University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Centre of African Studies Michaelmas Seminars > How do African states think about heritage? Historical and ethnographic views from southern Africa

How do African states think about heritage? Historical and ethnographic views from southern Africa

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Scholarship on heritage – its management, conservation, protection, and inscription – in Africa tends to juxtapose global conventions with local sensibilities. Research grounded in historical and anthropological methodologies highlights where international principles, funding, and regulations imported by colonial governments and agencies like UNESCO have interfaced with grassroots perspectives, foregrounding conflicts between Euro-American conceptions of heritage and African indigenous ones. Often missing or muted in these discussions is the recognition that policies outlining what to do with heritage in African states have never been solely colonialist relics or responses to UNESCO . Following decolonisation in many states, the future of heritage conservation was part of debates intimately tied to changing bureaucratic cultures, nationalist regimes, regional and pan-African politico-economic initiatives, and (eventually) the function of neoliberal governance in cultural life. I argue that greater historical and ethnographic attention to state and parastatal views of heritage – its function, potential, and value – is essential to decentre imported Euro-American conventions as driving forces behind African heritage conservation and to provide more contextualised understandings of what heritage has meant and done on the continent. Focusing on southern Africa, I consider what bureaucratic archives can reveal about how heritage was imagined and mobilised to respond to distinctly regional and national concerns over intellectual property protection, labour migration, international aid, and living culture preservation in the 1960s-1990s. These under-appreciated views of heritage provide new insights into what would become the SADCC bloc and the Organisation of African Unity, and help to re-frame heritage in roles defined within and for the African continent.

This talk is part of the Centre of African Studies Michaelmas Seminars series.

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