Why Culture Matters: Fostering Identity Through Cultural Heritage
A museum director’s reflections on vexing global issues such as identity, tolerance, conflict and war.
November 5, 2017
Culture is the expression of how we perceive the world, how we interpret our environment and assess the people we meet. Our personal interpretation of what we perceive is guided by such diverse factors as affections, convictions, preconceived notions, beliefs and values.
In other words, culture is about positioning yourself within your environment and your community. At the same time, however, culture can also be about distancing or separating yourself from individuals or communities.
How culture provides orientation and stability
When culture aids us in positioning ourselves within our environment, it provides orientation and creates identities. However, just as cultures, identities are not very stable.
Material culture and cultural materials are so powerful and attractive to us, because they are potentially more stable than human identities and social communities.
Buildings and monuments may last for hundreds, if not for thousands of years. Some valuable family heirloom may be passed down from generation to generation, a ring, a watch, a painting, a hand-written letter.
And even though cultural objects do not possess a meaning by themselves, they literally are what we make of them and what we see in them.
For that reason, cultural objects – be they movable or immovable – give us a sense of stability, of duration and lasting values, something that many human beings long for, especially in times of growing uncertainties.
In addition, cultural objects frequently are an expression of achievement, of prosperity, of success. They are tangible and visible proof that a society commands the resources, the capacities and the expertise to produce these objects.
Culture and otherness
Cultural objects always and invariably point to the past and evoke history. In fact, they are the material anchors of all of our narratives about the past. Thus, cultural objects aid us in the creation of lasting identities. They frame historical narratives and are material witnesses to past greatness or failure. For some, they even embody values and beliefs.
When cultural objects are considered by communities to represent something special, something related to the chosen identity of that community, they become heritage, cultural heritage.
As much as cultural heritage is an expression of identity for any community, it is also a material expression of difference for anybody who does not belong to that community.
In that case, cultural heritage and culture as a whole may be perceived as a symbol of the “other,” or even as a threat to one’s own identity. It is through culture, in particular through cultural heritage, that “otherness” becomes palpable and that differences may be emphasized and reinforced, or mitigated, mediated, or overcome, as the case may be.
Cultural objects as beacons of conflict and war
This is the reason why throughout history, cultural heritage has been a target during wars and periods of pronounced power asymmetries, such as imperial or colonial domination.
At the same time, culture and cultural heritage are powerful instruments for rehabilitation in post-conflict societies. Thus, when you destroy or displace the culture of a community, you erase its history, you negate its achievements, you take away its common point of reference, its orientation.
But there is something else: By destroying or displacing the cultural heritage of a community, you also reduce its chances for sustainable development, cultural diversity, post-conflict rehabilitation and reconciliation.
The history of humankind abounds with examples for the willful destruction of cultural heritage as a strategy of war. The earliest recorded cases reach all the way back to Ancient Mesopotamia, the latest are the acts of cultural cleansing committed by Daesh in Iraq and Syria.
Dealing with the displacement issue
In addition, power asymmetries in the late 19th and early 20th century have led to the displacement of large amounts of cultural objects brought to Europe and North America. This was done for the purpose of doing research and establishing “universal” museums.
Not all of these displacements were illegal or violent, as is often claimed. But it is true that we are still a long way off from understanding in detail under what circumstances these objects were displaced and what their future status might be.
Yet, there can be no question that both destruction and displacement of cultural objects are equally harmful for any society affected by them.
Today, as we are more acutely aware of the social, political and economic power of culture and cultural heritage, we must do all we can to protect, promote and share cultural heritage.
It is by protecting and sharing culture that we enable orientation and identification. Culture is a synonym for diversity. When we promote culture, we foster tolerance, the ability to accept the own and to embrace the other.
At any given time in human history, culture has been an instrument for rehabilitation and reconciliation. Caring for their cultural heritage enables communities to overcome differences and to strengthen social cohesion.
Reconciliation across borders
In countries like Iraq and Syria, rehabilitating in particular the pre-Islamic cultural heritage will provide the opportunity to promote the much-needed processes of dialogue and reconciliation across social and confessional borders.
What does all that mean for us, our way of dealing with culture and our responsibility to protect cultural heritage? Naturally, answers to this question will vary according to expertise and capacity.
On an institutional level, expert institutions like the Ancient Near East Museum at the Pergamon Museum may use their considerable expertise in the area of archaeo-logical cultural heritage to contribute to its protection through:
• capacity building projects
• research on illicit trafficking in cultural objects
• the development of procedures and standards for the 3D digitization of archaeological heritage, and
• awareness-raising initiatives.
Establishing accountability and transparency
At the same time, museums created through the displacement of cultural objects in the past need to make all necessary efforts to establish accountability and transparency as to the history of their collections.
States have the responsibility to provide adequate legal frameworks for the protection of cultural heritage including effective laws against the illicit traffic in cultural goods.
Last but not least, the international community has the duty to provide aid to those countries that do not possess the means to protect or care for their cultural heritage. This is particularly true in situations of conflict or disaster.
A practical example
One great example for an innovative initiative is the international public-private partnership ALIPH, the “International Alliance for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in Conflict Zones”.
Initiated by the governments of France and the United Arab Emirates in March 2017, the global fund ALIPH is certain to set new standards in providing financial support for emergency action and long-term research in the area of cultural heritage protection.
Especially at a time, when pluralism, free speech, democracy, human rights and equal development opportunities are threatened around the world, we need culture and cultural heritage more than ever.
Culture and cultural heritage are not just a “symptom” of strong, resilient societies. Culture and cultural heritage are the key to strong, resilient societies.
Culture is the expression of how we perceive the world, how we interpret our environment and assess the people we meet.
Cultural objects always point to the past and evoke history. In fact, they are the material anchors of all of our narratives about the past.
When we promote culture, we foster tolerance, the ability to accept the own and to embrace the other.
Caring for their cultural heritage enables communities to overcome differences and to strengthen social cohesion.
Culture and cultural heritage are not just a “symptom” of strong, resilient societies. They are the key to strong, resilient societies.