“Is it Time to Rethink Our Ideas About Preserving World Heritage?” A Provocative Question in Dire Times

AN Forum

The Financial Times’ recent article, “Is It Time to Rethink Our Ideas About Preserving World Heritage?” by Jonathan Foyle, explores whether in the face of the ongoing destruction of cultural heritage from natural disasters and “human aggression, theft and errors of judgment,” new ways of preserving our heritage should be sought.

heritage“It is clear we cannot save everything we’d like to, for all time,” Foyle observes. While poorer countries face numerous obstacles to preservation, including calamitous human needs, even for wealthier countries “(p)reservation is too great a burden….” This sad but true reality begs the question, “What to do”? Surely we cannot simply throw our hands in the air and give up, but can we instead turn to modern technology for options? Foyle posits we can and lists three accepted “strategic approaches” to the “new preservation”:

  • The use of archaeological technology in still-accessible areas to record monuments in high resolution.
  • Since modern construction methods have replaced many traditional skills, the development of an international ethos of craft and design skills to reinstate those traditions.
  • The reduction of the economic benefits of looting by better policing of the international antiquities market.

Of course, there are compromises to be made. In the case of the first approach, Larry Rothfield, associate professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Chicago and co-founder of The Cultural Policy Center, says in his blog post on Foyle’s article that when we lose the items themselves and are left with “mere records” we lose not only “the materiality of the things but the knowledge that materiality may hold”.[1] While a copy is certainly better than nothing at all, it simply does not hold the same value as the real thing.

Foyle’s article elucidates much of what is going on today and how far we’ve come in capturing our past. With modern technology moving forward by leaps and bounds, preservationists are taking advantage of advances in 3D printing, laser surveying, high resolution scanning and more to preserve whatever information possible before it is lost forever. Hopefully, the information gathered from these technologies can be used in concert with the actual artifacts, but if not, at least there is something to study and keep, so the thinking goes.

As for Foyle’s second approach, it is important to preserve the ancient skills and traditions that make up the fabric of who we are. Education is key to bringing up younger generations that value the history and the paths we have walked to get where we are today. Each time we lose an ancient craft or a traditional technique, we lose a piece to our past and potentially a key to our future. And let’s not forget what these traditional skills bring to the individual and the community. There is a psychological and social bond in crafting something, both with the medium of the object and the communal embrace of its value.  Technology has a great capacity to conserve time, energy and resources. But human connections as celebrated and embedded in traditions have profound resonance in the psyche of a society.

The third approach may be the most controversial and complex of all. The policing of the antiquities market is and has been a topic for heated debate. How to police, whom to police and how to pay for illicit trade interventions are questions constantly being tackled by governments, private organizations and nonprofit groups. Foyle points out the many important initiatives taking place on this front. Many more are being launched in an effort to stem the loss of heritage via the antiquities black market.  Rothfield has also been contemplating this issue: “The funding solution, as I have suggested in the past, is to tax the higher-end licit antiquities market, with proceeds going into a fund for international heritage protection.”[2]

Perhaps the most important point Foyle makes in the article is in his closing. He says we must support those who are living and working in these areas of destruction, fighting each day to preserve their own heritage.

This is a crucial point, and one that does have some solutions.  AntiquityNOW is dedicated to promoting awareness of our global heritage. We encourage efforts that can further this awareness and change behaviors, including:

  • Developing cultural heritage and preservation curricula for schools in order to expose students, and by association their families, to the importance of their past and the vigilance needed to protect it
  • Educating the local populations of the economic value that accrues through tourism in order to encourage protection of ancient sites and reduce looting
  • Creating jobs by resurrecting traditional arts and crafts

We are all players in this ongoing game of greed, ideology and destruction. But the primary players are those who will be standing when the rubble of ISIS, earthquakes, war and devastation clear. They seek a valorous win for their own heritage and that of our global family. We can do nothing less than give them our full backing and gratitude.

Read Joseph Foyle’s fascinating article here and don’t miss Larry Rothfield’s insightful response on his blog, The Punching Bag.

[1] Rothfield, L. (2015, May 23). The Punching Bag. Retrieved June 2, 2015, from http://larryrothfield.blogspot.com/2015/05/is-it-time-to-rethink-our-ideas-about.html

[2] Ibid.

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