Our cultural heritage is a link to the past, but above all it is important for the future. When it is threatened, not only traditions and buildings are at risk of being lost, but also people’s sense of security and identity.
Statues, buildings and handicrafts. But also languages, structures and traditions. Our cultural heritage is all around us, in a variety of forms. And it represents more than just testimony to our history.
“Cultural heritage is about the future. We bring what is important to us from the past into the present. Something we can learn from, that influences our lives and thoughts, or that is simply beautiful,” says Ola Wetterberg, professor at the Department of Conservation and director of the Centre for Critical Heritage Studies.
We have met to talk about the importance of cultural heritage with Eva Löfgren, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Conservation. The site is Landala Chapel, a Falu-red church building from the late 19th century, now surrounded by high-rise buildings and a busy road. The chapel once belonged to the Gothenburg Cathedral parish, but today it is occupied by independent parishes. A reminder that cultural heritage is a dynamic thing, and that context and meaning may vary and change over time.
“Cultural heritage is not something that can be understood once and for all, or that has the same meaning for everyone. Just look at this chapel. For the parishes, it is a place of community and religious practice, and an important symbol for their ministry. For older people who grew up in Landala, the chapel may have a different meaning, as a memorial or a reminder of another time,” says Eva Löfgren.
Both see the management of cultural heritage as fundamental to the development of society.
“What we have around us has been created over a long period of time. Huge resources have been invested, and people have built relationships with it. If we can’t take what we’ve created into the modern world, we can never build a sustainable future,” says Ola Wetterberg.
Both of them have explored how cultural heritage can acquire new meanings and uses in their research into Sweden’s ecclesiastical cultural heritage. The Church of Sweden has many well-preserved buildings, but many of them stand empty. Some parishes have therefore admitted other activities to church spaces, such as preschools, association gatherings or art exhibitions.
“Balancing conservation and renewal can be a challenge, but so far we have seen more consensus than conflict. Most people believe that churches need to be filled with activities to remain alive and continue to be important,” says Eva Löfgren.
Cultural heritage is constantly being interpreted and reinterpreted. A memorial statue that was once erected to pay tribute to Charles XII, or Sweden’s union with Norway, takes on different meanings as the world changes. Another example is the statues that were demolished in the wake of the anti-racist Black Lives Matter movement.
“Some monuments become clear symbols, which today stand for something different than when they were first created,” says Ola Wetterberg, and points out that cultural heritage can be used for both positive and negative purposes.
“They can create identity and belonging, but also conflict. If cultural heritage is deliberately destroyed, it is perceived as an attack on democracy and the society.”
Feras Hammami, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Conservation, has seen that the consequences of destroyed cultural heritage can be far-reaching in his research into the role of cultural heritage in war and peace-building. Throughout history, many actors have tried to manipulate and destroy the cultural heritage of nations or ethnic groups. Their aim has usually been to strengthen their legitimacy, while erasing the social and cultural context of their opponents.
“Cultural heritage gives us strength, representation, self-confidence and a sense of security in a group. It is central to our identity, our sense of belonging and our collective memory. Which is why it also becomes a powerful weapon in wars and violent conflicts,” he says.
There are many examples of this. During the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, many Bosniaks, or Slavonic Muslims, were murdered in what was later defined as ethnic cleansing. At the same time, many buildings and public institutions linked to this ethnic group were destroyed.
Feras Hammami, himself from Palestine, has also researched the destruction of material representations in Palestinian society. He talks about his native city of Nablus, where in the early 2000s the Israeli military specifically targeted the destruction of the older buildings in the city centre.
“The old town testifies to the historical existence of people in the area which made it an important target. It’s about power and settler colonialism: weakening people by erasing or taking over their culture and disconnecting them from their history,” he says.
The war in Ukraine is the latest example of the role cultural heritage can play in violent conflicts. When Ukrainian cultural heritage is destroyed to be replaced by Russian cultural heritage, it is an attempt to make the population feel cut off from Ukraine and closer to Russia. The reverse also happened on the Ukrainian side after the fall of the Soviet Union, Hammami points out, when thousands of Soviet monuments were taken down.
“Here it’s clear that cultural heritage is an important issue of identity. The destruction of Ukrainian cultural heritage shows that the war in Ukraine is not just about security and economic issues,” he says.
Destroying tangible, and also intangible cultural heritage by, for example, banning traditions, languages or even an emotive word, is a form of psychological, moral and political warfare. And it is effective.
“When national and cultural infrastructure is attacked, people become afraid, and risk losing their sense of existing as a group or nation. Social resources are part of the cultural heritage that is threatened in war: the structures of society, contact with neighbours and the things that give people context,” he says.
Protecting cultural heritage is important for the possibility of peace-building and reconciliation after a violent conflict.
“Evidence of the pre-war period is needed to learn from the past, and to reflect on what has happened. If everything is torn down, there are no references any more. This is why cultural heritage also plays a major role in reconstruction processes,” he says.
What is cultural heritage?
Cultural heritage is any tangible or intangible expression of human impact, such as remains, objects, environments, constructs, activities, structures or traditions. Sometimes the term cultural heritage can be used to highlight specific aspects of social development, such as biological heritage, industrial heritage or the cultural heritage of modernism. Source: Swedish National Heritage Board
How our cultural heritage is protected
Cultural heritage and cultural environments are protected by a number of different frameworks, acts and regulations, including the Heritage Conservation Act. There are also a number of international conventions that concern the protection of cultural heritage, such as The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (UNESCO). UN Security Resolution 2347/2017 was the first Resolution to deal exclusively with cultural heritage issues, and focuses on the destruction of and illegal trade in cultural objects in war and conflict zones. Source: Swedish National Heritage Board and unesco.se
Three voices on…
...how cultural heritage is threatened and can be protected, and the balance between cultural asset values and other values in urban development
Luitgard Löw, Director of Västergötland Museum and member of the Cultural Heritage without Borders foundation
The main threat to cultural heritage is conflict. In many countries, there have been reports of looting, destruction of monuments, and executions of cultural workers. Cultural heritage is targeted in armed conflicts, attacked by religious movements or destroyed in political revolutions. A multicultural history does not fit the narrative and there is a desire to erase certain narratives and symbols. Trade in stolen cultural objects is a worldwide activity.
The other major threat is climate change. The protection of cultural heritage is not a priority in discussions about climate change, despite the fact that it will affect cultural assets all over the world, from protected monuments and ancient remains to cultural landscapes. Many cultural assets are at risk of destruction due to climate change adaptation measures and changes in economic activity and land use linked to a changing climate.
Erika Hedhammar, adviser at the Swedish National Heritage Board
In violent conflicts, we see theft and vandalism, as well as direct damage to cultural heritage in bombings, for example. In countries suffering conflicts, there is also a long-term risk of neglect of care and maintenance. The intergovernmental organisation ICCROM works to prevent and manage damage in connection with wars and natural disasters. This is what we are seeing in Ukraine right now, people trying to wrap objects or use sandbags to protect them against shock waves from bombings.
In Sweden, we have an ordinance that governs the authorities’ obligation to remove cultural property in the event of war. The 1954 Hague Convention provides for the possibility of marking out cultural property, which has been started on Gotland. The aim is both to avoid the destruction of cultural heritage and to facilitate legal action afterwards.
Anna Reuter Metelius, project manager at the Urban Planning Office in Gothenburg
The current rapid pace of urbanisation is a major threat to cultural heritage and cultural assets. It entails defacement, transformation or erasure of environments and buildings. At the same time, cities need to develop and densify, and the designed living environment needs to be functional and accessible and enable quality of life for all. This requires trade-offs, knowledge of the content, meaning and expression of cultural values, and a multidisciplinary approach in which a variety of professions work together.
In my work on urban development in Hjällbo, one of the city’s disadvantaged areas, I have clearly seen the importance of cultural assets for sustainable development and social dimensions. When we see and manage the values in an area, such as favourite places, popular architecture and parks, people’s well-being and social and cultural identity are strengthened. This requires sensitivity to the narratives and perspectives of different groups.
About the researchers
Professor at the Department of Conservation and director of the Centre for Critical Heritage Studies.
Senior Lecturer at the Department of Conservation
Senior Lecturer at the Department of Conservation