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SPEAKER SPOTLIGHT: Dacia Viejo Rose, Lecturer in Heritage and the Politics of the Past

Dacia Viejo Rose is a Lecturer in Heritage and the Politics of the Past and co-director of the Cambridge Heritage Research Centre. She will be speaking at the event Heritage in an age of extremes? on 18th October.


Question: What attracted you to heritage research?

Dacia Viejo Rose: Growing up going to international schools and running amuck in both UN buildings where my father worked and museums where my mother worked I started trying to combine the worlds of international relations and peacekeeping with those of heritage and the arts early on. After various attempts at working in one (the UN Department for Humanitarian Affairs) or the other (artist organisations) I finally found a place where they came together when working at UNESCO’s Culture Sector during a time with the organisation was mandated with those aspects of the Dayton Peace Agreement for the Former Yugoslavia to do with cooperation on culture, education and science.  

Witnessing the discussions between the Ministers of Culture of the formerly warring parties and projects such as the reconstruction of the Mostar Bridge got me hooked – I had finally found ‘my thing’. Since then my interest has only grown as I have become increasingly convinced of the importance of heritage as a core element of identity formation, an object and tool of contestation, a basis for rights claims and a vital resource in the success or failure of economic and other development strategies. This is all crystallised in the cross-cutting research themes and aims of the newly created Cambridge Heritage Research Centre .


Q: Do you think we are living in an age of unparalleled extremes?

DVR: Without a time machine to take me back and feel what it was like to live in other historical moments marked by extremes it is impossible for me, personally, to answer that.  I was convinced however, by Eric Hobsbawm’s argument for the 20th century being “an age of extremes”. And I do think that we live in an age in which we are more aware than ever of societal fragmentation and the extremes that cause that. The rise of identity politics, of which heritage plays an absolutely central role, has also accentuated faultlines. If to this you add Ulrich Beck’s vision of a risk society then a sense of imminent disaster and urgency to act further fuels a centrifugal pull to the extremes.

At the moment I am reading Pankaj Mishra’s “Age of Anger. A History of the Present”, in which he talks of seismic shocks and the spread of militant violence, of widespread feelings of anger and resentment driving extremist movements, the rise of the far right and what he calls a global civil war. The vision that he presents is certainly one of unparalleled extremes erupting around the world as a result of festering historical tensions. But the pressure of extremes do not inescapably have to result in fracture: there are cases of extraordinary resilience where communities resist the pressures of the extremes through creative malleability and constant reappraisal, if not quite reinvention, of their heritage and identity. On our panel at the Festival of Ideas, we will have Tom Crowley from the Department of Archaeology and Curator at the Horniman Museum who will discuss the Kalasha as one such example.


Q: Why are heritage sites/objects such a target for political extremists?

DVR: Heritage is enormously attractive to the political extremes because it can be a powerful tool for rallying people quickly on the basis of strong emotions and feelings of group identity – with narratives of past injustices and utopic, or indeed dystopic, visions of a future lying ahead unless action is taken now. Heritage is thus a target not only for destruction but also for manipulation and (ab)uses of various types. Heritage, however, is also increasingly a focal point of reconciliation processes. On our panel we will also have Dr Felipe Gaitan-Ammann from the University of Los Andes in Colombia who will be speaking about archaeology and the challenges of memory-making in post-conflict Colombia.


Q: How is climate change helping to uncover lost heritage and what could this tell us about past episodes of climate change?

DVR: During the heatwave this past summer there were numerous stories in the media showing aerial shots of parched fields and the forgotten structures that they revealed underneath. Similarly sea temperatures rising has led to permafrost melting in Arctic regions that, as the ice melts, have revealed sites of human habitation and aspects of ancient cultures that were previously inaccessible under the ice. This has led to a rush to preserve the organic materials that the ice preserved but that are now liable to rot away and be lost to us forever. On our panel we will have Dr Bryan Lintott from the Scott Polar Research Institute and Secretary General of the ICOMOS International Polar Heritage Committee who will discuss how heritage fares at climactic extremes and what impact warming is having on heritage in polar regions.


Q: How does living on a disappearing coastline or an earthquake-prone region shape one's understanding of heritage and belonging?

DVR: Some coastlines have been disappearing slowly for centuries: the town of Dunwich in Suffolk is a prime example. Once an ecclesiastical centre with several churches and an estimated population of 3,000 in the 11th century, it has been disappearing into the sea since a storm surge reached the town in 1286. Other coastlines have seen more accelerated changes as hurricanes and typhoons have become more violent and water levels have persistently risen.

In cases where such natural and destructive occurrences are recurrent they can become part of the heritage of the place. Dr Paola di Giusseppantonio di Franco will be on our panel discussing the case of central Italy’s mountainous regions which are so prone to earthquakes and where a number of towns have been completely devastated, repeatedly. She will address how living in such a landscape shapes a community’s understanding of themselves and their heritage.


Q: Can heritage sites ever be recreated?

DVR: Heritage sites can be rebuilt, restoration experts brought in, original building materials sourced, archival information found and used to inform the process and a postcard-perfect image of the reconstructed site taken. Does this mean that the heritage site has been recovered? It doesn’t. And this is a mistake repeated over and over again. It does not work because the significance, authenticity and social value of heritage does not lie exclusively or even primarily in the thingyness of an object, monument or site; it lies in people’s relationships with it. It lies in the emotions, stories, meanings and values that people ascribe to it and these are much harder to recreate and recover after a site has been destroyed because this destruction does not occur in a vacuum, but in the context of relentless cultural violence, propaganda, terror, displacement and despair.

Rebuilding the site as if all of that had not happened neglects to engage with the very mechanisms that make a site heritage in the first place and what it means for people to have witnessed its destruction together with so much of their lives.

At first my research focused on post-war reconstruction, then I moved to the step before, to cultural violence in order to try to understand the motivations underlying the destruction of heritage. Now I have returned to the aftermath and I have been collaborating on a really exciting project with colleagues in the School of Law at Queen’s University, Belfast. With this project, entitled ‘Restoring cultural property and communities after conflict’ (funded by the AHRC under their Partnership for Conflict, Crime & Security Research programme), we are researching what form reparations with regard to cultural destruction might take. Inspired by the challenges faced by the International Criminal Court and the Trust Fund for Victims in drawing up meaningful reparations in the Al Mahdi case (the destruction of shrines in the World Heritage site of Timbuktu for which Ahmed al- Faki al-Mahdi was found guilty and a Reparations Order issued) we have been researching the case of the Cham community in Cambodia.


Q: What do we lose when a heritage site is obliterated?

DVR: Think of when a language is lost: it is not only its vocabulary that is lost or its grammar and structure. What is lost is a vision of the world, of humanity, a way of understanding our surroundings and how we interact with them, a universe of meaning is lost. So with a heritage site the losses are similarly intangible, for as well as losing traces of the past we risk losing the fabric of meaning and relatedness that the site held together. This is not to argue for preserving absolutely everything, but for understanding what is lost when a heritage site disappears so that we can better decide what to preserve and rebuild, and what not to preserve.

Professor Marie Louise Stig Sørensen led a large EU-funded project entitled Cultural Heritage and the Reconstruction of Identities after Conflict. The first publication to come out of this project, “War and Cultural Heritage: Biographies of Place” explored the long-term impact of destruction on sites, their layers of acquired meaning and the ever-changing socio-political uses made of them by communities. The second book, soon to be published by Palgrave, “From History to Heritage: Memorials and Memorialisation”, will deal with the impact of such acts of violence on collective memory and the construction of memorial narratives.

The research on trying to assess what we actually lose when a heritage site is obliterated is still only at the beginning. The Al Mahdi case has been fundamental in that it is the first case of the Court trying someone exclusively for the destruction of cultural heritage.

Observing how it has unfolded has made it clear that we need to further understand the nature of the harm caused by these gestures – assess who the victims are and in what ways they have been harmed. This has been one of the objectives of the AHRC-funded research project mentioned above. We are trying to understand the impact of the loss caused when cultural leaders as well as cultural sites, objects and traditions are destroyed. Other important research in this regard is being done at the University of Newcastle by my colleague Emma Cunliffe – see her recent article in Antiquity “ISIS and heritage destruction: a sentiment analysis”. A lot of questions remain, however, and with my colleagues at Queen’s University we will be putting together a project to continue our work on this.