Who Owns Our Cultural Heritage?

From world heritage sites to our local communities, the meaning of heritage is open to interpretation, says a Tufts art history professor

Angkor Wat multiple-layered ancient building in Cambodia. From world heritage sites to our local communities, the meaning of heritage is open to interpretation, says a Tufts art history professor

When President Donald Trump earlier this year threatened military attacks on cultural sites in Iran, it caused a global outcry. In Paris, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay framed the protection of treasured cultural sites as a matter of moral obligation, calling them “vectors of peace and dialogue between peoples, which the international community has a duty to protect and preserve for future generations.”

At Tufts, the public pushback dominated discussions early this semester in Peter Probst’s class Who Owns the Past?

Probst is a professor of art history, with a secondary appointment in anthropology, who has been studying disputes over cultural heritage sites in different parts of the world. His class—Who Owns the Past?—is a gateway course of the new minor in Museums, Memory and Heritage, which Probst and his colleagues in the Department of the History of Art and Architecture launched in Fall 2019.  

“Heritage is about remembrance, but who is included and who is excluded? In fact, heritage is nothing stable, it’s a process and thus subject to change,” said Probst.

Tufts Now recently talked with him about his class, the new minor, and the complex and often contested nature of global heritage.

Tufts Now: What’s the context for creating the new minor in Museums, Memory, and Heritage?

Peter Probst: My colleagues and I realized that debates over identity, race, and cultural ownership are more and more prevalent both in the art world as well as in society at large. We wanted to create a minor that would address these issues from both conceptual and practical perspectives by focusing on questions of curation and preservation. Given these objectives, the minor offers a transdisciplinary perspective that combines approaches from art and architectural history with that of anthropology, archaeology, political science, history, and other relevant fields.

A gateway to the minor is your course Who Owns the Past? It’s framed as a question—how did you come up with that framework?

I wanted to help students understand both the value and the contested nature of cultural heritage—they are inherently complex. The course focuses on the role art, artifacts, and monuments play in the ongoing process of nation building. We discuss the meaning of sites and objects in relation to concepts like identity, memory, and cultural ownership. The emphasis is on the issue of control.

Who has control over the use and the making of meaning of the past? Case studies range from the restitution of art works acquired during European imperialism and colonialism to disputes over the interpretation of ancient sites in Jerusalem or different notions of authenticity and physical integrity in the conservation of Zen shrines in Japan. Last but not least we study the workings of “world heritage,” a concept UNESCO has coined in order to understand the process of nation building as part of a wider process of world making.

It sounds like the definition of heritage is very much subject to change.

Yes, heritage means different things and it works on different levels. While it denotes a sense of belonging and identity, it is also subject of negotiation and contestation. Whose heritage are we talking about? Heritage is about remembrance, but who is included and who is excluded? In fact, heritage is nothing stable, it’s a process and thus subject to change.

The recent debate about civil war monuments and the legacy of slavery speaks to this processual character of heritage. Or even closer to home: think of the murals in the Alumnae Hall which were done in an effort to honor the history and heritage of Tufts. Protests from students and faculty about the exclusion of people of color led to a public discussion, which eventually resulted in the decision to take the murals down.    

Talk a bit about how cultural sites become infused with larger meaning—and moral obligations. You mentioned the concept of world heritage -- is that a rather recent idea?

The concept of world heritage emerged only in the early 1970s. Tellingly, it was around the time of the famous Apollo images of the Earth taken from outer space. They triggered debates about sustainability, and correlate with the emergence of debates about globalism and globalization, and whether the individual nation-state could cope with the challenges. The result was the UNESCO world heritage convention in 1972 and the introduction of a world heritage list in 1977. 

What role have both the convention and the list played in preserving the notion of global heritage?  

It’s a mixed bag. If you look at the increase of inscriptions—from twelve in 1977 when the list started to 1,121 in 2019—the list is certainly a success. It has created awareness and global visibility regarding the values of culture, diversity, preservation, and sustainability.  

On the other hand, the rapid increase of world heritage sites has raised concerns over the substance of the brand “world heritage.” Finally, the success has made world heritage sites a prominent target for asymmetrical warfare, meaning warfare between nation-states and non-state actors. The strategy is from the classical playbook of iconoclasm. Destroying sites of cultural importance, or just the threat of doing so, aims to attack the other’s system of beliefs and values.   

Cultural sites transcend the finiteness of individual human existence. How does that fit with preservation?

Ancient sites have the capacity to trigger feelings and activate images. They make us imagine the past and/or give the past a presence. That’s why ancient sites are not dead. They have an afterlife. People feel inspired by them. It’s also part of the affective allure of art history and archaeology.

It’s a way to feel the past and establish a connection with it, not as something that is lost and long gone, but just the opposite: something that has the capacity to still grab, touch, and move us.

Laura Ferguson can be reached at laura.ferguson@tufts.edu.       

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