Scraping together the past

When human life primarily inhabited forests, rather than cities, people knew the names and the ritual and medical significance of the trees and plants around them, they knew the signs and tracks of the animals and the calls and cries of the birds.

Now that the majority of us live in cities, we find ourselves surrounded by objects we cannot name, and signifiers whose significance is lost to us. Most of us would be hard pressed to point out a muntin or a corbel on the outside of a building, or distinguish between a bressummer and an arris on the ceiling.

It was perhaps for this reason that local historian Yves-Marie Rozé’s article on the humble boot scraper went viral in Nantes.

While most commenters were able to guess the purpose of these beautiful pieces of metal work, some answers on Facebook ranged from the plausible to the absurd: from tying up your dogs, horses or sheep, to protecting milk bottles and opening coconuts.

People loved it. Really loved it.
— Noémie Boulay

“People loved it. Really loved it,” emphasises Noémie Boulay, Cultural Mediator for Nantes Patrimonia,  “and a lot of people commented on the article on social media.” She believes that a big part of the draw of this article was the ubiquity of the object in question: “This heritage is part of their everyday life because there are boot scrapers in every street in Nantes and every day people look at these boot scrapers but don’t know what they are and what were they used for in the past.”

Rozé was nothing if not thorough: he lists the major categories of scraper, photographs them, and provides a self-made map of the exact location and typology of 163 such scrapers in the Saint-Félix and Hauts-Pavés districts. He even records which side of the door they appear on – 20% on the left according roughly with Nantes’ 16% left-handed population.

Rozé explains that he went from cataloguing the grand heritage like churches and slaughterhouses, to focusing on “the small heritage that nobody necessarily sees: the guard stones, the scrapers, the knockers and even the anchors that hold the walls and the chimneys… As I like to draw, I do drawing to explain what the different shapes represent.”

“Now,” says Boulay, “we like to share more of this kind of little story about heritage and not only about big monuments like churches, castles and so on.” Indeed, Rozé’s follow up article on Nantes’ door knockers was another breakaway hit. Rozé, a retired engineer, is chuffed at the success of his writing: “I’m very happy because Nantes Patrimonia’s team takes my articles and puts them online. We work together.”

Nantes Patrimonia

The platform that Rozé uses to share his research, Nantes Patrimonia, was born out of an idea of Nantes Mayor Johanna Rolland, shortly after she took office in 2014. Rolland wanted a website for the history and heritage of Nantes – the plan wasn’t much more defined than that.

The city has a rich tradition of having local people participate in decision making, and so workshops began in 2015 where people could contribute and give shape to the idea. It was through that process that the final form of Nantes Patrimonia arose: a website through which people could share articles, multimedia and tour trails of Nantes heritage.

“The first motivation was to allow everyone to express what heritage is for them,” says Boulay. “Nantes Patrimonia offers a permanent space for exchange around heritage in all its richness and diversity.” Local people were consulted not only regarding the initial idea, but to evaluate several iterations of the website and are still asked for feedback to improve functionality. The city continues to hold public workshops and outreach to get more people involved in sharing content.

One of the exciting things about Nantes Patrimonia is that it has a seed that could be planted in any city. The deep engagement with locals throughout its development and the range of heritage that it can capture led to its selection as a good practice by Cultural Heritage in Action, the European peer-learning programme for cities and regions on cultural heritage. Following this, it was the site of a peer-learning visit from other cities through the project, so we may see Patrimonia platforms like this popping up in other cities in the future.

Whose voice?

To achieve diversity in terms of contributions, Nantes ensured diversity among the volunteers that run the engagement activities. The city insisted on having an equal number of male and female volunteers, and on volunteers of diverse background so that no single point of view was prioritised during the participatory process. “It was very important to us that we have this diversity,” Boulay insists. Workshops were also organised in different parts of the city to make sure that they were accessible to different groups.

My first advice would be to take your time.
— Gaëlle Caudal

“My first advice would be to take your time. Because we took almost five years to develop Nantes Patrimonia. And even today it’s still developing, so you have to take your time and not be in a hurry,” advises Gaëlle Caudal, Head of Cultural and Scientific Partnerships, Nantes’ Department of heritage and archaeology.

The city still wants to achieve more on this front. Though it can now boast more than 500 articles, almost 70% of which were submitted by local people, rather than by the city’s own services, there is still a concern that most of the writers, and indeed most of the readers are people who already love heritage. “We would like to interest people who are not interested in historical heritage,” says Boulay. “We would like young people, for example, to know our website and maybe they would have great ideas to provide the content too.”

At present, the city is working with neighbourhood community centres to collect information about what underrepresented groups, such as young people, would like to see included on the platform. Further work is planned to collaborate with social associations to ensure that people who are more socially disadvantaged will also be reached.

Another approach is to remove any small technical barrier. For example, previously people needed to email their contributions to the city. “Now we have online tools which allow them to make contributions directly,” Caudal boasts. Of course, the city still fact-checks the contributions so that veracity can be guaranteed. “When we worked on the website,” Caudal remembers, “the citizens said they want the information to be correct. So we don’t publish anything before we read and verify it.”

Getting physical

Local people’s contribution to culture and heritage in Nantes is, however, far from being limited to the online realm. The Nantes Patrimonia website can also be a portal to the physical world. In 2018, the council used the website to publish some information about the Grand Mill on the Loire, a megalithic old factory building.

The article explained the links building bore to the history and geography of the city. It was one of the first buildings to test the ‘Hennebique reinforced concrete technique’ on such a grand scale, demonstrating that this new material that would later dominate our cities was capable of incredible strength and plasticity, producing enormously varied spaces of possibility for a complex internal landscape of people and machines.

It also touched on the building’s relation to local geography such as the river, a lifeline for local commerce and a literal conveyor belt for goods. It was not just industrial history as such that was compelling about the building’s story: the article also tells of how it was transformed by the war, an episode that resulted in 900 m2 of glass being replaced.

The focus on this building was not completely innocent, as there was a question brewing in the council’s mind: should this building be kept and converted, or destroyed? And if the former, converted to what? This question was one that the city wanted its people to consider and deliver a verdict on.

Interventions like exhibitions from university students and workshops for local people created engagement with the building and with what preserving or destroying it could mean for the local physical and social landscape. Through this process, the people imagined a sort of factory for culture.

It will include a viewing point for the river with where people can learn about local natural heritage, a living exhibition where people can discover more about the history of industrial processes, and a fantasy space inspired by the work of celebrated Nantes author Jules Verne, of ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ fame.

I dream with my eyes open.
— Jules Verne

Whether it’s foot scrapers, door knockers or flour factories, Nantes is a city that wants its people to be able to see and read their environment. That way, any vision of the future can be constructed with an immersive understanding of the present and the past. The city will dream, but is giving force to the ambition to be able to say, in the words of Jules Verne’s protagonists in ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth,’ “I dream with my eyes open.”

Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer