Youth and inter-generational mediation of cultural heritage

Published on 11 October 2019

Image of Mariz Tadros

Mariz Tadros

Director (CREID)

For the sake of preservation of heritage under threat, engaging young people is key to sustainability, but we need to think creatively how to bring them on board, argues Mariz Tadros.

Gnawa musicians in Morocco
Gnawa musicians in Essaouira, Morocco. Credit. Vince Millet – Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On the face of it, heritage preservation may conjure images associated with the old – that which has long passed, on the way to joining the ranks of history. Often talk of Generation X conjures images of youth who are big on individuality, entrepreneurialism and technology, but this seeming tension between preserving old heritage and engaging youth need not necessarily be the case on the ground.

We know that unless people take it upon themselves to recognise, appreciate and even celebrate their heritage, it risks disappearing thereby losing an important repertoire of people’s identity and history. This is not to say that people’s desire to protect their heritage is in and of itself enough to preserve it – wars, conflict, material degradation and a whole host of factors influence its survival.

It is unquestionable that the role of governments, experts, and the international community is critical for heritage preservation. But sometimes governments’ priorities change and today’s fundable flavour of the month among international donors may be gone tomorrow.

Slowly, there is a growing movement towards the recognition of the role of ordinary people in pressing power-holders for accountability for protecting and preserving common heritage.

Without this public pressure, we will see more and more dilapidated buildings, which formerly communicated identity and wielded convening power, fall to the ground; manuscripts bearing hidden meanings left for rats or rot (or both) to consume and untold histories – stories, songs, passed from generation to generation – accompanying their storytellers to the graveyard.

The first regional conference on cultural heritage protection of religious communities, which was organised by the Moroccan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation with the support of the U.S. Department of State and in partnership with the Rabita Mohammadia of Moroccan Religious Scholars, saw state and civil society participants (almost all over the age of 40) discuss and debate the different strategies for protecting cultural heritage of religious minorities and vulnerable groups across the African continent. Given that Morocco is in some ways light years ahead of many countries in protecting its multi-faith heritage, including in particular its Jewish heritage, meeting there seemed timely.

Senior citizens who appreciate heritage lament the ignorance of youth and complain:

‘How young people can move into the future without knowing their history?’

‘Who is going to bear the torch of inter-generational transmission of culture if young people are disinterested, disconnected, and disengaged from the past?’

Heritage is everybody’s business, and an interconnected approach among all age groups is necessary, but for the sake of heritage preservation, engaging young people is key to sustainability.

The intention here is not to romanticise youth as the new guardians of heritage. On the other hand, if we expect that young people will accept to be simply blind transmitters of heritage, our success may be at best short-term, and at worst, fake and transitory.

We need to move from strategies that focus on intergenerational transmission of heritage to intergenerational mediation of heritage

The difference may seem like a pedantic quibble over which jargon to use, but ultimately it is about whether we envisage the role of youth as simply one of passing on the baton, or one of active agents in the process of mediating the meaning of heritage for generations past and for those to come.

So what might be the essential elements for engaging youth as active agents of heritage gathering and preservation and not just its transmitters? Here are some thoughts:

(1) Raise awareness among youth of their heritage without preaching. There was one important, generalisable message of how not to engage young people in heritage preservation, and that is not to patronise them by treating them as vessels to be filled with what they should know and pass on about their heritage. In practice, it means exploring opportunities with and for young people to discover heritage for themselves and for their communities – both local and immediate, and beyond.

(2) Young people will interpret heritage through their own eyes, and this means, like the rest of us, they will engage in a selective kind of engagement with what counts and why. With respect to people’s oral heritage, all elements of heritage, including those which we find dignified and those which we know have tensions with human rights and liberties, need to be preserved, because only by understanding our past can we fully appreciate our present. Youth may develop their own discerning lens regarding what is worth keeping alive in heritage and what is best appreciated as an element of the past.

(3) Engage with youth of all backgrounds. Heritage preservation is already regarded by many as the remit of the elites, but we need to reach out to young people from rural as well as urban areas, women as well as men, and across professional and class backgrounds.

(3) Find innovative ways of linking heritage gathering and preservation with sustainable livelihoods. There should not be a contradiction in appreciating heritage for what it is and making a living in a meaningful way (as long as we don’t see heritage exclusively as a money-making venture). The two can come together effectively, such as for example the endeavours of the Atlas Foundation in Morocco in supporting an appreciation of Jewish heritage among poor Moroccan rural dwellers.

(4) Capitalise on young people’s digital savviness for heritage preservation. There have been a great deal of technological advancements in the field of preserving immaterial and tangible heritage, which provides exciting opportunities for young people to adapt. Moreover, the digital sphere offers endless opportunities for young people to communicate how they are engaging with their heritage. For example, in the Coptic Culture Conservation Collective, digital storytelling has become a favourite medium for young people to share their experiences of discovering their own local heritage. In addition, the dissemination pathways of communicating heritage via online media for young people offers real opportunities for broad-based dissemination.

In IDS’ partnership with local partners in Egypt, supported by the British Council, we engage with youth as agents of heritage gathering, analysis, preservation and dissemination. They have transformed how we think about what constitutes people’s heritage and they have challenged us to think outside the box in many ways.

We also hope that through the CREID initiative, where we will be working in partnership with local communities and young people in Iraq, Egypt, and beyond, we will learn more about how we can bring together this work on heritage with an approach to  skills development amongst young people and tackling religious inequalities ultimately with a view to supporting inclusive development.