Many voices have been heard publically condemning the Islamic State’s on-going destruction of archaeological artefacts and sites in contemporary Syria. It is true, graves are looted, buildings dynamited and museum displays are demolished, sometimes in front of the eyes of the international community and arguably as part of a deliberate social media strategy
At the World Economic Forum in Davos in January 2016, Yale University drew attention of the world to the danger that ancient artefacts are being destroyed in the Syrian war and elsewhere. Yale University’s President Peter Salovey is quoted to have called for the urgent need to protect and preserve this cultural heritage for the future.
Behind such calls lies the conservation paradigm of heritage, motivated by a strong conservation ethics. This paradigm developed during the nineteenth century when modern nations started to become obsessed with preserving information and physical reminders about their past. The result was a heritage sector based on public museums and protective legislation of ancient sites and objects. This development manifested what has been described as the Noah complex of modern society.
This complex is still with us today. According to its logic, the heritage sector has the duty to conserve the most valuable parts of our cultural heritage because it has inherent value and constitutes a non-renewable resource that cannot be substituted and must, therefore, be preserved for the benefit of future generations. For example, the Global Heritage Fund stated in a publication entitled Saving Our Vanishing Heritage 2010:
“Like endangered species, many archaeological and cultural heritage sites are on the verge of extinction. They are an irreplaceable and finite resource. Without action to protect them now, accelerating economic pressures will end this long history. Once they are gone – they are gone forever.”
To see heritage as an irreplaceable resource and in terms of endangerment, threat of irreversible extinction, and need of urgent protection is, however, not self-evident but culturally and historically situated in a particular way of thinking. The underlying reasoning has now begun to be unraveled in the anthology Endangerment, Biodiversity and Culture (F. Vidal and N. Dias eds, Routledge, 2015).
According to this research, the ‘endangerment sensibility’ of modern societies perceives the future first and foremost in terms of risks and threats to what we hold dear. We are therefore called upon to protect species faced by extinction; conserve threatened biodiversity; preserve heritage ‘at risk’; and ultimately save humanity from ruining our own planet. These concerns are however less a result of genuinely understanding the specific needs of any future generations and more a result of a particular perception of their needs among a present generation that is anxious to prevent doom.
Ironically, it is often overlooked that value emerges from the very condition of endangerment itself. Just like zoos have become valued ‘conservation centres’ because of the threatened species they house (not vice versa!), many prominent heritage sites are valued and considered worth protecting because their survival is deemed to be ‘at risk’.
What is more, the logic of the conservation paradigm ignores that natural and historic processes of change and transformation are the source of heritage on Earth, not its enemy. Heritage has never been safe but it has always been changing. I argued elsewhere that even loss and destruction are not necessarily threats to heritage; in fact they may make heritage. Never have the Bamiyan Buddhas, the Berlin Wall, the Dodo and Tyrannosaurus Rex been more emblematic than since they had disappeared from the surface of the planet!
Can the devastated Syrian cities contain a heritage in the making? Does the loss of past remains imply the chance for a new heritage guiding the region into the future?
To answer this question it is instructive to look at another world region. In 2004, a huge tsunami devastated Banda Aceh in Indonesia, with the destroyed local heritage effectively becoming another victim. But when archaeologist Trinidad Rico returned a decade later to study the heritage of Banda Aceh, she found that a heritage of the disaster had emerged. This heritage of destruction, “as a witness and key interlocutor of a historical turning point”, helped to bring local populations together in their efforts to overcome loss and plan for their future. It became apparent that many future heritage sites in Aceh, as elsewhere, needed to be build rather than re-built!
Figure: Heritage for the future. A tsunami boat in Lampulo. Image: creative commons
In this example, the future is not perceived in terms of risks and threats but rather as a process of continuing transformation and change which we cannot always steer but to which we can adapt and which holds opportunities. In the words of historic preservationist Erica Avrami, it is precisely the continuing renewal of values ascribed and stories crafted about sites and objects in the landscape that makes the ideal of preservation sustainable in the long term. Does the conservation paradigm of heritage, then, need to be adapted and renewed, too?
Human geographer Stephanie Lavau recently argued exactly that. She suggested that strategies to deal with climate change, despite overt links to the ‘endangerment sensibility’, may in fact more than anything else reflect the changing nature of conservation. Maintaining a timeless continuity of existing forms in protective fortresses is giving way to supporting a more fluid continuity of ecological processes by providing possibilities for future ecosystems. Whereas ‘fortress conservation’ manifests a nostalgic longing for the past, sometimes evoking grief and regret about loss and destruction, ‘fluid conservation’ allows for heritage to prepare legacies for the future as it might possibly be, drawing on human vision and hope. Such living heritage testifies and, at the same time, takes advantage of change over time.
As far as the devastating war in Syria is concerned, for all the destruction taking place, its heritage as such is not ‘at risk’. To perceive heritage as irreplaceable remains of the past, at risk of falling victim to present-day events, does not help in recognising the potential of a changing heritage to contribute to future-making as a legacy to be.
Acknowledgment: Some of this text was inspired by discussions within the Heritage Futures project https://www.heritage-futures.org.
Cornelius Holtorf, Linnaeus University, Sweden