The Ciudat del Born, an archaeological jewel excavated out of Barcelona’s layers of intricate history, has been subject of much heated debate. This cultural centre located between the church of Santa Maria del Mar and Ciutadella Park, officially opened its doors on the 11th September 2013 after a long process of restoration. This day is particularly significant as it marks “Catalonia’s National Day” amid a year of heightened calls for Catalonia’s independence from Spain.
El Born Centre Cultural greets its visitors into an open-air, iron-panel wall space with an industrial aesthetic of what used to be a 19th-century vegetable market. Once inside, the visitor is confronted with a series of well-preserved remains of a medieval streetscape covering an area of 800 meters squared. Although inhabited since 500 AD, the surviving foundations are that of 16th and 17th-century houses and streets, creating a striking juxtaposition between modernist and antique heritage.
Crossing the site through a system of elevated walkways surrounding the archaeological remains (displayed on a lower level), is the rear aisle sala, or exhibition space, housing the permanent collection. Barcelona 1700: From its Stones to its Peopleis displayed in the Sala Villoreal presenting a reconstruction of Barcelona at the beginning of the 18th century.
The visit begins on the left of an elongated rectangular space with high-rise ceilings. The sala is enclosed with a thick velvet curtain obstructing any light from the outside. And thus, the polychromatic panels and video installations allow the visitor to feel immersed in a theatrical atmosphere, perhaps transported back on an expedition to Barcelona before Antonio Gaudí or Jean Nouvel.
The introductory text reads, “between 1691 and 1741, Barcelona suffered the horror of war. And after the defeat, nothing was ever the same again.” This quote refers to the siege and fall of Barcelona by the Franco-Spanish attack led by Phillip V, better known as the War of the Succession, in 1714. This radical statement introduces a nationalistic undertone suggesting a rather politicalized agenda.
The visitor is navigated through a thematic sequence curated in a circular order jumping from panel to plinth by the use of brightly lit coloured text and video. Striking features include a glass panel the length of the whole room displaying a wide range of such mundane objects as hot-chocolate cups, jewellery, personal heirlooms, table games and clothes all with vivid colours and ornaments. A digital 3D recreation of the city suggests different views of the port, the plazas and the market, projected over a physical model of the 18th-century streetscape.
What is perhaps most unique in this exhibition is the fact that both exhibition and site make part of a single narrative. The objects themselves without the archaeological elements and vice-versa would not create the same experience on the viewer. “Whether arriving by land or by sea,” as the press release suggests, one feels “immersed in a full re-creation of the Catalonian metropolis.”
This ensemble between antique and modern, remembrance and the quotidian, creates a metaphorical relation to the partisan and controversial political undertones surrounding El Born. Archaeology has been used to legitimize Catalonia’s cultural aspirations and foster a sense of separate identity. By using such statements as “a renewed reading of the past” and “recover the harmony of Catalonian people”, El Born is a physical manifestation of the usage of heritage as a political statement.
Whether El Born has been used as a political vehicle or not is debatable. What is true, evident in Barcelona 1700: From its Stones to its People, is that it has created a sense of belonging and place, facilitating a dialogue between heritage and modernity. ●
Colin Breen, Sara McDowell, Gemma Reid & Wes Forsythe, “Heritage and separatism in Barcelona: the case of El Born Cultural Centre”, International Journal of Heritage Studies, (Barcelona, 2016) http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13527258.2016.1166145
Juan Anton, “Born to Sí, Sí [ Born to Yes. Yes. ].” El Pais, 14 December 2013. http://ccaa.elpais.com/ccaa/2013/12/14/catalunya/1387052163_496149.html