Redefining cultural heritage


Part V
Sri Lanka is blessed with an invaluable cultural heritage but unfortunately, we either lack expertise and experience or simply don’t care enough when it comes to managing it properly and sustainably. While there are some positive initiatives taken towards conserving our cultural heritage, courtesy our pioneers and institutions, the principles and policies on which the heritage conservation rely, are in a dire need of an update to better-suit the present-day needs.

The absence of an overall updated national policy for the heritage sector is seriously impacting the conservation and management of our tangible and intangible cultural heritage. The values of our cultural heritage have to be fully assessed and recognised as the first step, and the threats and opportunities should be also taken into account in developing national policies if we are to ensure their effective conservation and management.

During the past two decades, we witnessed many issues with regard to the preservation of our cultural heritage, and, this February we were extremely unfortunate to witness the gravest antiquities robbery of our time which happened in Deliwala and to date, no justice is done.

The incidents that took place in Mullaitivu in 2021 and last month (July 2022) are another example. The ancient stupa at Kurundi Vihara at Mullaitivu was restored and the relic placing ceremony was supposed to be held last month. However, the ceremony had to be stopped due to the protests of some groups with different interests. From the very early days, the archaeology work at this temple faced threats and problems created by groups with racist ideologies. Unfortunately, we still haven’t seen any effort being made or a policy being formulated to address conflicting issues of this nature which are not uncommon in the heritage sector.

When the Mihintale Mihindu Seya was being restored, some ‘Buddhists’, surprisingly raised their voice against it saying it is against archaeological theories and is an act that destroys the place’s ancient value. Yet, a notable public outcry was not raised when an enormous apartment complex was built extremely close to Sigiriya and Pothana. Also, once again, certain groups were so disturbed when the ancient Kuragala temple was being restored and declared open to the public.

These and many other similar incidents make us believe that the masses as well as the media and the policymakers have a confused and poor knowledge about cultural heritage, particularly when it comes to conservation and management of them for the benefit of the society. Indeed, the heritage sector has evolved considerably and substantially – especially within the last three decades – from its Eurocentric origin in the mid-19th century to become a system that seeks to deal with threats as well as exploit the benefits, particularly exploring how heritage contributes to the sustainable development, as highlighted in our previous articles.   

During the last months, Ceylon Today presented to you a series of articles about the country’s cultural heritage titled, ‘Redefining Cultural Heritage’, which was based on the research work of Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya who introduced some of the new trends that have evolved globally which can be contextualised in framing national policies. Dr. Wijesuriya is an Archaeologist and former Vice President of the World Archaeological Congress, founding Secretary-General of the Sri Lanka Council of Archaeologists,  an internationally-acclaimed heritage management specialist, former Director of Conservation of the Department of Archaeology, current Special Advisor to the Director-General of International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), Rome, Italy, Special Advisor to the Director-General of World Heritage Institute of Training and Research for the Asia and the Pacific Region (WHITRAP) Shanghai, China, and President of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), Sri Lanka.

We have been discussing this throughout our previous four segments and this is the continuation of our previous dialogues.

The values-led approach

“The values-led approach is, in many ways, a response to the recognition of the increasing complexity of heritage”, writes Dr.Wijesuriya on some aspects which were discussed previously.

As he explains, this approach which became better known through the Burra Charter was evolved and developed in various parts of the world. This was first developed by ICOMOS Australia in 1979 and subsequently updated. The Charter promoted the assessment of the significance of a place – based on the values attributed by all stakeholders (not only by the experts) and the use of a Statement of Significance – as a basis for developing conservation and management strategies. This suggests a systematic approach to developing conservation and management plans based on values and, more importantly, on the cultural significance of a heritage place to the society agreed collectively. This approach adopts the premise that people in society ascribe various values to heritage but there is no barrier to considering intrinsic values.

He further explained that more and more countries are turning towards a values-led approach to heritage conservation and management that in this approach, the significance of a heritage property is first established in a participatory process involving all those who have an interest in it. Having defined the significance (statement of significance), this becomes the framework for developing conservation policies and strategies where the condition of the property, existing rules, and regulations, the needs of the communities, and so on are taken into account.

However, management approaches need to be responsive since these heritage values, the driving forces behind decision-making, are not static, he explains. They depend on the social groups that participate in ascribing them and they even can change over time, aligning themselves with (or reacting to) shifts in wider social, cultural, environmental, and use-values. There will sometimes be a conflict between the different heritage values attributed to a property and it will be necessary to decide their relative priorities.

The most popular World Heritage Convention is, in fact, a notable example of using the values-led approach since, as it’s based on the identification and protection of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) which is the sign that makes a place of importance to all humanity. The aim of managing World Heritage properties is therefore, to guarantee the protection or the long-term maintenance of the OUV of a given property. 

This is relevant to Sri Lanka being the land for eight World Heritage Sites and their management is the responsibility of the Government of Sri Lanka under the convention.

According to Dr. Wijesuriya, the values-led approach is the most effective tool for the conservation and management of World Heritage sites. A values-led approach has the benefit of not concentrating on fabric alone as was done in the past but on a broader set of values that are important not only to a group of heritage experts but to a variety of legitimate stakeholders as well.

As mentioned before, the key to the values-led approach is preparing a ‘Statement of Significance’ and using it as the basis for determining conservation and management strategies.

This concept entered the World Heritage discourse in 1995 and was included in 1997 in the Operational Guidelines (OG) which stated that ‘the Statement of Significance’ should make clear what are the values embodied by the site. It has since evolved to ‘Statement of Outstanding Universal Value’, abbreviated to ‘SOUV’ which is a mandatory requirement when inscribing a site on the World Heritage List.

While paragraph 155 of the OG of the World Heritage Convention which are mandatory to follow provides a working definition, paragraph 51 clearly states that, “At the time of inscription of a property on the World Heritage List, the Committee adopts a Statement of Outstanding Universal Value which will be the key reference for the future effective protection and management of the property.”

There were many inconsistencies in the style of the writing of SOUVs because there wasn’t a proper agreed-upon format for writing one until September 2008. Following research conducted by ICCROM, a workshop, and a series of discussions, the World Heritage Centre and its Advisory Bodies agreed on a format that is now being integrated into the OGs and discussed in the Nomination Manual. Since this was a new concept, the countries that had sites inscribed before 2008 were asked to write the SOUV retrospectively and Sri Lanka is yet to do this for Anuradhapura, Polonnaruva, Sigiriya, Kandy, and Galle World Heritage Sites.

Managing a changing historic environment

Recognising the inclusive nature of the historic environment and its significance as a whole has considerable implications for those who manage sites and with this shift, the whole concept of heritage site management has changed over the last half-century.

 “The historic environment has always changed and will continue to change in response to human needs and to other factors, sometimes catastrophic.”

The management authorities have to recognise that any part of the historic environment may have multiple and changing values (as mentioned above) which may be in conflict if not carefully managed. Change may also be necessary to allow a place to continue its original function.

This is true of much religious heritage and of places whose fabric has been adapted to allow them to continue to perform the original function.

“Change may also lead to keeping a heritage place in beneficial use, which is generally the best way of ensuring its future maintenance and upkeep. The management of the historic environment is therefore, the management of change,” Dr. Wijesuriya explains.

This is as true of World Heritage properties as of any other form of heritage. The management authorities’ aim must be the continuing sustainable use of the place, and landscape, whether urban or rural while keeping and, if possible, reusing what is important from the past, while protecting the values and OUV in the case of World Heritage Sites. As a consequence, management must also change to accommodate the views of others and the interests of those who live and work in an area.

“The range of values and of interests can be very large, including national, regional, and Local Government, a variety of statutory agencies and non-governmental agencies and local communities, those who own and occupy the places in question, and a wide range of users of that particular piece of the historic environment”, writes Dr. Wijesuriya.

He also said that systematic management planning has proved to be one of the most important tools for managing change in cultural properties. This is a newly evolved aspect of the heritage sector.

National Archaeology Day is observed on 7 July every year. We have not yet solved the daylight robbery at Deliwala. The relic placing ceremony at Mullaitivu Kurundi Vihara is still halted. And we still do not have a strong national policy to protect our cultural heritage. Therefore, the future of our past is in danger. 

To be continued…

By Ama H. Vanniarachchy