Is heritage stewardship a humanitarian issue?
Updated: Mar 10, 2021
The dilemma about humanitarian priorities is often posed in a stark manner: surely the number one priority for humanitarian initiatives is saving lives? Don’t lives matter more than objects, buildings and sites?
Heritage is about more than artefacts, buildings and sites. It is about people’s memories and how they make sense of their surroundings and history. It is about the accumulated culture of communities, the ideas that bind them together and help shape their sense of identity, something that can provide resilience in the face of challenges to livelihoods or even to existence. Threats to heritage may also be a warning. As the German poet Heinrich Heine, wrote: ‘where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings’.
In the past few years a significant amount of cultural heritage has been lost to conflict and environmental factors. More is threatened. Why is this important in a humanitarian context?
Heritage is more than a witness to human civilisation – it is an integral part of a society´s collective memory and being. By protecting heritage and safeguarding it for future generations we are not only saving history: we are also saving lives by reminding individuals of their past and of the significance of the landscapes they inhabit. It represents the shared values that transcend and bind together different generations.
Protecting such heritage in times of conflict requires an approach that is conflict-sensitive, aware of local sensibilities and coherent within the humanitarian response. Designed in an appropriate way, such an action should complement and enhance the traditional humanitarian response.
Digital documentation is transforming how we can captured the the tangible objects, structures and sites as well as the intangible heritage and stories in which it is expressed. Oral histories can be shared as podcasts. Detailed 3D models can be built up from a set of Aerial images which can serve as a detailed record to monitor a building or a site.
The 'Mapping, Modelling and Monitoring' or mCubed initiative was inspired by the work of a Syrian artist at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Mahmoud Hariri spends his time at Zaatari creating miniature models of some of Syria´s most famous monuments. He does this both to preserve his memory of Syria and to share with the thousands of Syrian children who have little or no memory of their history.
Many sites that have been lost or degraded in the past few years were not fully documented. Advances in consumer UAVs, photogrammetry and augmented reality allow heritage sites to be documented and shared in ways that were unimaginable until very recently. This initiative begins with re-imagining how communities can be more directly involved in stewardship of their own heritage, by being able to map, model and monitor key buildings and sites, but the fourth dimension is time - allowing people to document and share heritage over time.
Sharing heritage is so important - across the generations, with refugee groups and diaspora, and with the rest of the world who then have the opportunity to understand the richness and diversity of humanities stories.
Heritage stewardship can be an instrument in promoting stabilisation as well as in building community resilience. But heritage and history can divide people as much as unite them and for this reason it is important that we address heritage stewardship in a conflict- and community-sensitive way.
When communities connect with their heritage there can be two longer-term benefits: the heritage is more likely to be preserved, and jobs and revenue can be generated where there has been tourism in the past and scope for tourism in the future.
Advances in digital media have opened new ways both to engage local people in the documentation of their heritage and to share – and in the process allow others to experience it.
The convergence of four key factors have made it possible to re-imagine community based heritage stewardship:
Consumer electronics – most obviously smart phones – have led a revolution in citizen empowerment. We have seen how technology has created a range of unexpected opportunities, from citizen science, where, for instance, fishermen in the Indian Ocean participate in environmental conservation, to small-hold farmers in East Africa getting market data and banking services over their mobile phones.
Consumer drones (UAVs) have the potential to enable local people to map, model and monitor their environment. The widespread adoption of smart phones is also leading to a revolution in digital literacy.
Connectivity is growing too, with an ever-growing recognition of its value in supporting the resilience of communities and in development, from education to inclusion in a digital economy.
High-resolution digital sensors transform the detail that can be collected, while hyperspectral sensors are able to detect detail invisible to the human eye. Virtual and augmented reality allow complex data sets to be directly visualised, potentially transforming both engagement and understanding.
Compact ‘consumer’ UAVs have been used in humanitarian response by mapping towns affected by earthquakes or storms. We will be taking this idea a step further by providing communities with the means to model and monitor their own key buildings and sites; and to experience and share the data they have collected in a richer and more intuitive way.
There could be many valuable spin offs for the community beyond heritage stewardship, and we will be exploring some of these over the course of this project. It is hoped this pilot project will eventually be widely adopted across the region, allowing us to build a network of heritage champions and digital entrepreneurs. If we can do that, then this sort of community-based heritage stewardship will be seen as a key element in humanitarian response.