Katie Cammell: The Garden of Eden?

If you were to drive away from Manama and into the Bahrain desert for around 45 minutes, you’d come across the so-called ‘Tree of Life’.  The Tree of Life is famous for how long it has survived in the barren desert – it is believed to be over 400 years old and continues to grow despite the extreme temperatures and the lack of fresh water or nutrients.  There are various scientific and religious narratives surrounding the Tree of Life.  For instance, some scientists believe that the tree has been able to survive for so long because it has tapped into an underground spring through its roots which are 50 meters deep.  Others have suggested that the survival of the Tree of Life despite all odds is evidence of its miraculous origins in “the original Garden of Eden” – modern Bahrain.  The Tree of Life is thus an interesting symbol of heritage and a reminder of the subjectivity of these heritage sites – they exist in a particular time and place, and are central to national discourses and histories.

Over the training weekend, we were privileged enough to hear from some incredible speakers about heritage and public history.  One speaker that stood out for me was T.J. Tallie, an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia.  T.J. spoke about the ways in which heritage functions as an orientation device that helps people to relate to spaces and places, and is implicated in the construction and affirmation of identities.  Critically, T.J. argued that heritage can be mobilised and weaponised to reinforce particular power dynamics in society.  Public history is not an objective narrative of the past – through heritage and its commemoration, history is actively re-remembered and recast in a particular way. 

The politicisation of heritage is going to be an interesting phenomenon to observe at the UNESCO World Heritage Committee Session.  Even the name, “World Heritage”, speaks volumes about the nature of the Committee – it purports to function as the protector of the heritage of humanity, which “belong[s] to all the peoples of the world, irrespective of the territory on which they are located”.  How does the idea of a global heritage function to uphold and affirm mainstream identities?  Who benefits from these narratives of public history, and who doesn’t?  One thing is for sure – the legendary Garden of Eden is an interesting location for these discussions and for reflection on the power of heritage and narrative.

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

Posted on June 20, 2018 and filed under World Heritage 2018.