Why cultural heritage is not ‘at risk’ (in Syria or anywhere)

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!

Tsunami_2004_aftermath._Aceh,_Indonesia,_2005._Photo-_AusAID_(10730592474)

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

Cultural Heritage, Destruction and Palmyra

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19 thoughts on “Why cultural heritage is not ‘at risk’ (in Syria or anywhere)

  1. Surely there’s a fundamental difference between material culture and living things. I entirely agree that cultural change is inevitable, but to equate that with climate change and loss of biodiversity seems a bit perverse. Whatever the needs of future generations, they will need a habitable planet, even if they don’t need the Bamiyan Buddhas or the Sex Pistols graffiti.

  2. Thanks Paul. Its an interesting point, but heritage has been making an equation between nature conservation and heritage conservation my whole life. Heritage is dealt with as part of Environmental Impact Assessments and the narrative of endangerment is based on this equation. I’d say that the focus on preservation avoids engaging with the reality of climate change in a way that keeps us from political action (the argument in this post https://heritagefortransformation.wordpress.com/2016/01/31/learning-and-teaching-to-let-go/)

  3. I think we are dealing here with the one great (apparent) inconsistency of Heritage Conservation: we fight tenaciously against any changes, but once they occur, it does not take us very long to accept the changed situation as something worthy of protection in its own right. More than 200 years ago, John Carter fought tooth and nail against the ’restauration’ of English cathedrals by James Wyatt (’The Destroyer’) – needless to say, Wyatt’s works have long enjoyed heritage protection. More than 100 years ago there was a public outcry of Heritage experts against rebuilding parts of Heidelberg Castle – today the fanciful reconstruction by the architect Carl Schäfer is greatly admired by visitors and art historians alike. And need one mention our spirited defense of the unloved architectural works of the 1960 and 70s?
    In any case, destruction – and replacing a thing either with something different or with a void – can and should be seen as adding another layer, not least since any destruction leaves traces that can be read and interpreted. Neither the Bamiyan Buddhas nor the Berlin Wall have disappeared completely (and of course we aim to protect the remnants from further loss), and fragments and traces are often more fascinating and moving, because they touch our imagination.
    As for Syria, the damage done to cities and archaeological sites cannot and should not be obliterated by post-conflict recovery. Reconstruction of heritage destroyed or damaged by momentous events should not be backward-looking, i.e. trying to re-create an earlier state and pretending that nothing has happened, but forward-looking: recognising and saving the cultural significance that can be retained, and using it as an inspiration for a creative approach to the future.

  4. A brilliant piece. I take issue with a few points – a slightly over-simple formulation of ‘value’ and a universalising viewpoint that recognises only one common human heritage without subdivision.

    However as a firm believer in the ecological necessity of human extinction I found it inspiring (and naturally I disagree fundamentally with Paul G-B’s concerns re: future generations). This is one of the most lucid defences of cultural annihilation I have ever read, and it translates perfectly into a case for genocide (or the ‘dying off’ of humanity) if one substitutes ‘genetic heritage’ for ‘cultural heritage’.

    How, after all, can we meaningfully evaluate ‘cultural heritage’ on a global scale while human cultures persist? Like the dodo and the dinosaur invoked above, it is only in retrospect that the common legacy of humanity can be considered. The overwhelming benefits of destruction transformed the Bamiyan Buddhas from minor, marginal concerns into ’emblems’ of global heritage, just as killing did to Jesus and Socrates amongst others.

    To paraphrase Holtorf, “To see [humanity] 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.” This is as true for genetic as for cultural heritage, and of the many facile and culturally situated humanistic arguments against the ecological benefits of murder, genocide, and ultimately total human extinction. For example, so-called ‘climate change’ is socially constructed as a negative rather than neutral or positive development precisely in these narrow, anthropocentric terms.

    • Nice to see some comeback on this. But I can’t say that I’m convinced by the transposition of ‘humanity’ for ‘cultural heritage’ Do you really see heritage as having the same concerns and rights as people?

      • I was wrong to use the emotive term ‘humanity’, sorry – should have stuck with ‘human genetic heritage’, which makes my point more clearly. It’s a bit absurd to talk about heritage as having ‘rights’, and human rights only exist on an individual scale, not on a species level – especially such a pernicious species.

        Moving on…

        I disagree with the statement that “value emerges from the very condition of endangerment itself” – some does, but surely other forms of value emerge from aesthetic appreciation and other positive forms. Thus it’s misleading to compare ‘fortress conservation’ with its ‘grief and regret’ to ‘fluid conservation’ with its ‘vision and hope’, when in practice both categories encapsulate a mixture of positive and negative emotions. And by the author’s initial definition of value, if endangerment of heritage is an illusion, does he perceive any heritage as having any value at all?

        On this basis, I’m curious to know whether in this model ‘heritage-ish-ness’ is a value that we ascribe to things, or is ‘heritage’ itself an independent constructed category, into which things are placed? One is universal, the other is specific. There’s a difference between saying “I appreciate X due to its heritage values” and “X is part of my culture’s heritage”. The difference lies in how the loss of X affects us: as a diminishment of our lived experience or a diminishment of ourselves. This connects to the thorny issue of cultural appropriation: an attack on heritage categories rather than on the substance of the heritage itself.

        Turning back to Syria, we can play word games and say that “its heritage as such is not ‘at risk'” in that the category of ‘existing Syrian heritage things’ continues to grow. Or we can recognise that things that were regarded by many as heritage have been annihilated. Grief and regret can be part of future heritage as well as nostalgic heritage, and sometimes vision and hope are very much in the past.

      • I thought of your comment when I read this in Bataille writing on Hegel “The animal, negating nothing, lost in a global animality to which it offers no opposition- just as that animality is itself lost in Nature (and in the totality of all that is)-does not truly disappear… No doubt the individual fly dies, but today’s flies are the same as those of last year. Last year’s have died? . . . Perhaps, but nothing has disappeared. The flies re- main, equal to themselves like the waves of the sea. This seems contrived: a biologist can separate a fly from the swarm, all it takes is a brushstroke. But he separates it for himself, he does not separate it
        for the flies. To separate itself from the others a fly would need the monstrous force of the understanding; then it would name itself and do what the understanding normally effects by means of language, which alone founds the separation of elements and by founding it founds itself on it, within a world formed of separated and denominated entities” http://www.jstor.org/stable/2930112?loginSuccess=true&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
        Heritage is not like the flies of last summer, it has specific value that we can feel grief at the loss of. But this is a different claim than to say (as many do) that Syria is in danger of losing its past

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