Opinion

Cultural heritage preservation: development’s enabling role?

Published on 23 February 2018

Image of Mariz Tadros
Mariz Tadros

Research Fellow

In this second blog from our series on the links between cultural heritage and development, Professor Tadros looks at what development studies and thinking can contribute to heritage preservation, and particular, what approaches can be applied to ensure communities, including marginalised groups within them, have a say in what constitutes heritage worth capturing and preserving.

Four generations. Credit: Thomas Hawk - CC BY-NC 2.0

Anthropologists working in the area of heritage preservation have at least three reasons to be suspicious of development studies and practice:

  • there are numerous examples of development interventions that have been determined to change culture in the name of “progress”
  • the appropriation of cultural heritage for economic exploitation in the name of “cultural capital” 
  • the highly disruptive projectised nature of many development interventions.

However, one common goal shared by those either working on heritage preservation or development is the fundamental belief in the importance of community ownership, at least amongst the progressives in both sectors.

Whose reality counts?

Anthropologists, museologists and those committed to understanding, capturing and preserving people’s heritage have, like their development counterparts, asked “whose reality counts” when it comes what constitutes heritage worth capturing is given weight and importance.

The role of outsiders in supporting locally-led and owned physical or immaterial resource protection has been a struggle for both heritage capturers and development practitioners alike.

While there have been some pioneering initiatives by “outsider/insider” anthropologists to ensure that local communities have ownership of their physical cultural heritage, it is in the area of intangible cultural heritage that development practice can potentially revolutionise framings and processes and help make them more locally embedded and owned.

Three development contributions to heritage preservation

To start off the conversation, let’s look at three development contributions to heritage preservation, which we will further explore them empirically through our Coptic Culture Capture Collective:

(1) Power-laden discourses

A good place to start is the UNESCO Convention on the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Although it represents only one approach to engaging with intangible cultural heritage, it is significant and often considered as a standard-setter.

How does UNESCO suggest that intangible cultural heritage is captured?

Well, one suggestion is the use of “Inventories”, as per article 11 of the convention.

Doing inventories is essentially about compiling lists and material. Inventory is a word that has highly extractive nuances. Experience from the development sector in trying to identify local equivalents can perhaps provide some helpful inroads in this area. It is not about language tinkering. It is about finding ways of expressing the “identification and capture” bit that is less top-down.

For example, approaches to what the role of communities themselves in identifying and capturing their own heritage are highly ambiguous.

The UNESCO convention highlights that “each State Party is required to take the necessary measures to ensure the safeguarding of the intangible cultural heritage present in its territory and to include communities, groups and relevant NGOs in the identification and definition of elements of that intangible cultural heritage”.

As a UN agency, it is understandable that it considers “the State” to be its natural counterpart, the mention of communities as only one of several actors to include in measures of safeguarding cultural heritage hardly exudes an image of community ownership!

Development studies has been grappling with questions of the wide array of ways in which the discourse of community “involvement” and “participation” can be devoid of any genuine power. Power analysis can be highly instructive for unpacking the power of discourses, and, reflecting on what it tells us about power relations may be useful for the cultural heritage arena.

(2)  Agency and inclusivity

Perhaps a hangover from the heavy emphasis on buildings, archives and so on, is the tendency among some to continue to objectivise heritage even when it is intangible.

Again, the language of inventorying is symptomatic of this, and perhaps one way forward is to draw on the work undertaken by Normal Long and many others, in particular in feminist scholarship, on agency. Agency is about how people experience and practice power (see for example this Oxfam paper on Questioning Empowerment: Working with women in Honduras).

But development studies has long recognized that to even talk about community agency is to blur all kinds of power dynamics, even when we are engaging with communities on the margin. In some instances cultural heritage capture and preservation has heavily relied on the role of community elders and leaders, in particular when they enjoy legitimacy amongst a large component of the community as the guardians and upholders of a community’s cultural heritage.

It is all too easy to ignore people living on the margins of society. Their voice in heritage identification, capture and safeguarding is simply not there. This is especially the case if gender intersects with other qualifiers such as remoteness from centres of power and influence, limited formal education, class, age or martial status.

Development’s work on “bottom up approaches”, recognising the plurality of voices and interests in a community is not unique to this sector. However, where it can provide meaningful inroads for cultural heritage experts is in grassroots, locally-led approaches to mapping multivocality and contending interests, and in validating them along the voices of the elites.

(3)  Ontology, epistemology, methodology

Where champions of cultural heritage and development converge is in recognising the power, significance and authority of local knowledge. It is an ontological question that has epistemological implications for heritage capture.

While anthropologists and other experts have made great advances in translating this in how they engage with communities, there are a number of ways in which development methodologies can allow for positive synergies:

  1. Participatory research methods: everything from ranking exercises to community mapping can provide different parts of the community with an opportunity to set the agenda for what comprises their heritage, beyond the role of collectors and validators. For such participatory research methods to be highly effective, they need to be cognizant of power dynamics and never become instrumentalised as a tool set.
  2. Action research: the whole cyclic nature of action research entailing a co-construction of approach, implementation, reflection, validation or alteration is premised on shifting the power relations between the external actor, however  enabling and well-meaning they may be, and local partners. Action research can potentially change ways of thinking about whose agenda is being pursued and to what end.
  3. Participatory visual methods: Whether participatory video or digital storytelling or other visual methods, the focus is not just on the capture or “safeguarding” but the process itself and what it means for the community members and how they relate to the cultural resources they own.
  4. Participatory monitoring, evaluation and learning. When dealing with intangible cultural heritage, there is consensus among heritage experts that we are talking about repertoires that are highly dynamic and changing. There is consensus that what constitutes intangible cultural heritage is largely contingent upon community perceptions and what they ascribe legitimacy to.

How can we avoid token validation consultations?

So how do we make sure that as we work alongside communities, we are not merely engaging in token validation consultations?

Participatory monitoring mechanisms which create the space for communities to learn and reflect on processes of identification and capture of their own heritage can fundamentally change the underpinnings of what constitutes successful heritage capture and safeguarding.

I have spoken here and in my previous blog about synergies and cross-fertilization, but undoubtedly the tensions between preservation and change can also be sources of conflict, as we will see in the next blog in relation to the question of gender and intersecting identities.

Image: Four generations. Credit: Thomas Hawks (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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