Christophe Gillain: World Civilisation and its Discontents

As I write, just days before leaving for the 41st session of the World Heritage Committee in Krakow, I’m distracted by a welter of last-minute preparations. The practical questions. How many episodes of Fargo can comfortably be binged in one flight? Why does the plug adapter you lost as soon as you got home from a holiday two years ago invariably turn up once you’ve bought a new one? How much of the pharmacy’s travel section is it physically possible for one person to buy? Putting these vital considerations to one side, I still don’t know what exactly to expect from the conference itself. It’s a strange anticipation, having a half-formed image of what’s to come that will inevitably be supplanted and dispelled by actual experience. In T.S. Eliot’s words, at the moment we’re

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act

What I am certain of, though, is how excited I am to get to grips with all the issues we discussed during our training weekend. Ever since hearing our brilliant speakers talk about different aspects of the politics of cultural heritage and public history, I’ve been thinking about the questions they raised. And if I’m honest, a lot of that thought has been devoted to puzzling over how to tackle this blog post. What could I write about? Should it be personal? Informative? I haven’t yet come to firm conclusions about many of the debates over preserving world heritage, so how could I possibly cobble together a halfway coherent piece about them?

As a humanities student, I’ve been conditioned by the motto, when in doubt, research. So I’ve done more reading over the last few weeks than was probably ever necessary (or sane). I’ve learned that UNESCO was the architect of a six-volume multi-authored world history project that almost disappeared into obscurity by the time the final volume was published in 1976. I’ve learned that the German poet Heinrich Heine’s famous phrase – ‘where books are burned, people will next be burned’ – was uttered in his play Almansor by a Muslim referring to Christian conquerors destroying copies of the Quran in Grenada. I’ve learned that the Khmer Rouge government in exile wanted to have Angkor Wat nominated as a World Heritage site to further their territorial claims over Cambodia. And I’ve learned that there are fierce debates about what “public history” even means, who it should be aimed at, and whether it should foster a collective human identity.

It’s this last topic that I keep returning to. A few years ago, the historian David Armitage sparked controversy with his book The History Manifesto, which cautioned that the discipline had become fragmented into specialised “micro-history” and had retreated from influencing the public. But as other scholars rightly pointed out, Armitage’s argument swept aside histories of race, gender, and class as mere symptoms of “short-termism”. And his narrow definition of “the public” encompassed not ordinary citizens, but elites: policy-makers and politicians. Despite Armitage’s efforts, it’s doubtful, I think, whether most historians and politicians can ever be on the same page about the uses of history. While historians, however imperfectly and partially, seek truths about the past led by evidence, politicians often view history as a means of shaping communal stories that erase conflict and difference.

By these lights, claims to universality such as UNESCO’s mission to promote sites of ‘outstanding universal value’ make me uneasy. Isn’t this understanding of world heritage itself bound by time and place? Isn’t it likely to elide regionally and culturally specific ways of thinking and being? Isn’t what Saul Bellow called ‘this universal eligibility to be noble’ in fact deeply rooted in a Western tradition of humanity as a unified whole? (It’s telling that Bellow’s protagonist, Augie March, locates this nobility in the examples of Danton and Napoleon). To recur to UNESCO’s world history project for a moment, it’s clear that the organisation can no longer confidently propose, as it did over 65 years ago, that ‘since the world is now becoming a unity, scholarship has a duty to help to bring to birth a world civilization by demonstrating that this has been the direction that History has always taken’.

In practical terms, this isn’t the case anyway. UNESCO doesn’t consider heritage from the perspective of a world civilisation, but rather inscribes sites nominated by individual countries. Yet this approach comes with its own set of issues, as “world heritage” at any one time will necessarily mirror the concerns of states parties. And I don’t want to suggest that inward-looking parochialism is the answer to the issue of universality. It remains that people throughout the world do feel a special sense of attachment to particular objects and sites. This isn’t limited to properties in our immediate vicinity. Contemplating the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef and Palmyra makes me heartsick in an almost inexplicably visceral way. So I don’t know if there is a viable alternative to the international framework we already have. But with all these thoughts in mind, I’m convinced I’m going to be learning a lot in Krakow – just as soon as I find that plug adapter.  

All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences.

Posted on June 21, 2017 and filed under World Heritage 2017.