study time

Today I successfully took the first of the three online workshops about Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH). I am proud of this for two facts:
– I stayed away from my desk for two hours, alternating between the boardroom and being kicked out into the foyer during any meetings. I was hardly distracted at all — except for one annoying moment, when my boss asked me to move just as the tutor was answering my carefully crafted question (“How do we, as cultural heritage practitioners, negotiate our position as outsiders of communities – do we make ourselves available and wait until we are called upon? it’s obviously important that outsiders do not attempt to define communities we are not part of.” – in case you were wondering. I like having time to formulate my question properly before asking).
– I got mixed up with timezones and thought the lecture was yesterday — Wednesday 25th of February 3pm PDT is 10am in Australia… on the Thursday. Lucky it wasn’t the other way around!

I quite enjoyed the workshop, and whilst many of the concepts discussed during the first lecture were familiar to me (the tutor is Australian, even though the course is run out of Canada, so she used a lot of examples from Australian heritage protection that we have discussed at uni, as well as frequently referencing the Burra Charter), a couple of the things mentioned during the lecture were very thought-provoking. When discussing the movement of people into different countries, and particularly from areas of instability or economic difficulty into more wealthy countries, I tend in conservation to think more about waves of immigration building their own cultural bearings in a new environment (eg. the Greek and Italian populations that came to an Anglocentric Melbourne at the end of WW2, itself once colonial British outpost in an exclusively Indigenous Australia). But the lecturer briefly mentioned refugee camps, as whilst these places are meant to be impermanent, displaced populations can spend months and years in very trying and harsh conditions. Despite the psychological and physical turmoil of losing everything and having close to nothing, one might hope their cultural identity and heritage — particularly intangible culture — does not have to be completely stripped away.

I have for the past 18 or so months been interested in the role of cultural heritage professionals as potential first responders to endangered artefacts in areas of conflict. The loss of homes and family must always the first concern of humanitarian movements, and cultural objects are much harder to safeguard; their loss is mourned but difficult to prevent. My readings when I researched an essay on this topic back in September 2013 indicated that there was real human value in trying to protect and preserve historical and cultural monuments and art objects, because it could assist in rebuilding an area post-conflict — whether rallying people around common cultural identities, or supporting tourism to boost a fragile economy. However the number of organisations that venture into warzones for this purpose — Monuments Men, if you like — are minimal, and it is a highly dangerous ambition (not that I don’t still dream of it in an abstract way).

However, when it comes to intangible cultural heritage — which can be traditions, song, food, dance, rituals, language — living heritage — these are things that travel with people, that change as populations move and mingle with each other. How could I have failed to consider the impact on ICH of having to flee ones home and live in a refugee camp? Particularly given that my beloved partner is a humanitarian aid worker, currently working in Iraq with displaced populations? I feel simultaneously ashamed that I never thought about this before, and grateful that I have my very own live resource to help guide my research a little.

My first step in this particular direction is to read this report on traditional knowledge in Burundian refugee camps in Tanzania, after which I hope I will be able to articulate myself a little better on this subject.

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