In a fast-changing world, what can be done to preserve cultural heritage?

In a fast-changing world, what can be done to preserve cultural heritage?

Aerial view of the thousand-year-old city of Djenné, in the Mopti region. Classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city, built of mud bricks using traditional methods, is threatened by the insecurity that has come to dominate Mali in recent years.

(AFP/Michele Cattani)

What constitutes cultural heritage? Language, tradition and customs are the first things that come to mind, followed perhaps by dance and song, architecture or places of remembrance. Less obvious are the sounds or smells that are such strong markers of a place, of an era, and are part of a heritage with which those living there identify. In 1972, UNESCO drew up several lists of the world’s tangible, cultural and natural heritage, in a bid to preserve a degree of shared human heritage. It is a crucial, never-ending and urgent endeavour in a world seemingly spinning ever faster with the rise of globalisation, the loss of know-how, the collateral damage caused by conflicts and, last but not least, the impact of climate change. Efforts are being made, the world over, to save these treasures forged by history.

We invite you to discover some of the stories on this topic published by Equal Times.

Saving sounds and smells from extinction

By María José Carmona

Photo: Campaners d’Albaida

The smell of old books, the sound of church bells, a local dialect or the smell of a city without pollution could today be considered endangered heritage. Their degradation is less visible than that of a monument, which is precisely why their protection is more urgent.

In early 2021, in a novel decision, France ordered the protection by law of several of its sounds and smells, specifically those of the French countryside. It all started with an incident involving a rooster.

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Could workers’ assembly halls soon become World Heritage sites?

By Jelena Prtorić

Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP

In April 1856, a group of stonemasons in Melbourne, Australia, walked off their jobs in protest over their employers’ refusal to accept their demand for an eight-hour workday. In the weeks that followed, the ‘eight-hour movement’ grew stronger, and the employers eventually accepted to negotiate with the workers. The agreement reached granted the stonemasons the right to work eight hours a day instead of the usual ten hours for the same wage.

Following that victory, the Melbourne committee of stonemasons decided to build a ‘People’s Palace’, which was to serve as a forum for future convenings. Financed and built by the workers themselves, a first temporary structure in timber was constructed in 1859, while works on the first permanent building were completed in 1874. That building, the Victorian Trades Hall, is one of the world’s oldest continuously operating union buildings and is today home to various trade unions and a workers’ museum.

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In Iraq’s marshlands, researchers are racing to document a disappearing dialect

By Kira Walker

Photo: Kira Walker

On a warm, spring morning earlier this year, Hussein Mohammed Ridha and his three colleagues set out by boat into the Mesopotamian marshlands of southern Iraq. Wending their way through canals of lush, arching reeds, past half-submerged water buffalo and fisherfolk casting their nets into the placid waters, the researchers were in search of speakers of the local Marsh Arab dialect.

Recurring droughts and receding water levels are making the subsistence lifestyle of the Marsh Arabs difficult to sustain. As more and more inhabitants are forced to leave, and stitch together livelihoods in cities where they feel pressure to not use their dialect, it is not just the Marsh Arabs’ culture and way of life that are vanishing; as elders die, their dialect is disappearing, too.

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The young creative bringing India’s rural folk musicians to the world – via a backpack

By Payal Mohta

Photo: Anahad Foundation

In 2011 when Abhinav Agrawal was studying architecture in the central Indian city of Bhopal, every weekend he would catch a random train to visit a different part of the country. Getting off at both teeming cities and remote, rural villages he would set off to explore each region’s folk music, inspired by his love for the sheer diversity of styles, sounds and instruments, and his training as a classical vocalist and tabla player.

Equipped with just a laptop, sound card and microphone, he would record the music of the artists he encountered and burn CDs for them, free of cost. “The musicians began calling me and telling me that they wanted more CDs because the ones I had given them had been bought by people,” says 28-year-old Agrawal. “I saw a sort of trend where instead of depending on the kindness of strangers, the musicians were now able to make money from their art.”

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This article has been translated from French by Louise Durkin