Heritage diplomacy can be framed as a type of science diplomacy, embedded in European knowledge regimes. Heritage itself, the focus of this type of diplomatic activities, is a malleable resource, interpreted in ways that suit the needs of the present [Harvey 2001] has been used to construct coherent and opaque national stories [see e.g. Harrison 2013; Hall 1999]. Heritage diplomacy can support, challenge or even change such national narratives [D. Clarke and Duber 2018b]. The aim here is to expand on this existing literature by exploring a decolonial approach to heritage diplomacy, one that introduces unofficial actors as key players (e.g. artists, museums, etc.) acting at city level rather than the official channels that represent state interests.
Prior to discussing a decolonial approach to heritage diplomacy a short review of some important conceptual ideas needs to be presented. Although the interest in heritage diplomacy itself as a subject of study is relatively new, heritage-related diplomatic exchanges have taken place for centuries [Winter 2016a, 2015; A. Clarke 2018], either through the travels of influential businessmen and collectors or state emissaries. The instrumental use of heritage connects such relationships, although today heritage-based diplomatic activities have expanded in scope, and they are often joined with related international agendas such as the SDGs, human rights, security or economic development [Winter 2014a].
Activities within international organisations such as UNESCO and the creation of international governance structures for heritage are often referenced. As Meskell (2018) has aptly shown, efforts such as the international campaign to save the Abu Simbel temples in Egypt in the 1960s were mired in the politics of the time. With a decolonisation process underway, Britain and France, prime promoters of the campaign, feared a loss of influence and more importantly access to resources in the area. Hereafter, international efforts and ideas around shared and universal heritage, based on a ‘ethic of collective responsibility’ [Meskell 2018: 58] were developed. While the campaign itself and UNESCO and associated-institutions’ work are not the focus of this essay, it is important to highlight at this point some key ideas stemming from UNESCO’s utopian view based on ‘one world history’ [Meskell 2018: 13]. This process led to the proliferation of what Smith (2006) describes as ‘authorised heritage discourses’ at international level. Moreover, it naturalised an understanding that states are the main actors of such types of international collaboration, and as it has come clearly in view (in particular in relation to the World Heritage convention) that there is a clear Western and Northern bias.
The old world order is however increasingly becoming more unsettled, as Winter [2016a, 2017, 2015] has repeatedly emphasized. In this climate of unsettled and pluralised world orders, notions of heritage as benign have increasingly become untenable.
Heritage diplomacy is described as ‘a set of processes whereby cultural and natural pasts shared between and across nations become subject to exchanges, collaborations and forms of cooperative governance’ [Winter 2015: 1007]. Winter (2015) further differentiated between ‘heritage in diplomacy’, whereby heritage is a tool with wider diplomatic relations and ‘heritage as diplomacy’ where heritage takes centre stage as a new form of diplomacy in itself.
New forms of governance are created based on notions of shared heritage, as powerful linchpins for international collaboration [Winter 2016b]. However, diplomatic efforts that build messages based on mutuality need to be carefully considered also. As Meskel [Meskel 2018: 226] reflects ‘culture and heritage are supposed to constitute a benign forum for soft power negotiations, but in fact they are intimately sutured to identity, sovereignty, territory, and history-making’. Recent efforts of the Dutch authorities to address the colonial past, for instance, exemplify this idea [Scott 2014]. Projects created based on a rhetoric of commonality run the risk of only supporting the powerful colonial state national interest rather than accounting for the partners’ interests also. They can thus enable neo-colonial relationships, whereby heritage diplomatic efforts act as Yapp contends as ‘a channel (less generously put, as an excuse) through which to pursue present-day interests’ [Yapp 2016: 70]. Controversies related to heritage dissonance or diversity are thus glossed over couched under a discourse of shared heritage [Scott 2014].
Activities can be motivated by objectives similar to those of cultural diplomacy such as promoting positive messages about the state and building relationships that would facilitate other diplomatic activities. They can also include efforts to make amends, whereby a state needs to correct particular perceptions or address wrongdoings of the past. Heritage diplomacy has also been used to reframe a state’s representation and perception at an international level, as the case of Poland’s efforts to reinterpret its involvement in the Second World War show [D. Clarke and Duber 2018a] or Slovenia’s use of ‘dark heritage’ [Stone 2013] to change its image at an European level [D. Clarke and Duber 2018a]. Although motivations of a positive nature are of interest for us also, it is the latter group of motivations that is particularly relevant in a postcolonial context, which abounds in contested heritages. As most authors reflecting on heritage diplomacy in colonial and postcolonial contexts have observed [see for instance Giblin 2012; Scott 2014; Yapp 2016] negotiating the use and interpretations of difficult pasts is no easy task.
Whereas these ideas might lend an impression that a sound conceptual and operational backing exists, researchers and practitioners still oscillate in their use of terminology, conflating heritage diplomacy with concepts such as ‘cultural diplomacy’ [Winter 2014b; Gienow-Hecht and Donfried 2010] which are sometimes interchangeably both in both research and practice. Some researchers, in line with European Union’s recent discourse, advocate for ‘international cultural relations’ instead [Isar 2015]. Heritage diplomacy’s remit overlaps with such concepts but is also different. The difference stems from the complexity of the task, heritage diplomacy goes beyond the instrumental and transactional use of reified cultural items or attempts to secure national promotion [Winter 2015; A. Clarke 2018]. Thus, heritage diplomacy ‘acts as an arena of governance, one that crosses borders, and becomes politicised as it straddles sectors’ [Winter 2015: 1007].
Zondi [Zondi 2016: 20] notes that one of the problems of diplomacy more generally is found in its Eurocentric roots that lead to ‘epistemic injustice evident in the exclusion of experiences, voices and archives of people outside the geopolitical West’. Decoloniality proposes delinking from Western modes of thought and epistemologies [Walter D Mignolo 2018]. Approaching heritage diplomacy from a decolonial perspective expands thus the discussion by necessity beyond national agency, delinking from established state-based frameworks discussed above to consider new ways of exchange and interaction but also different actors. A decolonial heritage diplomacy brings balance to formerly unequal power relations. An opening to an expanding array of embodied and localised forms of knowledge is necessary [Walsh 2018]. This is aptly demonstrated in de Jong’s (2016) study where indigenous archival systems in Senegal and the commemoration of a Sufi saint foster anti-colonial narratives and ways of archiving which are not compatible with Western concepts of archives.
A decolonial heritage diplomacy must necessarily complexify interpretations, actively following a ‘sociology of emergences’ [de Sousa Santos 2016], to bring marginalised and otherwise occluded heritages to the fore. For instance, creative decolonial engagements with archives can generate the re-emergence of elided histories [Feldman 2018].
"The aim here is to expand on this existing literature by exploring a decolonial approach to heritage diplomacy, one that introduces unofficial actors as key players (e.g. artists, museums, etc.) acting at city level rather than the official channels that represent state interests."
As several authors have argued [e.g. Gienow-Hecht and Donfried 2010; A. Clarke 2018], to be effective, heritage diplomatic activities need to be conducted at arms-length, to distance themselves from suspicions of state self-promotion and to enable more trusting relationships. This is not out of pace with developments in diplomacy more generally, as we now operate in evolving and increasingly complex diplomacy environments, new non-state actors are forming ever more complex forms of interactions [Hocking et al. 2012]. In the process, such actors must clearly challenge long-standing European narratives of a purportedly shared European heritage or identity [Clopot and Strani 2019], or what Bhambra (2019) calls ‘the politics of selective memory’ in relation to the vital role of colonialism in Europe and nation states’ formation and development.
The actors, both longstanding but necessarily those marginalised, that could potentially be engaged in decolonial practices: museums, cultural groups, NGOs, artists are thus part of what Tal describes as ‘a new set of un-institutionalised and unofficial networks’ [Tal 2017: 2] that complement or sometimes counteract official diplomatic networks. Tal’s research emphasizes that such groups might engage in diplomatic activities without clearly setting out to do so, by virtue of their particular interest. Their actions, relying on ‘heritage from below’ [Robertson 2008] initiatives, are often supported by access to openly accessible resources such as online archives, take place unencumbered by state-dictated objectives or directives and have the potential to subvert official heritage narratives. Luke and Kersel (2013) for instance have shown that archaeologists engaged in long-term projects on the ground in different international settings are unintentionally acting as agents for heritage diplomacy, more knowledgeable of the situation on the ground than institutions and formal diplomats and more open to dialogue with collaborators. A leap must be taken forward, however, by such specialists to delink from naturalised knowledge production systems and internalised national narratives. A decolonial perspective of heritage diplomacy makes room for what Mbembe (2015) describes as a pluriversity formed by ‘a horizontal strategy of openness to dialogue among different epistemic traditions’. Specialists need to ‘think with’ [Walter D Mignolo and Walsh 2018: 255] the locals, a task that Giblin [Giblin 2012] remarks is potentially difficult in post-conflict settings such as in Rwanda.
"Approaching heritage diplomacy from a decolonial perspective expands thus the discussion by necessity beyond national agency, delinking from established state-based frameworks discussed above to consider new ways of exchange and interaction but also different actors. A decolonial heritage diplomacy brings balance to formerly unequal power relations. An opening to an expanding array of embodied and localised forms of knowledge is necessary"
Other important actors are museums, key actors in shaping national and international narratives. A decolonial role for the museums goes beyond activities such as object exchanges, loans, and restitutions. Many museums base their collections on objects whose ‘provenance is murky or worse, clearly the product of imperial plunder’ [Scott 2014: 181]. Discussions of restitution are often invoked but collection of items accumulated during colonial times, if interpreted in a decolonial manner, have the potential to challenge official narratives also. Increasing discussions in academic and public fora of museums’ imperial legacies have heightened sensitives to interpretations of coloniality. To mitigate tense historical relationships, an increasing number of museums are developing international projects and strategies to mend relationships. However, as Cai (2013) has shown in her analysis of French – Singaporean museum relationships, sometimes even activities that are perceived as apolitical at an institutional level, can then be appropriated and serve wider national agendas, including those related to economic development. However, museums’ decolonial work can go beyond these activities as Mignolo (2013) has shown in his analysis of the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, where the museum itself becomes an agent ‘to enact derogated archives, memories and identities’.
A decolonial approach to heritage diplomacy can build on such ideas to provide more equitable interpretations of the colonial pasts. Successful heritage diplomacy efforts are based on ‘sustained, long-term commitment and engagement through contact – people-to-people programs’ [Kersel and Luke 2015: 79]. As such, even in complex colonial contexts, diplomatic activities can make a difference and over the long-term change relationships for the better between Europeans and the former colonised states as well as indeed among different European states where internal colonisation had taken place.
As I have outlined above, an intricate and multi-directional network of activities and agents can facilitate a decolonial heritage diplomacy. Their actions need to be rooted in the acceptance of different ‘knowledges resurging and insurging from below (that is, from the ground up) within and through embodied struggle and practice, struggles and practices’ [Walsh 2018: 18]. Dialogue is key for a decolonial heritage diplomacy, just as it is key in the literature of decolonial thinkers. It is thus through dialogue at conceptual, policy and practice level, through the explorations of museums, artists, cultural institutions ECHOES engages with that hopefully will chart a new way forward and expand a new idea of heritage diplomacy.
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