A Dialogic Approach to Issues of Cultural Heritage

From the Book: „The Art of Encounter“ – Practices of Dialogue in Austrian International Relations.

Published by the Federal Ministry Republic of Austria – Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs.

We might summarize our feelings in the face of the images of the destruction of the statues of Bamiyan or the antique city of Palmyra as pain. This pain points to the basic insight of the World Heritage concept: there is something sublime to human creation that immediately affects us through time and space, irrespective of our cultural backgrounds or social and economic conditions. The protection of World Heritage is an important concern of the community of nations under the aegis of UNESCO. Where this protection proved to be impossible, international funds are made available to reconstruct lost cultural assets.

On the level of the World Heritage Committee, art historical, museum and encyclopedic concerns may be foremost, but we should also exploit the dialogic opportunity that artworks of this quality inspire. After all, these usually spontaneous feelings may provide sustainable impulses for intercultural communication and cooperation. A dialogic approach to issues of Cultural Heritage will also enable us to achieve a constructive assimilation of the loss of cultural assets in conflicts. The civil society initiative for the reconstruction of the Golden Lyre of Ur, which had been destroyed at the Bagdad Museum in 2003, is a telling example of such dynamics.

Faced with the destruction of cultural treasures of the Mosul Antiquities Museum in 2015, the Task Force „Dialogue of Culture“ at the BMEIA began to support an intercultural peace project that began with the individual initiative of instrument maker Norbert Maier: a joint civil society reconstruction of the Golden Lyre of Ur. Shocked at the continued violence in Iraq, N. Maier began to reconstruct one of the oldest musical instruments worldwide in cooperation with a sculptor from Southern Tyrol, a Buddhist goldsmith, an architect from Iraq, and the Munich Minerals Society, aiming to recreate it in its old splendour.

The Tyrolean harp maker, whose musical sensibilities had long alerted him to the lyre, experiences this intimate confrontation with an instrument of cross-generational and cross-cultural importance as empowering. He describes the motivation, which now has numerous people from diverse cultures working on a craftsmanship project thanks to his initiative, by pointing out that while he would be able to build an instrument with a worldly sound, this shared, free and dignified activity imparts a quality to the instrument that will surpass the craftsmanship alone. At the same time, participants in the project report that due to the dialogic and intercultural process in which the instrument is recreated, they regained lost knowledge and craftsmanship of their own culture.

A dialogue with one’s own cultural roots was initiated, as well as a dialogue of creation: One sees how others approach the task, which sources of experience they draw from.

And one experiences how new relationships emerge from mutual observation, mutual awareness, with the object, too.It transcends its passive-defensive function of distanced preservation and thus becomes a practical object of discourse in spite of its objective value – after all, gold, silver, mother of pearl, and lapis are all worked into the instrument. Norbert Maier also reports that there were no arguments in any phase of the project. Communication was part of the piece; to these master craftsmen, the English language only served as a tool.

In Austrian international cultural relations, we became aware of this international project because of its specific empathetic and nonverbal creative approach. Norbert Maier describes how he developed a feeling for the instrument he wanted to reconstruct, which someone else had built in Mesopotamia 5.000 years ago, and thus entered into dialogue with an era and space that continues to echo within us – in whatever form.

The respect for the craftsmanship and the cultural concerns of the space the Lyre of Ur belongs to guides his every step in the project. Today, the project leaders collaborate with the Iraqi authorities and a number of diplomatic representations in order to hasten the completion of the instrument. But also to bear witness to the deep understanding of a cultural heritage experienced as a shared one, which does not experience the temporal span the lyre refers to as a breach of identity but as an opportunity for a shared creative development. The instrument in construction was already presented at the Iraqi Embassy in Vienna on Monument Day in 2017, and inspired the audience at the Austrian International Cultural Policy Meeting in the same year.

The lyre project makes reference to the whole cosmos of the 2018 European Year of Cultural Heritage: the aspect of participation, the importance of the undertaking for social cohesion, cultural exchange, and its identity-building function, the significance of the project for refugees from Iraq as well as the already-proven power of the half-finished instrument to create empathy.

The evocative question that the imminent completion of the lyre raises is what effect the the instrument will achieve beyond its sensory value once it is back in Bagdad.

By Florian Warum

German Version here.

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