2 minutes to read Posted on Thursday August 12, 2021

Updated on Tuesday September 21, 2021

portrait of Harry Verwayen

Harry Verwayen

General Director , Europeana Foundation

portrait of Georgia Evans

Georgia Evans

Editorial Officer , Europeana Foundation

New European Bauhaus - an interview with Harry Verwayen

The European Commission’s New European Bauhaus initiative wants to put sustainability, inclusivity and beauty at the heart of Europe’s future. Through conversations with cultural professionals and heritage advocates, we are exploring the key role that cultural heritage can play. Today, we speak to Harry Verwayen, General Director of the Europeana Foundation.

Harry Verwayen sat on a chair on the deck of a ship
Title: Harry Verwayen
Creator: Sebastiaan ter Burg
Date: 2018
CC BY

What does the New European Bauhaus mean to you?

The New European Bauhaus initiative aims at profound societal change. It takes perhaps the biggest challenge that we face as a society - how do we live better and more sustainably together - and asks how we respond to that challenge. That is an ambition no one can ignore. 

The New European Bauhaus proposes to spark the innovations necessary to achieve this goal, and to inspire and mobilise the necessary civic effort, with a creative, cultural, and people-centric approach. This direction appeals to me as it constitutes a disruptive but empowering new approach to reimagining the relationship between people, nature, and the built environment of Europe.

How does the New European Bauhaus align with Europeana’s goals?

The New European Bauhaus initiative’s goals and methods resonate strongly within the Europeana community. While Europeana’s core business is focused on cultural heritage collections and digital transformation, our efforts are animated by a broader vision to reimagine the relationship between people, society, and the institutions of European culture. 

However, the concept of digitality — the condition of living in a digital culture — is notably absent from the New European Bauhaus at the present time. But the digital space is integral to our living environment today -  we work there, we play there, we come together there. It is as much a part of our daily life as our physical surroundings, and increasingly how we use those spaces and experience them determines our experiences as human beings. We want to explore what the digital component of the space envisaged by the New European Bauhaus could and should look like, and what the contribution of digital cultural heritage can be in that sphere. We are working towards a digital space that is equitable, inclusive, climate responsible - elements that we have already identified in our Foundation’s Business Plan, ‘Towards a digital public space for cultural heritage’, and which resonate strongly with the ambitions of New European Bauhaus. 

We see these also reflected in a growing recognition in civic, political and policy circles of the importance of a values-based and bottom up response that has much in common with the New European Bauhaus. That response envisages a Digital Public European space, which is built on democratic values and promotes a rights-based, people-centred landscape that helps nurture more inclusive societies.  

How has Europeana been supporting and promoting awareness and discussion of the New European Bauhaus?

Through a series of Europeana Cafés on New European Bauhaus, we sparked new conversations about the opportunities which the initiative has for the cultural heritage sector, and encouraged cultural heritage professionals to add their voices to the discussion. We have developed an innovative mentoring programme and educational challenge to encourage educators to get involved, and are connecting contemporary conversations about green issues and sustainable living with cultural heritage using blogs, galleries and learning resources on the Europeana website. All of these activities - and more - are shared through a page on Europeana Pro, providing a central point of information and inspiration on the initiative for the sector.

While we feel that ‘digital’ is not sufficiently part of the New European Bauhaus at the moment, we are supporting the Commission in its ambitions to explore how we want to manifest ourselves in a digital environment and participating in a Digital Principles Consultation.  We will bring our views into focus in the coming months as we are working towards a vision statement to outline what we can contribute to the New European Bauhaus, in practice. We are exploring it through the Cafés, the Europeana Network Association, and will benefit from the expertise and perspective of our Advisory Board

In a not too distant future shaped by the values of the New European Bauhaus, what do you hope that the experience of visiting a cultural heritage institution would be like?

I would hope that cultural spaces and institutions become great convening places, where you don’t only go to look at a great painting and then move on. I’d like an experience that helps you interact with that artwork, something more conversational and more inclusive. Maybe you can share it with your friends, or do something with it - add to it, remix it. Instead of a place that invites you to only look, it becomes a place that allows you to shape your thoughts, converse, and engage in social interaction. 

How do you think that digital can support this vision? 

I see the spaces around us becoming more and more hybrid - they will be both physical and digital. I imagine that in 10-20 years, everything in the world that is physical (buildings, streets, lampposts and so forth) will have a digital overlay - it will be augmented in a digital way. That means that - if we design it well - you can have a much richer experience.  A future digital space led by New European Bauhaus values should be a fantastic space to be in.

What needs to happen to get us there?

We need to work out what the rules are around such a hybrid world. How do we operate it? How do we interact in it? Who can access it? Do you feel at home there? Who manages the conversation? What are the boundaries? 

To help us answer these questions, we need to develop a common vision for and understanding of that Digital Public Space I mentioned earlier - one that works for all parts of society and supports the work of the cultural heritage sector in particular.

New European Bauhaus encourages interdisciplinarity - Commissioner Mariya Gabriel has described it as ‘a bridge between the world of art and culture on one side and the world of science and technology on the other’. How can the cultural heritage sector work with other sectors to make a contribution to the initiative?

Take a look at the Europeana Cafés! There, we have brought together people and organisations from the digital cultural arena, like Europa Nostra, individuals like Jens Bley (who works on SmartCities) and Meta Knol (who runs Leiden, City of Science 2022) alongside other organisations who are much more geared towards cities and places. Although we each have our own starting points and particular perspectives on New European Bauhaus, together we can explore how digital and culture translate into these other areas. By working together with other sectors - and working to start conversations between them - we can look at the problem space from different angles and make sure people and organisations can connect. 

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