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Heritage – A Sense of Belongingness Essay

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Updated: Oct 10th, 2021

Heritage is not just about our past, it is also about our present and our future, and we recognize ourselves with these heritage sites and feel associated with them. For the last few decades, people from all walks of life like tourists, refugees, labor migrants, educationists are showing their deep interest and inclination towards these heritage sites. Whether from the pyramids of Egypt or royal palaces of kingship to the tombs and graves etc., they have attained the most important place in the social fabric of our life.

Global movements like the entry of the heritage monuments in the tourism sector, and along with that interest of private companies have raised many complex issues on the ownership rights of the heritage sites, which were always considered as a public domain and a national heritage.

Heritage sites almost all over the world are witness to the privatization process, which in turn is posing a threat and challenge to their national identity. It is rightly said, “As embodiments of narratives concerned with the belonging and ‘hereness’, heritage sites have become akin to ‘cathedrals of identity’—centers of worship, pilgrimage, and self-exploration for diverse groups”. (Adams 2005: 433) They are also now considered as the most important avenues of earning with different players in the tourism industry putting their stake. Many debates and controversies are surrounding different groups seeking to exert their economic and symbolic ownership over these heritage sites.

Many of the sites of great historical importance and most beautiful of all like Taj Mahal in India, Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Australia Great Barrier Reef, icy peaks, Hemlock forests of Alaska Glacier Bay along with the Cambodia’s Angkor Wat temple complex and other sites have now been designated as the World Heritage Sites and the right of the whole humanity. Though the state’s revenue increased with the entry of the private players yet it brought valuesvaluesamifications as well.

As expenditure involved is high in maintaining, conserving, interpreting, or excavating new heritage sites, governments of many places are inviting private companies to take over these tasks. In many places, public and private players are competing with each other for ownership rights. E.g. in India, The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has a responsibility to look after the heritage structures and monuments but in 2007, it was found that they were showing high-handedness in their approach. Instead of building the sites, they merely disfigured them. Their latest high-handedness approach was seen during the construction process of the cement portico just in front of the caves of Ajanta. Fortunately, the construction was stopped by protests from conservationists. But in the number of heritage sites, ASI had performed the conservation process without giving attention to the original design and materials. Their process of conservation led to the structures being weakened. With the opposition from the conservationists, ASI decided to forge a partnership with the private players and for this purpose, ASI signed a deal with the Steel Authority of India (SAIL) for restoration work of the monuments at Lodhi Garden in New Delhi. In the same way, the public and private partnerships had led to the restoration process of the Humayun Tomb at Delhi. (Mail 2007: Online). Though the partnership between the two has advantages yet it has its own set of disadvantages too. Lisa C. Breglia in her book Monumental Ambivalence: The Politics of Heritage presented ethnographic case studies of two archaeological sites in the Yucatan Peninsula- Chichen Itza and Chunchucmil to show how landholders, authorities of the Mexican state government, and foreign archaeologists are claiming the national heritage properties as their legal beneficiaries and how residents and laborers involved in excavating process are claiming their share towards these monuments.

Though no two heritages sites are the same yet share common problems like a “need for the delicate balance between the visitation and conservation. All are national flag carriers, symbols in some way of national culture and character. Most of them are the major tourist attractions of their country and some are powerfully evocative symbols of national identity, universally recognized. World Heritage Site is a fragile non-renewable resource, which has to be safeguarded both to maintain its authenticity and to preserve it for future generations.” (Smith 2003: 111) In such a situation, the participation of private players may not be a conducive solution. Most of the private players involved in the conservation process have their profit motives and they encourage the number of other related activities to flourish near the heritage sites like the opening the fast-food restaurants, or hotels. Such activities and also tourist vehicles create noise, sound, and air pollution, which ultimately not only destroys the sanctity of the place but also causes a slow degradation of the same. Commercialization of the site and area around it brings a change in the whole culture and social status of the place. In this whole process, citizens are left with very little say and are denied the respective duty they have towards the sites. Many areas of the world are gradually taking their tourism sector towards the consumer goods economy owing to the growth of the communication and transport network. The overall result has been acculturation, in other words, the complete change in the cultural behavior and thinking of resident citizens through their contact with another culture. The traditional cultures of even the isolated areas have borrowed the different characteristics and traits of the other cultures brought in by tourists taking us towards a homogenized world (Murphy 1995: 145).

However, in this scenario, millions of emigrants crave to assert their legacy over these heritage sites. Be it Maoris, Aborigines, or Native Americans, who still hold their ancestral traditions to their roots, are eager to grasp their memorials, which represent their past and retain their minority status. Though they are dispersed or diluted yet they are ascertaining their solidarity for their essentialist claims. Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), federal agencies and institutes are required to return their cultural items found from their place to them. (Hopi Cultural Preservation Office: Online) These items are related to cultural patrimony, and of sacred and funerary importance. This act appears under the United States Federal Law, which was passed on 16th November 1990. (Hopi Cultural Preservation Office: Online) United Nations has vested this authority to retain and maintain their ancestral items to the anointed chiefs and elders. But these rules only pertain to the traditional minorities who have unity in their purpose and action to maintain and retain their cultural heritage but this aspect is impractical in other places due to the controversy and debates between the private players and government. As they are adopting the diverse standards, the structure and the sanctity of the heritage sites are hanging on the razor’s edge. These reasons prompted western nations explicitly to initiate the World Heritage Convention to save the sites, as they believe these are not the property of just a few who are residing in that proximity but for the whole universe. Their views are explicitly contradictory to the tribes or indigenous population who have imposed restrictions on their ancestors’ property for the outsiders and even for their women and consider this policy as their sacred duty. In their duties to preserve the ancestral properties, the moral outcome is obvious, as women have to succumb to the dictates of the male members for their rights. They do not have any right towards their ancestral property, which tribal members have, such as the right to dispose of retain or maintain these products.

Warfare and civil discord between the Balkans and the Middle East led to the complete change in the fundamental convictions they had held for the last many years. Their culture, sites, and monuments became weapons and victims of war. These wars posed yet another challenge to our basic assumptions over the role we seek to play and wanted to play as ‘keepers of culture’. Controversies naturally arise when the sites are equally conceptualized as our national identity in the form of religious, cultural, educational, and aesthetic value. We as representatives of religion, culture, or institute visualize the site as our unique property ready to be explored, interpreted, and bequeathed by us only. Here the issue of “whose who or ours and theirs” predominates our consciousness level while giving the heritage sites a universal appeal loses ground. Here the universal mission comes in to increase the awareness and consciousness within us towards what our heritage sites exactly stand for, their real essence, and real importance in our lives. Heritage sites are not merely for interpretation of their historical version of archaeologists but also much more than that. The places fortunate to have heritage sites do not constitute only people residing currently there getting the status of citizens but also the influx of immigrants and emigrants who have lost the footholds of their lands yet in their mind and heart are still holding the traditional values they had left behind. Therefore, heritage sites do not represent merely the culture and religion of the place but also represent all sects and all breathing souls predominating on this earth. This calls for the universal appeal to make us reevaluate the way we should manage our culture and heritage sites.

The World Heritage Convention was signed in Paris on 16th November 1972 as an agreement between 170 nations for the protection of many of the world’s best and priceless treasures. (Pederson 2002: 14) Every country or the State Party to the Convention feels its duty to preserve, protect and conserve its cultural and natural heritage sites. The main crux to bring heritage sites under the protective eyes of the World Heritage Convention is to give them a universal appeal and a belief that World Heritage sites belong to everyone and we have to preserve them for future generations. (Pederson 2002: 3) They developed the concept known as sustainable tourism to maintain the balance between the problems that can arise with the tourists and at the same time to always keep the sanctity of the site intact and make it presentable and attractive for tourists. Sustainable tourism not only helps in the restoration work through the increase in revenue but also becomes a medium for the protection and maintenance of the local population as well as for the conservation and restoration process.

Tourism provides many advantages, like revenue in the form of fees, concessions, and donations that could be used as funds for the above said activities. They can help in generating international support, with tour operators and chain of hotels contributing to the management of the site, helping in monitoring the same, and also in making financial contributions. Tourism also encourages cultural values and with the support of the local handicrafts initiates many economic activities. But as mentioned above, tourism brings in its own set of problems and its management is not only just time consuming but also demands clear policies, dealings with stakeholders, and a regular process of monitoring. According to the World Heritage forum, the activities of tourism needs environment impact assessments (EIAs) and methods to reduce their impacts to the minimum so that the culture, social and economic culture of the local citizens is not affected and they feel directly associated and responsible for the conservation, and maintenance of their cultural heritage. The convention also considers the government to “adopt a general policy which aims to give the cultural and natural heritage a function in the life of the community and to integrate the protection of that heritage into comprehensive planning programs”. (Rodwell 2007: 65) Their recommendation includes making plans at the local and national level, keeping watch on the growth and decline of the population, economic factors, and traffic projections, and also taking a number of measures to prevent any kind of disaster.

Another aspect of it is the right of interpretation of our heritage past to the citizens and customers. Here the difference between citizens and consumers needs to be noted. Though the interpretation pattern of both citizens and consumers are on similar lines yet differences come in the way citizens and consumers view the sites. These consumers are tourists who visit the sites either for entertainment or for knowing their cultural importance and historical significance.

The stories attached to the sites are enough motives for both the consumers and citizens to feel associated. These heritage sites are mainly the monuments or graves or just the rocks but each is replicating the story of ideology, culture, moral values, and universal love cherished and upheld by our ancestors. In a true sense, we merely do not feel just attached ourselves to these sites for just the sake of these priceless possessions but also to feel attached to our ancestors and their cultural and moral values. But unfortunately, issues of interpretation and cultural and ownership strives are changing the whole of our thinking process and the way we believe and feel associated with them.

Several studies have found the motive of majority of the visitors is merely entertainment and so as the attitude of the authorities concerned. Authorities have made these sites as a means of earning revenue making them not the heritage of citizens or heritage for customers but a place of entertainment, fun, and enjoyment for citizens and customers. There is a need to bring the change in outlook and overview of all associated with the sites and make them universal cultural heritage with the appeal of ideologies, moral values of love and brotherhood, and here the role of the public archaeological and interpretation comes in. The people should interpret the sites, not in the way of mere entertainment but receive and represent the sites for which they stand for.

Reference List

  1. Adams, K.M. 2005. Public Interest Anthropology in Heritage Sites: Writing Culture and Righting Wrongs. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 11(5): 433-439.
  2. Hopi Cultural Preservation Office. Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. [Online]
  3. Lowenthal, David. 2006. . [Online] Web.
  4. Mail, I. 2007. . [Online] Web.
  5. Murphy, P.E. 1985. Tourism: A Community Approach. London: Methoen & Co Ltd
  6. Pederson, A. 2002. . [Online] Web.
  7. Rodwell, D. 2007. Conservation and Sustainability in Historic Cities. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing.
  8. Smith, M.K. 2003. Issues in Cultural Tourism Studies. London: Routledge
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