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Heritage and the Negotiation of New Futures for the Past

Conflicts in Time: Rethinking 'Contemporary' Globalisation seminar series

UCL, May 2008

Whether Napoleon urging his troops to recognise the role of the Sphinx as witness looking down on millennia of civilisation or Sigmund Freud experiencing a 'disturbance of memory' when visiting the Acropolis, it is clear that conceptualisations of and experiences of heritage have profound intimacies with the dynamics of time and temporalities in the Western imagination. In the last few decades, a 'heritage boom' has been associated with globalisation. Monuments, sites and museums have been re-imagined as productive sites of both economic growth and development. New forms of value have been superimposed on the traditional view of heritage as respect for the past and aesthetic pleasure. The relevance of heritage within new 'culture and development' discourses have brought to the fore the economic value of heritage, as a key economic resource for countries with scarce resources. We have also witnessed a shift of heritage discourse from the economic and identity producing value of monuments and historic sites to the activating of heritage ethics. Heritage institutions such as UNESCO, born out of the conflicts of the Second World War, have been transformed as global agencies charged with the recognition and documentation of cultural diversity amongst renewed fears of cultural loss and aspirations for new forms of unification in a globalising world . Therapeutic and healing aspects of heritage are increasingly stressed in the resolution of conflict and post conflict situations. Heritage is now a global issue but by no means a unified one. Discussion of parallel or alternative heritages and the promotion of heritage agencies to rival the dominance of UNESCO, also suggest that 'conflicts' in the recognition, archiving, documentation and preservation of 'heritage' is already and will become a growing issue.

We will hold a seminar over two days in May to discuss these issues. Our objective is to explore the issues at stake in both intellectual and operational understandings of ‘heritage time’, ‘heritage temporalities’ and the inextricable links such phenomena have with the will to create ‘new futures.’ By ‘heritage time’ we mean loosely the idea of preserving a past or pasts deemed to be enduring but under threat from alternative temporalities (in particular commodified times) and by ‘heritage temporalities’ we mean situations where rival or alternative heritages are in play at a number of different local and global scales of resolution. A focus on conflicts in time can be complemented by focusing on conflict/postconflict situations where heritage and alternative practices are considered to contribute to restoring dignity and self respect. Can the recognition of and care for a shared past be a medium for reconciliation? Or are there rival claims to a restorative shared past and sense of dignity?

Truth and Reconciliation Commissions rely on the assumption that revealing and confessing to the past through bearing witness to its injustice and violence will contribute to democratic futures in war torn societies. Whilst the case of South Africa is taken widely as an instance of relative success in these respects, elsewhere the lack of security, the absence of wide means of dissemination and the absence of full accountability has led to their relative failure. In all cases, the moral authority that can be wielded or forged with reference to a revision and restoration of a past of suffering and a future directed by that revision is subject to a politics of memory and to moral contestation going well beyond what a state and its authority sanctions. It may or may not be possible to reconcile pasts by scaling them up to a greater sharing, but even then that greater scale can easily extend beyond the borders of a state or else evoke quite different senses of past time and of a future, eg different ideas of universal truth among world organisations from UNESCO to Ismaili foundations. Compatibility or non-compatibility, creative negotiability or intransigence describe the range of possibilities in these contestations over times and temporalities.

Bosnia, Palestine and Sierra Leone are cases where a reliance on activism and a variety of individuals and organisations has meant that the preservation of ‘heritage’ extends far outside the range of the state or its bureaucratic apparatuses. What kinds of heritages or representations of the past are produced in situations of weak states after or in conflict, when activities are often in the hands of NGOs dependent on international funding and expertise?. Others may use these resources to preserve alternative pasts, as resistance to military and cultural occupation, or as a means to attract money from foreign donors. Preservation and restoration of material environments are often cited as important contributors to ‘culture as cure’ or of heritage as ‘wellbeing’, as a means to argue new moral-ethical framings of ‘heritage time’ within a new therapeutic cosmopolitics. How these are manifested in actual and intimate experiences of home, kinship, family etc suggest alternative ideas of respect and dignity based more on mastery and self control of futures than retention of passive senses of a past. We argue that issues of temporality in postconflict situations form a complex focus in which these kinds of questions can be directed and a focus on three or four cases studies would form a suitable comparative framework out of which to work out, in discussion, better conceptions of alternative times, temporalities and contested past-futures.

(Professor Mike Rowlands, UCL, Seminar Director)

Economic and Social Research Council