A Think- Tank Meeting informing a Vision for the Conservation and Promotion of Cultural Heritage in the Arab World
Sharjah, UAE, From 6th to 8th February 2018
Historical accounts of cultural heritage are deeply rooted in the long and rich dynamics of valued sites, artefacts, folklores, different dialects and languages. Learning from our heritage enriches our knowledge and consequently the quality of our lives. With its varied geographical environments, the Arab Region is home for people of diverse confessions and backgrounds, each with their own cultural particularities and valued heritage assets where ideas and intangible values linger in proverbs, tales, anecdotes, etc.
It is the materiality of places, landscapes, buildings, and artefacts infused with sounds, smells, and a ‘spirit’ of a place that transforms heritage from a set of meanings to an experience of existential dimensions that anchor the past in the present. The ruins and traces are a material witness of a departed community. They are the reminders of the emotions, meanings and values that were once associated with the place when it was alive in time. Heritage is thus a main strand that weaves communities together in a common history formed by a continuum of civilizations within a specific geographical range and geopolitical position. At the same time, heritage connects individuals to communities, it is a symbol of identity and source of pride. Heritage and culture identifiers are thus complex, intertwined and contested, dependent on and relevant to place or community.
Regional variations and national identities within the region are a result of a human experience through time. They are reflected in different conceptions of heritage within the Arab region. Moreover, the Ottoman period and European colonialization were main factors in shaping this conception; the concept of cultural heritage and the strategies of its management were largely influenced by orientalists, who studied and presented what they called the Orient and its past, within a Western model of heritage in general and the heritage of Arab countries in particular. Heritage presentation, in many cases in the region, excluded the living heritage of local communities, and was confined to museums that were designed by Europeans, mostly for Europeans within a Western conception of archaeology and history. The perpetuation of such museology into the present is detrimental to regional societies’ participation in producing and presenting culture. Additionally, current Antiquity Laws in the region, in most cases, were developed within Western philosophies and perceptions of what cultural heritage is or should be. Since the mid-twentieth century till present, many of these laws remain used, despite some revisions and updates in some countries.
The region-wide understanding of ‘Regional Heritage’ today is still inadequate, lacking in technical terminologies, analytic assessment tools and evaluative procedures. It is therefore important and urgent to call for a formal recognition of cultural heritage conservation management in the Arab Region that engages multiples voices, bringing together archaeologists, architects, geographers, anthropologists, sociologists, artists, historians, conservators, folklorists and the general public, to broaden the scope beyond the borders of any single discipline.
Attempts to explore regional cultural heritage are evident in modern media platforms, such as movies, television, music, poetic renditions as well as theater and literature; however, what is lacking is a thorough investigation into what has been and is being conserved or presented, and how this can be utilised to encourage appropriate investment in cultural heritage of the region, beyond national boundaries. Another aspect requiring further study, and one that inherently overlaps with many aspects of social life, is the diversity and commonality of beliefs and faiths. To further harness broad outreach and recognise perceptions of heritage, an understanding of how these beliefs inform community’s awareness of cultural heritage is necessary.
The Arab region today is at a critical crossroad, as cultural heritage has never before been exposed to the types of threats it is facing today; the natural processes of decay and deterioration have always threatened heritage, but human induced threats such as negligence, development and even deliberate destruction have recently intensified. Despite the current challenges, cultural heritage has the potential to unify the society and foster a culture of peace. Cultural heritage may indeed be a vehicle to resolve grievances and to diffuse conflicts.
Within this broader context, and under the Patronage of His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council of the United Arab Emirates and Ruler of Sharjah, ICRROM’s Regional Centre in Sharjah is organising the Arab Cultural Heritage Forum to develop philosophical principles and approaches, based on local and/ or regional perceptions, aimed at promoting and preserving heritage places and artworks in the Arab world.
The forum will be held in Sharjah from 6 to 8 February 2018 and will examine philosophical contexts and values that inform conservation practices in the wider region through thematic sessions, discussions and daily workshops, which will help identify challenges in this area, in order to eventually devise a strategy to address them. The forum will be held in Arabic, with simultaneous interpretation into English. The organisers will work on publishing the forum proceedings in Arabic and English.
This forum is expected to promote a dialogue aimed to review regional and diverse cultural perceptions and values, pose significant questions, and critique a spectrum of regional views on the subject. The forum specifically aims to:
- Encourage experts from a range of cultural fields to discuss concepts related to the essence of tangible cultural heritage conservation in the Arab Region;
- Discuss influences on conservation strategies and practice (including orientalism, religious or non-religious beliefs, international doctrine developed by institutions specialized in heritage and culture, as well as the economic conditions surrounding conservation practices);
- Advocate and promote the significance and meanings of Cultural Heritage in this tangible forms, as perceived in the region, and of its conservation;
- Analyze the role of media and education in forming conceptions, making cultural heritage relevant in the public sphere; and influencing a culture of conservation.
- Provide a platform for individuals with deep and profound concerns and interests in the region to participate and contribute to current debates and conversations.
The center will follow-up the forum objectives through its mission as a school for heritage conservation and promotion serving the region, and think-tank for policy-makers in the region, and will continue to contribute to the dissemination of knowledge at institutional, socio-cultural and professional levels.
Structure and Topics
The forum will be held over three days. The discussions of the first day will focus on “what we value and what is cultural heritage in the Arab Region?”, in order to seek clarity related to defining what is it that we are talking about when we examine conservation of cultural heritage in the region. The second day will focus on the current regional climate and the wide threats to heritage: why are we convening and why do we conserve heritage? The third day will address strategies on how can we protect this heritage in light of discussions initiated in the first two days? What are the optimal strategies and practical solutions?
The forum is intended to highlight fundamental needs of the region today and address questions related to what we value, and why and how this can be utilised to mobilise advocacy and action. To this end, the forum will conclude each day with a workshop session, where the questions raised will be applied in the form of focused discussions. The final day will summarise results of the workshops and lay foundations for a new approach and an Action Plan that will inform the work of ICCROM-Sharjah and support the work of its Member States in the Arab Region.
The Arab Forum for Cultural Heritage is aimed at experts and researchers working in the field of culture and cultural heritage in the Arab world, both tangible and intangible, and from other relevant disciplines.
- Thinkers. Philosophers, historians and anthropologists with experience in cultural and social studies;
- Artists, poets, musicians, media professionals and journalists;
- Architects, archaeologists, conservators or relevant professionals with extensive knowledge in cultural heritage studies and doctrine;
- Experienced professionals working in legislation and/ or the documentation of illicit trafficking of cultural heritage;
- Professors and researchers active in cultural heritage preservation and documentation;
- Cultural heritage managers/ practitioners working in Museums and on Sites;
- Region-wide educators;
- Research or graduate students of all related specialties.
Expected Outcomes and Results
The expected outcome of the forum is a critical analysis of the state of cultural heritage in the region, in order to enhance the principles and practices of its conservation and promotion from a regional perspective. The outcomes will specifically include:
- A publication of the forum proceedings to make them available to researchers and specialists;
- Strategic recommendations to follow-up the forum objectives with partner institutions;
- A message from the forum to the general public on the significance and specificity of Cultural Heritage and the need for its Conservation.
The main results and summaries will be posted on ICCROM and ICCROM-Sharjah websites.
 The concept of the Orient includes a vast geographic area; this document focuses on a part of this “Orient” now referred to as the Middle East and North Africa