Absence/presence and the ontological politics of heritage: the case of Barrack 57

Felder, M.; Duineveld, Martijn; van Assche, Kristof


19 July 2009. A barn burns down in a small Dutch town. Afterwards, this invisible and insignificant ‘barn’ became widely known as ‘Barrack 57’. The destruction triggered attention and led to the barn’s association with a Nazi Second World War transit camp and with Anne Frank. Its material destruction made this barn/barrack both present and absent in various networks. We use the case of Barrack 57 to study the interplay between presence/absence and non-existence of objects in these networks, an exercise which connects to and contributes to the development of constructivist perspectives on object formation in heritage studies. Our analysis of presence/absence and non-existence therefore is based on different concepts developed in actor network theory and Niklas Luhmann’s theory of social systems. Of particular importance is Luhmann’s distinction between first- and second-order observation. We argue that heritage objects themselves are the result of different enactments of (non) human properties in various relational configurations. With this view, a new task for critical heritage scholars emerges. Understanding the dynamics of presence/absence and non-existence of heritage objects in different networks deepens insight into the broader issues of the formation of heritage objects and their delineating technologies and the policies of normalisation and naturalisation.