Collective Memories

Interesting and worthwhile!  Better than biblical archaeological chimeras. But should the Kibbutz be commemorated via UNESCO as tangible heritage in need of physical conservation or intangible heritage in urgent need of social safeguarding?

Farming the kibbutz land. Photo Credit: Central Zionist Archives, Jerusalem

from Haaretz December 23, 2010

Israel to push UNESCO to declare the kibbutz a world heritage site

The project is being advanced as the year-long centennial celebrations of the Kibbutz Movement come to a close.

By Noam Dvir

The Israel National Commission for UNESCO is set to promote the kibbutz and its heritage as a World Heritage Site, Haaretz has learned.

The initiative, which will focus on the unique social, cultural and architectural aspects of the kibbutz, is being promoted by a group of Israeli scholars led by architects Yuval Yaski, Shmuel Groag and Galia Bar-Or, of the architecture department of the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design. Yaski and Bar-Or, who is also the director of the Kibbutz Ein Harod Art Museum, recently curated the exhibition “Kibbutz – Architecture Without Precedent” at the International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale.

The project is being advanced as the year-long centennial celebrations of the Kibbutz Movement come to a close.

UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, inscribes sites as World Heritage if it deems them uniquely important to human culture. The inscription has special significance in terms of image for the country in which the site is located, as well as economic importance; the chosen site may also be granted special funding by the World Heritage Fund.

The inscription process involves two stages. Each of the member countries in the United Nations can prepare a list of tentative sites for inscription, and during the annual meeting of UNESCO they may be put to a vote. The current initiative seeks to include the beginnings of the kibbutz or a group of kibbutzim on Israel’s tentative list and to then promote inscription through international institutions.

Only one kibbutz, Israel’s first – Degania – is now included in the group. However, Yaski said they will not be inscribing only one kibbutz, such as Degania or Ein Harod, “because each of them represents a different phase in the development of the kibbutz. We think we may need to promote a group of kibbutzim, each of which expresses the physical and historical importance, or a group of kibbutzim in a particular geographic region, like the Jezreel Valley or the Menashe plateau,” Yaski said.

Either way, Yaski said they will not be seeking recognition of all 274 kibbutzim.

He added that inscription is important particularly in light of the significant changes made to the kibbutzim in recent years, including the abandonment of public buildings.

“I believe the move will increase the importance of the kibbutz, both among decision makers as well as among members of the movement,” Yaski said…

For the full article, click here.

Paired Photos that Speak Far More Than 2000 Words

If you ever wanted to see what sudden cultural change looks like up close and personal– in high resolution and in the world we all live in– you must look at this piece from the New York Times Lens Section…

Ayonga in February 2008 and July 2010. Photo: A Yin

December 20, 2010

Mongolian Diptychs Tell of Profound Change


A Yin is documenting his home province of Inner Mongolia. He is a self-taught anthropologist-photographer who has made it his mission to record the last of the nomads there. The phenomenal changes he captures tell the broader story of China’s transformation. A Yin was cited by the National Geographic All Roads Film Project in 2007. Sim Chi Yin, a photographer and writer based in Beijing, interviewed A Yin for Lens. Their conversation has been translated from Mandarin.

Q.  Why have you persisted in shooting Inner Mongolia’s nomads?
A.  Because their way of life is disappearing. Chinese society is developing very quickly and traditions are changing, diminishing, disappearing. I just want to document, help preserve and propagate the great traditions of my ancestors. I feel a pain in my heart as I see it all change. These traditions belong to an old world. I am documenting the way of life of the descendants of Genghis Khan.

I come from a family of farmers. We are Mongolian but have became very Han Chinese over time and through interaction with them. My own family had given up on the nomadic life for over 200 years now. We had lost our traditions.

For full interview and slideshow, click here.

Restoring Ebenezer Scrooge’s Good Name

Historical deconstruction, iconoclasm, or just plain contrarianism?

Another ideologically inspired heritage icon bites the dust? Jim Carrey as Scrooge in the 2009 Disney film.

Scroggie Scrooge was not so tight after all, find historians

The Scotsman 19 December 2010

By Brian Ferguson

BAH humbug no more. The Scottish merchant who inspired one of the most famous Christmas characters of all time is finally to be recognised for his place in literary history.

Ebenezer Scroggie was a hugely successful Edinburgh merchant renowned as much for his generosity and jovial nature as his wild parties.

But a misreading of his gravestone by novelist Charles Dickens turned Scroggie into Scrooge, and a mean-spirited Christmas legend was born.

Now historians, tour guides and heritage chiefs want to raise awareness of how one of the most festive stories was triggered – and the intriguing character whose grave now lies unmarked just yards off the city’s Royal Mile.

Dickens was thought to have created the character of Ebenezer Scrooge after stumbling across the wealthy trader’s tombstone in the Canongate kirkyard while killing time on a lecture visit to the capital in 1842.

He was shocked by the apparently hard-hearted inscription, “Meanman”, later writing in a notebook: “To be remembered through eternity only for being mean seemed the greatest testament to a life wasted.”

What Dickens, who published A Christmas Carol the following year, had failed to realise was that the tombstone had actually read “Mealman” in recognition of Scroggie’s successful career as a corn trader.

Many historians and literary experts are unaware of the city’s claim to be the origin of the story, with the tombstone which inspired Dickens removed in the 1930s to make way for a redevelopment of the graveyard, best known as being the final resting place of economist Adam Smith.

Now a memorial may be erected, along with interpretation panels charting Scroggie’s fascinating life story. Scroggie, who died in 1836, may also feature in material promoting Edinburgh as a Unesco World City of Literature.

Edinburgh World Heritage, the Cockburn Association, the Edinburgh City of Literature Trust and tour guides all want to see more done to raise awareness of Scroggie’s claim to fame. Marion Williams, director of the Cockburn Association, said: “These kind of stories are part of the cultural heritage of the city and of course it should have greater recognition, particularly at the graveyard.

“Characters like this should not be hidden away or forgotten about.”

Fake Cuisines @ UNESCO

Well I see it didn’t take long for the heritage geniuses on the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Intangible Cultural Heritage Convention to go down the same sorry national(ist)-marketing-and-promotion trail that the World Heritage List has already blazed.  There is so much that is new and innovative in the ICH convention– so much that stresses evolving ideas and practices over fossilized “specimens”– that it is a shame that so many policy makers and decision makers have such a hard time distinguishing patriotism from heritage, and heritage from economic promotion that is artificially themed.

At the recent 5th meeting of the Committee in Nairobi, fifty-one intangible traditions from around the world were recognized,protected, or honored, but two in particular stand out as laughable attempts at EU puffery:

The gastronomic meal of the French besides being insanely homogenized, detached from class and region, and frozen in a seemingly timeless, homogenized national identity, this ICH “element” makes a mockery of any idea of cultural authenticity .  Read the description for yourself but note: “The gastronomic meal should respect a fixed structure, commencing with an apéritif (drinks before the meal) and ending with liqueurs, containing in between at least four successive courses, namely a starter, fish and/or meat with vegetables, cheese and dessert. Individuals called gastronomes who possess deep knowledge of the tradition and preserve its memory watch over the living practice of the rites, thus contributing to their oral and/or written transmission, in particular to younger generations.” Um.  What about poor people, fully French, who did not or could not afford all the courses.  Was the Gastronomic Meal in Lille even remotely similar to the Gastronomic Meal in Marseille?  Or what about the couscous of St. Denis?  Is that meal (and its eaters) somehow not French?  This is Intangible Heritage that teaches homogenization and disregards local contexts– more or less exactly the opposite of what the Convention seems to intend.

The Mediterranean Diet description reads like a restaurant advert or the promotion of a faddish weight-loss plan: “The Mediterranean diet is characterized by a nutritional model that has remained constant over time and space, consisting mainly of olive oil, cereals, fresh or dried fruit and vegetables, a moderate amount of fish, dairy and meat, and many condiments and spices, all accompanied by wine or infusions, always respecting beliefs of each community. However, the Mediterranean diet (from the Greek diaita, or way of life) encompasses more than just food. It promotes social interaction, since communal meals are the cornerstone of social customs and festive events. It has given rise to a considerable body of knowledge, songs, maxims, tales and legends. The system is rooted in respect for the territory and biodiversity, and ensures the conservation and development of traditional activities and crafts linked to fishing and farming” I mean, come on!  Wine or infusions?  There are many more unlump-togetherable customs here, making its sponsors Spain, Greece, Italy, and Morocco, ignore the distinctive variations that they do not share.  Is this highly generalized cluster of food habits really a single tradition? And are the countless Greek and Italian restaurants of the Western Hemisphere, Northern Europe, Asia and Australia– with their Mediterranean wall murals and faux-classical statuary part of this intangible heritage too?

Mama's Pizza, St. Paul, Minnesota USA. Authentic Intangible Heritage or not?

For all it has done to promote culture and heritage worldwide, UNESCO is in danger of packaging as “heritage” almost anything its most powerful states-parties call for– and emptying the concept of “Authenticity” of almost any meaning at all…

A Facelift for Auschwitz

Ironically this is precisely the same challenge facing almost every site of memory– sad or happy, triumphant or tragic.  The effort to make time and deterioration stand still, without considering the ever-changing context for the preserved site makes the actual place more and more “antique” and less and less resonant with the present.

There are no easy answers for the role of heritage in contemporary society, except perhaps to wonder about the ways that traditional physical forms of “world heritage attractions” may tend to museum-ize, routinize, and perhaps even trivialize what need to be powerful memories– even after all the original rememberers are gone.

Tourists at Auschwitz I, August 2004. Photo: Lars De Jaegher, Ename Center

Latest news from    December 17, 2010

Germany Announced It will Give $80 Million in the Next Year to Fix Auschwitz Memorial

By Monika Scislowska, Associated Press

WARSAW, POLAND (AP).- Germany pledged Wednesday to pay euro60 million ($80 million) over the next year into a fund for Auschwitz-Birkenau to preserve the barracks, gas chambers and other evidence of Nazi crimes at the former death camp, some of which are deteriorating to the point of collapse.

Germany is the largest of several countries contributing to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Fund, which was set up in 2009 to gather money to maintain the 472-acre expanse made up of the original camp, Auschwitz, the nearby satellite camp of Birkenau. The camp was operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II.

More than 1 million people, mostly Jews, died in the camp’s gas chambers or through forced labor, disease or starvation.

“Germany acknowledges its historic responsibility to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive and to pass it on to future generations,” German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in a statement. “Auschwitz-Birkenau is synonymous with the crimes of the Nazis. Today’s memorial recalls these crimes.”

Museum director Piotr Cywinski first issued a worldwide appeal for help in 2008, saying that euro120 million was needed to repair the memorial site, which stands as one of the most powerful symbols of the Holocaust.

The barracks, gas chambers and other buildings are in need of urgent repair, having been worn down by the ravages of time and the pressure of more than 1 million visitors a year…

For full story, click here.

Earlier essay on the issues from the New York Sun    January 10, 2007

Restoration or Preservation?


By John Moretti

Is Auschwitz a tourist attraction to be updated with the times, or a solemn burial ground to be left untouched? An international debate has focused on this question ever since the new director of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum, Piotr Cywinski, announced plans to renovate and remodel parts of the infamous death camp.

Controversy surrounding Mr. Cywinski’s proposal was sparked by an article in Ha’aretz, following his visit in October to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem. The article described a “beautification” of Auschwitz.

“I think they got the impression I was going to turn it into a kind of Disneyland,” Mr. Cywinski said. “I will not alter anything, only the exhibition.”

Worries swirled among some former prisoners that the historical integrity of the place would be compromised, and historians posed the question: If you replace even one piece of rusted barbed wire, can the site still be called authentic?

“There are some people who say you should put salt in the earth, so nothing will grow,” the incoming chairman of the International Task Force on Holocaust Education and also the director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York, David Marwell, said. “But if you’re going to let people in, you have to make the site accessible.”

Mr. Cywinski, 34, inherited a delicate task when he was installed as director over the summer to prepare for the museum’s first-ever facelift as it approaches its 60th anniversary this coming July. His plans to redesign exhibits that focus on prisoner life, housed in the original Auschwitz camp, and to continue structural upgrades to the crematoria in Birkenau — the massive and sprawling camp three kilometers away, where most of Auschwitz’s prisoners were put to death — were approved in December by the International Auschwitz Council, a group composed of politicians, historians, and Holocaust survivors. Since then, the director has been circling the globe, building support and elaborating on the project.

Like any other museum curator and guardian of a historical artifact, Mr. Cywinski needs to please a number of diverse interests, and regularly fends off charges of revisionism. This balancing act is especially challenging because Auschwitz is one of the most soul-stirring shrines in the world.

“It is a place upon which the entire world is focused,” Mr. Cywinski said during the holiday break, immediately after returning to Poland from Washington, D.C., where he spelled out details of his plans at the United States Holocaust Memorial. “The job requires taking into account a lot of perspectives, but I must prepare for future generations.”

For full story, click here.

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If the medium = message, does the form of the heritage site = the memory?