1. Introduction

2. Key note lectures 3. Cross-sections 4. Theme based  workshops

5. Final plenary discussion

6. Conclusions and final statement    


Keynote lecture 2

Cultural Landscapes and Perception

dr. Hans Renes, 

historical geographer at Utrecht University and at the Free University Amsterdam

The Wadden Sea Region as a cultural landscape

The Wadden Sea Region is especially known for its natural beauty. In this lecture, I want to stress the fact that the Wadden Sea is a cultural landscape. Therefore, the first question that needs to be asked is: What is a cultural landscape?

 The UNESCO has distinguished a number of different types of landscapes:

- Designed landscapes

- Organically evolved landscapes:

o Relict landscapes

o Continuing landscapes

- Associative landscapes


Designed landscapes

The first group consists of so-called designed landscapes. These are landscapes, in particular parks and gardens that have been designed by garden architects. As such, they have been studied by art historians and have been listed and protected for a long time. In most countries, these designed landscapes are managed by Institutions  for Historic Buildings. 

1. Claude Lorrain, 1663: Landschap met het offer van de vader van Psyche bij de Apollo-tempel

2. Stourhead, ca 1750

They are especially interesting because they show the ideal landscapes of the elite during different periods of time. In the case of Stourhead, the owner of the park made a three-dimensional version of some of the paintings of ideal Mediterranean landscapes in his collection. It is interesting to realise that these ideal landscapes showed a combination of natural and cultural features.

Organically evolved landscapes: relict landscapes

The second group consists of so-called 'relict landscapes', landscapes that have a long history of human use, but at a certain point in time, this development stopped almost completely. So, the last phase was "frozen" for ever . These landscapes are seen as part of our archaeological heritage. Protection and management is usually done by archaeologists.

Landscape near Warstiens. Uit: J. Cnossen (1971).  De bodem van Friesland,  p. 45

Organically evolved landscapes: continuing landscapes

The third type consists of landscapes that are not  the result of historic processes. As these landscapes are still being used for agriculture, industry, extraction of resources etc., they are changing continuously.
For protectionists, these 'living landscapes' are a difficult, though extremely interesting category. In the World Heritage List, they are a relatively new phenomenon. The protection of these sites is done  on the basis of communication with different groups, associations, and  sometimes in combination with the protection  by preservation order.

Hogebeintum. Foto: Dré van Marrewijk

Associative landscapes

Moreover there is a very interesting final category, the so-called 'associative landscapes'. These are landscapes  which we tend to see as completely natural, but that have a large symbolic meaning. Mount Uluru (or Ayers Rock as it is known  people from European descent) is a holy mountain for the original population of Australia. As such, it is seen as part of the cultural landscape.
Here, the similarity with the Wadden Sea comes to mind. The Wadden Sea is seen as perhaps the only real natural landscape in this part of the world. This is doubtful, as the region is heavily used: the coasts are made of high dikes, the fauna is influenced by fishing and pollution and parts of the bottom of the sea used to be ploughed three times a year by the cockle fishers.
But the point I want to make here, is that the Wadden Sea is also part of the cultural landscape because of its symbolic function, as relatively unspoiled nature. The heavy struggles that are going on in this region are caused by this symbolic meaning, not by numbers of birds or seals . (Meaning that the hole Wadden Sea is a perception of our western ideas of nature. I can't make it more clear than how it is now written.
Not only for the symbolic meaning we can see the Wadden Sea as a cultural landscape.
In this region, the separation between the agrarian landscape and the natural sea is only a  recent one. Throughout the centuries, the Wadden Sea Region has been characterised by a strong interrelation between land and sea. Most of the settlements on dwelling mounds had been active in seatrade from prehistoric times to the High Middle Ages. Many of the inhabitants looked perhaps more often landward from the sea than they looked seaward from the land.  The dwelling mounds themselves remind us of the fact that in this region, during most  historical periods, the border between land and water was less fixed than what it is today and that this border  has even been continuously moving.

Land and sea are two parts of a single cultural landscape.

Landscape perception varied through space and time

Thinking of landscape perception, it is important to realise that perception shows large variations, in space as well as in time. Here are a few remarks:
The way we preserve landscapes is

- typically European
- different for each individual
- changing through time
- part of a learning process


In the first place, the way we look at landscapes is typically European. Already on medieval paintings, the landscape was an important theme, as  a background of religious paintings. During the Renaissance in Europe, people really discovered the landscape. Some painters made landscapes their main theme, thus Petrarca climbed Mont Ventoux to look at the landscape.  A certain pattern was set by these painters,  which  spread over even larger parts of the population. We all take the same holiday pictures, with a dark foreground, a lighter middle ground and a clearly visible background. A diagonal line is present in most pictures, also showing our habit of reading pictures as well as texts from left to right. 
On the other hand, by showing that we understand and copy  this pattern, we identify ourselves as part of the European culture. The landscape is a composition that is man-made.. Without man, there is no landscape. What is normal to us becomes less self-evident when we see a landscape painting by an original Australian. This is a completely different picture, in a language/pattern we don't understand.

Individual perception

Even within Europe, perception is individual. These three pictures show the same object,  seen by three different  artists . The sublime picture by Turner, the romantic image by Constable and the scientific picture by Soane show three completely different images of the same object.

Stonehenge by J.M.W. Turner (1811-13)

Stonehenge by John Constable (1835, after sketches from 1820)

Stonehenge by Sir John Soane

Change over the years, the four green waves

The landscape perception has changed over the years. The interest in nature, landscape, environment and heritage has grown especially during four short periods of time. During these periods, many new organisations were founded and old ones  kept growing. In other periods, the development of the green sector stagnated.
There seems to have been a relation between the growing interest in nature, environment and landscape on the one hand, and economics and politics on the other hand. The interest grew especially in safe and prosperous periods.
But there is also a relation  to developments in the landscape itself. The large scale restructurings of cities as well as countryside, which was at its height during the 1960s and 1970s, led to a growing awareness of the threatening loss of nature and landscape quality.

Perception as a cognitive process

There is yet another aspect. Perception is to a large degree a cognitive process. We see what we have learned to see. If we know more, we will see more. There is an enormous interest in information on nature and landscape. Even for experts, there are still new things to discover in the landscape. The perception of the landscapes is not an objective process. It is guided by our knowledge, education and background. It is also influenced by conventions.
We tend to talk about landscapes in the abstract terminology of experts. But landscapes are not just objects for discussion. They are our daily living environment. They contain emotions and images. Different landscapes are associated with greatness or simplicity, with large or small scale, with hard work or leisure, with pollution or health, with liveliness or dullness, with localism or globalism. (globalisation)

Landscapes have strong sense and the different views on landscape can give reason for bitter struggles.

Cultural landscapes some conclusions

  1. A division of the Wadden Sea Region into land ('cultural landscape') and sea ('nature') does not work. Land and water together should be viewed as one (cultural) landscape.

  2. Discussions on landscapes are usually not about facts. They are about different  values and images of landscapes.

  3. Landscape policies take a 'European landscape way of view" for granted. But many of our new citizens will probably develop different ways of using the landscape.

  4. As perception is partly cognitive, education must be part of every landscape policy


1. Introduction

2. Key note lectures 3. Cross-sections 4. Theme based  workshops

5. Final plenary discussion

6. Conclusions and final statement