Museum of History of Catalonia

arch. Esteve Mach Bosch


Museum of History of Catalonia

Pl. Pau Vila, 3 Barcelona 08003 Spain

International Heritage Photographic Experience

The Washington Post newspaper once carried out a memorable experiment with the celebrated violinist Joshua Bell. Busking in an underground station, the famed violinist-tickets for his performances at the world's best concert halls are always sold out-played a number of Bach's sonatas for three-quarters of an hour, on his Stradivarius, valued as being worth two-and-a-half million dollars. Only a few children tried to stop to listen to him. The adults neither listened to him nor recognised him. I think he made 40 cents.

Over the last 27 years I have had various responsibilities in the field of architectural heritage, and throughout that time I have endeavoured to ensure that nothing similar happens when people come into contact with heritage buildings and monuments.
To achieve this, in my view, two things are needed. Firstly, we need to see that the heritage that has come down to us is not an "archaeological object" (in the pejorative sense of the word) that "belongs" to the 12th century or the 16th century or even some other period before then, but rather is something real, with a contemporary presence amongst us. And secondly, it is of prime importance for people to experience the closest contact with examples of architectural heritage, and the more personal and more lively that contact is, the better.

So let's go a step at a time.
A chronological perception of a building corresponds to academic knowledge, to information that is complete and closed, to psychological distance. When we see this heritage as an "object from the past" we immediately adopt a passive response to something so old, so distant in time, so well-labelled by the experts in art history books, and this leads us automatically to adopt a stance that requires experts, or "guides" to explain things to us, to tell us about their value and their meaning.
Curiously, we do not adopt the same attitude towards mountains, rivers, valleys or beaches even though they may be thousands or millions of years old. Their age is not an obstacle because we perceive these things as something immediate, there for our enjoyment, for contemplation or to exercise our creativity in every kind of leisure activity. Nobody would doubt that they belong to the 21st century.

Since what matters is the present moment of our "experience" it is the same for these monuments: they too belong to the 21st century. That, at least, is the case today.
And it is here that we come to a second question that I would like to draw attention to. People's contact with monuments should be as personal and lively as possible; it should have an impact on all our senses and perceptions-without intermediaries. Contact with a monument should make you feel the thrill of standing before something exceptional, something you have never seen before, and with the same force as someone who sees the sea, or a sunset, for the first time.

It was with these considerations in mind that I set up the Heritage Photographic Experience (HPE) for school students in 1991. My intention was to equip them with an "instrument" with which they might somehow express their free response to the impression this heritage had on them-through photography in this case.
Everyone knows how to take a photo, and while looking through a simple viewfinder you can devote all your attention to the thing you are looking at.
In Catalonia, where the Experience originated, I have seen hundreds of thousands (yes, you read that correctly) of photographs of the same monuments taken by different groups of school students over the last 18 years.

I am therefore a reliable and direct witness to the fact that, year after year, these young people have always found a new way of seeing these monuments, which in themselves have remained unchanged, and sometimes have done so with extraordinary artistic skill. Every year the Jury has been astonished to discover that there are no limits to creativity and that it is undeniably the case that there are as many ways of seeing a monument as there are people who observe it.

That there are as many valid interpretations as there are people is by no means an inconsiderable fact. In a world subjected to competitiveness, the awareness that something can not be either described or understood without reference to all the interpretations that have been made of it, and will be made of it in the future, teaches us how important and necessary everybody's interpretation and contribution are: it adds worth to individuality understood in the full sense of the word.
Understanding this immediately implies an invaluable lesson in self-respect, and even a lesson in democracy and its educational value can be applied to any field of knowledge, making it not just an exercise in learning about architectural heritage, but a real lesson for life.

I often have the opportunity to talk with young people and I always try to impress upon them the importance attention has for their own personal photographic experience and the importance it has in life in general.

Where we pay our attention is where reality is for us: choosing or rejecting a symmetry, a chiaroscuro, the value of a detail or the majesty of the whole, one subject or another, such questions are and always will be personal choices. As the shutter goes "click" we have decided to make one thing real and not another.
Every day, from the moment we rise to the moment we go to bed, the camera in our eye registers many thousands of pictures. Our brains, however, often do not do them the honour of processing them because we are not paying attention.

The fact that we have a memory of something does not imply having voluntarily and consciously paid attention to what was passing before our eyes.
Many of the people who walked through the underground station the day Joshua Bell was playing will, perhaps, "remember" that he was there. Maybe others saw him without observing him, or heard him without listening to him. What is clear is that none of them "clicked" their conscious attention in a way that would have fixed the violinist in their reality in the present.

That is why the IHPE is focused on being yet another tool at the service of personal experience and aimed at opening the way to a creative and self-directed life through paying conscious attention.

In 1996, Catalonia decided to turn the HPE into the IHPE, that is to say, to make it international. Since then it has been supported by the Council of Europe and has seen constant growth to the point where 66 countries throughout four continents participate in it. Almost 300,000 young people and one-and-a-quarter million photographs are the quantitative balance of these 14 years of the Experience.

The IHPE has been awarded the King Baudouin Foundation Prize (1997) and the European Union- Europa Nostra Medal (2008).

Why was the Experience made international?
The reason, once again, lies with education. What had proved to be highly successful in Catalonia would surely work well in other places. But above all there was another aim: the perception of the cultural richness created through countless personal contributions dealing with the same monument could be enormously amplified by making the IHPE international, and demonstrate, experimentally, the fathomless diversity of the world heritage of the various peoples, and of their interpretations. Although the educational basis was the same, such a large change in scale made the perception of this universal diversity a new aim in itself.

With catalogues and exhibitions that have simultaneously brought together the contributions of up to sixty countries, we can say that all the stylistic and constructional nuances, different types of building, as well as decorative styles; whether pertaining to popular and refined architecture, landscapes which encompass everything from snow-covered terrain to the open desert, whether those provided by nature or those in which people have tried to express their best talents: all these are represented.
Climates and places change, as do media and beliefs, and shapes acquire all the colours of diversity, but the fundamental needs of mankind on the planet always remain the same: clothing, shelter, defence, leisure, trade, communication, religion, death. Everyone has made the formal interpretation of them most suited to their circumstances. They are all equally truthful, valid and necessary for understanding humanity.

All this immense diversity calls out for mankind's creativity, love and intelligence: it is our heritage. And the perception that, over the years, has become evident amongst the participants in the IPHE is this: the world is our heritage.