Discussing (Marine) Cultural Heritage at a Development Studies Conference

by Rosalie Hans

DSA Blog Post

The annual Development Studies Association (DSA) conference took place in Milton Keynes this year from 19 to 21 June and as a novice to a conference in this discipline I was excited to find out how it would differ from the heritage and museum studies gatherings I’m used to (spoiler alert, it wasn’t so different). However, the fact that, as a heritage professional, it was the first time going to a conference in development studies surely indicates the need for merging these fields more often to discuss the multiple challenges of maritime heritage and development that Rising from the Depths also addresses.

The panel that brought me to Milton Keynes was called ‘History and Development: Practicing the Past in Pursuit of ‘Progress’’ and fell squarely into the cultural heritage and sustainable development theme that has become increasingly topical over the past few years. Conveners Charlotte Cross and John Giblin represented both sides of the discussion respectively as a Lecturer in International Development at the Open University and as Keeper of World Cultures at the National Museums of Scotland and introduced the topic from their areas of expertise. Dr John Giblin started with the uses of post-conflict heritage in northern Uganda and the meanings of memory while Dr Charlotte Cross talked about the invocation of tradition by local vigilante groups in Tanzania. Then Dr Ioanna Katapidi, of the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage, presented on an international research project that looked at how and what UNESCO world heritage sites can contribute to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s). Using case studies from Jordan and China, she highlighted some of the challenges of translating the potential of world heritage sites into practical action contributing towards the SDG’s. Following this, Dr Mark Lamont, who is currently a co-investigator on a RftD-funded project in Mida Creek, Kenya, raised some useful questions on the expected value derived from cultural heritage projects in a development environment, particularly related to GCRF funding in the UK. His point on whether the visibility afforded through digital humanities technologies, such as those promoted by RftD, really put the control over scholarship and knowledge in the hands of UK academia is especially relevant for Rising from the Depths.

In the afternoon, I presented on ‘the promise of the museum’, using RftD research in Mozambique as one of my case studies. The Museu das Pescas, or Fisheries Museum, in Maputo provides an excellent example of a museum that was constructed as part of a larger development project to add a cultural component to an otherwise economically focused programme. My argument that there is a danger of reducing museums (and cultural heritage in general) to an ill-defined resource that does not live up to its expectations resonated well with the overall theme of the panel. I proposed that to live up to their promise, the expectations of museum benefits should be changed to aims that they can deliver, such as social and cultural visibility, political recognition and promotion of local cultural appreciation. After this, we stayed in east Africa with Dr Lotte Hughes presenting her research on alternative rites of passage (ARP) that aim to replace FGM practices in Kenya. These ceremonies include a range of activities drawn from different sources of inspiration such as Christian religion and international development discourse leading to hybridised cultural performances. A presentation recorded in Zimbabwe by Kemist Shumba informed us on a research plan for looking at the use of traditional games and song in promoting health and well-being. His presence via Skype was greatly appreciated but also a stark reminder of the difficulty of African academics and professionals to receive visas for the UK which affected three other papers scheduled for this panel. It was a shame that these presenters could not share their research with those able to attend. Rounding off the panel for the day was Camila dos Santos who presented on Brazil’s development engagement with Angola and the ‘renegotiation of its position to modernity’ by engaging with Brazil’s and Angola’s shared (but not the same) colonial pasts. The article she wrote with Maira S. Gomes on this multifaceted topic came out in 2019 and can be found here: https://pucrj.academia.edu/CSantos. Last but not least, Dr Astrid Jamar shared some pictures which give an impression of the panel on Twitter which can be found here: https://twitter.com/astrid_jamar/status/1141717027331223554

During the panel I felt ‘like a fish in water’ (excuse the Dutchism) among colleagues concerned with the same challenges surrounding heritage and development, but the keynotes and other panels of the conference were extremely interesting and inspiring as well. It was a privilege to attend the keynote by Professor Mahmood Mamdani who gave a broad overview of the history of the structures of power that underpin the nation-state, colonial ideology and the prosecution of minorities. A second, and equally inspiring, keynote was delivered by Dr Robtel Neajai Pailey, entitled ‘De-Centering the ‘White Gaze’ of Development’ which was an important call to address race as the elephant in the room in development studies. She combined critical race theory and critical development studies in order to ‘mainstream race, like gender and class, as the way forward’ because as she argued powerfully ‘to oppose racism one must notice race’. I would urge any heritage specialists working in development contexts to explore development theories, to attend conferences such as these and to inform themselves on key themes current in development studies. Looking at development through a (marine) cultural heritage lens can offer new perspectives on thinking about how past-making (heritage) influences future-making (development) (see Basu & Modest’s introduction to their edited volume ‘Museums, Heritage and Development, 2015). Nevertheless, development studies also has a lot to offer to heritage studies when it comes to critically appraising development contexts and thinking through the social, economic, cultural and environmental implications of development interventions. This conference was an enriching experience and just like Rising from the Depths, the panel was a step towards bringing different disciplines together to think about the uses and relevance of the past for creating sustainable futures. The edited volume that is planned as an outcome of this panel will hopefully contribute to furthering the dialogue on cultural heritage and sustainable development as well.

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