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Community Involvement in Cultural Heritage Conservation

The conservation of a cultural heritage property is a process of managing change in ways that will sustain the significance of a place in its setting while recognizing the opportunities to reinforce its values for present and future generations. The concept of conservation of cultural heritage has evolved over the last centuries and today the philosophy of conserving elements of cultural heritage emphasize the significance people associate to a specific heritage property. The definition of significance embraces the entire cultural and natural heritage values people associate with a place or which stimulates them to respond to it. In this respect, it becomes apparent that these values are the ones that have to be conserved in order to sustain the significance of a place.

Individuals and communities maintain a “ spirit of a place`´ by constantly adhering to the values they attach to it. A monument is a mere material entity when the “spirit of a place“ is not maintained. The perception of people towards a heritage property evolves over time and people consolidate the idea of `´the spirit of a place“ as they constantly maintain their attachment to it. The way people attach values to a heritage property tend to grow in vigor and complexity over time with respect to evolving principles and technological facets in time. A good conservation practice in cultural heritage should therefore play a crucial role in distinguishing, communicating and sustaining the established values of places and helping people to improve and express the values they attach to heritage places.

Cultural heritage properties are maintained by people and the works of successive generations often contribute to their significance. What is valued from the elements of cultural properties for the future in a conservation process is indeed important to sustaining cultural values in a historic environment, be it an archaeological site, historic building or religious shrine. The decisions made about change in such historic environments are central to a conservation pursuit. A thorough understanding of who values a place and why they act so is therefore fundamental. This further implies a clear statement of its significance in as much as ensuring the ability to understand the impact of change on the particular significance people give to a specific cultural heritage property. The above statements highlight the importance of involving society in conservation process. The basis for community involvement in heritage conservation is indicated by the above fundamental premises and the following instances best illustrate how a sound conservation practice necessitates public involvement.

Local communities in Eritrea, as elsewhere in Africa, have been active in conserving their natural and cultural heritage by embracing traditional knowledge systems. In this respect, local values need to become the core of cultural heritage practice. The recognition and promotion of these values serves to ensure sustainable heritage management and conservation.

The link between spirit and matter, nature and culture as well as the intangible dimension of immovable heritage, for instance is well represented in the religious heritage of Eritrea. Monasteries and monastic traditions, to such an extent, have long kept a number of cultural traditions peculiar to this part of the world. Eritrea is rich in intangible forms of heritage whose spiritual values are intertwined with cultural spaces. The conservation of liturgical objects, parchments, mummified remains in many old-monasteries in Eritrea attest to the maintenance of the integrity of monastic treasures. The entire fabric of these traditions has been shaped through the form and substance of the cultural bounties kept in their libraries. The concern of conserving these traditions in the future apparently resides on how to maintain this integrity amid modernity and ´´professional´´ practice. It should be outlined that the conservation of these religious bounties is fully possible by integrating the value systems of the monastic community. Local knowledge systems that have kept these traditions intact for over millennia are the basis for integrating an agreeable solution to conservation concerns. Where spiritual values enhance the integrity of these religious bounties, the recommendations from museum professionals, conservators and archivists need to reveal and explore the meaning beyond the physical state of an object. Therefore, the viewpoints of monastic community as well as the ethical considerations amicable to the spiritual significance of the object become fundamental. This ensures the sustaining of traditions peculiar to the Eritrean society.

On similar accounts, religious shrines become a reference point to understand why involvement of a local community in conservation process to be significant. Symbolic and spiritual values are attached to these religious shrines and much of these heritages emphasize credence of doctrine over ordinary life. Dealing with these heritage places therefore is not only conserving the materiality in them but also is the maintenance of the social components in them. No one else can understand these dimensions than the local communities who keep connections to such heritage through pilgrimage and worship. The active participation of the local communities in the conservation process is thus important in as much as emphasizing the ´´spirit of the place´´ is paramount.

Categories such as vernacular architecture also bear a unique testimony to the intangible heritage of Eritrea. Where material choices contribute to the conservation of elements of vernacular architecture, the involvement of local masons and traditional craftsmen in the process becomes an ideal solution. This area of heritage provides craftsmen whose traditional knowledge system constitutes the intangible. These craftsmen maintain attachment to the form and fabric of a particular element of the vernacular architecture and need to be actively involved in various conservation projects dealing with traditional building forms. In this respect, conservation must accommodate the realization of form, use and function, tradition and techniques as well as the feeling emanating from the monument or landscape.

The maintenance of the ´´spirit of a place´´ through understanding the values people attach to it also concerns the cultural landscapes distributed across Eritrea. The distribution of archaeological sites in remote areas of Eritrea requires a good understanding of the significance local people give to these heritage properties. This approach will facilitate the integration of the social components into a sound conservation practice that allows active public participation.

In summary, community involvement in the conservation of cultural heritage objects is vital as the process helps sustain the significance of these properties. Meaning is bestowed on heritage objects through the symbolic components they constitute and people often find attachment to the heritage property via these elements. Finding a good balance is therefore attained in conservation of the cultural heritage as change on the objects is maintained and managed by understanding the values people attach to the heritage bounties.

A column prepared in collaboration with the Eritrea’s culture and sports commission

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