Editorial Feature

Preserving the Past

The world's cultural heritage faces many threats, but it can be protected

A sudden fire tore through the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro in September 2018, destroying the largest natural history museum in South America. The museum housed over 20 million items, collected over its 200 year history. This bewildering array of objects included many priceless indigenous artefacts, dinosaurs, and the 12,000 year-old skeleton of the oldest human found in the Americas.

Many observers pointed to government cuts to science and education that may have drained necessary resources from the museum and allowed the institution to fall into neglect. Brazilians viewed the museum’s destruction as a national catastrophe, akin to losing the history of the country. Museums are supposed to be safe spaces for the preservation of cultural and scientific knowledge, not kilns for its tragic burning.

Sites éternels. Vue aérienne du site de Palmyre, le sanctuaire du dieu Bêl (Baal), époque gréco-romaine, Photo Iconem & DGAM (From the collection of Rmn-Grand Palais)

The fire in Rio de Janeiro was a reminder of the various threats that exist to the world’s cultural heritage. These threats are varied and often uncontrollable. Typically, the destruction of cultural heritage in wartime tends to grab headlines. Ancient cities have become modern battlegrounds in Syria, leading, for example, to catastrophic damage to Aleppo’s old town. In the recent turmoil in the Middle East, however, few incidents have won more international attention than the many desecrations conducted by the so-called Islamic State. The militant group ravaged pre-Islamic sites in Iraq and Syria, famously demolishing several monumental structures in Palmyra between 2015 and 2017.

Cartagena de Indias: city and bay, Archivo General de Indias, 1628 (From the collection of Archivos Estatales)

Most threats to cultural heritage are not so motivated and intentional. Climate change poses an immense danger to many historical sites. The Caribbean city of Cartagena, for example, still boasts many original buildings and fortifications from the 16th and 17th centuries, when it served as a major trading outpost for the Spanish empire in the Americas. Those structures have survived immense economic and political change, but they are endangered by the changing climate. Rates of sea-level rise are twice as high in Cartagena than in the rest of the Caribbean, and some of the city’s famous sites like the 17th century Fort of San Jose have already been damaged by shoreline erosion and flooding.

Frozen landscape, Altai Mountains, Bayan Olgii, Mongolia, by Jimmy Nelson, 2011-03 (From the collection of Jimmy Nelson)
The Fish of Vettersfelde, Unknown, c. 500 BCE (From the collection of Altes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)

Far from the sea, climate change still wreaks havoc. The Altai Mountains in Russia, long imagined as a “spine of the world,” are home to the mounded tombs, or kurgans, of nomadic Scythian kings. Shrouded for millennia in permafrost, the tombs have proved a literal treasure mine for archaeologists and scholars thanks to the relatively good state of preservation of organic materials within them. However, warming temperatures and the thawing of the permafrost has allowed moist air and water to penetrate the tombs, leading to damage to the objects inside.

Ajanta Cave 2: Vidura Pandit Jataka (From the collection of Archaeological Survey of India)

Even those who seek to appreciate cultural sites can inadvertently do damage to them. The Ajanta and Ellora caves in western India are home to extraordinary examples of Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain painting and sculpture. The wonder of Ajanta and Ellora drew visitors in their thousands, whose accumulation of breath changed the temperature and humidity in the caves and damaged the paintings. Visitors also brought umbrellas and sticks into the caves that scratched several of the ancient artworks.

Cultural heritage isn’t only a collection of monuments and artifacts. “Intangible” cultural heritage – ranging from dance forms to rituals to languages – also warrants the care of preservationists as much as its physical counterpart. “Whistled” languages, for instance, are a rare and increasingly endangered form of speech. Devised to communicate over long distances in often rugged terrain, these languages use whistles of varying pitch and length to speak full sentences across ravines or from hilltop to hilltop. The above video installation compares three incidents of whistled language in Turkey, Greece, and the Canary Islands. Thanks to urbanization, telecommunications, and migration from rural areas, the use and memory of whistled languages has declined.

Venezuelan cattle industry, by Arthur Rickerby, 1965 (From the collection of LIFE Photo Collection)

Social change can severely impact cultural forms that have been passed down for generations. The llano songs of Venezuela and Colombia reflect a particular way of life associated with the rearing of cattle. Llano work songs take on subjects of herding and milking and recall centuries of folk culture in the grasslands. In modern times, the world of the cattle-herder has been transformed by changing economic realities and practices and the llano songs face the risk of evaporating.

Zaporozhian Cossack from Crimea (Cossack Mamai), Unknown painter, late 1780s - early 1800s (From the collection of National Center of Folk Culture - Ivan Honchar Museum)

Similarly, the distinctive martial songs of the Cossack in what is now Ukraine are at risk of disappearing. Once passed down through the community, the last singers of this genre of folk music are in their 70s and 80s. After their deaths, a vast repository of song may vanish with them.

Ceiling Mural, Unknown, 556

Activists, scholars, preservationists, and governmental and non-governmental officials can and do work to protect cultural heritage from these diverse threats. The Mogao grottoes in China, a sprawling Buddhist cave complex built in the 4th century CE, has become a major tourist attraction. Aware that the moist breath of so many visitors was changing the temperature and humidity of the caves, Chinese officials have strictly limited the number of tourists who can view the caves on any given day. Efforts have also been made to ward off the effect of desert sand and erosion on the caves, with layers of greenery and gravel built around the complex.

Other preservations projects are not so much physical as digital. The tech-savvy nongovernmental organization CyArk has embarked upon the immense project of mapping heritage sites around the world with laser technology. This detailed record of monuments and structures offers a digital backup of physical sites for scholars and researchers, as well as a blueprint for a site’s potential reconstruction. CyArk has mapped the immense temple complex of Bagan in Myanmar, which suffered significant damage during earthquakes in 2016.

Bulgarian costume, chemise (burchanka), 1875/1899 (From the collection of British Museum)

Preservation can also be a communal act, a means to unite people and celebrate old and new traditions. Since 1965, the Bulgarian government has supported a festival of national folklore at Koprivshtitsa. The festival is an occasion for groups around the country to bring their modes of dress, dance, song, and theatrical performance to a broader stage. It offers not just the spectacle of ancient customs and local ritual, but the festival allows Bulgarians the chance to refresh and re-engage with their understanding of their culture. Preservation practices, after all, cannot just aspire to pickle the past in amber, but must recognize the ways culture remains alive and dynamic in the present.

- Back to Preserving Our Past

Words by Kanishk Tharoor
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