Innovation, Education and Heritage Stewardship in a time of Coronavirus
Updated: Sep 10
What can international development and cultural heritage protection can learn from one another? What approaches might have special relevance in this time of Coronavirus, when existing programmes may be harder to sustain, and the outbreak is already having devastating consequences for the heritage sector, tourism and education?
The V&A’s Culture in Crisis programme brings together organisations from around the world with a shared interest in protecting cultural heritage, and in doing so, provides a forum for sharing information, inspiring and supporting action and raising public awareness.
This recognises the impact of cultural heritage loss on communities and the contrasting positive role its preservation can have in rebuilding and recovering these areas following wars and disasters.
This links with LSN’s approach to explore the role of heritage stewardship in the humanitarian context which was supported by DFID, the Humanitarian Innovation Fund and ELHRA https://www.elrha.org/project/community-based-mapping-modelling-monitoring-endangered-heritage/ . This was cross-disciplinary and community based in its approach.
The new era of Coronavirus has highlighted the need for heritage sites to engage with students using non-conventional approaches and to develop an online presence. There is also an urgency to create opportunities which conventional education is unable to provide with restrictions fundamentally reducing access to places of memory for young people.
The debt countries are taking on in dealing with the crisis will mean that there will be limited capital to build back better. Old business models that sustained education, heritage stewardship and tourism in the past may no longer be viable and this will threaten the very existence of some schools and colleges, museums and tourism ventures. We will be in a new era where innovation needs to be more creative and frugal. Initiatives will need to show how they impact the triple bottom line of the environmental sustainability, societal cohesion and financial viability. The work by EQI https://www.eqi.com.eg/home and LSN www.4dheritage.com in the Siwa oasis in Egypt shows what can be done.
The Siwa oasis is located in the Western Desert of Egypt, 300 km southwest of the Mediterranean Sea, 70 km east of the Libyan border. It contains monuments from the pre-historic, Pharaonic, Greco-Roman, and Arab periods. The more recent settlement, Shali, was a fortress city built during the Mamluk period, using a mix of mud and salt (kershef), olive wood, and palm trunks.
Sadly, most of Siwa’s diverse heritage is degraded. The stone monuments from Pre-history and Antiquity are slowly crumbling, and; Shali’s kershef buildings have been significantly deteriorated as a result of the indiscriminate and systematic pillage of their wooden structural elements, over the past century.
With the advent of tourism in the late 1990s, the local population came to value the oasis’ heritage as a new source of revenue, but political instability in neighbouring Libya presently deters visitors.
EQI has been working with the local community to restore some of Shali’s kershef buildings, including the Moqqabel, Ateeq and Aghormi mosques. The conservation of Moqqabil mosque, situated in the oasis of Siwa, Egypt, was carried out between January 2017 and June 2018. The project was co-funded by the British Council – Cultural Protection Fund (BC-CPF), and Environmental Quality International (EQI), under the supervision of the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities.
The project to restore the Moqqabil mosque, which had partly collapsed during an earthquake in the 1990s. The aim was not only to restore the Moqqabil edifice, but also prevent the dwindling traditional art of kershef building from disappearing altogether. The Moqqabil mosque, was selected because it is a monument of architectural and historic significance. The EQI team consulted with the Siwa elders and MA representatives to gather information about the structure prior to its degradation in the 1990s, since only roughly 50% of the mosque still stood; the minaret had toppled over completely.
Local materials prevailed in the restoration works. All originate from locally harvested sources: the rock-salt used in kershef is naturally renewed in Siwa Lake, while the wooden beams and parts used for doors, windows, and stairs, were cut from Siwan palm and olive groves. Upon the clearing up the remains of the broken walls the footprint of a long lost room in the mosque was realized that was used to keep the lanterns in, it has since been rebuilt and restored using Kershef.
An iconic building has been restored in a city that has been settled since at least the 10th milleniiium BC and been enabled one of the most important Saharan trade routes to flourish.
This project has been carried out in parallel with a second project working with the Cultural Heritage Institute at the Royal Agricultural University and the Zanzibari Government. This has recorded threats to the maritime culture associated with the Indian Ocean and particularly the Swahili coast. Here, working with the Zanzibar heritage foundation, we have been recording the maritime cultural heritage as part of a GCRF-funded Rising from the Depths project. Here the threats to the cultural heritage are largely linked to climate change – the ancient Swahili sites, including ancient mosques and houses, some over 1000 years old and always located on the coast – are being washed away by sea level rises and storms. The threat is further compounded by tourism developments, which often involve coastal modification, sand dredging and construction. Such is the scale of loss, that it is likely that within the 50 years, the cultural remains of an entire civilisation could be destroyed.
How might the richness and heritage of these conservation projects be translated into a learning experience that might be relevant to school and university students? LSN has been working with EQI to document the site as a 3D model and also using immersive imagery as is widely used in the entertainment sector. You can explore the mosque in an immersive fashion at the following site: https://poly.google.com/view/3mK9poYUSAf
The approach illustrates the practical feasibility of using such techniques for other sites around Siwa, and shows how the concept of a mixed reality exhibit can be used to support community outreach, provide a baseline for conservation and heritage stewardship, open up new fields of historical and archaeological research and potentially augment traditional exhibits in museums both in Egypt and internationally.
However perhaps the most important aspect of this work has been the creation of immersive learning material which can be made available to students, school children and potential tourists. The communities themselves can be the most effective advocate for the preservation and protection of historical sites, along with an informed public. Educating young students about the importance of ancient cultures, maintaining a lifelong dialog between archaeologists and the general public, and involving people in their own histories are essential for developing a sense of heritage stewardship.
Presenting accurate archaeological information through various hands-on experiences, easily accessible digital data, and continuous learning opportunities bring archaeology into the everyday lives of all learners where they can develop respect and passion for the discipline. Immersive storytelling for young people aims to create effective educational experiences in heritage for students in times of growing isolation. It uses heritage spaces to explore how history and geography shape identity and narrative.
have been working on at Siwa could lay the foundations for a much wider use of this approach and is also a good illustration of frugal innovation in a time of Coronavirus. We have built on ideas from a range of other sectors including the media and entertainment sector to quickly create the documentation in a way that would not have been possible when we set out on this project.
The outbreak of Coronavirus has made such approaches even more urgent with its likely long term impact on the heritage sector, tourism and perhaps more important of all, education. Whilst this crisis requires an urgent response, it presents the opportunity to strengthen virtual learning; ensuring heritage stories are as accessible from the home to the classroom: to bring alive formal education through virtual field trips and to connect young people with both their local history and national heritage around the world.