The Nieuwe Kerk in Delft: Of Stadtholders and Stakeholders

The Nieuwe Kerk in Delft: Of Stadtholders and Stakeholders

A Dutch court recently decided that it is in the common interest to allow building activities in the New Church (Nieuwe Kerk) in Delft. These activities will lead to the destruction of approximately 2000 graves without proper archaeological documentation.

The Heritage Act lays the responsibility for the management of built and archaeological Heritage at municipal level. This excludes large numbers of stakeholders from the decision-making process when monuments are impacted by for example building activities. We argue that this is an undesirable situation and illustrate this with the current controversy surrounding the building of a cellar housing party facilities at the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) in Delft.

The protestant congregation of Delft aims to use the Nieuwe Kerk more frequently for various functions to help pay for the upkeep of the centuries-old monument. They plan to build a 550 m2 cellar in tandem with a restauration of the building. It is estimated that over 2000 graves will be destroyed to build the cellar. Unfortunately, the congregation only raised 20% of the funds needed to cover the archaeological research mandated by the municipality. The congregation applied for a building permit anyway, which was granted despite a negative advice by the municipality’s heritage service.

In an earlier post we already mentioned that the Delft chapter of the organization of archaeological volunteers (AWN) contested the granting of the permit. The court had suspended the activities provisionally for the duration of 6 weeks. However, in a definitive decision, on the 16th of February the court decided that it is in the “common interest” to allow the building activities. The court argues that the common interest is served by helping the congregation pay the upkeep of the building. Definitively destroying important evidence regarding the genesis of the building and its worshippers, is seen as a reasonable trade-off.

We argue that the common interest is interpreted too narrowly by the lawmaker, the municipality and the judge. By determining such trade-offs at municipal level as determined by the new Heritage Act, the focus is on the interests of the community and not on the interests of society as a whole. The group of stakeholders in many monuments, both built and archaeological, however, is much wider.

The Nieuwe Kerk is obviously of historic national importance. The “Father of the Fatherland”, Stadtholder William I, was buried here and his crypt has been subsequently enlarged to function as the Royal crypt (which is to be enlarged again in the near future). Other notable figures, such as admiral Tromp and Hugo Grotius also are interred in the church. This church (and many other buildings in Delft) are listed as national monuments. This illustrates the wider significance of such monuments. Some buildings and archaeological sites are so important that they should be preserved for the good of the nation. Some monuments are even so important that they are classified as World Heritage by UNESCO, such as the inner city of Amsterdam. Yet planning decisions about such monuments are assessed on a local level, which is at odds with the importance attributed to their inscription in National and Global registers.

From very early on, the church (and the community that used it) had an impact far beyond the now decisive municipal boundaries. Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, the inventor of the microscope and the first person to observe among others blood cells, and sperm, was baptised in the Nieuwe Kerk. Similarly, Johannes Vermeer who is currently exhibited globally was also baptised at the Nieuwe Kerk. The church has always been part of a community whose impact extended far beyond the municipal boundaries of Delft. This is more than ever the case.

The protection of the graveyard that preserves integral information on the role of the church and its flock is even weaker, since only the building is listed as a National Monument. This is an atavism grown from the fact that built and archaeological monuments were historically administered by different agencies (they were merged in 2006). This has the interesting consequence that a similar request for activities above-ground would be evaluated harshly, as they would be damaging a national monument (even if only visually). The destruction of the graveyard and structural remains of previous phases of the church do not classify as damaging to the national monument because of the arbitrary distinction between the building and the ground it sits in. We think that the existence of such an arbitrary distinction hampers the effective management of heritage values.

Also, we think it is overly restrictive to only take into account stakeholders living geographically proximate, i.e. interests at municipal level, for the definition of the common interest. How to define stakeholders in heritage values is a difficult matter. One could argue that, especially in the case of human remains, relatedness might be a criterion. This may pose protectionary issues since not all buried individuals have living descendants (and obviously, esp. in the case of our royals there might be a discrepancy between the amount of registered descendants and genetic descendants). Cultural affinity might be another option, but this may be exclusionary of immigrants. A solution might be to administer heritage values on at least the provincial, but rather the national level and maybe also take into account interests on national level. Maybe National Monuments should be administered nationally, and funds to mitigate development or building activities as well. This would safeguard against a too heavy weighing of small economic gains in trade-offs where historic remains will be irrevocably destroyed.