My love/hate relationship with UNESCO

I’d long decided that while in someways I hated subjecting archaeology to the realm of needless hierarchy, UNESCO or The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization was a necessary evil. The list of world heritage sites now comprises of more than 1,000 sites across the world, and the list keeps growing with economically more developed countries obtaining relatively more listings.

When I worked at a UNESCO world heritage site, I believed like many that UNESCO was a privilege bestowed on some of the most important and well-preserved monuments in our history.  But, I soon became jaded when I saw the endless tour buses deposit overeager tourists on our doorstep early every morning.  There was a plague of invasive tourism that UNESCO bought along with the prestige. Naivety led me to assume that these initiatives unite people in a common effort to protect shared cultural heritage. While that may work in developed countries, the influx of tourists in countries that lacks the infrastructure to support them contributes to the deterioration of many historical (and natural) monuments.

This is what makes UNESCO status divisive;¬†like most things there is a negative side to every positive. While the UNESCO may damage archaeological monuments by promoting tourism, they have spared countless of heritage resources from the bulldozer. We should care about every world heritage asset not only only our own.¬† There is more to culture and our heritage than DNA, we construct our¬†identities from stories, objects and buildings that conjure up our ancestors’ past: their glories, tragedies, or simply¬†their¬†day-to-day lives. So when Penny Mordaunt suggested pulling out from UNESCO due to budgetary concerns, it felt like a betrayal not only to our national past, but the world’s collective identity as people.

Currently UNESCO has no clear guidelines or effective methods to control the commercialisation of world heritage sites, and its talk on sustainability is more a verbal exercise than enforceable. So unsurprisingly when the Trump administration announced its withdrawal from UNESCO, many had cited the reasoning was that it provided no real protection for archaeological and historic treasures.

Of course the reason behind US’s withdrawal from UNESCO was to convey a political message.¬† In¬†October 2011, UNESCO admitted the Palestinian territories to the organization as an independent member-state called Palestine. This triggered a US law which¬†cut off American funding¬†for any organisation that recognised an independent Palestine.

After studying archaeology for years, I’ve learnt that you can never separate politics and heritage, because ultimately heritage relates to people’s identity. Despite what World Jewish Congress (WJC) President Ronald S. Lauder¬† wants you to believe, ‚ÄúIn recent years, despite the best efforts of outgoing Director General Irina Bokova, UNESCO has strayed from its mission to preserve history and has allowed itself to become politicised, demonstrating a continuing and disturbing bias against Israel.‚ÄĚ

Take a look at other countries such as Egypt, where during a night of riots young activists formed a human chain around the National Museum that borders the square, helping security guards protect the treasures within. In places, where competing political narratives force the public to try and keep hold of their heritage. But it’s crucial to remember that largest part of UNESCO’s budget is spent on education initiatives in developing countries. Leaving UNESCO is not necessarily going to impact the heritage of the UK, but it would definitely convey a message of how disconnected we are with the  shared heritage of people around the globe. Political or not.

 

 

 

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Passion is useless without strength

The depth and strength of a human character are defined by its moral reserves.
People reveal themselves completely only when they are thrown out of the customary conditions of their life, for only then do they have to fall back on their reserves.
– Leon Trotsky

There was so many times in my journey where¬†I reflected on my actions and my thoughts and wondered am I a good person? The journey that I’m talking about isn’t a literal one. It’s¬†a journey that a lot of people go through; its one of changing careers. I wasn’t happy being a¬†journalist, that’s why¬†against my better judgment I decided to pursue the idea of¬†becoming an archaeologist, a process which took almost 4 years. When I begun the journey I was filled with a lot of anticipation, aspiration and excitement. I was going to the university of my dreams, I was pursuing the career of my childhood. I’ve heard that saying so many times, “it’s the journey there that counts”,¬† but is it really? Did I go through so much anxiety, stress, regret, depression, self-loathing¬†for the end goal,¬†to achieve my¬†happy ending?

It was a journey that had been delayed for so long, while I travelled, dabbled in pursuing a writing career, settling down with my boyfriend. But despite this acknowledgement of time wasted, I¬†still wish¬†I had¬†gone about things¬†slightly differently. There were times where I almost had forgotten why I took the journey to begin with, as I fell in out of love with the subject (and with people). I dragged myself along at the worst of times I’m not even¬†sure if it was the PTB or god sometimes, but I often felt like I was being tested; there were plenty of tears, plenty of agonising decisions, insidious thoughts. The problem was someone had stolen my strength, I had lost it and without it I had become a bitter and resentful person.

‘Tis true; life happens, things change. While I was in the most distressing time¬†of my life, I’d lost that focus, the drive, hell I’d even lost the will to wake up in the morning. I wanted to avoid everyone, and all responsibility, and even worse I didn’t want to do archaeology anymore.¬† The quest had almost stopped, the drive within me had died.¬† Despite the bitterness I harboured towards many people, there was one person who made sure that drive didn’t die completely that anger and¬†resentment didn’t fully consume me.¬†He would accompany me to study at the British Museum, he would make sure that I had completed my assignments, he even helped me submit my dissertation.¬†I relied on his support because I knew deep down¬†strength isn’t something you are naturally affiliated with. Strength is something you earn, something you gain. Something you have to go through hardship to achieve. ¬†I needed someone who could allow that strength and perseverance¬†to¬†emerge once again.

When I look back even as recently as this year I wonder if the journey had changed me,¬†am I worse person than before? During the hardest of times, my passion and strength were replaced with anger and resentment.¬† It takes another sort of enemy –¬†yourself –¬†to make you change. While I blamed another person and¬† drowned in¬†self pity, almost allowing myself to be yielded to it.¬† My support structure, the one person¬†who had made me realise my own potential, who¬†encouraged me, once¬†told me, “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”¬† He was right, there is great strength in allowing yourself peace.

 

Archaeology as my identity

Despite years of studying, months in a muddy field, and endless days counting fragments of bones in a lab, I was still not a professional archaeologist. And as I mingled with new acquaintances or bumped into old school friends I constantly referred to myself as an archaeologist. I felt like I was telling some insidious lie, and have perpetuated it throughout the last two years. I had tried and tried like most graduates to get a job within the heritage industry that paid more than just above minimum wage. If I complained, ¬†I kept hearing those words that archaeologists hate: “you do it because you love it” as if love alone could pay the rising interest on my credit card bills. But then I realised; that archaeology was more than just a way of paying the bills it was how I came to view the world; it had become my religion.

Archaeology goes beyond interpreting the material culture of the past, there is something about studying archaeology that changes your way of thinking in current society. You start to assess everything around you as though you were seeing it from the future, the questions of what, how and most importantly why become everyday occurrences. The need to constantly assess human behaviour becomes part of everyday life. It becomes just another cognitive function.

When I worked as an office worker, I constantly referred to myself as an archaeologist. This may be as some have pointed out as a form of self-validation, but to me it was true. I was never going to be the world’s best admin assistant, I was going to discover something no one had ever seen before, because archaeology was and always has been my end goal. Like those “writers” starting their first novel at a cafe, exchanging ideas with fellow writers. It’s the same premise, when you see another archaeologist drool over a piece of flint, or another jump for joy over a worked deer antler ‚Äď the only bone that has come out of a tonne of soil ‚Äď you start to understand what archaeology means, not just to our understanding of the past but to the people who do it.

In a modern world so fast and self-involved, I think we all feel a little disconnected from the past. My way of thinking has been shaped by my experience on the field, by my life counting bones, by the conversation post-lecture. Archaeology becomes more than just what we interpret about history but how it’s directly relevant to us.

Archaeology saved my life

My life wasn’t by any means terrible, but I had a number of my own demons to deal with while growing up. I had a constant urge to restyle myself, I had deep seeded insecurities from being badly bullied during primary school and secondary school. It wasn’t until the ripe old age of 27 silently twiddling my thumbs under the shrewd eyes of my therapist when I realised that much of my issues had stemmed from extreme bullying. These issues materialised in a constant fear of being judged, of being secluded, and ultimately of being abandoned.

I had tendencies of ‘running away’ when the tough got going, that’s how I dealt with my problems especially the bullying. This running away took me to Japan, where I lived for nearly five years. I had interests, but nothing that I felt utterly passionate about. Life became a cycle of dreary days and spiteful arguments. Not one thing in my life gave me any sort of satisfaction, especially my job. The cycle of running away had some negative impacts on my relationships and work. I had no clue what kind of person I was, because I was constantly running away from myself. My depression had become an aspect of my personality that many thought was just a quirk of mine.

After taking a job as a journalist, I decided to take the leap and study Archaeology at UCL, may be it was the thirst for some kind of adventure that I wanted. I knew my depression at this point had led me to believe that I was again running away from adulthood and responsibility. Whatever the reason I found a foundation in my life that I desperately needed. My first brush with university was nothing but a disaster of bad choices, misty regrets and unhealthy friendships. This time around, I focused on my work and allowed myself to be immersed in my own ideas without fear of rebuttal.

When my depression started to take a grip of me again, I found a sanctuary in the British Museum, learning a new aspect of an ancient culture to silent the dark thoughts in my head. Archaeology had given me a new lease of life, not an escape but a reason to stay. When my depression likes to rear its ugly head, (which it often sometimes does) at least I now have the tools to deal with it (no pun intended).