Considered at face value, heritage sites, both natural and human-made, may bring delight for their beauty, their sense of place, and for the mystery that lingers around un-peopled landscapes and ancient stones. But there is so much more than that to historic places if we care to look and listen, and give thought to the interpretation of what stones and the land tell us about the past; and to consider their value for the different peoples and communities whose inheritance they become over time. And still are for us, today.
This was how Professor Peter Stone, BSI President and UNESCO Chair in Cultural Property Protection (CPP) and Peace at Newcastle University UK, explained interpretation recently during his presentation at the Republic of Korea’s recent International Centre for the Interpretation and Presentation of World Heritage sites (WHIPIC)’s Foundation Celebration ceremony in Seoul.
It is a view shared by the WHIPIC through its research, capacity building, information, and networking activities, and of which inclusive heritage interpretation is a crucial part.
Professor Stone commended the WHIPIC for their inclusive heritage interpretation approach, and for the importance they give to the presentation of that interpretation. Recalling Freeman Tilden’s principle that ‘interpretation should be provocation’ Professor Stone suggested that for visitors to heritage sites, “Interpretation should send a family or group of friends away talking, debating, buzzing, arguing”.
Cultural property, comprising archaeological sites, places of great natural beauty, monuments, libraries, archives and artefacts, to name but a few, is an integral part of communities’ and nations’ identity and belonging, and its protection is vital for helping to create or maintain healthy, peaceful, stable, sustainable communities – the building blocks of peaceful societies. The sites inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage list are as fundamental to this process as are all other heritage places, not least because in order to qualify for the list, sites must be of ‘outstanding universal value‘ beyond the local, national or regional dimension. With their global reach they are ideally suited to become ‘ambassadors for peace’ Peter Stone reminded his audience during his presentation at the WHIPIC ceremony.
But it is at the local level that ambassadors for peace can have perhaps even greater impact, with their interpretation and story telling that resonate with the lives of communities and individuals directly on the ground. This year, to celebrate African World Heritage Day on the 5th May, members of the Mali Committee of the Blue Shield took a group of school children and other young people in Gao on a visit to the 15th Century Tomb of Askia, one of four World Heritage sites in Mali.
There, Mamadou Samaké, President of Blue Shield Mali, and administrator of the Tomb complex, regaled the group with stories of the artisans who built the tomb when Gao became the capital of the Songhai Empire. For most of the young people present, despite living nearby, “this was the first time they had ever visited the Tomb of Askia,” Mamadou Samaké remarked, ensuring that for those children, the site will be a living part of their everyday world from now on through his story telling.