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If the Islamic State thinks it matters, shouldn’t we?

This past January I approached our delayed-from-August 2014 class in Iraq, hoping again to explore with the students ways to engage some key concepts related to the relationship between heritage stewardship and contemporary culture. One of the main challenges has been to demonstrate the value of retaining recent historical and cultural layers at significant sites; layers that are vital to shaping a future that takes into consideration the ongoing cultural and political discourse of the country.

The class was taught within a context in which Islamic State fighters are demolishing mosques in Mosul and other cities in Iraq, using sledgehammers and chainsaws to destroy Assyrian statues and sculptures at the Ninawa Museum in Mosul, and burning thousands of old books and manuscripts in the Mosul Public Library. These fighters are convinced that Iraq’s material culture has immense political value in the contemporary context—in light of such conviction, I wanted to encourage the students to think as boldly about why the heritage work that they are doing matters. It has to go beyond the need to anchor a tourism-based service economy.

We visited the Suleimania Regional Museum and the Red House Museum, and discussed the value of museums for the broader public. While the former is second only to the Baghdad Museum in terms of holdings, we discussed how its presentation of art and artifacts was somehow less gripping and engaging than the Red House historical site—the Ba’athist Party Headquarters and the administrative, detention, and torture center used by Saddam Hussein in Suleimania until the Kurdish revolt in 1991. I encouraged students to question widely accepted curatorial practices in light of the need for engaging storytelling that illuminates the past yet considers the future. To accompany these visits I gave a lecture on powerful and evocative sites of memory and reparation, including the museum and memorial devoted to the Japanese massacre of 300,000 Chinese civilians in Nanjing, China over a six-week period in 1937 and 1938; a site of political repression, the Villa Grimaldi in Santiago, Chile, used after the coup against President Salvador Allende; and the United States Relocation Centers in which Japanese-Americans were interred during World War II.

The next day we launched a survey of historic sites that are being preserved in Suleimania, as well as began a careful engagement with the cultural landscape of the souk in order to grapple with broader themes in historic preservation. I stressed that historic preservation is not just about iconic buildings, high-style architecture, and associations with the rich and powerful; everyday sites are equally important to our shared culture. With Kamal Rashid, Director of the Suleimania Directorate of Antiquities as our excellent guide, we discussed why certain projects were selected and what was next on the agenda for the department. This launched Mr. Rashid and me into a great debate as he explained that the live poultry market was going to be relocated to the outskirts of the souk to make room for new development that would cater to outside commerce. Sanitization and displacement issues spurred the group into a discussion surrounding the challenges of catering to a tourism-oriented heritage agenda.

I ended the day with a lecture and discussion about the challenges that arise from buffer zones in World Heritage sites. Why, I asked, if we aspire to make heritage relevant to people today, would we be so hostile to any expressions of the modern world on a site? If we insulate sites, don’t we create a disconnect between the site and its relevance to our present? The past, as geographer David Lowenthal writes “is a foreign country.” I was pleased that the students seemed to relish these questions in spite of the fact that they challenged conventional notions of heritage conservation.

Student engagement and WMF’s highly organized running of the course led to a very satisfying teaching experience. I also learned from the students, and one experience in particular. The students were given access to panoramic digital cameras. At first, I was suspect that the new technology would help them to understand heritage better and would instead obfuscate the pressing political and cultural issues surrounding their work in the heritage field. But ultimately I ended up seeing a different angle to this technology. The cameras allowed the students to take in entire sites, landscapes, and places, and put them, digitally, into their pockets. There is something powerful about encouraging people to take hold of and measure heritage on their own terms. The challenge remains to create more ways to give people a sense of power and a palpable connection to the places that they live in and visit around the world. Now that is a challenge worth considering.