Screening European Heritage: History on Film, the Heritage Industry and Cultural Policy


From La Reine Margot (1994) to The King’s Speech (2010), historical dramas dominate mainstream European film production and often generate major national debates on the role of the past in contemporary national identity construction. Defined in the 1990s as “heritage films”, the makers of such films frequently work in partnership with the wider heritage industry in order to secure funding for their productions. And the films, along with the debates they generate, often shape the subsequent marketing and curatorial strategy of the heritage sites they foreground in their stories. However, there has been very little exploration of this relationship and how it reflects the complexity of contemporary public engagement with the past across Europe.

Led by the Centre for World Cinemas at the University of Leeds, in collaboration with B-Film: The Birmingham Centre for Film Studies, “Screening European Heritage” explores questions of inter-generational communication, cultural transmission and exchange. It examines the representation of Europe’s past on contemporary screens, what this says about contemporary cultural attitudes to the past and how this reflects, and can be shaped by, the policies and practice of cultural institutions now and in the future. In the process, it raises questions around the role and value of the past in cultural and societal change, investigating how history is re-imagined by the contemporary film and heritage industries and to what end, ultimately exploring the way contemporary heritage film, and its instrumentalisation of spectators’ emotional engagement with the past, reflects broader trends in the heritage industry towards the visceral exploitation of the history and thus the way film can explore the relationship between emotions and change.

Research Questions

  • What role does European, national and regional cultural policy play in the production of heritage films and how do filmmakers negotiate such policy?
  • How are heritage films consumed across and beyond Europe? Who is their audience? What are the mechanisms of their consumption and how do these mechanisms map onto those of the wider heritage industry?
  • How do heritage films extend, or delimit, the possibilities of historical representation? How do their various modes of emotional engagement with history underline, or reflect tensions in, the aims of the heritage industry as a whole?

Project website