To finish up Preservation Week we’ve got a re-post of an article that Michele Cloonan wrote for CILIP in 2016 about the destruction of cultural heritage.
The title of a recent book by Alicia Ely Yamin, Power, Suffering, and the Struggle for Dignity: Human Rights Frameworks for Health and Why They Matter (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), caught my eye. The book focuses on human-rights-based approaches to health and development. “The ultimate concern” of the book, to quote from the publisher’s blurb, “is to promote movement from analysis to action, so that we can begin to use human rights frameworks to effect meaningful social change in global health, and beyond.” Could the phrase “preservation of cultural heritage” be substituted in the title of a hypothetically titled parallel book?
Most of us don’t equate preservation with human rights
While most of us don’t equate preservation with human rights, the relationship has been touched on at least as early as the nineteenth century—although the destruction of cultural heritage has taken place for as long as there has been heritage. In the nineteenth century the concept of human rights was considered in the context of war. Swiss businessman and reformer Henri Dunant was an organiser of the First Geneva Conference for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded Armies in the Field (1863-64) and a founder of the Red Cross (see his Memory of Solferino [Geneva, Switzerland: International Committee of the Red Cross, 1986]).
At just about the same time as these activities were taking place in Europe, Francis Lieber, a German jurist who settled in the United States, prepared for the Union Army General Orders No. 100: Instructions for the Government of the Armies of the United States in the Field, better known as the Lieber Code; it established rules for the humane treatment of civilians in areas of conflict and forbade the execution of prisoners of war. Further it sought the protection of works of art, scientific collections, and hospitals in war-torn areas. These ideas were further developed in the Hague Peace Conferences that were held from 1899-1907 and in the later Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954 and the 1999 Second Protocol). Excerpts of these codes, conventions, and protocols are included in chapter 9 of my Preserving Our Heritage: Perspectives from Antiquity to the Digital Age (London: Facet, 2015).
Why can’t we protect cultural heritage?
Since the publication of my book—and as armed conflicts in the Middle East have escalated, and countless works of heritage continue to be destroyed—I have found myself continuing to think about the relationship between human rights and preservation. Why can’t we protect cultural heritage? It is not that international efforts haven’t been made; International Humanitarian Law seeks to balance humanitarian concerns with military necessity. Yet over and over again the world watches as cultural heritage is destroyed—often in dramatic and defiant ways. Most of the perpetrators will never be charged, let alone tried.
This destruction is sometimes described as cultural genocide. The term genocide was coined by jurist and human rights advocate Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959). It is based on the Greek word genos (race, tribe) and the Latin caedere (killing). (See his 1944 book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress, 2nd ed. [Clark, NJ: The Lawbook Exchange, 2008, pp. 79-95.) He meant for genocide to correspond to such words as homicide, infanticide, fratricide, and so on. In Axis Rule Lemkin identified eight components of genocide, which he reduced to three when he was campaigning for a Genocide Convention: physical, biological, and cultural.
Significantly, for Lemkin the term referred to human massacre as well as the destruction of a people’s art and culture. In other words, genocide represented crimes against humans as well as humanity. Lemkin was determined that genocide be adopted by the United Nations as the word to describe these crimes. And it was, in The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948). However, for reasons that I explain in my forthcoming book, Monumental Preservation, the term was defined more narrowly to refer only to mass killings and not the often concomitant crime of destroying the culture of the vanquished people. Since the framing of that U.N. document, and after Lemkin’s death, the term cultural genocide was coined to refer to the destruction of cultural heritage.
Cultural genocide is not yet recognised in international law
Cultural genocide per se is not yet recognised in international law. Yet that is beginning to change as international courts are recognizing that physical and biological attacks are often carried out in concert with the destruction of religious and/or cultural property (see Shamiran Mako, “Cultural Genocide and Key International Instruments: Framing the Indigenous Experience,” International Journal on Minority and Group Rights 19 : 175-94, about post WWII efforts to acknowledge the rights of indigenous peoples). It is probably only a matter of time before a case involving cultural genocide is successfully tried.
However, international laws will never stop the seemingly ongoing destruction of heritage sites. Nor will “soft power,” the attempt by organisations such as UNESCO “to create the conditions for dialogue among civilizations, cultures, and peoples, based on respect for commonly shared values” (see the UNESCO website). And what if there are not always shared values? UNESCO has been criticised for promoting Western—even European—notions of heritage in the non-western world (e.g., Rodney Harrison, Heritage:Critical Approaches [London: Routledge, 2013]).
What if the group that sets out to destroy cultural heritage creates its own grand narrative about the importance of that destruction? For example, if one group seeks to impose its identity on another by destroying the culture of the vanquished group? Has UNESCO framed the notion of universally shared heritage in the most effective way? Every new country, era, civilization is the accretion of everything tangible and intangible that has come before. It will almost never be possible to completely vanquish that which has come before us.
Perhaps we can model preservation itself in a more nuanced way. Below are some of the motivations and behaviors associated with preservation, as well as some emerging approaches to preservation.
- Corporate (profit motive, e.g. Facebook, Inc.)
- Corporate (legacy/history/pride/archives/records/memory)
- Social [as distinct from cultural]
- Personal (preserving family papers, mementos)
- Administrative (legal or political mandate)
- Deterministic (preservation as destiny)
- Save what we can profit most by
- [Or destroy, for almost all of the above reasons]
- Imperialist (we came, we saw, we conquered, we appropriated/expropriated cultural heritage objects)
- Hording or clean-sweep approach: save everything you can
- Last-ditch effort: save anything you can (war-time approach, or in historic preservation, wrecking-ball approach)
- Save last copies
- People’s choice: save the best (“doxa” or popular opinion)
- Judgmental: save according to carefully delineated criteria
- Elitist: we save what should be saved & for whom it should be saved
- Principle of Least Effort : we won’t bother with it until we have to. (Or, we will save only that which has already deteriorated.)
- Benign neglect (perhaps less intentional than the Principle of Least Effort)
- Administrative: save what must be saved
- Pragmatic: save at a measured rate
- Stewardship: we have a responsibility to save
- Save: but we continue to use it—and museums must understand that
- Don’t save: it has fulfilled its earthly purpose
- Don’t save: its survival is anathema to our beliefs
- Don’t save: we have a right to destroy it
- Social networking: positive and negative (records destruction and promotes propaganda)
- Personal Information Management (PIM)
- Attempt to create true digital preservation
- Reformatting into the future best forms of “preservation” for specific kind of data audiences
- Enhanced tools for documentation
- New tools for community engagement and outreach
- [For example, the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear 3/11/11 disaster, in which citizens
- recovered thousands of photographs on land and in the water, and put them up on the web. In some instances families and their photos have been reunited.] These are some of the ways in which I have tried to situate preservation on the global stage. I welcome your feedback about other ways in which we can think about the role of preservation in our lives.
These are some of the ways in which I have tried to situate preservation on the global stage. I welcome your feedback about other ways in which we can think about the role of preservation in our lives.
Michele Valerie Cloonan is Dean Emerita and Professor at the Graduate School of Library & Information Science, Simmons College.
You can find out more about Michele’s book, Preserving our Heritage, here.
Follow Preservation Week on Twitter using the hashtag and look out for our other author interviews that we will be releasing throughout the week.
Want to hear more from Facet and stay up-to-date with our latest books?
Sign up to our mailing list here