Don’t forget how you felt as you watched Notre Dame burn. Recognize it is something that is happening every day.
Update: July 16, 2022
I wrote the original article below in 2019, but today the race to preserve Ukraine’s cultural heritage has made this discussion urgent again. The Smithsonian and Richard Kurin, the Smithsonian Distinguished Scholar and Ambassador-at-Large, are leading efforts to help Ukraine. His comments below are poignant. Thanks for reading.
“Kurin observed that no matter our national identity or geographic proximity to the war in Ukraine, as members of the human race, the gravity of the situation affects each and every one of us. When an entire country is at risk from war, the life or death precipice that grips its people also jeopardizes their cultural heritage. In the face of bloodshed, it is easy to lose sight of the importance of cultural preservation, but we must remember that the impacts of cultural loss will reverberate across generations whenever heritage is targeted for destruction. Culture represents liberty and freedom of expression. It is what gives people a sense of their history and identity, imbuing them with strength, hope, and resilience. The destruction of a people’s culture is often an object of war—and is especially so in the case of Russia’s attack on Ukraine.”
Notre Dame Burns
Notre Dame was burning, and the world stopped watching and praying that the smoke would stop and that we would not lose a site that meant something personal to many worldwide. More than a building, Notre Dame was our collective history. From medieval times to personal visits that were shared on Instagram, we were unified in horror and support for rebuilding “our” Notre Dame. But the very next day, there was an outcry. How could so much money pour in for a building with so many people in dire need around the world?
Had we lost our perspective on what was important? I understand this reaction and while I cannot judge the “proper” proportion of monies promised to rebuild Notre Dame vis a vis the needs of the world’s hungry and displaced, I do feel many of the arguments missed the significance of preserving a historic building or site. It is not just the spires towering over Paris.
Bamiyan Buddhas and the World Trade Center
There is a reason so many terrorist groups seek to destroy landmarks when they occupy a city first. The Bamiyan Buddhas were downed by the Taliban in Afghanistan. One of Isis’ first moves when entering Palmyra in Syria was to destroy the iconic façade of the ancient Roman Theater and the World Trade Center on 9/11 was seen as more than two tall buildings by Al Qaeda. They were a symbol of the United States. These were not military targets but cultural ones aimed at destroying more than stones and steel.
Petra National Trust
HRH Princess Dana Firas, Earl F.Glock and the author.
During my recent trip to Jordan, my husband and I were honored to be the guests of HRH Princess Dana Firas at the 30th Anniversary celebration of the Petra National Trust (PNT). Her work as head of PNT has expanded the mission from protecting the physical site to a much broader definition. The UN has noticed. Named as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in 2017, she now shares her passion for heritage protection with a worldwide audience.
In her remarks at the celebration, HH described the vision of PNT, and it could describe so many sites in the world today:
PNT’s mission is “to protect and preserve our cultural heritage. Cultural heritage is the DNA of civilization and an inheritance shared by all. It is a reflection of our values, our hopes, and our strengths and weaknesses. By understanding our past, we build confidence in the future. It is a means of rediscovering our dignity, identity, and shared humanity.” A Young Rangers program run by the PNT highlights this mission. It teaches the youth of Jordan not just their history but pride in their forefathers and pride in their culture that will ground them for future successes.
Worldwide, many sites are facing threats. Most sensationally from conflict, as described above, but there are daily, less spectacular threats from environmental to the now familiar impact of over-tourism.
As members of this wonderful industry of travel, we bear the responsibility of leadership. Leadership in promoting preservation in all its’ broadest definitions. Take a look at the work of the Petra National Trust on their website here. You can support PNT or use it a model for your own efforts. Whichever you choose, don’t forget how you felt as you watched Notre Dame burn. Recognize it is something that is happening every day.
Thank you, Dana, for all you do for Petra, for Jordan, and now through your work with the UN for the world. Congratulations on being chosen for the Hadrian Award by the World Monuments Fund. It is well deserved.