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Cultural Heritage Conservation: Challenges and Responses

Cultural Heritage Conservation: Challenges and Responses

The hostage-taking on 8 September  2009 of Mr  Thanasis Lerounis from the
Kalashadur Museum and cultural centre which he had  helped to create has
highlighted for many the issues of cultural heritage  preservation. Professor
Lerounis, President of the non-governmental organization  Greek Volunteers is an outstanding example of a person devoted to  safeguarding the rights and heritage of a small minority who carry with them an  ancient culture. The Kalasha, most of whom live in three valleys in the Chitral  District of  Pakistan, number around 4000 people.  They are believed by many to be related  to the soldiers and merchants of the Asian empire of Alexander.  Their religious practices have elements  of the 4th century Helenistic faiths. As with all societies, the  Kalash people have interacted with their neighbours so that the fire rituals of  the Indo-European Vedic faiths play an important role in Kalash practice as does  the role of shaman who are the living link between the spirit and the human  world. 
The hostage-takers have taken Lerounis to the Nuristan area of Afghanistan
and are demanding $2 million in  cash, the conversion of Lerounis to Islam
and the release of three Pakistan insurgents from jail.  The Kalasha
negotiators, who have met  the hostage-takers three times have no authority to deal with any of these  demands and so for the moment, there has been no progress on the  case.
Conserving a cultural heritage is always difficult.  Weak institutional
capabilities, lack of  appropriate resources and isolation of many culturally
essential sites are  compounded by a lack of awareness of the value of
cultural heritage  conservation.  On the other hand,  the dynamism of local
initiatives and community solidarity systems are  impressive assets.  These forces  should be enlisted, enlarged, and empowered to preserve and protect a  heritage.  Involving people in  cultural heritage conservation both increases the efficiency of cultural  heritage conservation and raises awareness of the importance of the past for  people facing rapid changes in their environment and  values.
Knowledge and understanding of a people?s past can help current 
inhabitants to develop and sustain identity and to appreciate the value of their  own culture and heritage. This knowledge and understanding enriches their lives  and enables them to manage contemporary problems more successfully. It is  important to retain the best of traditional self-reliance and skills of  rural  life and economies as people adapt to  change.
Traditional systems of knowledge are rarely written down: they are 
implicit, learnt by practice and example, rarely codified or even articulated by  the spoken word.  They continue to  exist as long as they are useful, as long  as they are not supplanted by new  techniques.  They are far too easily 
lost.  It is the objects that come  into being through these systems of
knowledge that ultimately become critically  important.
Thus, museums, such as the Kalashadur, must become key institutions at  the local level.  The objects that  bear witness to systems of knowledge must
be accessible to those who would visit  and learn from them. Culture must be seen in its entirety: how women and men  live in the world, how they use it,
preserve it and enjoy it for a better  life.  Museums allow objects to 
speak, to bear witness to past experiences and future possibilities and thus to  reflect on how things are and how things might otherwise  be.

By Rene Wadlow, Representative to the United Nations, Geneva, Association of World Citizens.  Formerly he was professor and Director of Research, Graduate Institute of  Development Studies, University of Geneva.

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