Incorporating change – heritage and Covid-19

13:44 by Helena Rydén

The world is in shock. Lives and economies are being shattered by an invisible enemy that has been brewing in bats for hundreds of thousands of years. From bats it passed on to another mammal – likely, the pangolin – and then, through wet markets or hunting or other, to Man.

Half of humankind is stuck at home.  Millions are still being infected; hospitals are overwhelmed. The dead are in the hundreds of thousands; hundreds of thousands more have died or are presently dying from lack of care of other health conditions. Morgues are beyond being full; proper funeral ceremonies cannot be held; spouses and friends are not allowed to visit their sick or give them the final farewell. Although pleas had been heard towards preparing for a major pandemic (See F. Bruni’s article on Laurie Garrett in NYT, 2 May 2020; Watch Bill Gates here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Af6b_wyiwI), the world has been taken as by surprise.

Today’s horror should not be forgotten. Besides passing on to future generations the tales of “how it really was”, we should also want to create the premises for avoiding or mitigating the occurrence of future horrors. Heritage is one of the means, but of what kind should it be?

Memorials will be erected, no doubt, especially in the most affected localities. Ideally any memorial should not only be a form of commemoration but also a societal tool to keep the attention alive.   Can we achieve this? And for how-long should memorials stay effective?  In order to keep the attention alive, memorials should stay effective on the order of 100 years, which is the periodicity of major world pandemics, with reminders every 25 years in-between.( see “Pandemics that changed history”, by History.com Editors at   https://www.history.com/topics/middle-ages/pandemics-timeline )

The latest major pandemics was the Spanish flu of around 1918, one hundred years after the first cholera pandemics of 1817. Recent reminders were HIV/Aids, Ebola and SARS.  This timing is remindful of that of tsunamis in Japan. On average, Japan is hit by a tsunami every three years; tsunamis causing fatalities take place every 23 years; and the deadliest tsunamis occur every 60 years.

The Japanese have been memorializing their tsunamis – at least the deadliest ones – in the form of tsunami warning and/or commemoration stones. One example is the picture, hereafter, of  a tsunami stone in Aneyoshi, Japan, which warns residents not to build homes below it. (Taken from M. Fackler’s article, NYT April 20, 2011)   317 stone markers were erected since the 1896 and 1933 tsunamis, of which 125 (40%) disappeared with the devastation of the 2011 tsunami. Just as happened in the past, after important tsunamis, new stone markers were erected commemorating the latest (2011) tsunami. 500 such new markers pass on messages from this recent event to future generations. The initiative of creating and installing these modern stones was led by the Japanese guild of stone masons and not by the authorities, which highlights, on the one side, the potential role of civil society organizations in developing and maintaining markers and, on the other side, raises the question of the role, and the real interest, of the authorities in this type of warning and commemoration. (These data as well as others on Japan mentioned in the present blog are available from the 2014 study “Markers – Reflections on Intergenerational Warnings in the Form of Japanese Tsunami Stones”, accessible at https://www.oecd-nea.org/rwm/docs/2014/rwm-r2014-4.pdf ).

 

Tsunami stones

 

By and large the warnings the past tsunamis were neglected and did not help save lives when the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in 2011. Neglecting the warnings was rather the rule in post-1945 Japan, when the population started building their homes closer to shore, in areas marked by the tsunami stones as being at risk. Coastal towns grew rapidly against the backdrop of economic prosperity, and it appeared more advantageous for fishermen to live close to their boats. More villages were built closer to the shore after sea walls were erected in the 1960s. Another account suggests that people simply were too “busy” with their lives and jobs to pay attention to the stone markers.  A professor in disaster planning from Tōhoku University argued that it takes “three generations for people to forget”.

The neglected warnings of the Japanese tsunami stones illustrate that passive markers or monuments and memorials are not effective, in- and by-themselves, for maintaining the necessary awareness of past events and the necessary levels of protective behavior against recurring but still unpredictable events of variable devastating force. Memorialization should be not of the passive type. We should think heritage differently. In her book, Uses of Heritage (Routledge, 2006), Laurajanes Smith challenges traditional Western definitions of heritage that focus on material and monumental forms of ‘old’, or aesthetically pleasing, tangible heritage, which are all too often used to promote an unchallenging, consensual view of both the past and the present.

The challenge is today to create heritage memorials of various forms that do not expect future generations to take care of them as a matter of fact or even, as in the case of passive markers, not at all. They should be part of a practice or way of living that allows creating new meaning as society evolves.  Now is the time to think of constructing heritage that would naturally allow for adaptation and reinterpretation while supporting the original goal of not forgetting and, even, of fostering continued and additional knowledge.

 

Claudio Pescatore, member of the Chair

 

Assistant to the UNESCO Chair on Heritage Futures

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