On 8 December 2013, social upheaval in the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv resulted in a symbolic gesture by a group of protesters who pulled down and ‘beheaded’ the statue of Lenin.
The statue was built in 1946, immediately following the end of World War II. While not as old, nor as architecturally significant, as the Pyramids this destruction of a historical monument by Ukrainian citizens angry at their government’s decision to not finalize a trade agreement with the EU is the latest in a long string of politically-motivated attacks on heritage.
The battle to preserve cultural heritage from looters and vandals is long fought. Aside from natural disasters, cultural heritage has also fallen prey to conflict and social unrest. For example, Mayan temples were torn down with new ones built in their stead often at the behest of the new leader.
Fast forwarding to the 21st century and impact of Arab Spring, in May 2012 UNESCO assistant director general Francesco Bandarin said while Arab Spring had been good for democracy, it had not been kind to cultural heritage. Civil war and unrest is not the only threat to our heritage, however. Street art, graffiti, or just plain gang tagging–whether to mark territory or as a sign of political revolution–is just as destructive and can be equally permanent.
During a recent visit to Budapest, I found evidence of vandalism, street, art, and political statements scattered on monuments, sacred ground, and throughout the historic landscape. This discovery sparked several questions: with all the political upheaval in the world, is it ever appropriate for segments of society to deface, desecrate, or otherwise destroy symbols that represent a nation, culture, or period of time, or as a reminder of sacrifices made or of events best not repeated. Who owns heritage? Is ownership found within national boundaries, cultural traditions, or political affiliations? Or does it belong to all, regardless of nationality or ethnic ties?
Democratically free societies may not have the power to alter the course of a civil war in a land far from their own nation’s borders, and those enduring the chaos are rightly focusing on their survival and that of their family. Where possible, however, individual citizens do have a responsibility to respect and protect the heritage under their stewardship.
Consider cultural heritage as a roadmap: one way to check if you are on course with your destination is to look back across the route you took. Without cultural heritage landmarks to remind us the path we have taken, we risk taking that wrong turn and ending up back in the Dark Ages.
Despite international laws protecting cultural heritage, there are no straightforward answers to my questions. I believe that protection of heritage should not relegated solely to academic institutions, museums, governments, or even a handful of philanthropists.
Protection of heritage should be the responsibility of humanity not only from the elements, but also from each other. While not meant for this context, the quote from Mr. Darcy in Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice are wise words that apply to this stewardship, because heritage “…once lost is lost forever.”