09.30 Commemoration at the Edge: From Preservation to Activism
With the increased focus on preserving the past has come scrutiny and criticism of commemorative practices and the “heritage crusade.” One of the main critiques in this regard has been that of the connection between preserving the past and the will to forget. The saliency of this point becomes clear in divided cities and sites of contestation, where the problematic aspect of intentional forgetting is rendered in clear and obvious ways. This paper will focus on this issue by reviewing cultural heritage practices that move away from static and curatorial approaches. They instead use stable material artifacts, such as buildings and urban infrastructure, to support dynamic and flexible engagements with the past. This paper will focus on contested sites and histories, which will allow the opportunity to examine the contrasting edges of heritage and preservation work. Such practices can be marshalled to congeal existing divisions, but there are also promising alternatives that allow for the expression of multiple meanings and identities through more flexible forms. This paper will review several possible modes of engagement—activist art practices, public history exhibitions, and collective narrative mapping—that navigate away from the critique of forgetting. These modes offer new ways of working with different groupings within what might be considered a “community,” seeking to engage others than those who typically would make decisions about what is, or is not, considered heritage.
The focus of the paper will be Nicosia, the divided capital of Cyprus, where recent projects demonstrate a marked difference from standard approaches to the past. These projects include the creation of the Home for Cooperation, a community centre in the city’s Buffer Zone, and new primary school curriculum that uses urban heritage to present a nonpartisan version of history. In 2012, the Home for Cooperation hosted an exhibition entitled “Nicosia: Topographies of Memory,” which consisted of a series of maps and graphic depictions of oral histories collected during my research about the old city centre. Once an important commercial area where all communities in Cyprus had traded and shopped together, today this is a site of absence, enclosed within the Buffer Zone, accessible only to UN Peacekeepers. This area is an important resource, containing a wealth of information about the nature of coexistence and conflict between diverse communities in Cyprus, although it had remained mute—absent from public discourse and historical studies. The exhibition attempted to elucidate this resource by reconstructing the commercial marketplace, using maps created from memories and narratives provided by shopkeepers who once worked in this area in the 1940s and 1950s. This contested site is well suited to such an investigation because questions of identity and heritage are closely tied to ongoing political and national processes.
Through an examination of these approaches, I will describe how heritage practitioners can work with various groups within communities in order to more effectively tell complex stories rather than polarized versions, and explore the intersections between heritage work, activism, and community organizing.