INTERVIEW WITH... Neil Silberman

Neil Silberman is coordinator of projects and policy initiatives in the Centre for Heritage and Society of the University of Massachusetts- Amherst (USA), and one of his founders. He is also professor of the Department of Anthropology of that university and president of the ICOMOS International Scientific Committee on Interpretation and Presentation. Besides, he is editor and co-editor of several reviews such as Oxford Companion to Archaeology or Heritage and Society. A prolific author, he has written books about the history and politics of the archaeology in the Middle East, more than 50 journal articles and participated in the edition of several books with different topics related to archaeology. 

Hello Neil,

“Perception and Interpretation” is probably the hotchpotch of this conference, plenty of topics to cover. You are very critique with the traditional way of unidirectional interpretation and communication in heritage, as if the public was a passive audience. Which are, in your opinion, the reasons why?

Single stories make me nervous, especially when they come down from above. In heritage, there is a tradition of “expert” interpretation that can be used to instil what Laurajane Smith has called the “Authorized Heritage Discourse”—and orthodox interpretation of a site or a landscape that sanctifies a certain system of power and socio-economic status quo.

In her fascinating TEDtalk (certainly worth watching if you haven’t seen it), the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Nogozi Adichie has warned us of the danger of a single story —not only because it bears a subtle yet powerful ideological message, but also because it dehumanizes and renders invisible those groups and individual whose stories are not told. 

That kind of erasure is a powerful effect of the single story, whether it is told by a totalitarian government or by the mayor of a small town. We must remember that the past has no single objective significance without reference to the present, and in heritage as in politics, each individual has a unique perspective on what that significance is. None of us are empty vessels, who need to be filled with the ideological certainty of someone else’s tale.  Reflection about the past needs to take the form of a public discussion, not a monotonous monologue.

The construction of the public image of heritage has a lot to do with perceptions and interpretations that are way beyond our control nowadays (television, advertising, tourism, politics, etc.). Are we prepared to become a part of it? Should we anyway?

I have to disagree with the two premises of this question: 1.) that the public image of heritage is way beyond our control and 2.) that there is any possibility that we—as scholars, professionals, or just living breathing can possibly ever remain completely apart from public culture. Both these ideas, I am convinced, are evidence of just how embedded in contemporary culture we are, even when we think we are doing “pure” research and stay uninvolved in things like tourism, promotional videos, and nationalistic films. 

We definitely do have control over the public image of heritage is what we make it—or what we allow it to be. I get absolutely furious when I see archaeologists exploiting the image of Indiana Jones to recruit volunteers or raise funds. That image of the intrepid adventurer retrieving treasures from a realm of darkness and threatening barbarians who cannot grasp the true significance of the artifacts is a nasty imperialist trope. We can and must contest that image by utilizing all the many digital media at our disposal to encourage people to create new characters and new stories that depict the significance of the past for them. 

Engagement with the public and the encouragement of a public multilogue about the past is the only way to smash the authoritarian idea that history is a fixed narrative and that the economic inequalities and power relations of the present are its inevitable culmination. When we “withdraw” from civil discussion and public culture we merely strengthen the harmful stereotypes of the great white explorer and all-knowing expert. Cultural heritage, after all, is not a static body of knowledge but an evolving collective creative endeavour that we must all contribute to and pass on.

Dealing with popular images of the past is a tricky path. World Heritage should be the spearhead of management and so, it should also deal with these issues. Do you think sites are currently working on inclusive interpretation and outreach strategies?

Unfortunately, no. Because UNESCO World Heritage sites are nominated by states-parties, it is unlikely that they will express local or personal values rather than the prestige of the modern nation-state they belong to and hard to imagine that they would ever commemorate events and ideas that are openly hostile to the particular state.  That obviously leaves out a large proportion of human experience. But there is another, even more powerful challenge to be overcome. The physical form of the modern World Heritage site, with its carefully drawn boundaries and buffer zone (not to mention its entrance gate and ticket booth) is a construct that is consciously separated from the conflicts and uncertainties of the present. It is in many cases a place of escape from the present, a nostalgic entertainment venue. In many cases, especially but not exclusively in the developing world, the members of local communities see such sites as a modern places of employment and revenue generation, meant to serve other peoples’ dreams.  Inclusive interpretation must include the link between past and present; outreach strategies are only necessary when there is an “outside” that the insiders decide they must reach. We need a new multivocal paradigm for World —and every other type of— Heritage.

The Nara+20 document indicates that “Those with authority to establish or recognize the significance, value, authenticity, treatment and use of heritage resources have the responsibility to involve all stakeholders in these processes, not forgetting those communities with little or no voice”…According to some claims, the concept of authenticity helps to bestow even more authority to heritage professionals, what is your stand regarding this issue?

The concept of Authenticity is a kind of moral absolute like “beauty”, “truth”, and “righteousness” that we have learned to be very cautious of. At the time of the drafting of the World Heritage Convention in the early 1970s, European and North American conservation theory which privileged a certain, highly materialistic concept of heritage reigned supreme.  The 1994 Nara Document then came along and said that notions of authenticity can be different in different cultural contexts.  That was a major breakthrough, but still required the services of experts in each cultural area to attest to a site’s authenticity.  In the formulation of the recent Nara + 20 text, we in the drafting committee recognized that even within distinctive cultural areas, ideas about the significance of heritage are highly varied and constantly evolving.  It may be quixotic to expect that official cultural institutions with legal authority will willingly respect the perspectives of those stakeholders with no power—but it is part of a new approach that seeks to promote public discussion about the significance of the past, not stifle it. 

In connection with the last question, you consider in your blog Searching for Authenticity that “[authenticity] is not inherent in the place or object but rather evokes a feeling of continuity and familiarity with the values, something that evokes a deep emotional connection and response” (Silberman 2014). Can change in these places or objects still create that sense of continuity? Do these sites necessarily be preserved to produce such responses? Are these emotions commoditized and adapted to “popular” ideas of such places by tourism industry?

First of all, we need to stop thinking of heritage as the things that are necessarily continuous with the past. I will leave to the side the question of touristic commodification, since that is just a fetishization of the belief that heritage is both continuous and unchanging—and can be purchased in the form of “traditional” dance performances, handcrafts, and exotic meals.  In the contemporary world change is often so far-reaching that it destroys continuity and that is something that I am increasingly becoming conscious of. The traditional definitions of heritage authenticity exclude all that is dis-continuous, for example newly built theme parks and a landscape of gleaming skyscrapers where vernacular architecture once stood. Certainly people today desperately seek a deeper emotional connection with the places they live and work, but it is increasingly commonly achieved through the fraudulent authenticities of historic shopping districts, on the one hand, and the all-too common fundamentalist insistence on cultural purity by various nativist groups all over the world, on the other. It is clear that authenticity is not inherent but ascribed. As you suggest, the ascription can be superficial or kitsch. Yet my interest these days goes beyond whether “authenticity” is genuine or commodified.  It is: what deeper socio-economic circumstances is the modern craving for “a feeling of continuity and familiarity” symptomatic of?  

From your long trajectory working on this subject, which would you think is the most current topic to focus on nowadays?

I believe the most pressing topic to explore is the social, cultural, and political impact of the disintegration of collective memory.  Or rather should I say the continual, rapid fragmentation and recombination of particular collective memories in the kaleidoscopic reality of the digital age.  


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