Reflecting on Cultural Heritage and Looking for New Answers

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Mar 19, 2019
by Lucy Browett
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Reflecting on Cultural Heritage and Looking for New Answers

Former director-general of the National Museums of Kenya George Abungu discusses the changes in his cultural heritage work over the last decade George Abungu at Salzburg Global Seminar

In the fall of 2009, participants convened at Schloss Leopoldskron, Salzburg, for the program Connecting to the World's Collections: Making the Case for the Conservation and Preservation of our Cultural Heritage.

At this program, the Salzburg Declaration on the Conservation and Preservation of Cultural Heritage was drafted, calling on governments, non-governmental organizations and the cultural heritage sector at large to commit to safeguarding cultural heritage for the future.

Now 10 years on, a participant at that program, George Abungu, is co-chair of the program What Future for Cultural Heritage? Perceptions, Problematics, and Potential.

Abungu is CEO of Okello Abungu Heritage Consultants and was formerly director-general of the National Museums of Kenya.

He said, “We did a lot with World Heritage sites, but I also work in the area of intangible heritage. So I've been able to assist a number of countries to prepare the nomination files for the nomination for ICH [Intangible Cultural Heritage], the 2003 convention, as well as the 1972 convention.”

Speaking of his experience moderating panels as co-chair, he said, “The panelists have got very deep backgrounds in heritage matters and the fact that they can be questioned, they can interrogate and question the subject and stick to what they're supposed to do within a very limited time, but still be able to produce what is required, for me is quite commendable.”

The program is being held from March 16 to March 21 at Schloss Leopoldskron, Salzburg, as part of the multi-year series Culture, Arts and Society.

By the end of the program, participants will be asked to consider jointly drafting a Salzburg Statement on the problematics and potential of cultural heritage in the 21st Century, building and expanding on the 2009 Declaration.

Reflecting on cultural heritage 10 years since he last attended the program at Salzburg Global, Abungu said, “Yes I think there have been improvements.

“We've had an international meeting in Nairobi dealing with climate change which was attended by President Macron from France in Nairobi. It is something that we were talking about 10 years ago, and now it's materializing, and people are addressing that.”

He went on to say, “I think now today we are developing even more risk management planning in advance.” However, there appear to be challenges within cultural heritage that were less prevalent back then.

Abungu said, “Heritage that in those days could not be touched, things that we thought were very special that nobody would ever take, no human being could touch, have actually become targets for terrorism and making political statements.

“So when you talk about Aleppo and all these places, heritage is now intentionally being destroyed as a political statement. Now 10 years ago I don't think that was something.

“Things do seem to be changing very fast. Maybe we should try to also focus more on how do we deal with situations where because of the exposure, because of the attention, because of the resources that we are putting in, that we are now making heritage to become a target.”

Progress has been made in terms of the promotion of African heritage through the establishment of the Museum of Black Civilisations in Dakar, Senegal, in December 2018, for which Abungu curated an exhibit.

The museum is a realization of Senegal’s first president, Léopold Sédar Senghor’s, vision for a space to showcase “the achievements of the past of the continent to really showcase how Africans contributed to world civilization.” Abungu said, “When I was called to do that, I felt very privileged and, as an archaeologist and a heritage person, I felt privileged.

“For me, it actually showcases the beginning of humanity. So one of the greatest things that Africa has contributed to the world is the emergence of humanity. That is why this particular museum for me is important. It's not only confined to the cradle element, but it goes up to the present - what we are today.

“We are having a dialogue of civilizations from when the first human emerged from Africa up to the present. So for me, it is important because it actually sets the ground for the discussion about humanity and human life and how we have developed up to the present.”

What does Abungu expect from the five-day program? He said, “I am hoping that we can question more, and in questioning more we can be able to start looking for answers that will answer those questions that we are asking.

“That is really to be able to question more, to interrogate more, to try to question even the obvious because, for me now, I realize that it's not obvious… to question the concepts like cultural heritage and what it means, and what it means to who, and who defines what cultural heritage is.”


What Future for Cultural Heritage? Perceptions, Problematics, and Potential is the latest program in Salzburg Global’s Culture, Arts and Society series. The program is being held in partnership with the Edward T. Cone Foundation and the Austrian Federal Ministry of Education, Science and Research. For more information on the program, please click here.