Pierre Losson considers how artifact restitution from museums can repair structural violence to which nations and communities have been subjected—but can also engage in new forms of the same dynamics in the present. Returns reflect changing perceptions of museums and a reckoning with their roles in producing imperialist knowledge. Still, such restitutions are not simple processes, as Losson shows: One key question is, to whom are objects returned? And how do returns interrelate with nationalist dynamics and local politics?
Tangible things like artifacts, monuments, and sites are all forms of cultural heritage, but heritage is also a process through which people construct and use the past in the present. This means that far from being inert and passive, heritage is integrated into social and political dynamics—including those that produce violence. This essay series considers questions such as: Why and how is heritage a target of violence? What impacts does this have on society, and what happens afterward? How is heritage subject to—and how does it perpetuate—structural violence, such as that of colonialism and racism?
In this essay series, scholars from around the world consider these intersections of heritage and violence. The essays examine issues such as the relationship between heritage destruction and genocide, whether and how to reconstruct heritage after violence, violence as a selling point in the art market, and layers of violent history and ongoing erasure at historic sites. Studying heritage, as these essays demonstrate, can help us to look at violence and its many aftermaths in new lights.
This series has been curated by Annalisa Bolin, research associate at Understanding Violent Conflict program and postdoctoral fellow in the UNESCO Chair in Heritage Futures at Linnaeus University, Sweden.
In this essay for “Where Heritage Meets Violence,” Annalisa Bolin examines the physical and structural violence that has enabled the collection of human remains for colonial museums. Via cases from German East Africa and elsewhere, the essay traces how colonial conceptions of race intersected with anthropological research, targeting "appropriate" bodies with physically violent collecting practices. Today, attempts to repatriate human remains, even if they are halting, partial, and complicated, make an effort to counter these violent legacies.
The reconstruction of cultural heritage after conflict often focuses on rebuilding structures and repairing material. Dacia Viejo Rose, however, contends that a more appropriate postconflict response is reparations. She suggests that heritage is not collections of static objects but rather an evolving process of meaning-making within society. Considering the full range of heritage’s social entanglements, then, she argues that new modalities of repair are required after heritage destruction: from processes of justice to restitutions to the revitalization of cultural life.
Ammar Azzouz’s essay for “Where Heritage Meets Violence” traces ways of resisting memoricide: the killing of memory. Azzouz examines how memoricide has affected Syrians throughout the last decade of war and displacement, including through their exclusion from telling their own stories. But he also shows how Syrians have sought to restore their past, celebrate culture, and counter destruction by using memory as hope.
Legacies of violence can manifest not only through overt conflict, but also through erasure and marginalization. Koji Lau-Ozawa’s essay on the United States’ WWII-era incarceration camps considers how their placement in isolated locations sought to remove citizens of Japanese descent from American life. This very marginality also exposes the camps, as sites of heritage today, to new kinds of erasure and conflict in the form of infrastructure development that seeks to make these remote landscapes profitable.
For “Where Heritage Meets Violence,” Donna Yates turns to the art market. The sale of heritage from the Pacific is entangled with colonial narratives that sensationalize cultures of the region—especially through narratives of cannibalism and violence. As Yates shows, stories of conflict, from “native savagery” to heroizing tales of “white men in boats” (whose destruction of Indigenous cultures directly leads to the rarity of the marketed items), actually increase the value of artifacts in a market that is still deeply colonial.
Benjamin Isakhan examines how Iraqis and Syrians respond to the Islamic State’s destruction of heritage. His interviews show how local residents perceive the trauma of such destruction and its impact on their sense of belonging, their attitudes toward return, and their opinions about reconstruction. This essay demonstrates the role of heritage in building community and how such ties can be broken by violence—but also its potential to support peacebuilding after conflict.
In this essay, Thomas G. Weiss considers whether the responsibility to protect, or R2P, framework can extend to attacks on cultural heritage. Weiss argues that because violence against heritage is so closely entwined with violence against people, R2P can be brought to bear on these instances of conflict, offering a way to protect both heritage and people. He suggests that existing legal frameworks are adequate to achieve this goal, but in order to do so, the international community faces both political challenges and a normative shift.
In this introduction to the "Where Heritage Meets Violence" series, Annalisa Bolin encapsulates contemporary discussions and recent research on the connection between cultural heritage and violence—physical, symbolic, and structural. She argues that by acknowledging and engaging with these dynamics “we can negotiate what our societies become.”