The British Council is launching the UK’s new Cultural Protection Fund on behalf of DCMS to protect international cultural heritage at threat from destruction.  Stephen Stenning, Director of Culture and Development at the British Council, explains why it matters so much that countries come together to preserve heritage as well as lives and livelihoods.   

Shooting the Acropolis

Last week I happened across an episode of QI on the television where one of the ‘quite interesting’ conundrums was ‘why would attackers re-arm the enemy forces that they had surrounded and were besieging? The very stuff of QI - what circumstance might give rise to that unlikely scenario?

It transpired that the incident took place during the Greek War of Independence in the 1820’s. A rebellion by Greek revolutionaries had forced the soldiers of the Ottoman Empire to retreat to the Acropolis where they were surrounded and running short of ammunition. Knowing that the 70,000 pieces of marble that make up the Parthenon were held together by lead sheets, the Ottomans started to remove the lead to make shot. The prospect of the destruction of this classic 2000 year old temple was so horrifying to the Greek revolutionaries that they were willing to supply their enemy with ammunition. The ancient site standing above the city of Athens was probably the most potent symbol of what those Greek rebels believed they were fighting for. It provided a link to the ancient civilizations that established their culture, it had been built by their forefathers and inspired generations of their ancestors. They would rather offer up the ammunition that might bring about their own death than see a symbolic piece of cultural heritage destroyed. It suggests a dilemma for those Greek revolutionaries about what they were truly fighting for?  For them the defeat of the oppressor and the removal of an occupying force would not be worth the destruction of that monument.   

Sites, buildings, artefacts, and what we identify as our heritage are so important because they take us out of our current time and force us to look at our affairs as a moment in history

Reflections on the Greek War of Independence seem to have been as much the domain of artists as of historians, and I’m not sure how much poetic licence has shaped that particular story, but the connection between heritage and identity rings true. Sites, buildings, artefacts, and what we identify as our heritage are so important because they take us out of our current time and force us to look at our affairs as a moment in history. They also hold in their stones, their art and their stories the aspirations, struggles and hopes of our past selves. They have motivated and inspired those that have shaped us as individuals, our societies, and our shared identity as human beings.

Khaled Hosseini’s beautiful but harrowing novel ‘A Thousand Splendid Sons’ features a chapter that provides relief from the horrendous de-humanising struggles faced by the story’s heroines in Afghanistan of the 1980s and 1990s. The young girl at the centre of the story, Laila, is taken on the 140 mile taxi journey from war-ravaged Kabul to the valley of Bamiyan.  Her father takes her there because he wants her to understand that the limitations, hardships and restrictions that she faces don’t need to define her and that the sinister and oppressive society that confronts her is not the only story of Afghanistan.  She is immediately awestruck by the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan and the snow-capped Hindu Kush beyond. They struggle to the top of the statues and then Laila’s father tells her “I wanted you to see your country’s heritage… to learn of its rich past.  You see some things I can teach you.  Some things you can learn from books. But there are things that, well, you just have to see and feel.”

That section was, for me, the most powerful and memorable of an affecting and moving story. It was a sequence about finding glorious inspiration in the midst of brutal repression in a book that was written shortly after the Buddhas of Bamayan were blasted into oblivion.  In the story, Laila’s father looked at the statues as a symbol of his homeland, his roots and of a proud but often troubled history that was coloured by different beliefs, understandings and allegiances. The Buddhas were built originally, one assumes, as an expression of faith and to be the focus of worship. The character in the story didn’t share that faith but saw the statues as magnificent beacons that stood for all that was unique about the land where he grew up and demonstrated the potential of its people.  

Picture of Stonehenge
It was the same age all those years ago as it is now. Stonehenge. Photo ©

Sara Khan, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 and adapted from the original. 

Heritage offers glimpses of alternative futures

Monuments and art works are valued precisely because they have stood firm whilst political boundaries, societies and religions have come and gone

Whilst culture can be used to assert difference and to divide it can also highlight what unites us and can speak to the shared human experience. Monuments and art works are valued precisely because they have stood firm whilst political boundaries, societies and religions have come and gone. The Parthenon, for example, had by the time of the Greek War of Independence been a Temple, a Christian shrine and a mosque. What drove people to carve or construct (or for that matter to write or compose) is often only a small part of the story of the heritage building or site and can have little to do with the significance it has for those who appreciate it.  I know very little about what Stonehenge meant to those who first lifted the stones but it is a big part of my understanding of where I come from. It is a reminder that people have not always seen the world as it is seen now, or had the same certainties or doubts.  I remember when, as a child, I first appreciated it as timeless - my West Country Grandmother related a story of her ancestors that featured Stonehenge and I naively expressed surprise that they also knew Stonehenge. She explained that the stones had been there so long “it was the same age all those years ago as it is now”. It may not have been a mathematically perfect explanation but it made the point that for Stonehenge the time we are living through and can remember is pretty inconsequential.

Heritage, both tangible and intangible additionally offers glimpses of potential alternative futures. In 2013 a wonderful adaptation of the Greek tragedy Trojan Women was staged in Jordan with Syrian women refugees (it is due to tour UK from 4th to 24th July this year). The cast and director Omar Abusaada reflected on how looking at the refugee experience through the lens of a two thousand years old drama provided a distance and a new perspective.  A Syrian friend watching with me reflected that “there is also great hope in this”. His point was that the play was about people committing unspeakable acts of violence and terror because of allegiances and politics that have disappeared. He concluded that “in a short time only academics will remember the politics of our current tragedy but the best of our art will remain”.

Protecting cultural heritage and cultural property values our shared past and offers a wider understanding of who we are. It also challenges us to find create and present the best of ourselves.