“The museum’s archaeological collection had...hundreds of Egyptian artefacts, including a 2,700-year-old painted sarcophagus. It contained audio recordings of indigenous languages, some of which are no longer spoken...and a Chilean mummy that was at least 3,500 years old.”
LAST YEAR, an enormous fire engulfed the 200-year-old National Museum of Brazil. In addition to the treasures mentioned above, it was feared that all evidence of the skull and remains of “Luzia,” one of the oldest humans found in this region, was lost. In 2016, the National Museum of Natural History in New Delhi, India, suffered tremendous damage by fire, including the loss of “a fossil from a 160-million-year-old sauropod dinosaur.”
This week, the world gasped and looked on in a mixture of awe and sadness as the 800-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris battled to survive a raging fire. The Cathedral, itself something of a museum, is still largely intact. Plans are already being made to repair the damage and replace its ancient spire.
As difficult as it is to lose any part of history, for me, the global reaction to Notre Dame provided another lesson in the divide between the value placed on western history, heritage and artefacts and cultural legacies from our part of the world. As an example, the losses suffered by the Brazilian community and even of those in New Delhi hardly generated the kind of media attention given to Notre Dame, where entire live broadcasts were dedicated to the tragedy, all day, for at least two days.
Port of Spain, also a repository of our collective histories, was almost twice completely destroyed by fire. In 1808, it is said that an apothecary (who prepared and sold medicines directly to patients) caused the fire “by dropping, when not quite sober, a brand of fire on some wood shavings in an outhouse...” In 1818 San Fernando fell victim to fire, while in 1895 our capital city was forced once again to face devastating flames.
What do we lose when our cultural heritage burns? Unesco has developed a wide definition of cultural heritage to include movable items such as paintings, sculptures and manuscripts, immovable ones such as monuments and archaeological sites, oral tradition, performing arts and even underwater heritage such as shipwrecks. The range is important, as it demonstrates not only the physical presence of cultural heritage, but its impact on almost every aspect of our lives.
Incredibly, in our city, the bones of indigenous peoples were discovered during the current renovations of the Red House. Those ancestors would have lived when the sea came up as far as Independence Square north, lapping against wooden structures of a little village called Conquerabia. It took some doing but eventually the present-day indigenous community was allowed to conduct their ancestral rituals and insist on proper treatment of their forbears.
The struggle of our indigenous community in this instance was unfortunate, but typical. Developing nations like ours seem to depend on the approval of western-oriented institutions to validate our heritage. One writer in a 2017 piece entitled “Whose World Heritage” drew reference to the acclaimed Unesco listing of world heritage sites, acknowledging its impact on preservation of prehistoric sites, increased tourist arrivals and income for the country. However, she noted that out of a listing of about 100 sites, France alone had 43 and Italy the most with 53; some African nations with valid treasures were not even mentioned.
We also do not pay enough attention to the wealth of our heritage. In TT, too many of our sites, buildings and other treasures remain poorly sign-posted, are allowed to fall into disrepair or simply ignored. Considering that Notre Dame attracted some 30,000 visitors per day and about 13 million per year, how much are we losing by neglecting our rich cultural legacies?
The discussion is not only about revenue. Placing emphasis on community heritage and intangible culture will go a long way towards boosting our sense of national pride, which receives an almost daily battering. This knowledge would enrich our education system, provide opportunities for job creation and, in the long run, build better citizens.
Fortunately parts of Luzia’s skull have been found, allowing continued research into her life for the benefit of humankind. The lesson here is that we must protect our cultural heritage in a decisive way. This is because, when national treasures burn, we lose an irreplaceable part of ourselves; that is, the part most closely linked to our soul.
Dara E Healy is a performance artist, communications specialist and founder of the NGO, the Indigenous Creative Arts Network – ICAN