The Discriminatory Practice of Heritage?

At the end of August, I participated in the fantastic Association of Critical Heritage Studies’ 2020 Futures online conference. There were many interesting papers but the one that really stuck with me was on Reconstruction, Spatial Reclamation and Restorative Justice by Prof. Erica Avrami of Columbia University.

Prof. Avrami referred to the 2018 Warsaw Recommendation on Recovery and Reconstruction of Cultural Heritage. The recommendation is primarily concerned with war contexts in which heritage has been destroyed. It argues for its speedy reconstruction ‘as a means [for affected communities] to reaffirm their identity, restore their dignity and lay the conditions for a sustainable social and economic recovery’ (p. 3).

Prof. Avrami’s point was the recognition in the recommendation that reconstruction can play an important role in re-establishing the spaces in and through which recognition of a community and its experiences happens, in other words: in delivering justice.

However, here also lies the crux: Prof. Avrami highlighted that the recommendation requires, as a prerequisite to reconstruction, ‘Proper documentation and inventories, including documentation of building methods…’ (p. 7). This prerequisite is also enshrined in the World Heritage Convention. The Operational Guidelines of 2019 clearly state that, ‘Reconstruction is acceptable only on the basis of complete and detailed documentation and to no extent on conjecture’ (p. 27, paragraph 86).

Prof. Avrami then proceeded very poignantly to highlight the many historic circumstances in which people were prevented from leaving behind built structures, never mind documentation: those excluded from owning property, those excluded from the decisions made about the built environment (so their own villages, for example, were removed), those forced to live in environments where for example floods destroyed the physical traces of their existence. And so on.

On one hand, this is simply another illustration of the structural exclusion exerted by definitions of heritage as (still) primarily material. It discriminates against the heritage of those who were prevented from leaving behind material traces in the first place.

Prof. Avrami turned the spotlight on the fact that in preventing reconstructions on the basis of the argument of (a lack of) documentation in effect continues this discrimination. She suggested that reconstructing buildings once important to these excluded sections of society would mean to enable a physical, spatial encounter with their experiences, and thus with their heritage. It would make them visible where before they were kept in the shadows. In other words, reconstruction could be an act of restorative justice.

I found this line of argument immensely powerful. Who can deny that some people were, and still are, excluded from the processes that will enable them to leave behind lasting material traces? In tying definitions of heritage, and thus approaches to reconstruction, so narrowly to material attributes and their documentenation, we perpetuate these exclusionary and discriminatory practices. Not only that: we distort the truth of the past, hiding many people’s very existence, all the while claiming that we are doing so in service of authenticity and science.

Toward the end of her presentation, Prof. Avrami asked a question which perfectly summed it up (referring to debates about the reconstruction of slave quarters at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home):

‘What is less authentic: slave dwellings reconstructed based on limited dcoumentation and some degree of conjecture, or an 18th century Southern plantation that does not include an encounter with the spatial experience of enslaved people?’ 

What indeed.

 

 

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