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“The society we now live in has been, in large measure, accomplished by destroying the cultural heritage of previous generations at various moments.”
Cultural heritage is made up of the monuments, works of art, and practices that a society uses to define and understand itself and its history. The question of exactly which monuments or practices should be considered cultural heritage evolves as the society changes how it views itself—and, perhaps more importantly, how it views its future. This slippery definition of heritage is at the core of many of the challenges preservationists and heritage professionals face today.
In this episode, hosted by former Getty President Jim Cuno, Neil MacGregor and Kavita Singh discuss who gets to define cultural heritage and why that matters, using examples pulled from the French Revolution to contemporary Sri Lanka.
Neil MacGregor is the former director of the National Gallery, London, the British Museum, and the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. Kavita Singh is professor at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. MacGregor and Singh are contributors to the recent publication Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities, edited by Jim Cuno and Thomas G. Weiss and available free of charge from Getty Publications.
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Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, former president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art + Ideas. I am your host for a three-episode series on the need to protect cultural heritage during times of war and mass atrocities.
Neil MacGregor: The society we now live in has been, in large measure, accomplished by destroying the cultural heritage of previous generations at various moments.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with Neil MacGregor and Kavita Singh about definitions of cultural heritage.
The destruction of cultural heritage in times of war and mass atrocities is not new. Sadly it has become a familiar aim of state and non-state actors across a growing portion of the world. Its ultimate goal is simple and direct. As Irina Bokova, then Secretary General of UNESCO, said after the destruction of Aleppo in 2012, “You deprive people of their culture, you deprive them of the history, their heritage, and that is why it goes hand in hand with genocide. Along with the physical persecution they want to eliminate – to delete—the memory of these different cultures.”
In 2016, the Getty convened an international meeting to discuss a framework for the protection of cultural heritage. Six years later, Thomas Weiss, Presidential Professor of Political Science at the CUNY Graduate Center, and I co-edited a book—Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities. This three-episode podcast series grows out of that book.
These are difficult topics discussed in lively conversations by leading thinkers on the subject. If you want to learn more urge you to follow up on them by reading the thirty-eight essays in Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities, which can be downloaded free of charge at getty.edu/publications/.
For this first podcast episode, I spoke with Neil MacGregor, former director of the British Museum, and Kavita Singh, professor of the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University. We discussed how to understand what constitutes cultural heritage and why it should matter to all of us.
Well, thank you, Neil and Kavita, for speaking with me on this podcast episode. Neil, you begin your essay by stating that all cultural heritage is, in large measure, intangible and that this explains, in part, why it is most in danger when community narratives change. What do you mean by that?
MACGREGOR: What I mean by that is that it seems to me that cultural heritage are those bits of our past that we think are important for our present and for the future. They’re the bits of our past that we invest with particular significance and particular value.
And I think that can often have relatively little to do with the absolute quality of the object. It’s what the object means to us now that matters. And that, of course, changes because we define ourselves by the stories we tell ourselves about the past and who we want to be.
And I think that we see that very clearly in the way, for instance, in Britain in the twentieth century, there was a moment when the Victorian architectural inheritance was something we wanted to forget. We didn’t like it—it reminded us of slum, exploitation, of an imperial adventure that was over, of a capitalist system that had been brutal—and nobody minded when great buildings were demolished. That’s now changed and a different narrative of what the nineteenth century in Britain was about—what engineering prowess, modernism, modernity at the time has become, the way we now want to read it. And we want to use that for the future. So what was regarded as an embarrassment has become cultural heritage.
I think you can see almost the same, in some ways, in India, where there was a moment when the colonial heritage was not valued because it was part of a past India wanted, needed to put behind it. That’s now changing; it has not changed completely. Realizing that these were buildings made by Indian engineers, Indian architects, often, and always with Indian labor, and they’re part of an Indian story.
So what matters is what we project onto these objects. And I think you can see very clearly why that is at the heart of cultural heritage when you compare the different reactions of what one might call the Western world to what’s happened in Eastern Europe after the end of the Soviet Empire, where a great many monuments were destroyed because they glorified Soviet liberation, in inverted commas, Soviet cooperation, as it was then thought. And it was essential for those countries not to think of the Soviet Union and Russia in that way any longer.
And interestingly, nobody in the Western world, or very few in the Western world, objected to that because we welcomed the end of the Russian-Soviet Empire. And so we didn’t think that those were cultural heritage that needed to be preserved. So that’s what I meant when I said that the moment at which an object from the past becomes cultural heritage depends most of all on the meaning that we, the community that possesses it, that lives with it, want to accord it at any given moment.
CUNO: Now Kavita, you suggest something similar to Neil’s argument, but with regard to the cultural heritage in Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. How do you see those phenomena as similar, or perhaps different in some degrees, to those in Neil’s examples?
KAVITA SINGH: Well, I think it’s kind of interesting that you’ve paired the two of us here in this podcast today, because in many ways, we’re looking at the same phenomenon, but through different ends of the telescope, as it were.
And Neil speaks very much about processes in which a certain society and a certain culture has decided to claim or own something as its heritage, which has either led to the rebuilding of certain things that were destroyed in an earlier era or the destruction of something that was made in a different era, which no longer represents the way the society wishes to think of itself.
So for example, to think of the statue of a slave owner, Colston, in Bristol being reckoned with by a contemporary society which is a multicultural, postcolonial society, which does not wish to honor someone who made his fortune in the slave trade, right? But many of the things that Neil talks about are about processes of either building or of pulling down and tucking away which have been achieved.
Which means that those people who redefine their culture in a particular way to espouse or to reject certain values had the power, either as legitimate state actors or as a large popular crowd which was not being opposed by state actors, in the act of destruction or construction that they did.
And I think I’m talking about the flipside, where I’m talking about communities which have a great desire to have, to espouse, to nurture, to rebuild certain kinds of objects and sites, in order to speak of the cultural heritage that they wish to own. But these are the communities that are not in power. They don’t have the agency. And therefore, they are those underlings of the present moment in history who are left yearning for an agency and a voice that they do not have, and are instead condemned to the position of watching others redefine for them what should be the cultural heritage or the deep history or the civilizational meaning of the land that they exist on, which actually effaces their presence and their desires.
And I spoke about this in my essay through two different kinds of communities who are living through what we could call, at that point, a postwar situation. I was speaking about the Tamils in the northern part of Sri Lanka, who come out of a twenty-year-old civil war for said definition of sovereignty, which they lose. And in the peace that comes, there is no question that they are subject to numerous reminders that they are actually vanquished people who are going to have to not gain peace, but make peace with a difficult situation that they have now got to reckon with and continue to live with.
And so they watch how the kind of cultural heritage that they wish to claim for themselves or inscribe on their own land for themselves is being erased, and another history is being written by the victors, who are the Buddhist Sinhalas, who control the country and are rewriting the history and the culture of their land. So in a sense, if Neil is celebrating those moments when communities were able to redefine their relationship to certain objects and sites and claim something as their heritage or not their heritage, I’m talking about helpless onlookers who are not able to complete that process for themselves.
CUNO: So Neil, you state quite boldly that, quote, “Cultural heritage is about the future. And the reason we value material cultural heritage is precisely the reason why to so many, it seems necessary and reasonable to eliminate it.” Tell us about that.
MACGREGOR: I think that if you are trying to build a new society, you have to eliminate the objects which support the ideology that you are leaving behind, that you want to leave behind. You have to remove the encouragements in sculpture, in buildings, in stained glass, whatever, to what you now think of as wrong habits of behavior, wrong understandings of the world. And in order to make a new world, you very often will need to destroy the old.
And we saw it in the Protestant Reformation in Northern Europe; we saw it very clear in the French Revolution, where it became essential. If you were going to create a free people, as they then understood it, you had to take away the symbols of monarchy, the symbols of subjection to an aristocratic order and the power of the church. That would’ve been impossible to make the new France, surrounded by the objects and the propaganda iconography of the old France.
I think it’s surprising that we appear to find it so difficult to understand that that was the thinking of Isis in their destructions, which of course, destroyed things that we value, we know to be of great beauty and great importance. But to them, they were, I suspect, objects that stood in the way of making their new society. And to create the world they wanted to make, then they had to eliminate those aspects of the past.
So I think we perhaps haven’t adequately acknowledged that that was our own history, and the society we now live in has been, in large measure, accomplished by destroying the cultural heritage of previous generations at various moments.
CUNO: Kavita, you argue that cultural reconstruction is never innocent, that, quote, “The very processes of reconstruction and heritage conservation meant to repair a society can become instruments through which one side continues to dominate another.” Tell us about that, and in the context, also, of not only in Afghanistan and in India, but also in regard to Neil’s remarks, in Europe.
SINGH: So when a peace is declared, it’s never a perfect peace and there’s never a perfect consensus or a perfect balance of powers from which a peace emerges. I mean, it’s absolutely inevitable that there will be a power structure which has produced the end of conflict, and which will dominate the period of peace that is to follow. And the period that always spoken of optimistically as the postwar period, the period of reconstruction, then also becomes something like a slow, extended victory parade, doesn’t it, on the part of those who have won.
And you can’t help wondering about the sensation that must obtain for the people who are the mute witnesses of this peace being performed upon them, and how they must feel about all the hosannas that are supposed to be sung about a process, which is supposed to be reconstruction, but may well be a long process of humiliations that they have to endure.
In my paper, I spoke about Afghanistan, for instance. Unfortunately, I was aiming my critiques at a government in Afghanistan at the time, which was a much, much kinder and better government than the government that obtains now.
But as I was writing, I was trying to speak about how the efforts of that government, which all seemed reasonable and good and sincere and in consonance with the international community, must have appeared to the residents of Bamiyan, who had suffered such terrible damage to those icons of their cultural heritage. And I tried to speak about the local kinds of cultures and the local folklores which very few people know about, which actually connect the local denizens of Bamiyan, who are the minority Shia Hazara community, who had adopted these Buddhist sculptures, filled them with new meanings altogether, quite different from the Buddhist meanings that they must have had in the fifth and sixth century, and had converted the Buddhas into the figures of lovers from Hazara folklore.
And I did try to speak about how the, I’m sure, very well-minded and sincere efforts that were being made by the Hamid Karzai government to work with UNESCO and international experts to try and stabilize the Bamiyan site and to try and conserve what remained of it, also seemed like a terrible denial of the desires and the aspirations of the local Hazara community, who wanted nothing more than a rebuilding of the sculptures, even if that rebuilding was inauthentic, even if that rebuilding was making a completely new object out of an ancient site. Because they wanted to undo the erasure of what they had seen as their cultural heritage.
And so this sense that you are living, even with a government that is saying all the right things and is making the right gestures and is winning the approval of the international community, and seems rational and kind and good, to know that the micropolitics of the place might reveal to you that there are tensions between the center and the periphery, so that what looks like perfectly reasonable gestures being made by a government are also perpetuating the marginalization of a minority community within the country that are told that, “Your wishes are actually irrational. They are not in consonance with the latest thinking about conservation or about the museum world or what UNESCO thinks is the correct way to handle a site like this.” And therefore, they are sort of trivialized and their wishes are dismissed.
This is one set of tensions that we see, in which a community has to take a deep breath and learn to live with the suppression of their desires. But we know of many, many other instances where there has been damage to, let’s say, a historic zone in a city, and then there is a period of reconstruction that follows after. And quite often, what happens in these moments of reconstruction is guided by sometimes very powerful local interest which are tied up, often, with real estate interests.
So zones in old cities, historic centers, which might have been the homes of communities—we know this to be true in, let’s say, Beirut, for instance, or in Jerusalem—when those areas get battered by bombs, and when it’s time for their reconstruction, what swoops in, under the umbrella of postwar reconstruction, is often a consortium of builders who gentrify the place and hand ownership over to a community that has nothing to do with the community that had once occupied these places and given them the meaning that makes them historic and valuable. And I’m sure we’re gonna see that in Syria; I’m sure we’re gonna see that, eventually, in Ukraine. You know, it seems to me like an inevitability.
CUNO: This kind of change that perpetuates difference and restores order, however well-meaning it is, is precisely what you’re talking about. And Neil, you raised earlier in conversation, when we were talking before the podcast, about the Berlin Palace, about the Hohenzollern capital, built in 1700. Tell us about the cultural and political role it played over the centuries, and has played over the centuries and most recently, and how it relates to our book project.
MACGREGOR: Well, it does, interestingly, demonstrate almost exactly what Kavita’s been talking about, about what happens when the vanquished see their history erased. Because the history of that building, of the site, which is now the Humboldt Hall in the middle of Berlin, is a perfect demonstration of the shifting meanings of cultural heritage and what we want to have as cultural heritage at particular moments.
It was the baroque town palace of the Hohenzollerns, the place from which the Kaiser proclaimed the war in 1914. And so it has associations with Prussia, and with military Prussia and the wars of the twentieth century. It was badly bombed in the Second World War, but it was no worse bombed than many other buildings that were reconstructed afterwards.
But in 1950, the communist government of East Berlin—it was in East Berlin—decided to blow it up completely, to destroy it, because they thought it was a symbol of Prussian militarism. And for the new socialist Germany that they represented, the whole point of that socialist Germany was a rejection of Prussian aristocratic militarism. So a perfect demonstration of needing to get rids of a bit of cultural heritage to make the new country you want.
Great protests, of course, from the art historians, the conservationists, and from many in the West, who felt this was a misreading of the building and it was a great architectural masterpiece, and should be preserved. It was destroyed.
On its site, the East German communist government built the parliament of the German Democratic Republic. A building, a perfectly honorable building of the 1970s, not particularly distinguished. It was, nonetheless, a symbolic building of the government. It was also a building where the public could go for concerts, for cafes, for discotheques, and above all, for bowling. It was the best bowling alley in East Berlin. It was where lots of East Berliners and East Germans had spent happy times in their childhood—courting, parties, whatever. So an ambivalent building; but nonetheless, an emblem of East Germany, Soviet East Germany.
After the reunion of Germany, through that triumph of the West, the collapse of the Soviet system, the question was, what should happen in the new capital, to this old symbol? And once again, it was decided that this symbol of the East, of a previous regime, should be destroyed. There was no place for it in the new, genuinely democratic capital of Germany. So it was demolished.
And exactly as Kavita says, there was a strong sense of an erasure of what had been, for a generation of East Germans, a building which was part of their story. And in its place, to the virtual total opposition of the East Germans, it was decided, by the Bundestag, with the strong majority of Western members of parliament, that they should reconstruct the old Hohenzollern Palace.
So two buildings demolished for the reasons that they no longer represent the history that they embodied, are now to be replaced by a reconstruction of the facades of the Hohenzollern Palace. But, we were told, this time with a different meaning. This time, it would be about a Germany that was open to the world, because it would house the objects from the ethnological museum, particularly objects from Africa and Asia and the Pacific, those cultures which the Nazis had not valued.
So it was an attempt to make anew, give a new meaning to an old form. And it was opposed at the time. It’s been bitterly opposed ever since. And the opposition is growing steadily, because the associations, the meanings which the old building carries are not just ones of Imperial aggrandizement; they’re also strongly Christian ones. There’s a cross on the top, with an inscription saying that all people on Earth must bow the knee before Jesus.
All of this is now the center of really a violent public debate about the meaning of a piece of cultural heritage which has been reconstructed, and the attempt to put onto it, new significance. It is about the Germany citizens of Berlin and Germany now want to see, and how they see themselves, how they see their past. It’s a perfect demonstration of what Kavita has been talking about, in a rather similar way to the Bamiyan Buddhas.
This reconstruction — was imposed by people with certain views—the victors—at a certain moment. And it’s now being debated very, very vigorously.
CUNO: Now Kavita, I wanted to give you a chance to come back to what you were talking about and what Neil just raised. In this case, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, that enough time has passed to allow us to see the shape cultural reconstruction can play in these regions. Tell us, Kavita, how this reflects on what Neil said, with regard to the reconstruction that follows on destruction.
SINGH: In many ways, I think the irony of the reconstructed palace in Berlin and the desire that the makers of this project had to convert the palace into a Humboldt Forum, which would celebrate Germany’s Enlightenment histories, its histories of scholarship and research and reason, and to use this edifice, which externally, would resemble a very fine, I think, eighteenth century palace, but would fill it with the objects of cultures from far-flung parts of the world which have not been honored enough, not been given a sufficiently central place in the reckonings of culture, as written in the canonical books and which has not had a physical space which is central and close to the museum island in Berlin—because it was all out in the suburbs in Dahlem—and therefore, this building gave an opportunity to bring all of these things to the most museologically consecrated, most prestigious areas of display.
I think all of these were intended as a kind of expiation of guilt about what the idea of reconstructing a symbol of Prussian imperial pride might look like in the present day. The problem is that another way of understanding this viewing is that you build a palace of a European Enlightenment, and you fit the rest of the world, like little Lego pieces, inside of it. And so you’re basically telling the whole world that, you know, you may have produced something, you may have believed something, you may have sung something, but it’s only our scientific disciplines that will make sense of it or turn it into something that is of intellectual purpose. Right?
So yours is raw culture, until we come and organize it and study it and give the touch of science to it, which then puts it inside a framework of intellection. And I think this has been one of the criticisms of the Humboldt Forum as it is conceptualized now; that it’s a kind of a totalizing of the power of Western knowledge systems over all others; and that this is a kind of a token gathering of all others, inside one grab bag space.
Now, this is not something that is going to be unique to a phenomenon enacted in a Western capital. And so I was also very interested to see how the powers of science, the powers of archaeology, the powers of conservation, the powers of all the rational ways and empirical ways and objective ways that we have devised of handling cultural systems and cultural knowledge and cultural heritage, how those also become instruments of a certain kind of oppression, where the people who wish to say, “Oh, my goodness, these are our gods,” or “These are our heroes,” or “These are the lovers whose songs we sing,” that articulation actually has no power against that authoritative voice which says, “This is a sixth century sculpture of the Gandhara school, made with brick and stucco, and it can only have its authentic presence if it is build in the old, authentic materials, and anything else would not quite be legitimate as a form of reconstruction.”
So the authority of our scientific disciplines and our internationally acknowledged orthodoxy of cultural management and correct practices or best practices can become part of these oppressive tools of over management, which take control away from communities and hand them over to some sort of abstract idea of professional and authorized set of bodies, who have, really, the authority to not just take charge of things, but to tell those people whose things these are, what those things are.
Now, we saw a kind of well-meaning version of this in Afghanistan, when all the German and Swiss and Japanese and French archaeologists were working, in consonance with UNESCO, in the Bamiyan Valley; and when somebody who was very sympathetic, a German archaeologist who was very sympathetic to the local Hazara wish to rebuild one of the Bamiyan statues, in the name of stabilizing the rockface that was crumbling, produced some props which started looking suspiciously like the feet of one of the Buddhas.
And he really did it as a sly kind of move, thinking that, “Okay, I’ve put a foot back. And maybe if somebody wants to come up later and add a little plaster to this brickwork which is giving the suggestion of a foot and a boot, they may, at some point in the future, do it.” But then somebody went and complained to the authorities in Kabul, who went and complained to UNESCO, and they were forced to demolish that little foot that they had put in, right? So you couldn’t get a foot in the door, as it were, of these local practices coming back, or local beliefs taking precedence in Bamiyan.
But when I was studying the Sri Lankan case, I found the role of these authorized custodians of heritage even more chilling, actually. Because as we have seen in Israel, where there is a very contentious history of archaeology, where these attempts to dig to the deepest, most pristine levels of culture are to actually dig deep enough to find levels of culture that correlate to an Old Testament past— And in the quest for that deep past, you actually dig past and cast away centuries of accumulated material from Palestinian occupation, from Ottoman occupation, which become irrelevant, rubbish to be thrown out and away.
Similarly, in Sri Lanka, there is a desire to dig through to a deep level of authentic, pristine, primordial past which is Buddhist, and to go past the levels which might have been Hindu, and therefore, allied with the Tamils, who are the minority, who lost the war, basically. So what you have in Sri Lanka, then, is a concerted effort on the part of the archaeological establishment to produce these histories that are desired, and to somehow dig, find, conjecture, reconstruct, on the basis of very small and fragmentary remains that might be, to produce this Buddhist past which is so desired by the Sinhala majority southern part of the island, which wishes to put its cultural stamp on the north, as well.
And I found it really telling that in order to force this kind of archaeological rewriting, the government of the day actually understood how fraught this exercise was and put the archaeological authority under the control of the military. So it became part of the defense ministry, you know? So there was this understanding, in a sense—I think it was an implicit understanding—that archaeology, in this case, is actually a violent act. And that is why it’s being performed by something that has been absorbed by the military.
So very often, the things that we hold up as the products of our rationality are actually only a very thin curtain that we are drawing over some very deeply instinctual, and often violent, part of ourselves.
CUNO: Well, Thank you, Kavita, for reminding us of how unstable the very idea of cultural heritage is or can be, and the role that it plays in post-conflict resolution.
Thank you both very much for speaking with me today, and for contributing to our recent publication, Cultural Heritage and Mass Atrocities. Tom Weiss and I, the co-editor of the book, believe the topic to be of the greatest importance, and the contributions that the two of you made, and your colleagues, of lasting significance. So thank you both very much.
MACGREGOR: Thank you.
SINGH: Thank you very much.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Myke Dodge Weiskopf.
Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003 and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music.
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Thanks for listening
JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, former president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art + Ideas. I am your host for a three-episode series on the need to protect cultural heritage during times of war and mass atrocities.
Neil MacGregor: The society we now live in has been, in large m...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824