MUMBAI — The United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) was founded on November 16, 1945 as an agency of the UN with a view to building peace and dialogue through culture and education. It has nearly 200 member countries, and the World Heritage Convention in 1972 has been pivotal in supporting the conservation of monuments and natural sites across the world. Countries and cities often boast of having a UNESCO World Heritage tag. But how successful has UNESCO been in the domain of heritage and culture? In his forthcoming book, Lucas Lixinski, an associate Law professor at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, examines how UNESCO precludes communities from controlling their own cultural heritage. Lixinski, whose scholarship focuses on international cultural heritage and human rights law, has previously written on this in his book, Intangible Cultural Heritage in International Law (OUP, 2013). He is also Vice-President (Conference) of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies, and on the board of the International Journal of Heritage Studies. Lixinski spoke to Hyperallergic about the role of UNESCO, heritage legislation, art theft, and colonial heritage, among other topics.
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Bhavya Dore: You seem to suggest in your book that the UNESCO has not been really effective.
Lucas Lixinski: UNESCO has fallen short of bringing communities into the implementation of their cultural mandate. In 2003 the Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage made an attempt at doing that, but it’s still very filtered. Communities can only be involved at the domestic level; at the international level it’s only states and experts.
BD: Is a UNESCO heritage tag effective or useful?
LL: It is very useful and it is largely effective but the big question is why and for whom are we protecting heritage? Over time UNESCO has become politicized, but in a bad way. All that happens is states [are] posturing to showcase their own culture and civilization at the expense of others — of communities within their state and sometimes at the expense of other countries. For instance, when the Hiroshima Peace Memorial in Japan was considered for being added to the World Heritage list, there was a whole discussion with China and the US opposing it, saying it only portrayed the Japanese as victims of World War II, not as perpetrators. And it also put the Americans in a very bad light, as the people who dropped the bomb as opposed to the people who saved the world, which is the story they [the US] like to tell. It’s a mix of internal politics and international politics that states use heritage for.
BD: In terms of cities or neighborhoods that are UNESCO-protected, does it serve a purpose there?
LL: Often yes, but sometimes there is a price and it’s telling people they can’t live there anymore or they can live there only under certain conditions. In Lhasa, Tibet, when the main market square was added to the world heritage list, the Chinese government used that as a pretext to expel Tibetan traders from the market, saying because it was on the list it needed to look nice and the farmers’ stalls were just not going to make it look nice. So it has those effects.
BD: You said earlier in our conversation that many inclusions on the UNESCO World Heritage list privilege a Western point of view. Does that bias still play out?
LL: They have been working to change that but traditionally the list is very West-heavy. Since the 1990s UNESCO has been pushing a campaign for a more representative list, to the point where they actually say no to new sites from countries like Italy, Germany, and France because there are too many, and favor sites from Pacific and Asian states, particularly those that have few or no sites on the lists. One hundred and ninety five states have accepted the world heritage convention and 165 have sites on the list. Almost 30 countries don’t have any site.
BD: In general, how much heritage legislation should governments have in place?
LL: We definitely should have heritage law. The problem is, then, whether we are willing to put in the necessary resources to do it well. Consultation [with communities] is very expensive; to get communities involved it takes time and it takes resources, but it’s the best, most lasting way of protecting heritage. It’s not so much a question of whether we should have law — because to me the answer is obvious — but what it says and what’s the process.
BD: Often there are laws that penalize rather than incentivize people to protect structures, and that defeats the purpose.
LL: It happens all the time in major cities around the world. In Madrid, for instance, people are letting their buildings fall because all they need to protect is the facade. Everything behind it can fall. And they just let it deteriorate so they don’t have the burden of heritage law anymore.
BD: When we talk about heritage how old should something be to merit protection? Where do you draw the line?
LL: There is no consensus on age for heritage. For underwater heritage it needs to be at least 100 years old but for musical instruments it can be 50 years old. So it depends on the type. One common element is it has to be important in an intergenerational way. Myself and a lot of others interpret that as it has to be at least one generation old.
BD: Does it make sense for heritage tags to be time-bound and subject to being renewed periodically?
LL: If you think of it as intergenerational, then the value needs to be reconsidered once every generation. We are protecting it for future generations, so the future generation gets to decide whether they still care about it or whether their culture has moved on. I think there should be a presumption in favor of continuing protection so the burden should be high; otherwise it becomes subject to the politics of the day. But there should be a process of renewal.
BD: For developing countries the debate naturally is, to what extent do you put in resources for protecting heritage versus attending to basic needs. So how does one decide those priorities?
LL: It’s always a very complicated balancing act, isn’t it? Even for developed countries. The amount of money is always very small compared to people’s willingness to spend it. One way that effectively does happen is people select heritage for funding that tells certain stories. Even the EU for instance: when it funds projects they fund ones that tell a story of a common European identity, which is good because it serves their own priorities but at the same time has unintended consequences of defunding heritage that challenges the idea that Europe has been a wonderful, harmonious place. You have to be selective. The question is then how to select and make sure one pathway does not exclude others. You make it as pluralistic as possible.
BD: There are also debates that heritage regulations come in the way of development. So how do you balance that?
LL: There is a big pressure on heritage. It becomes more accentuated if you think of heritage as hoarding, [as in] “we need to protect everything because everything is important.” We need to select and we need to be okay with that. We shouldn’t protect everything. If we protect everything we are preventing other cultures from emerging. We need to create breathing room. The question is how we select. It’s something to be left to democratic processes, what people call biological democracy based on hybrid forums. It’s not just experts and governments that are in the room as the representatives of democracy but people who live in the areas as well, and people from different parts of the population. Something that happens is that people use the idea of heritage value to prevent development and, for instance, put pressure on access to housing. There is a neighborhood in Sydney in which people didn’t want high density housing, which is more affordable, because they thought it would attract “the wrong people” so they used the heritage value, saying “you can’t build high density housing here.” So we need to be mindful of why we are using the heritage card. That’s a reason why thinking of heritage as having intrinsic value doesn’t work.
BD: Let’s look at artifacts like the Benin bronzes from Nigeria or India’s Kohinoor diamond — taken during British colonial rule. These countries have been lobbying to have them repatriated. What do you do when there is nothing legally enforceable?
LL: [You apply] a lot of diplomatic pressure. A lot of the power in this area is similar to human rights. What actually works is naming and shaming. You keep putting pressure on those countries and eventually some of them [the artifacts] will return. France is also talking about returning its Benin bronzes and other artifacts it took from Africa.
BD: How much colonial heritage should decolonized nations preserve and how do you deal with those legacies?
LL: It is up to each country. I think states have the right to not protect colonial heritage if they so choose, but I don’t think eliminating it all is the right answer either. We need reminders of what happened in the past. There is a sense in which heritage is at least a version of history. It’s not history, it’s not complete, it’s always biased but it does have the power of the “never again.” That’s why places like Auschwitz are on the list, to remind us of bad things happening. I don’t think taking it away entirely is the answer. But I think there is something to be said that, let’s protect it, but let’s make sure that the the narrative around it is not just how amazing this colonial building is, but to look at what it represented, the cost of colonialism. So make it stand for the history of colonization, as opposed to it being an objectively beautiful building.
BD: What do you do with artifacts from colonial periods or difficult parts of history? For instance, the Rhodes Must Fall movement in South Africa or the debates around confederate statues in the US, arguing that statues of racist or controversial historical figures should be removed.
LL: Confederate statues are interesting. If you look at their history of when they were erected, they weren’t erected right after the Civil War, but put in place after the civil rights push. A lot of them were put together after Brown vs. the Board of Education (1954) and the start of desegregation in the 1950s and 1960s. They were clearly put as a reminder of the superiority of white people over black people when black people were starting to make progress in their legal battles. They were not about commemorating the Civil War but specifically about sending a message. Because of that, we need to remember, they are not about history, but about a message and that message can be changed. What you can do, is you can take it down. In Budapest, for instance, they took away all the Soviet statues and put them in a park. You can do that. Or you can leave them where they are, but put a sign that you cannot avoid. Sometimes people have suggested an acrylic case around it that tells a story. For instance, if it’s of a former slave owner you leave it there but also put a case that has a letter written by a slave. So you change the meaning.