Heritage, Decolonisation and the Field

This article is part of the TRAFO series ‚Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’. Today, we put the spotlight on „Heritage, Decolonisation and the Field: A Conference“. The event is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the German Historical Institute London and the UCL Institute of Archaeology and will take place on the 25 and 26 January 2018 in London. The submission deadline is Wednesday, 31 May 2017.  You can find the call for papers here

William Carruthers (photo: private)

Our guest is William Carruthers, Gerda Henkel Research Fellow at the German Historical Institute in London. William Carruthers  studied Egyptian Archaeology at University College London and received a PhD in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge in 2014. From 2014 to 2015 he has been a Max Weber Postdoctoral Fellow at the European University Institute, Florence and in 2016 he joined the M. S. Merian-R. Tagore International Centre of Advanced Studies in the Humanities and Social Sciences in New Delhi as a Postdoctoral Fellow. Below he will give some insights into the ideas behind the planned conference.

Your Conference “Heritage, Decolonisation and the Field” understands heritage as a broad and contingent term. Why is it important that, contrary to some beliefs, ’natural‘ and cultural‘ heritage are interconnected and should be understood as strongly linked by researchers working on heritage? 

In my experience (though this may not be the same for everybody), when we talk about ‘heritage’ all too often we are actually talking about ‘cultural heritage’. Presumably this elision takes place because the most visible sites in terms of, say, the World Heritage List are places we implicitly connect to ‘culture’: the Taj Mahal, the Pyramids at Giza and so on. And the development of UNESCO’s 1972 World Heritage Convention, which is clearly the most well-known manifestation of what heritage is taken to be, is so overwhelmingly linked to events like the preservation of the monuments at Abu Simbel and Philae that it is difficult to think of heritage not occupying some sort of cultural register. Put simply, ‘heritage’ seems to imply ‘culture’ fairly frequently.

If, though, we take seriously the idea that, say, the World Heritage Convention and its list of World Heritage sites occupies a predominant place in how we think about what heritage is, then this situation raises important questions. Recalling that this instrument is actually the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, it immediately becomes apparent that, in terms of heritage, ‘cultural’ and ‘natural’ are mutually constitutive (and certainly not dichotomous) terms. The one cannot exist without the other. And this mutually constitutive relationship is also one with genealogies and histories which we should think about: why did culture and nature become two sides of the same coin, and why have we so often separated these two things out? These questions are vital to understanding what heritage is, and why it has developed in this way.

The conference brings decolonization, heritage and the field together: What are the new insights and outputs you wish to gain from the event and where do you see the most potential for follow-up projects, questions and approaches that might emerge through your conference?

Quite a lot of work has been done on questions like how heritage is currently practised, who benefits from heritage, and how and why that process might change. There is significantly less work on the history of heritage, particularly in practice. Yet the practice of heritage—as a form of governance or otherwise—developed in the midst of major, post-war political events: decolonization (and a major correlate of decolonization, the Cold War) in particular. Think only of UNESCO’s International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia during the 1960s and 1970s, which is credited with helping to develop the World Heritage Convention and which took place in newly independent Egypt and Sudan. Heritage also obviously had an earlier set of histories linked to practices of colonialism. The conference therefore asks how these histories connected to the work of actually doing heritage in ‘the field’ (broadly defined). It’s almost inconceivable that the practice of heritage didn’t overlap with, and become mutually constitutive of, these contexts. Yet, surprisingly, we really don’t know much about how this process took place.

Process is also a key word here. Considering the field allows us to reflect the processes through which heritage took place and move away from explanations of the development of this form of knowledge/governance that take place only in the realm of top-down politics. Taking this perspective will allow us to think about heritage in terms of current discussions, say, in the history of science. These discussions address the ways in which knowledge is generated and moves, using a set of tools which have increased our understanding of this process in a number of ways: whether in terms of what has actually counted as knowledge or in terms of the range of sources we might use to think about it. Hopefully the conference will generate similarly expanded possibilities for understanding what heritage has been.

Where do you see the link between transregional research and understanding heritage? What benefit do you see in a transregional approach especially when working on cultural heritage?

There has been a tendency, noted by Lynn Meskell and others, to assume that international organisations involved in heritage (like, once again, UNESCO) hold a considerable amount of—not very well defined—power/agency in the way that the concept is defined and practised. But it has become increasingly clear that this power, to varying extents, is globally dispersed, and involves any number of actors. The constitution of heritage takes place in any number of locations, through any number of networks, and in any number of ways. In this sense, then, a transregional approach to the history of heritage can be extremely productive in making the history of heritage significantly less ‘flat’ than it currently is.

Taking a transregional approach can also lead to different ways of approaching heritage now. Even as power in constituting heritage has been dispersed, it is clear that many people who might be involved in this process have been side-lined and ignored; left without any sort of voice even as they live with—and themselves constitute—what it is that heritage might be if only (for instance) legislation connected to the concept defined it as such. Despite the dispersal of power in relation to it, heritage has too often been defined by elites in places like Paris. In other words, while heritage is linked to a tangible historical moment referred to as ‘decolonization’, it is unclear to what extent the practices connected to the concept’s development in this context mean that heritage is itself decolonized. Taking a transregional approach allows us to consider how the processes of making heritage have bounded the authorship of heritage in different ways and in different places, helping us to gain a meaningful global perspective on this act of disenfranchisement. It also allows us to think about the different ways in which this situation might now be addressed.

William Carruthers has been a guest on this blog before. If this article caught your interest, you can find his response paper to the Annual Conference 2016 in Heidelberg here, or read another interview with him, where he talks about his own research in more detail.


Further contributions to the TRAFO series „Emerging Topics“: 


Citation: Heritage, Decolonisation and the Field  – Interview with William Carruthers, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.04.2017, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/6431.

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3 Antworten

  1. 28. April 2017

    […] Heritage, Decolonisation and the Field – Interview with William Carruthers, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.04.2017. […]

  2. 16. Mai 2017

    […] Heritage, Decolonisation and the Field – Interview with William Carruthers, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.04.2017. […]

  3. 17. Mai 2017

    […] Heritage, Decolonisation and the Field – Interview with William Carruthers, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 10.04.2017. […]

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