“Plural Heritages of Istanbul: The Case of the Land Walls” Research Project – A Participatory Research Approach for Cultural Heritage

In recent years, there have been participatory cultural heritage interpretation and presentation efforts in order to pluralise the narrations related to cultural heritage. Plural Heritages of Istanbul: The Case of the Land Walls research project is an example that employs this bottom-up approach engaging communities in cultural heritage interpretation. The aim of the research was to explore how to engage communities with the cultural heritage in historic urban settings and come up with new valorisations and interpretation resources via the case of Istanbul Land Walls example. Following an interdisciplinary approach, it employed participatory research methods such as the walking ethnographies, creative participatory workshops, and co-production activities. With this two year long project, a multi-layered cultural landscape around Istanbul Land Walls have been explored engaging its communities for the first time in a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Istanbul. The participatory research methods have played a key role in finding out about the daily life experiences and stories of people in relation to the cultural landscape. The project outputs* are shared in creative interactive forms as digital story maps, searchable video content in the project website. The routes for a digital tour of the Land Walls are also developed with the communities’ narrations and made available via mobile applications. At the end of the project, the research team has also prepared practical toolkits for the heritage professionals, municipalities, NGOs and community stakeholders.

Heritage sector have been facing difficulties in adopting a participatory approach in cultural heritage involving its diverse communities to take part in the heritage interpretation process. 

In recent years, there have been more examples especially in the context of the museums for engaging community with cultural heritage. However in relation to the urban historical sites, there is still a need for a wider implementation of this approach. The European Commission also states that the museums are at the forefront with their innovative participatory strategies, but these are not adopted by the site management institutions (European Commission, 2011, 2018). The democratisation of cultural heritage depends on the inclusion of multi-perspective interpretations of different communities through active participation of civil society. The top-down heritage management tradition in Turkey also leads to the lack of dialogue between the stakeholders of cultural heritage and leaves communities’ relations with heritage underdeveloped. With the case of sites on World Heritage List, the cultural heritage management generally focuses on the physical environment (in terms of tangible heritage consisting of monumental, architectural properties) its inventory and protection. As Bonino Baraldi et al (2012, p 728) state, although community consultation is a key part of developing World Heritage Site Management Plans (SMPs), in practice this has been criticized as superficial in its effects.

“Plural Heritages of Istanbul: The Case of the Land Walls” research project is an example for a participatory approach to pluralise cultural heritage interpretations that aims to address the lack of participatory processes in heritage management and provide a new layer to the authorised heritage discourse, in line with the Faro Convention**, avoiding the top-down interpretation of the heritage values and the one way communication processes. The project aimed to pluralise heritage values with a desire to respond a set of challenges in how to engage communities; how to include the ‘stakeholders’ of the World Heritage Site in decision-making processes; how to interpret historical urban heritage sites, in particular walls and how to present the multiple voices reflecting the characteristics of the Land Walls as cultural landscape. In the project, the Istanbul Land Walls have been considered as a living historical urban site beyond the focus of its defence structure.

The project has started in 2016 with the collaboration of Newcastle University, Istanbul Bilgi University, Eskişehir Anadolu University and Bursa Uludağ University and ran for two years. It was supported by TÜBİTAK Katip Çelebi (Turkey) and Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK) Newton Fund. This project is led by Prof. Christopher Whitehead (Newcastle University) and other members of the UK research team involve Dr. Tom Schofield, Dr. Gönül Bozoğlu and Dr Daniel Foster-Smith (Newcastle University. Coordinator for the Turkish research team is Prof Asu Aksoy (İstanbul Bilgi University) and the researchers include Dr Zeynep Kunt, Dr Ayşegül Yılmaz, Saadet Gündoğdu (Istanbul Bilgi University), Dr Figen Kıvılcım Çorakbaş, Elif Acar Bilgin, (Uludağ University), Serhat Sarı (Anadolu University)  The different stages of research built up to develop participatory heritage interpretation methods in order to find out about the local communities’ narrations about the site and share them with the public. In the following lines, you will find a review of this project.

When the research process has started in 2016, the Panaroma 1453 Museum was the only interpretation resource of the Land Walls with its main theme being the conquest. The multi-layered functions, stories of the Land Walls and the multi-cultural environment around the site is not included in its narrations. In other words, the local knowledge that consists of different experiences, perspectives and stories of the people whose lives are connected to the site is missing from the authorised heritage discourse. In the wider case of Istanbul’s Historic Areas, the communities with an interest in the Walls have not been consulted, either. It is also debatable whether the cultural heritage professionals and civil society is being taken into account where the discussions among the groups who already have the power is dominating the managerial approaches with a focus on urban planning. It is beyond the scope of this review to discuss the institutional processes of site management plan for Istanbul’s Historic Areas (Aksoy 2010,  Shoup & Zan, 2013), however it would be useful to consider the above in relation to the aims of this research.

Participation and Community Engagement
The Istanbul Land Walls have been in the World Heritage List as one of the “Historic Areas of Istanbul” since 1985. This 5th Century UNESCO World Heritage site stretches over six kilometres through the city, passing through eight neighbourhoods with different socio demographic settings, namely Yedikule, Belgradkapı, Silivrikapı, Mevlanakapı, Topkapı, Edirnekapı, Sulukule, Ayvansaray. The research aimed to identify and valorise alternative heritage narratives of the current residents or previous residents of these neighbourhoods.

We have consulted existing research on the site and the representatives of the active civil society organisations, academicians, experts involved with the site in order to shape which neighbourhoods and communities to be included in the ethnographic field work. Although we did not have a concern to be representative of the socio-demographic structure of the site with our selection of participants, we made the effort to reach all of the diverse communities that we had knowledge of. Based on the literature review and “snowballing” method – where a person involved refers the researcher to another person- we have formed our group of participants. The diversity of the group of participants had also direct influence on the inclusion of plural perspectives on heritage interpretation. 

In the beginning of our project, we have organised focus group meetings and semi structured meetings with the different groups of stakeholders where we got a chance to learn about their understandings of the Land Walls, its socio-cultural aspects, got to know the stakeholders to introduce the project. Then we started to get in touch with people who live around the neighbourhoods near the Land Walls and conducted walking ethnographies with them. We have made the effort to include diverse group of people with different identities, experiences and attitudes to the past such as the Sulukule the ‘old’ residents from the Roma community, shopkeepers, workers, vegetable gardeners (bostancı), religious and ethnic minority groups such as the Jewish, Armenian, Greek Orthodox…

The participants were informed about the research process in detail and knew that they had the freedom and authority to decide on the level of their involvement in the research process that would explore their relations with this historic site and its environs. From consultation meetings to focus group interviews to co-production of videos, the participants took part in research voluntarily.  We have also collaborated with film producers and photographers who shared our concerns for a participatory approach. We have introduced our research to more than 100 people and aimed for engaging different segments of the society in the heritage interpretation and presentation processes. We have employed a range of research methodologies from cultural probes to walking ethnography and creative co-production workshops. The following lines will give an overview of the participatory research process and how the different disciplines contributed to the research design.

Art and Design-based Methodologies as a Catalyst for Participation
Before going to the field the research team had a thorough exploration about the approach that would be beneficial for community engagement with cultural heritage; in understanding the relations these communities have built with the historical site on daily basis, through their memory and the stories they inherited from the others.  We have employed an innovative approach in terms of practice and research, instead of the conventional ways of quantitative survey or structured in-situ interviews. This approach was also a reflection of our intention to maximise the participation of the communities. We also aimed to provide tools and resources for heritage practitioners interested in community co-production, rethinking heritage value and using digital and mobile technology to present these interpretations.

As Ciolfi argues (2012), for the true participation in cultural heritage, it is important to get away from the established articulation of the characteristics of space. Walking ethnographies, mobile encounters (Ingold and Vergunst 2003; Yi’En 2014), cultural probes have been some of the most efficient techniques for this aim.  When the participants walk around their neighbourhood with the researchers or when they use cameras to shoot their surroundings, the participants are also activated to take part in the knowledge production (instead of being positioned as subjects of research to extract information from). These methodologies with multi modalities, having sensory stimuli also provide a structure for research almost functioning as a catalyst that brings out narrations with a focus on the relation with place, memory and identity. For the Land Walls case; walking ethnographies, cultural probes, co-production activities and Geographic Information Systems techniques have made it possible for us to actively engage our participants. We, as the researchers have also made an effort to overcome the perceived hierarchical divide of “expert/researcher” and “public/participant” throughout research benefiting from these methodologies.

Walking ethnographies

The first phase of the project was composed of the ethnographic work, involving 47 walking ethnographies with community members, producing data about peoples relations to place and history. We have built on this ethnographic work to develop new understandings of the heritage values of the walls by co-producing digital interpretation resources with the communities. (https://pluralheritages.ncl.ac.uk/#/stories)

For research that focus on the relation to site, walking ethnography is a suitable method that creates opportunities for research whereby both the participant and the researcher experience the walk at the same time. ‘Walking ethnographies’ are based on the idea that those who have been living in an area for years will have an in-depth understanding of it. We have walked with the participants around the neighbourhoods through the routes they chose, and audio recorded their narrations throughout this walk, and the coordinates through a GPS application. The first part was framed by questions related to the specific locations they wanted to show us and why it is important for them; and asking of any other residents who have memories of the area focusing on day to day experiences related to the site. The second part focused on the more specific heritage related questions, such as the meaning of heritage and the Land Walls for them, what they think about the preservation of heritage and if they had the power to change something what they would change.

Cultural probes and Co-production activities
Following the walking ethnographies that produced more than 200 hours of audio recording, we conducted ‘cultural probes’ that are sets of creative, speculative tasks given to participants. As Gaver suggests, this method takes the daily experiences of participants and make it into research design; focusing on the play components instead of productivity. This way the participants are provided with the creative tools for self-expression (Gaver, 2001). These probes were intended to gather rich personal data from participant interviews and to inform the design space of a mobile, locative media installation (Schofield 2018). Our aim was also to ‘probe’ participants for any stories related to the Walls that would deepen our understanding of the content created by the walking ethnographies. Some of the cultural probes in this project involved participants writing letters to the Land Walls imagining the Walls could see, hear and remember the events that took place around them. Participants were asked to choose a location on the Walls and then ask the Walls a question that they might have witnessed at that location. The second part of this activity involved the participants to give answers to these questions, imagining what the answer of the Walls would be. Another activity focused on the sensory experience in relation to memory. The participants were asked to think about any sounds that are important to them in their lives around the Walls.  

The next stage of research continued with co-production videos where the participants shared the authorship with the co-producers in making 20-minute videos. One type of video was a more structured walking ethnography where the participants discussed with the co-producers before they start the walk about the routes they wanted to follow. This made it easier to plan the routes according to the stories they want to include rather than improvising the routes that in some of the cases caused participants to wonder around like a local guide. Another co-production video was conducted by talking about the sounds the participants wanted to share in relation to the importance of these sounds in their lives. They have also commented about the loss of these sounds in relation to the changing cultural life. For example, the sounds of children playing in the streets or the shouting of the street vendors that no longer exists also triggered their thoughts about the change.  

The cultural probes and co-production activities have provided the research with multi modalities such as text, visual, sound. Through these activities it was aimed for narrations about the use of the urban site to emerge in different layers. The co-production activities have been conducted with the 17 participants who volunteered to take part. There have been 36 digital products based on the “walking ethnography”, “sounds” and “Letter to the Walls”.

This  kind  of  co-produced  material  can  be  used  in  different  ways  for  the interpretation of heritage. In the case of our Land Walls project, we produced a mobile application for visitors who would like to learn about the ‘plural’ aspects of heritage along the Land Walls. We have uploaded short segments of these videos on relevant points along walking routes. We have used photographs participants took during the photography workshop to create an online ‘story map’ on the areas they were taken. We have also added their thoughts and comments for the photographs they chose to share. This workshop contributed to research through participants direct production of visual content and their narrations of cultural heritage through these photographs. (https://pluralheritages.ncl.ac.uk/#/apps)

Participants’ Perspectives on Heritage
All these participatory tools and techniques have resulted in learning about the relation of the participants to the cultural heritage, their perspectives and to record and prepare materials to present to public. When the research results are analysed it is possible to argue that the transformation the living spaces go through is parallel to the cultural change they experience. There is a strong resonance of the “loss” theme when participants talk about the past in relation to the present conditions of the site. The role of the Land Walls which were part of the daily life routines in the past as a site for ritual, play, picnic, meeting point, now is very limited, as people physically cannot reach the Land Walls due to urban regeneration projects, and the iron fences that surrounds the Walls. While the iron fences are meant for the protection of the Land Walls from people, there is also a contradiction of the lack of (police) security around Land Walls for the people. Some of the other collective themes came out as “feelings of insecurity” around the Walls especially at night time. The theme of “nostalgia” came out with the narrations of “loss”, “the preserved” (past) and “the worry for the future”. These are a sample of the the multi layered narrations which mostly point out to the need of preservation of the Land Walls with the living cultural landscape around it. 

The participants have also shared their views on the process that started with this research where they started to explore their own feelings and thoughts related to the site. In other words the research itself has started an activation process on the participants where they started to question their relation to their very own heritage they have been indifferent at times. A participant has stated that they have been ignoring the stories of the past in the everyday hustle but with this research they have found the opportunity to tell their stories about the past. This was one of the moments where we have witnessed the transformative effects of our research. Another moment was when the participants of the photography workshop were questioning the preservation policies for the Land Walls and emphasizing their will to learn about the practices that perceive heritage as part of life rather than a frozen entity. It is possible to argue that the communities’ engagement with heritage also has multi- dimensional benefits including the preservation of heritage by the people themselves.

Heritage Methodology for a Participatory Knowledge Production
The Plural Heritages of Istanbul: The Case of the Land Walls research projected has started with a multi-disciplinary approach that prioritise participation of the people in heritage interpretation. We planned to utilise an approach that covered different forms of knowledge in order to explore the meanings of the Land Walls in people’s lives. Thus we have employed art-based methodologies that activated kinetic, visual and aural sense; providing the participants with the tools and platforms to express themselves and to think and explore about the layers of cultural heritage in ways they were not used to. As a result it was possible to reach multi-layered meanings and plural interpretations related to the Land Walls and their surroundings. The whole process of research have also been reflexive for both the researchers and the participants.

The findings of this research would provide a reference for different fields of research on space, identity, heritage and co-production methods. In summary, the participatory research approach employing ethnographic and art-based methods are proven to be beneficial in finding out about new layers of heritage based on the daily experiences of people as part of the cultural landscape that adds another layer to the authorised heritage discourse. This participatory approach also sets a model that activates the bottom up heritage interpretation process and the formation of dialogue between the stakeholders of the field. It is my wish that the participatory process that started with this research continues to be adopted by wider circle of stakeholders including the ones who are in charge of heritage management policies.  

*The outputs of this research are presented as story maps and searchable video content in the project website, available in English and Turkish. A mobile application of routes around the Land Walls including cultural heritage interpretation as a service for visitors is also developed based on the narrations of the local people who took part in the research. The following toolkits are produced on: “Different  experiences of places and pasts”, “Working with communities to revalorise heritage”, “Creating memory maps”, “Community co-production”, “Understanding and documenting intangible cultural qualities of urban heritage”, “Rethinking ‘outstanding universal value’ at urban world heritage sites” (https://pluralheritages.ncl.ac.uk; https://cokseslimiras.bilgi.org.tr

**The Faro Convention: The Council  of  Europe’s  2005  Framework  Convention  on  the

Value of Cultural Heritage for Society underlines that “everyone, alone or collectively, has the right to benefit from the cultural heritage and to contribute towards its enrichment”.


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