Buildings as Symbols of the Nation
An article exploring how buildings come to be seen as symbols of the nation, and why it is important for young people to engage in the heritage industry.
On the 15th April 2019, the world watched as a fire took hold at the Notre-Dame de Paris. By the time the fire had been extinguished both the spire and roof had been destroyed, and there was extensive damage to other parts of the building. The response to the fire was both incredibly unusual, and highly emotional. Through the night of the fire and into the next day, people gathered along the Seine to hold vigils, sing and pray. One resident of Paris expressed that “it is impossible to overstate how shocking it is to watch such an enduring embodiment of our country burn”, while another was quoted as saying “the burning fireball seemed to so many like a heart wrenched from a body”. These sentiments were also shared by people beyond the streets, with President Emmanuel Macron speaking of the shock of a "whole nation", and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo calling Notre Dame a "part of our common heritage".
No other site seems to represent France quite like Notre-Dame, which has given its name to one of the country’s most famous literary works – Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame (known simply as Notre Dame de Paris in French). One of France’s most famous landmarks, it was built 850 years ago and attracts an estimated 13 million visitors every year. Its main rival as a national symbol, the Eiffel Tower, is little more than a century old, while Notre-Dame’s foundations rest on the most ancient inhabited site in Paris, the Celtic town of Lutetia, which dates to at least the first century BCE.
Many of the most iconic historical buildings (those that we think of when we imagine their countries) are ancient: from the Colosseum in Rome and the Great Pyramids of Giza in Egypt. These buildings often become symbols of the nation as they are understood as a stable and consistent presence within their countries. However, buildings as old as Notre-Dame have often changed over time, as parts are replaced, added, removed, joined and divided. The scholar Mark Thatcher argues that, “despite their physical existence, historic buildings are ‘created’ – they must be constructed as ‘historic’ through processes of choice and the attachment of significance”. Notre-Dame has literally grown and changed with the nation, and our response to the fire is therefore as much to do with how the building makes us feel, as it is to do with its physical appearance.
Because of this connection between buildings and a sense of self, leading international figures in the heritage sector argue that maintaining the upkeep of heritage buildings is vital in preserving the country’s national identity and in raising the awareness of heritage in today’s modern society. While the heritage sector is often associated with older members of society, young people play a key role too. Through the appreciation of their cultural heritage, young people are often inspired to participate and contribute meaningfully to society, while also developing their personal and professional skills – better preparing them for the future. For example, young people can engage in projects where their skills can make a difference in protecting, safeguarding and promoting heritage. Young people are also often able to bring new and diverse ideas to heritage problems, encouraging discussions about national identity to be more inclusive.