Anjori Mitra: Thoughts on Privilege, Heritage and Pain

Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how privileged we are to be part of this delegation.  Certainly, its not something I would have been able to afford when I was still a student; and its something that probably wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t had the privilege of having two university degrees relevant to this delegation (not to mention the privilege of living in a country that gave me an interest-free loan to fund those degrees).

Its all well and good to reflect on one’s privilege; but harder to truly recognise it for what it is.  For example, during our training weekend, one topic of discussion was the dangers of portraying history in an inaccurate or misleading manner, for example, in museum exhibits or in the movies.  A prime example is the film Braveheart – among its many sins against historical accuracy, it concocts a romance (even resulting in a pregnancy) between the main character and a woman who was, in reality, a child at the relevant time and living in a different country.  Many of us agreed that “people” uncritically accept museums and movies as “the truth”, as accurate renditions of the past.  While I agree in principle, in concluding that “people” don’t think critically about what they see in the movies, aren’t we assuming we’re superior to the “people” we’re talking about?  And is it right for us, a bunch of people with university degrees (in many cases, multiple university degrees), to comment on what people who haven’t had the same privileges as us might think when they visit a museum?

I’ve also been thinking about the part privilege plays in the way we interact with sites of historical significance.  For some, a visit to a particular site is an interesting part of a holiday.  But for others, that same site is a place of much emotion, or even significant pain.  Isn’t it a kind of privilege to simply be able to visit a historical site, appreciate its significance, and go on with your day, when visiting that site isn’t nearly as uncomplicated, or painless, for others?  Even discussing certain historical topics is different for different people.  While we, at our training weekend, were able to have an intellectual discussion about the ethics of preserving the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, how painful might that discussion have been for someone of Japanese descent?

At our training weekend, we talked about monuments in the USA to confederate generals, and how some people insist these are part of their history, and so worthy not only of protection, but of celebration.  However, to others – predominantly the African-American community – such monuments are essentially celebrations of centuries of suffering.  While the historian in me appreciates the instinct to preserve, the need to protect something because its old and of a certain time, isn’t there a point when someone’s pain trumps all other considerations?

I’m certainly no proponent of destroying historical sites, especially if they are painful, because we need to retain those sites in order to educate the future and hopefully prevent repetition of the past.  But those for whom a heritage or historical site is painful should have the last say on how such a site is presented.  In Poland, we will be visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, something I know will be a challenging experience.  For me, the key thing is how this memorial is presented – as a place of pain for many. In fact, the museum was initially set up a group of survivors, with extensive guidance from the Jewish community.  It’s perhaps one of few examples of an oppressed community having the chance to tell the story of their suffering to the world on a large scale.  In an alternate universe, a place like Auschwitz-Birkenau could very well be presented as an interesting footnote in history.  Think that couldn’t happen?  In Australia, the prison on Rottnest Island - at which numerous Aboriginal men were interned, used as forced labour, tortured and killed - was later converted into a hotel.  There are less obvious examples too – for example, the creation of the monument to four American Presidents at Mount Rushmore is perceived as the desecration of sacred land – and an example of the theft of native land -  by some members of the Lakota Sioux tribe.

Finally, I’ve been thinking about how privilege plays out on a bigger scale in places like the World Heritage Committee.  For example, it takes a certain sense of entitlement for a State (the UK) to nominate its World Heritage Site (Liverpool) as “in danger” from urban development planning, when there are World Heritage Sites facing destruction due to war and terrorism.  And the resources of States Parties have a direct bearing on their ability to nominate, and protect, their Heritage Sites, and train and send delegates to the Committee.

I’ve asked a few questions in this blog post – now to get on my flight this afternoon and see if I can get any answers!

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


Posted on June 26, 2017 and filed under World Heritage 2017.