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The Essential Role of Interpretation in Safeguarding Cultural Heritage

The Essential Role of Interpretation in Safeguarding Cultural Heritage

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US/ICOMOS International SymposiumTHE ESSENTIAL ROLE OF INTERPRETATION IN SAFEGUARDINGCULTURAL HERITAGEArlene K. FlemingCultural Resource SpecialistGreat Falls, Virginia, USAMay 2005I. EXPANDING THE CONCEPT OF INTERPRETATION IN THE ICOMOS ENAMECHARTERWhen we consider the interpretation of cultural heritage sites, our reference is commonlya designated and protected area, open to visitors who need and deserve an explanation of the significance and meaning of the place. In this context, the challenge is to enhance thevisitors’ experience by providing an interesting, fair and objective account of the site andof its associated events and people. Given rapid and profound social, cultural andpolitical changes in our contemporary world, the task of interpreting cultural heritagesites is dynamic and challenging.Recognizing the need to articulate standards and to provide guidance for this activity, theInternational Council on Monuments and Sites is preparing the ICOMOS Ename Charterfor the Interpretation of Cultural Heritage Sites. The third draft, issued in August 2004, ispresented for discussion by ICOMOS members, world-wide, and the subject is the themefor the eighth annual symposium convened by the U.S. Committee of ICOMOS, inCharleston, South Carolina.The draft Charter defines interpretation as: ‘…the carefully planned public explanationor discussion of a cultural heritage site, encompassing its full significance, multiplemeanings and values.”
The Charter’s preamble acknowledges that “interpretation of themeaning of sites is an integral part of the conservation process and fundamental to thepositive conservation outcomes.” It is further stated that “the interpretation of culturalheritage sites can be contentious and should acknowledge conflicting perspectives.” TheCharter aims to establish basic objectives and principles for interpreting sites in relationto authenticity, intellectual integrity, social responsibility and respect for culturalsignificance and context. Interpretation is considered to be a means of stimulating publicappreciation of cultural heritage sites as “sources of learning and reflection about thepast, as well as valuable resources for sustainable community development andintercultural and intergenerational dialogue.” Interpretation, as envisioned in the Charter,takes place “at, or in the immediate vicinity of cultural heritage sites.”The opportunity to discuss and comment on the draft Ename Charter provides anoccasion to reflect on the concept, definition and process of cultural site interpretation as
 2set forth in the document. The circumscribed definition of interpretation in the draftCharter assumes that the activity is limited to transmitting information about a designatedsite to a captive, passive audience. It ignores the fact that many heritage sites are notestablished reserves: they may be places not yet designated for protection, or placessubject to maintenance and continual modification by a variety of property owners.Under such circumstances, interpretation involves the timely provision of information onheritage significance to individuals and groups whose decisions and actions maydetermine the very survival and adequate maintenance of a place. Providing ‘just-in-time’ interpretive information to decision makers may be a more complex andchallenging task than preparing material for visitors to an established site, but for theconservation of heritage places, this is a significant function of interpretation.If we define the interpretation of a place as an understanding of its value and meaning,we must acknowledge that any viewer will make an assessment based on his experience,information, values and objectives. Heritage sites throughout the world, threatened bydevelopment projects and armed conflict, are variously interpreted by people who maynot even be aware of any cultural significance, and who have their own differing, andoften competing, values and interests. We must consider what the various decisionmakers and interested parties actually see when they view a heritage site. How do theyinterpret the place considering their knowledge and objectives? How are variousinterpretations manifested? How do they affect decisions? What are the relative powerrelationships among the decision makers?In such cases, heritage interpretation is not planned by the custodians of a place, but canbe provided with the objective of influencing decisions that will affect the existence orquality of a heritage site. The timely and effective participation of cultural resourceprofessionals may be decisive for satisfactory heritage conservation. What opportunitiesand means exist to provide interpretation under such circumstances?Some answers will be found in the following four case studies, each illustrating thecritical role that timely interpretation can play in the designation, protection, conservationor reconstruction of cultural heritage places. The experiences recounted are from projectsplanned or financed in part by the World Bank.
Although the examples differ markedlyin content, each illustrates the necessity of creating awareness through timely, targetedand effective interpretation, while appealing to the interests of all relevant decisionmakers. In the first case, a historic bridge at Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, forcenturies a symbol of local pride and unity, was destroyed during ethnic conflict, andthen rebuilt with international support. Second, is the city of Asmara in Eritrea,constructed as an Italian colonial outpost, now requiring protection and conservation as asymbol of Eritrean pride and unity. Then there is the case of surviving historic structuresin Ningbo, China, which were saved, restored and given a place in the modern city. Andfinally, a story concerning the waterfalls of Bujagali on the Nile River in Uganda, hometo spirits worshiped by the local inhabitants and threatened by a proposed hydroelectricproject.
 3II. THE BRIDGE AT MOSTAR IN BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA: A Case StudyPeople throughout the world watched helplessly in November 1993, as cameras recordedthe collapse of the beautiful 16
century bridge at Mostar on the Neretva River, followingweeks of shelling by Croat forces. Although hundreds of heritage structures in Bosniaand Herzegovina had been damaged or obliterated since the outbreak of civil war in1992, the destruction of this picturesque bridge captured the world’s attention. Forcenturies it had served as a passageway between western Mostar, a predominantlyCroatian enclave, and the eastern sector of the city, peopled mainly by Bosniaks. In itsdemise, the bridge, and the gaping hole that remained, became a symbol of the violentconflict between the two groups and the Serbs, as the former nation of Yugoslaviadisintegrated.Cultural heritage, in the form of valued historic buildings and objects had become a targetin the series of Balkan conflicts of the 1990s, as one objective in the struggle overterritory was to erase all evidence of habitation by opposing groups. The deliberate actsdemonstrated that the combatants understood the meaning and value of cultural heritageand the powerful effects of its destruction. Although the intense civil conflict betweenSerbs, Croats and Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 through 1995 wasoften characterized as an expression of ancient ethnic hatreds, it was a war based mainlyon 20
century experience and ideologies. The close proximity of historic Muslim,Christian and Jewish religious and civil structures, as well as intermarriage betweengroups, attest to previous centuries of harmonious relationships.Mostar is strategically sited on the trade route between the Adriatic Sea and the Balkaninterior. The famous stone bridge, completed in 1566 by the ruling Ottoman Turks, wasan important link in this chain. Supplemented in subsequent years by modern bridgesbuilt for vehicular traffic, the Stari Most, or old footbridge, was treasured as an aestheticlandmark and a cultural symbol by the inhabitants of Mostar, the region, and travelersfrom abroad. The bridge had social and cultural significance as a meeting place, and thespot where young men proved their courage in special contests by diving into the icyNeretva River.As the ethnic strife intensified during the early 1990s, the Croat military sought to severthis connection by destroying the bridge. As an edifice of the Ottoman Turkish period,the structure was viewed by Croatian nationalists as a Muslim icon and a tangibleimpediment to the objective of ethnic separation. A Croat fighter stated bluntly: “It isnot enough to cleanse Mostar of the Muslims; the relics must also be destroyed.”
Aftermonths under siege, the bridge was finally completely demolished by Croatian gunnersafter two days of concentrated point blank attacks, recorded on videotape. Appeals bythe Government of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the United Nations Security Council,UNESCO and the Council of Europe for assistance in protecting the old city of Mostarand the bridge had been in vain.

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