A Future-Proof Heritage: Dutch Ice and Intangible Heritage
Four centuries ago Hendrick Avercamp immortalized the Dutch winter landscape as a snowscape crowded with ice skaters traversing canals and gathering on frozen ponds. Painting in the early 17th century, Avercamp’s works are almost wholly devoted to winter scenes that feature numerous people skating. Avercamp’s idyllic landscapes featured a rich cross-section of people having fun on the ice during a “little Ice Age” that delivered a half-millennium of harsh winters. Avercamp’s focus on ice and ice skating helped make winter landscapes a staple of Dutch art while confirming skating’s centrality in the heart of the Dutch imagination.
Avercamp may not have known that Netherlanders would spend the subsequent centuries traveling and playing on frozen waterways, leading numerous 21st-century observers to sound off that skating is “ingrained in Dutch DNA.” Even beyond the Netherlands, few dimensions of Dutch culture are more firmly impressed in mass imagination than ice skating: Every four years even Americans are briefly in awe of the Dutch domination of Olympic speed skating, and picturesque images of skaters in Amsterdam’s canals routinely grace tourism literature.
Amsterdam Canal Ice Skating (Getty Images)
On December 19th it was announced that “the tradition of skating on natural ice” was added to the Netherlands’ national inventory of intangible cultural heritage (a list of those traditions is on the Netherlands Cultural Heritage website). Ice and skating are novel intangible dimensions of heritage, since ice has a fleeting material presence, and skating is common to many other societies; nevertheless, the celebration of ice skating aspires to capture the distinctive Dutch experience of ice and could provide a novel framing for Dutch heritage.
Casting ice and skating as “intangible” heritage implicitly distinct from “tangible” material culture risks making the latter seem more authentic for its concrete presence. Laurajane Smith and Emma Waterton argue that the significance of any heritage–whether a practice or a castle–rests in how it performs values, place, and identity (compare Barbara Kirshenblatt‐Gimblett). The Dutch could turn ice skating’s narrative into an interrogation of dissonance in the Netherlands’ history; a critical dissection of Dutch identity; or an exposition of the ways the Dutch environment over a period that has included a little ice age, warming climates, and 21st-century global warming.
Yet ice skating could just as easily be reduced to emotionally appealing symbolism, an attractive visual discourse about frozen canals that romantically evokes the chill, movement, and visual appeal of skating. This would be a heritage discourse rooted in no especially concrete place and focused less on difference and social complexity than on belonging, which is similar to Hendrick Avercamp’s own imagination of ice skating. Avercamp’s ice skating paintings were for the most part not illustrations of concrete places; instead, Avercamp painted imagined places that borrowed from people he had likely seen and scattered real buildings. Avercamp assembled an idealized winter landscape in which nearly every Dutch person seems to be represented.
The heritage of ice skating could of course be wielded to look backward romantically. For instance, the Director of the Dutch intangible heritage program applauded ice skating’s recognition as a defense that “is about traditions handed from generation to generation and that has a group of people behind it that is committed to making it future-proof.” That support for a “future-proof” heritage risks painting ice skating simply as an arrested past, a visual and imaginary symbol deployed for a host of purposes like attracting tourists. The challenge with ice’s heritage is less with its ethereal materiality or the inchoate emotional appeal of skating than with the management of it as a defiance of change. A “future proof” heritage risks producing taxidermied historical practices and things and celebrates histories considered to possess some timeless significance. The question may be how interpretations of ice skating heritage will instigate change. This is akin to what Rodney Harrison has referred to as “emergent futures” or Kathryn Lafrenz Samuels frames as persuasive rhetoric; that is, socially engaged heritage scholarship selects dimensions of history that chart possible futures, using heritage to mobilize forward-thinking transformations. Ice skating certainly could be interpreted in ways that trace the long history of skating and the Dutch experience of nature while looking forward to the ways skating illuminates various perceptions of Dutch identity and the future of skating and ice in the face of global warming. However, a “future-proof” imagination of ice skating risks producing a romanticized vision of Dutch identity and ice that borrows more from Hendrick Avercamp than 21st-century heritage scholarship.
Winter Skating in Netherlands (Irina Dobrolyubova, Getty Images)
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Amsterdam Canal Ice Skating image from roevin, Getty Images
Hendrick Avercamp, A scene on the ice. Ca. 1625, Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art.
Hendrick Avercamp, Enjoying the ice. circa 1615-1620. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam.