A new heritage research centre will investigate the changing face of heritage studies, now at the centre of many of today's big debates.

Heritage is now a word that is heard everywhere, a symptom perhaps of a crisis of identity in a globalised world.

Dacia Viejo Rose

Heritage is a word that conjures up images of national treasures and the preservation of ancient traditions. All that is changing. In a world in which the forces of globalisation and fragmentation appear to be pulling communities in opposite directions heritage has found itself at the centre of many of today’s big political and philosophical questions.

“Heritage is now a word that is heard everywhere, a symptom perhaps of a crisis of identity in a globalised world,” says Dr Dacia Viejo Rose, Lecturer in Heritage and the Politics of the Past. “There is a buzz around heritage today as people start to think about it in new ways, linking it with political, economic and environmental issues.”

Some of those debates include the contentious issue of memorials and memorialisation - witness the debate around the confederate statues in the US or decolonisation in the UK and South Africa - forced migration, trafficking of artefacts and sustainable development.

A new research centre launches at the University of Cambridge this autumn which aims to bring a unique, interdisciplinary perspective to the subject. Grounded in Archaeology, the Cambridge Heritage Research Centre seeks to link disciplines as diverse as Classics, Criminology, Education, Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and Land Economy, and to bring in policymakers and practitioners to discuss and influence some of the big issues of the day and how we understand the role of heritage plays in them.

Professor Marie-Louise Stig Sørensen, co-director of the new centre, says its establishment is a response to a changing world: "Heritage refers to the use of the past and due to the globalisation and mediasation of our lives these centrally important dimensions of how societies form themselves and manage change are changing very fast - we need to understand these processes of heritage making and their effects better."

Unlike other research bodies in Europe which are looking at sustainable heritage issues or taking a critical approach to heritage, the Cambridge centre’s focus will be broader and will not follow any particular theoretical framework. “We will explore the nature of heritage and the process of meaning making which always happens in the present,” says co-director Dr Viejo Rose. There are many researchers at the university who are already working on areas linked to what the research centre will investigate, but they may not use the word heritage to describe it or may use it in different ways. The centre will bring them together.

Subjects such as Land Economy cover sustainable development and the commercialisation of heritage through tourism. Dr Viejo Rose says: “Often heritage is brought in as if it was magic fairy dust, creating jobs and attracting tourists, but it can fuel tensions over ownership of the heritage and its commercialisation.” Criminology covers the looting and illicit trade of cultural objects, criminal networks and the trafficking both of culture, ideas and people.

The centre will also seek to look at the overlap between protection of heritage and nature conservation and at migration issues. “It is in part about roots, and but increasingly also about routes,” says Dr Viejo Rose, “about how heritage moves, what gets left behind, what is taken on journeys, what hybrid forms are created in different places.”

She has recently collaborated on a research study with Syrian tour guides in Berlin museums through the project “Multaka: Museums as Meeting Point”. The guides were asked for their views on the Arch of Palmyra. “They felt a sense of loss about the destruction, but what they grieved for most acutely was not the Arch, but rather the tradition of routine gatherings with neighbours, friends and family that was at the heart of Syrian community. Organisations like UNESCO often focus on the extraordinary aspects of heritage, whereas significant expressions of heritage are often to be found in the ordinary. Protection and reparation measures need to find a balance between the two,” she says.

The centre is holding three pre-launch events on rebuilding Syria at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas from 21st October in a bid to encourage as broad a range of people as possible to think about some of the issues around heritage.

The events, “Restoring truth to ruins?”, include a three-week exhibition at the Central Librarya workshop with art installations, virtual reality headsets with scans of heritage sites in Syria before and after the war and 3D printed artefacts and a panel discussion with artists and academics.

The theme of this year's Festival is truth and so these events will explore what truth means in terms of heritage and whose truth is being reflected in reparation projects - issues which are at the heart of discussions around reconstruction, reproduction and authenticity.

All three events look to address questions such as whether you can ever fully restore a heritage site that has been lost and what you gain and lose in the process of restoration as well as why certain artefacts acquire meaning and become important.

"The aim is to get people of all ages to think about what reconstruction might involve," says Sarah Nankivell who was a research assistant on the exhibition and is now working for the Forensic Architecture group at Goldsmith's. She adds: "We want people to ask, for example, what impact the process of reconstruction or reinterpretation might have on both the original and its replica and whether that changes the meaning or increases/decreases the value of either. Heritage has been a deliberate target of war over history, but now we have the technology to look at preservation in new ways which brings new questions. Heritage often says more about the people who are living now than those who lived in the past. It reflects the values of the present and what people want to bring from the past into the present."

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