Heritage is What societies inspire, celebrate, use and protect - Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya | Sunday Observer

Heritage is What societies inspire, celebrate, use and protect - Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya

4 October, 2020

What do we mean when we use the word ‘heritage?’ Is it only about monuments and structures? What is the role of people in heritage conservation? These are some of the questions we focus in this interview with Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya, a Lankan international activist on heritage conservation.

Qualified in Architecture (BSc, MSc), Heritage Management (MA) and Archaeology (MA, PhD), Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya has served as Director Conservation of the Department of Archaeology of Sri Lanka (1983-2000) and was responsible for managing the heritage conservation program carried out during this time. He was elected Vice President of the World Archaeological Congress (WAC) in 2003. He has published many books on heritage management and conservation.

Q. Could you define what heritage is and what it should mean to a country or a community, as part of their identity?

A. ‘Heritage’ is a relatively new term. With the emergence of the modern conservation discourse, in Europe in the mid 19th century which we still follow, terms such as monuments, sites, antiquities were used to describe the material remains of our past. What we have in Sri Lanka is a definition based on these age old concepts drafted during the colonial rule in 1940, and antiquities that are predated to 1815 or those older than 100 years. They are also called Antiquities (puravasthu) or monuments (smaraka )or archaeological heritage (puravidyathmaka urumaya since 1998). They only focus on the tangible remains of the past, ignoring the intangible and intellectual dimensions.

For instance, there’s no place to recognise anything other than archaeological values such as spiritual or religious values. Archaeological values are only one form of values in any given heritage site. However, such early definitions have been expanded in the 60s as ‘cultural property’ and more importantly in the 70s as ‘heritage’ in the rest of the world. Heritage is now being defined by societies based on intrinsic or attributed values by people.

The key factor in this more encompassing definition of heritage is the introduction of the notion of ‘values’, i.e. why something is important (rather than the date of construction) and to whom (individuals, groups, nations etc.), and identifying the tangible and intangible aspects that convey such values. Values are either intrinsic or attributed by people.

There can be many values attributed to a given heritage and an analysis of them could help in defining and developing conservation and management strategies. Values can be religious, archaeological, scientific, memorial, economic, and cultural, relevant to a range of interested people or groups. Values vary according to whom they are important, and at what level, e.g. local, national or international. Heritage is what societies inspire, celebrate, use and protect. It is what they decide to protect based on intrinsic or attributed values. It is about the identity and contribution to livelihood which fulfil social, religious and political aspirations.

It has recently been realised that heritage is not just a physical evidence of the past and that there are other reasons to preserve them. Social and cultural factors, both in and out of heritage, in particular, are understood to play an important role in shaping society and what society needs.

A definition of heritage should be our own and one created by consensus. Heritage in general should be participatory and all inclusive. We need a definition that is not limited to one group: it is a matter of our shared cultural existence.

Q. What is the most serious issue you see in Sri Lanka pertaining to heritage site conservation that needs immediate attention?

A. There are several in my view that can be addressed simultaneously. We need an all-encompassing inclusive definition of heritage. Based on that we need to record them (listing) and develop protection (legal, conservation and management) strategies. To underpin the above, we need to urgently revise/address the heritage management systems, (namely finance, human and intellectual aspects); all processes of planning, implementation and monitoring; setting out goals as to what to preserve and their contributions to sustainable development.

Q. How can the concept of Heritage in a multicultural country bring people together?

A. A value based system of defining and managing heritage is the best opportunity to protect the heritage of all as it is a participatory and inclusive process, based on values to diverse groups. Sri Lanka has such a rich heritage with diverse values beginning with Buddhism and other religions which are associated with the tangible as well as intangible.

Such values are those that are lived in ethics, beliefs, rituals and experiences/attitudes that belong to people and are passed on from generation to generation. This is what makes a culture. In Sri Lanka we have a way in which we have traditionally treated people; our hospitality from ancient times, to those who visited the country, we have a manner in which we look at health, empathy and a high value based culture.

Value based heritage goes well beyond antiquity and tangible heritage such as monuments. Value based heritage encompasses the entire spectrum that is based on the pulse of inherited lived in experiences of people that are passed down from generation to generation.

In Sri Lanka, where we have such rich heritage endowment with diverse values, we are still looking at heritage as buildings and monuments but the rest of the world, western/ nonwestern have moved well beyond looking at structures alone as heritage representations.

Q. Could you speak on the Living Religious Heritage conference held in Rome in 2003?

A. This was the first-ever major international conference on this theme. This is particularly important because the Western conservation discourse originally evolved as a reaction against restoration provoked by the 19th religious revivalism in Europe.

The conservation philosophy of Europe was heavily rooted within secular contemporary values in Europe and therefore overlooked religious and spiritual values of heritage when it came to conservation decision-making. Europe which has a history of being based on materialism was only looking for material based conservation but this conference changed this course.

The general practice was to treat religious and spiritual heritage using a same set of secular principles as other types of heritage. As this was not accepted globally, the forum was, a welcoming and timely opportunity to address some of these critical gaps in how sacred heritage is treated. We argued that ‘living religious heritage’ differs from other categories and, therefore, conservation treatments could differ. My position expressed at the forum is strongly endorsed in the publication of the conference as follows:

Gamini Wijesuriya suggests that what distinguishes religious heritage from secular heritage is its inherent ‘livingness’, that the religious values carried by a stupa embodying the living Buddha, for example, can only be sustained by ongoing processes of physical renewal of the stupa.

In ensuring continuity of forms, in effect, ‘living’ heritage values are being elevated above the more familiar ‘documentary’ or ‘historical’ heritage values.

The primary goal of conservation becomes continuity itself, based on processes of renewal that continually ‘revive the cultural meaning, significance... and symbolism attached to heritage’.

My presentation highlighted the importance of placing sacred values high on the agenda of conservation decision-making and of the need to recognise traditional knowledge systems, which were overlooked within the Western conservation discourse. This latter point was exemplified with discussions about Buddhist religious practices.

The final sum up is that sacred heritage belongs to the people and is the undisputed inherited spiritual tradition connected with a community or country and should be conserved, preserved and respected.

Q. You have travelled widely around the world studying many concepts and policies pertaining to Heritage including Intangible Cultural Heritage. Could you speak of what Sri Lanka can learn from some of these policies?

A. For a variety of reasons I have proposed that the Sri Lanka heritage sector needs major reforms since I returned to the country in early 2018. We need to move away from colonial mentality and seriously revisit the systems left by the colonial occupiers at least after 62 years of independence. Interestingly this has been recognised in the manifesto of the current government.

At present there is a serious misconception that antiquities are equal to heritage and that the role of the Department of Archaeology is to promote the discipline of archaeology.

My global experience shows that this has to be corrected and many reforms have to be implemented if we are to ensure an effective present and future for our past. Some of the key lessons learnt and promoted were the engaging with communities and ensuring reciprocal benefits to both heritage and people.

Contributions of heritage and their conservation process to sustainable development of society which needs a lengthy discussion was a key theme being promoted globally.

Some of the management approaches (which have their origin in this part of the world) known as people-centred approach to conservation and management, places communities at the heart of the heritage discourse and embraces paradigms like sustainable development.

I am not proposing to apply any international model of heritage and conservation management indiscriminately within Sri Lanka but I would like to emphasise the importance of contextualising knowledge that comes from within the country and beyond its borders, and to drive for collaborative, collective decision-making in defining and managing our heritage. We have a rich foundation to build on in Sri Lanka and I believe the time has come to revisit all aspects of our heritage management systems.

To be continued