UP hosts international Culture in Crisis Conference

Posted on October 26, 2018

“History is being washed away” and “Graffiti is art” were just some of the provocative statements that prompted discussion at the recent Culture in Crisis Conference held at the University of Pretoria (UP) in collaboration with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Yale’s Global Cultural Heritage Initiatives, and Berlin’s Natural History Museum.

The forum focused on wildlife and heritage conservation, and the long-term impact that environmental and cultural heritage loss has on communities. It also explored the complementary roles that nature conservation and heritage protection can have on rehabiliting these societies following conflict or natural disaster, as well as questions around the preservation of heritage symbols and sites.

The environment and heritage

Delegate Dr Peter Coutros of Yale University’s Department of Anthropology’s address was a highlight. He spoke of how global warming is having adverse effects on heritage sites in parts of West Africa. An anthropologist and archaeologist who studies the interaction between communities and their environments across the vast region, Dr Coutros focused his research on Senegal, Mali and Mauritania, and has found that while West African countries experience much-needed rain over winter, with global warming, “history is literally being washed away”. While water is of great importance, he added, it is also a threat – during floods in Mali, for example, culturally significant ceramics and stone tools are often lost.

Delegation from Yale University at the conference: Dr Peter Coutros, Kefilwe Rammutloa, Dr Peter Umunay and Prof Stefan Simon.

Heritage preservation: symbols of pride or contempt?

Some speakers also addressed the accessibility of heritage. Dr Bernadine Benson, Senior Lecturer in Forensic and Criminal Investigation Science at the Department of Police Practice at Unisa, questioned the access that people in rural areas have to museums. She also asserted that “graffiti is art”, and that there needs to be a move away from the parochial towards an appreciation of what culture and heritage are.

The historical significance that monuments bear for different groups of people also formed part of the discussion, the Rhodes Must Fall movement being an obvious starting point. In 2015, the movement advocated for the removal of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes from the University of Cape Town as part of a process to “decolonise” the university. Protesters argued that it glorified a man who had exploited black people and stolen their land. One argument was that the furore around, and eventual removal of, the figure did more to draw attention to it than ever before.

Other speakers questioned the ethics of waving the United States Confederate flag, which to some is an emblem of oppression because it was flown by those who fought to preserve the enslavement of millions of black people. However, supporters of the flag would argue that it honours their ancestors who fought in the Civil War and so symbolises “heritage”.

There was consensus among delegates that the rights of one person might be problematic for others. “No right is absolute if it infringes on others,” said Dr Benson, who added that South Africans need to start conversations that will break down walls.

University of Pretoria Dean of Humanities Prof Vasu Reddy; Vice-Principal: Academic, Prof Norman Duncan and Christopher Till, Director: Javett-UP and Apartheid Museum were at the conference.


One session on engagement and action looked at the role of community museums in society, and was chaired by Professor Stefan Simon, Director of Global Cultural Heritage Initiatives at Yale University. Another – chaired by Vernon Rapley, Director of Cultural Heritage Protection and Security at the Victoria and Albert Museum – focused on historic collecting and conservation practices, while a discussion on the preservation of 20th- and 21st-century heritage and maintaining audience engagement was hosted by Dr Ina Heumann of Berlin’s Museum of Natural History.

UP was represented by Gerhard de Kamper and Isabelle McGinn of the Department of Arts, who both delivered presentations, as did Dean of Humanities Professor Vasu Reddy. Christopher Till, Director of UP’s Javett Art Centre and of the Apartheid Museum, also chaired a session.

Conference organisers said they hoped that fostering academic and professional partnerships would create a network of individuals and organisations in Africa and beyond, unified in their resolve to protect heritage around the world. “Through discussion and the sharing of expertise across a variety of disciplines, we hope to combat the global threat to heritage, using a multi-lateral approach involving people from community to governmental level,” they said.

- Author Primarashni Gower

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