Orthodox Church. In my presentation I elaborate on the concrete circumstances surrounding the return of property to religious organizations and the analysis of the outcomes of this process.

Analyzing the property restitution in contemporary Russia, I argue, allows us to grasp and unpack religious place-making and the underlying relationship between Russian Orthodox religion and politics. Through the restitution of church buildings, the Russian Orthodox Church is able to regain power and to strengthen its rootedness on the local level. Thus, the Church is able to transform the land and to create an 'authentic' Russian landscape that is strongly influenced by religious notions and symbols. Moreover, the unity of religious, traditional and cultural aspects of Russian Orthodoxy is highlighted which contributes to the generation of a new Russian identity. This is important for political actors too because they are looking for the Church's potential to contribute to identity and legitimacy issues. Accordingly, this process is interpreted as a top-down identity-building and a heritagization of the Russian landscape.

The cross, the birch-tree and the rocket-launcher: the evolution of visual symbols in Russian rural cemeteries in the twentieth-twenty-first centuries

Author: Elizabeth Warner (University of Durham)  email

Short Abstract

The desacralization of death in post-Soviet Russia

Long Abstract

Particularly in the more remote regions of the North the ancient cult of ancestors still plays a significant role in Russian village life, ensuring the continuity of family, kinship and community values and traditions. For Russians in general there is no aspect of religious (in its widest sense) belief and practice that is more important and more bound up with national identity and values than funeral and memorial ritual. The ritual focus of care for the deceased is in the cemetery -the territory and home of revered dead ancestors and a social space in which the living and the dead may communicate, through speech (lamenting), through touch (knocking on the grave-marker by way of greeting) or through the 'sharing' or offering of food. This paper will focus on the visual aspects of cemeteries, the changing role of symbols and devices and the messages they convey. The outward appearance of rural cemeteries has changed significantly since the early twentieth century when a simple Orthodox cross was their only visible symbol. The process of secularisation begun in Soviet times has accelerated in the post-Soviet era with the advent of funeral directors and consumer choice until many cemeteries resemble a battleground between the sacred and the profane. This paper is based on my own impressions and photographic record of cemeteries during fieldwork in Arkhangel'sk, Vologda, Pskov, Novgorod and Tver' provinces (oblasti) 2006-2016).

Postcolonial heritage and religion in the Netherlands

Author: Markus Balkenhol (Meertens Instituut)  email

Short Abstract

Based on an ethnography of a newly created ancestor mask in the Afro-Surinamese Winti community, this paper analyzes the intersections of cultural heritage, religion, and belonging in the Netherlands.

Long Abstract

This presentation showcases a project by Marian Markelo, a descendent of enslaved Africans and the most prominent priestess of the afro-Surinamese Winti religion in the Netherlands, and Boris van Berkum, a Dutch artist. Their project is called the "African Renaissance" in the Winti religion, referring to the "re-introduction" of the African ancestors' religious art in the Winti religion. At the core of the project is a collection of masks.

In the Dutch Africa Museum, six West African masks were selected and then scanned using portable 3D scanning equipment. The scan delivered digital "point-cloud coordinates", which were computer rendered, and then milled into polyurethane foam. The mask was presented to the public during the 150th anniversary of abolition in 2013, and was later acquired by the Amsterdam Museum. It is now understood as part of the city's cultural heritage. In other words, to the extent that cultural heritage gives material shape to the identity of a group, the mask has become a statement about the composition of Amsterdam as a polis, a political community.

In this presentation I investigate the ways this ancestor mask partakes in a wider field of cultural heritage and the politics of citizenship and belonging. I argue that the mask can be understood as a postsecular object that is both cultural heritage and a sacred object. I investigate how through this object a postsecular mode of belonging emerges that critically engages with traditions of secularism and citizenship.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.