I worry about the preservation of the world’s “cultural heritage”. To me, it’s a dilemma on a grand scale. I personally value cultural heritage – not just my own, but what I have seen in my travels and learned from others with different backgrounds. I also value art galleries and museums and all kinds of cultural institutions, but what about all the people who don’t? Is there a way to connect a higher proportion of world’s population to their heritage and does it matter in the long term?
I have just completed an online course with FutureLearn called Cultural Heritage and the City from the European University Institute which got me thinking about cultural heritage in the first place. What does it mean to people and how can policy can be developed or improved in order to protect heritage for future generations? Ask yourself – “Who is responsible for protecting the world’s cultural heritage?” The course defined heritage as “the past which informs the present and the relationship that a community constructs with that past”. This includes specific places, religious or cultural practices and traditions where heritage provides a framework within which people are socialised.
On the world stage, cultural heritage is about more than just protecting sites, buildings and objects. There is also an “ intangible” facet which helps to build community through language, music or ritual which may be part of the local way of doing things (e.g. food preparation, welcome ceremonies, wearing of significant clothing etc.) I believe that everyone has a stake in the protection of heritage whether it’s on our doorstep or far away in places which may more vulnerable to destructive forces outside the control of the local population and heritage authorities.
I concede that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs comes into play when considering why people value and connect to cultural heritage. People are time poor, under financial and personal stress, others are barely surviving in war zones or refugee camps or living in areas where they feel disconnected to their surroundings. Why would the preservation of cultural heritage be at the the top of their “list of priorities” even if UNESCO says so? Why is heritage important to us anyway?
In a homogenous society like Japan where the greatest proportion of residents have shared cultural values, is it any easier to develop protection and promotion strategies for the preservation of cultural heritage? The culture in Japan is ancient and deep rooted but after the Great Fire in Tokyo and WWII, the process of modernisation conflicted with some of the old values set by the declining aristocracy and religious authorities. Emiko Kakikuchi Ph.D writes, “After WWII, Japan’s heritage was treated as a national asset, but remained a relatively small part of society for a long time. However the importance of heritage values has recently been increasingly recognised and protection measures diversified as Japan has matured in terms of its society and economy. Today heritage is being integrated and linked closely with community development, and its protection is being carried out not only by government but also by various stakeholders.”
In my own country, Australia, there are contentious layers of cultural heritage and so who takes responsibility for its preservation overall? The Indigenous Australian layer dates back more than 40,000 and possibly 60,000 years. Aboriginal cultural heritage has historically been inextricably tied to the Australian landscape with Indigenous Songlines having been coded and embedded into the natural environment and passed down over time through stories, dance and song by community elders.
A second colonial heritage layer was laid down after the British established a penal colony in Sydney in 1788. Over time, other settlers arrived and became established, adding to European cultural heritage and introducing an ever changing built environment which is less than 230 years old. Such changes have directly and indirectly caused major damage to Indigenous Australians’ heritage (“tangible” and “intangible”) in inverse proportion to the growth of the European population in Australia.
More recently, a third layer has come into play – a newer migrant layer represented by many different cultures including Greeks, Italians, several waves of Lebanese migration, Maltese, German, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian and others from Afghanistan, Syria, Africa, Iran, Sri Lanka etc (too many to mention actually). I’m calling this the multicultural layer of heritage. Each group has brought distinct languages and their own cultural heritage to be worked into the existing Australian heritage tapestry.
The course modules explored ways to protect, enhance and engage with communities in the future, as urban environments change and eat into historic built environments and significant natural landscapes? How can newly arrived migrants and refugees be connected to the heritage of the country that they are now living in, the country that they now call “home”? Have they brought their own heritage values in the “intangible” sense and left the “tangible” behind? Will they be willing to engage with new values in the future?
Some migrant connections to Australian history are real and “tangible”. For instance, both Parramatta and Sydney can demonstrate historic connections to Indigenous Australians, Colonial Australians and other migrant communities. There is both archaeological and material evidence to support these historical links in found objects, social history collections (clothing, utensils, letters etc.) as well as written research (newspapers, photographs and paper records from the past). We know that many First Nations people were well known in the colony. Bennelong and King Bungaree slipped back and forth between two cultures. Pemulwuy was notorious for his resistance activities against colonial settlement.There were Chinese market gardens in Parramatta and Sydney during colonial times and the colonials imported tea, silks and porcelain from China.They also accessed Indian cottons, muslins and spices for everyday use. There is evidence that Indian nationals came to Australia from British colonies in India as staff of the Colonial Government Officers. The Lebanese also came to Australia in colonial times as hawkers and traders who sold ribbons, lace and cloth for women’s and men’s clothing.
The trick is to find ways of connecting contemporary life with existing cultural heritage and formulating appropriate policies for the protection of heritage into the future. There may be special places which merit absolute protection under law, such as “intact” wilderness areas or particular and significant built areas. In urban settings, I believe that it is also possible to develop heritage strategies which allow for new urban development through the repurposing of some heritage spaces, finding new uses and new connections with the past enabling the community to value heritage in a more vibrant and attractive city.
There are many examples of cultural heritage capacity building using events which have been integrated into the strategies of cities. These may range from large events (such as the Olympics, World Expositions, Biennales and Triennals) to smaller events such as festivals held in Australia, for example – Chinese New Year, Parramasala, Festival of Sydney, Sculpture by the Sea or the Vivid Light Festival. The increased number of festivals in Australia and overseas demonstrates ways that we can celebrate our existing heritage as well as creating new cultural heritage for the future. Such events can be compared to an exhibition in a museum or art gallery. You may have regular attendees but you want to be more “inclusive” and attract new audiences to share with you. The “festival audience” is attracted by the content or theme, but in attending that festival might learn more about a different culture or heritage place which they would not normally embrace. Inadvertently, some of that cultural heritage may be infused into festival goers but it was not the original draw card.
“Disruption” is a buzz word heard in the business world but it can also be applied to heritage places and cultural institutions. I like the way that the “Off” movement was created in parallel to the European Capital of Culture programme in Marseille in 2013. “Off” challenged the official discourse of the ECC project, running grass roots and paradoxical programmes harnessing the cultural heritage of Marseille. The aim was to direct the audience towards appreciating Marseille’s cultural heritage by being “inclusive” rather than elitist.
I think that more cultural institutions, heritage organisations and festival organisers need to think about opening their doors to wider audiences to start conversations about heritage without making people feel uncomfortable about attending events. Museum Hack has been a disruptive force within the museum sector in the USA by enticing a new and different kind of audience to visit cultural institutions. They have managed to break the mould and attract “atypical” visitors into a range of institutions who were not reaching out to millenials.
A number of public events and festivals are open to the public free of charge. Behind this idea is the fact that cultural heritage belongs to everyone and should be accessible to people regardless of the socio-economic status of the community being focussed on. Even institutions that rely on permanent entry fees and special exhibition fees to stay afloat, occasionally offer free entry days to the public in an effort to broaden their audience reach. Communities that have faced the heritage dilemma head-on have reported that developing a strong heritage policy has helped them to build community by educating local people to feel a part of their history and to build a common future. Heritage protection has contributed to regional job creation and economic growth worldwide. There is growing emphasis on the economic impact of heritage activities and that by protecting cultural heritage, cities can boost their local economy through the provision of hospitality as well as cultural services.
The heritage dilemma must be faced head-on if we are to manage the sites and traditions that remain in an uncertain world under pressure from an ever increasing and shifting population worldwide. I guess that the heritage dilemma can not be sorted out in a single blog post.
Useful further reading: UNESCO report on Culture and Sustainable Urban Development – understanding how the tension between heritage preservation and urban development has been resolved in practicehttp://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0024/002459/245999e.pdf