Skip to main content

The heritage preservation puzzle

On November 25, visiting professor Tim Winter examines how nations use historic sites for political ends
November 18, 2015
By Christian Durand


If you’ve ever stood at the base of the Great Pyramid of Giza or strolled through the Cambodian temple complex of Angkor, chances are you have been amazed by these incredible feats of humanity.

Every year, millions of tourists flock to world heritage sites around the globe to take in their exquisite beauty and to learn more about the cultural significance of these places.

But do we ever stop to ask ourselves why these sites are so heavily promoted? What motivates governments and international bodies to attract tourists to certain destinations they deem to be important?

Moreover with the recent destruction of historic sites in the Middle East by ISIS and massive funding for new government-sponsored projects around the world, what role do heritage sites play in international relations?

On November 25, Concordia will welcome Tim Winter, research chair of Cultural Heritage at Deakin University in Australia, who will discuss the politicization of significant heritage locations.

Winter’s address, Cultural Heritage Diplomacy: How Nations use Historic Sites for Political Ends, was organized in collaboration with the Canada Research Chair on Urban Heritage and l’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).

It’s the first in a series of activities leading up to “What does heritage change?”, the third biennial conference of the Association of Critical Heritage Studies, being held in Montreal from June 3 to 8, 2016 and hosted by the Canada Research Chair on Urban Heritage and Concordia University.

To get a taste of what Winter will cover, we reached him by Skype in Australia.

Why do countries invest so heavily in heritage sites?

Tim Winter: The cultural past feeds into a nation’s identity and is a big part of economic and political globalization. It’s a way of rethinking the modern conservation movement as well as an important driver of international prestige and development driven by tourism.

We are now seeing non-Western countries heavily investing in cultural heritage even across their borders. For a country such as India for example — which is promoting Indian heritage throughout South East Asia — this is a way of reinforcing the central ideas of their own civilization across the region.

For these countries this is a way of opening new diplomatic channels through the positive lens of culture and cooperation. 

What are some of the problematic areas associated with heritage sites?

TW: The decisions regarding what to promote are often based on a political agenda. This raises important questions as to how governments favour the promotion of certain cultures over others. As much as these sites can bring people together they can also be used to divide populations.

We are also seeing how the destruction of heritage sights is being used for political ends. Most glaringly the destruction of historical sites by ISIS in Syria and Iraq is a calculated way of creating a new narrative in the region – one that is deliberately presenting a deeply uncomfortable image to the West.

“Cultural Heritage Diplomacy: How Nations use Historic Sites for Political Ends” will take place from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in the York Amphitheatre (EV-1.605) on the first floor of the Engineering, Computer Science and Visual Arts Integrated Complex.

Winter’s address will be followed by a round table and public conversation featuring Concordia’s Frank Chalk, director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS); Erica Lehrer, Canada Research Chair in Museum and Heritage Studies, and Alison Rowley, associate professor and undergraduate program director in the Department of History.

Register for this event via Eventbrite.

Back to top

© Concordia University