Fields of work

In current value debates, a concept is often used that has been part of the process of national formation for two hundred years: the construction of collective identity by asserting the unity of state, history, people, culture, and heritage. The research training group counters this by positing that identity and heritage, although interdependent concepts, cannot rely on stable meanings or relationships. Identity refers not only to concepts of positive self-discovery and definition, but also to concepts of exclusion and sometimes forced limitation by higher authorities supported by power. Heritage in our case refers to cultural heritage, which, unlike civil inheritance, is not defined by private stipulations made by inheritors and passed on, but by way of the active, public appropriation of those willing to receive the heritage in question. This includes cases where there are no willing heirs to be found. Insecure relationships and ambiguities are characteristic for the conflict-ridden field of identification and the appropriation of cultural heritage in connection with the constitution of communities of all sizes.
At the center of our research program is the link between a society’s need for affirmation and the appropriation of cultural heritage that is mobilized for the politics of history and identity. The cultural-based identity constructions of national, social, and political groups are analyzed and critically historicized in terms of their inclusive and exclusive impact. Lost, robbed, or stolen heritage is included in the studies along with the negotiation of cultural heritage in the supranational context (Council of Europe, UNESCO).
It is especially important in our studies to remain close to the objects and their historical meanings, to not divorce current processes of negotiation on the interpretation and value of the heritage from their material and historical foundations. The research training group combines object studies with a critical, socially-based approach. It thus links usually parallel discourses and various disciplinary cultures in an innovative way, also with an international perspective.
In the second funding phase (2021–2025), the research training group is focusing more intensely on the conditions and effects of inheritance. Inheritance and the formulation of identify assignations take place in a social, political, and cultural context that finds itself in permanent interaction with the observable phenomena of material transmission and the frequently preservatory process of renewal. This is true of both architectural structures as well as artefacts, spaces in the city and in the countryside. In consideration of the disciplines and qualifications involved, the following linked, interdisciplinary thematic fields can be defined under the main subject “Identity and Heritage.”


The promise of stability and continuity of the key terms identity and heritage are linked to the knowledge that since the nineteenth century have surrounded processes of inheritance, maintaining tradition, of the transmission and afterlife. These combinations result in questions rooted in intellectual and conceptual history and pertaining to discourse and ideology critique. Additional research targets the relationship between concepts of heritage and the archive in the reference to the past in the arts, the historical transformation of concepts of heritage and inheritance, or the construction and deconstruction of collective spaces of identity, conflict, and history. This can be illustrated using the example of the reordering and new presentation of collections at historical museums in the wake of systemic change.


When classical national techniques of generating meaning lose importance, this alters the function and weight of institutionalized and freelance expertise in the field of monument preservation. What models of social participation can be used in monument preservation and how can we take recourse to experiences of planning theory and planning practice? The Council of Europe Convention of Faro (2005) opens both the social and the local framework of the construction of heritage. This means that anyone can become an heir who declares themselves as such. How can this work in practice? Who maintains the interpretive authority? Especially when at issue are architectural products of dictatorial regimes that are not by accident called “uncomfortable monuments,” we are faced with the question of how a change in interpretive authority can be conceived and how the processes of reinterpretation and reappropriation can be organized. Radical political caesuras in particular show that we can count on the loss of a consensus about what is worthy of preservation. In the context of the social construction of monuments, the limits of participation and expert competence need to be explored.


The loss of a monument does not automatically entail the loss of heritage. Even after its material demise, a monument can remain heritage and the loss itself can become a legacy that continues to serve to create community. The history of Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple is the classical example of this, alongside which can be placed the great movements of displacement and flight in the twentieth century, albeit with different specifics. Diasporic communities are held together by the loss of homeland, not despite the fact, but precisely because that homeland is unreachable. We ask: how is loss experienced, handed down, and inherited? The conscious and intentional destruction of cultural heritage as we are currently experiencing dramatically by Islamic fundamentalists, have been part of wartime activity since time immemorial and an element of religious, cultural, and politically motivated battles for hegemony of all kinds. Who are the addressees of the act of destruction? Does it actually obliterate the foundation of the social cohesion of those who have been robbed of their heritage or does it serve to reinforce the identity of those doing the destruction? Can we distill basic patterns of devaluation and destruction of cultural heritage?


Those who speak of the “identity” of a place to refer to something essential undertake an attribution of uniqueness. Attributions of this kind are regularly the basis for design proposals or attempts to develop a “local heritage” further. Attributions of uniqueness with changing frames of reference are temporally and contextually bound. Sometimes the city map (“genetic code”) sometimes the silhouette or eave height (“spatial scaffolding”), then again morphology, building type, the trademark or, in more general terms, the general genius loci and its atmosphere. Entirely different strategies in the approach to a location that are at the same time legitimized by referring to city identity, become conceivable as the result of various attributions of uniqueness and explicable and researchable as options of action and design. Building reconstructions are a form of contemporary architecture in which societal desires and ideas materialize that are oriented towards the past. These should be taken seriously and studied, because today the option of reconstruction is being held up to counter the paradigm of maintenance in preservation and in particular is described as strengthening identity. Here, complicating matters, reconstructions of past monuments, like the rebuilt cities after the Second World War, themselves become historical and can be considered part of the cultural heritage.


The relationship of identity and heritage is shaped by the goal conflicts of various groups of agents. While public political-administrative institutions pursue programs of social policy and at the same time favor the finding and implementing of desired uses, increasingly professional companies appear with elaborate products. As part of globalization, the growing dominance of the media, and the marketing of heritage, a “heritage industry” has emerged. Today, various public and private actors are in competition for interpretive authority, financing, and profits, whose number and influence have increased to the extent that the state and municipal authorities have retreated from public historical maintenance. Considerations pertaining to the past have been diversified and linked to a globalized industry of leisure, media, and tourism. This applies to archaeological sites within and outside Europe, involving “site management” plans that also include the opening of the examined area for the purpose of tourism even before and especially after excavations. What until now has largely been lacking are binding models, standards, and techniques for involving locals. We thus need to ask how does the cultural heritage change if it is no longer (only) constructed by the public authorities and civil society, but increasingly also produced by commercial agents? Does the link of heritage and identity constructions thus dissolve or become arbitrary? What are the chances and risks of an increasingly market-based organization of supply and demand? How does this marketing effect the international standards of presentation? What role is played by the media-supported (international) demand of tourists, who use the increasing affordability and international accessibility of travel to consume derivatives of the cultural heritage in ever greater numbers on site or to actually damage sites of the cultural heritage themselves? How does this influence local identification?