Conversation on “Pandemic Practices in Heritage Management”

Posted on September 25, 2020

As 2020 progresses and the world adjusts to the unprecedented circumstances of a global pandemic, the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies (DHHS) and the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA), reflected on the unique challenges and resulted mitigations of heritage practitioners.   Although in a different format this year (webinar), SAHRA and DHHS hosted its third annual collaborative Heritage Month seminar to reflect on adapted practices in the Heritage and Tourism sectors as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and resultant lockdowns.

While recognizing the necessity of public health measures, participating speakers from the SAHRA, the DHHS, the University of Pretoria (UP) Museums, the National Heritage Council (NHC), the Voortrekker Monument (VTM), the National Department of Tourism (NDT), South African National Parks (SANParks) and the Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries (DEFF) shared their experiences during a ZOOM Webinar on 22 September 2020.

As well as the exacerbation of existing challenges, pandemic related obstacles to heritage conservation was insightfully encapsulated by Dr.  Sian Tiley-Nel (Head of the UP Museums) in stating that “a university museum is lonely without its community”. This also very clearly emphasised the integrated and important relationship between the heritage and tourism sectors reflected in the current Heritage and Tourism Month.

Further challenges illustrated by presenters include: the psychological and socio-cultural effects on staff as a result of working remotely, a disconnect from our heritage and the inability to adequately celebrate some aspects of our heritage, disruptions to certain intangible heritage practices, an increased risk to heritage due to remote conservation practices, the redirection of heritage funding into disaster relief and the loss of tourist income and resultant negative multipliers. 

Although the global pandemic affects our lives, livelihoods, the social and cultural fabric of our society as well as the management of our heritage resources, in the words of Adv. Lungisa Malgas (SAHRA CEO), who opened the webinar: “cultural heritage is also proven to be a powerful means for coping by providing communities with psychosocial support”.

Even in these very trying circumstances, speakers illustrated their continued commitment to heritage conservation and tourism engagements by implementing various creative mitigation practices. These include: classifying heritage conservation as an essential service, virtual tours, virtual meetings, online educational courses and other digital engagement practices, the involvement and assistance of communities in close proximity to heritage sites, the innovative use of satellite technology to monitor certain immediate risks such as forest fires in the proximity of heritage sites. Participants further indicated a continuation of some of these practices to enhance future operations along with the gradual return to pre-existing actions.

The event also instigated a discussion about the possibilities and implications of virtual versus physical experiences of heritage and related ramifications. Participants indicated an enhanced awareness of virtual experiences as a supplementary aspect of physical experiences as a result of our current circumstances. However, further concerns as regards to the security of heritage, authenticity and income generation were raised. This then remains a subject for further discussion and future debate. 

With the commitment, creativeness and tireless work of our heritage practitioners it is clear that a number of challenges to heritage management can be overcome to preserve our heritage and to maintain our connection with these precious resources. Enjoy your heritage day!

- Author Hannes Engelbrecht (DHHS) and Kim Ngobeni (SAHRA)

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