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Soft Power and Heritage

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New beginnings and new relationships

On 8th November 2017, Louvre Abu Dhabi finally opened its doors.  The culmination of over ten years of negotiation, planning and construction, and at a cost exceeding 1 Billion Euros, the new museum explores connections between cultures around the world.  It is another statement of global intent from the UAE and a smart move by the French Government, which has lent the project the Louvre name, expertise and a direct line to French art institutions.   It is big, bold and very impressive, and will doubtless attract a global tourism audience – more when the adjacent Guggenheim and Zayed National Museums are completed.  But it is not the only way to exercise soft power…

At the same time as the doors were being thrown open in Abu Dhabi, thirty men and women walked across the threshold of World Monument Fund’s new training centre in Jordan. They had never picked up a chisel in their lives.  Now, four months into a conservation stonemasonry training programme, they can carve arabesques for Zakhrafa jambs, prepare rectangular billet moldings or work an ovolo return.  Not yet perfect, but astonishing progress, made more remarkable still given this is taking place just twelve miles from the Syrian border, and that most students are refugees who have fled from the neighbouring conflict.

Finding meaningful solutions

Backed by the UK government’s Cultural Protection Fund, a £30million initiative to protect heritage in conflict affected areas of the Middle East and North Africa, the aim of the training centre is simplicity itself.  Take three problems and turn them into a solution.

The problems: how to conserve extraordinary monumental heritage in Iraq and Syria, such as the ancient souk of Aleppo or the Al-Hadba’ minaret in Mosul, damaged by Isis, or caught in the cross-fire of opposing armies.  The issue is exacerbated by the depletion of skilled craftspeople therefore, once the dust of conflict settles, there will be few locally to carry out restoration work.  At the same time thousands sit in refugee camps, lives on hold, seeking hope.

The solution:  Train refugees to become the craftspeople and conservators of the future.  Give them a skill – in this case stone-masonry – to help restore their nation’s heritage.  Over the coming year WMF will train over thirty-five people at the Mafraq centre, with the support of the British Council, which coordinates the Fund, and a local partner, The Petra National Trust.  A further 280 schoolchildren will also benefit from opportunities to explore their local heritage – learning that spreads and blooms, influencing families and inspiring friends.  Soft power.

New friends, strong partnerships

A thousand miles from Mafraq, and also coinciding with the fanfare surrounding the Louvre, I was in the heat and dust of Tello, southern Iraq, supporting Iraqis to look after some of the most important ancient monuments in the world.  Part of the British Museum’s Iraq Scheme, this is a £3M initiative funded by the UK Government and carried out in partnership with the Iraq State Board of Antiquities & Heritage (SBAH) to foster the development of heritage skills and address the damage caused by conflict.

Tello is in the very heartland of civilisation – where agriculture started, where the first towns were born, and where some of humankind’s earliest writing was scratched onto clay bricks and tablets.  I had the privilege of looking at conservation solutions for what might be the first bridge in the world (and by default, the first piece of architectural engineering…)  – an enormous, triumphal structure dating to 2100 BC and excavated by the French in the 1930s, but slowly desiccating in the wet-dry salt environment ever since.  All amazing, but not my main point… the benefit of the scheme extends far beyond critical conservation.

Over the five years of the British Museum project, fifty Iraqi professionals will receive training both here in the UK and back in Iraq.  Bright and curious, they will rise quickly in the Iraqi administrative structure, to become leaders and champions for heritage.  And they will remain our friends – this is not a one-way process.  In addition, each year at Tello and Darband-i Rania, a second BM site in Iraqi Kurdistan, the project employs over 100 local people for several months of the year.  The wages, set by the SBAH, are hugely valued in some of the poorest areas of the country.

We need the big set-pieces – the look-alike Louvres and Guggenheims – wonderful celebratory moments.  But in terms of sheer value for money and impact on people’s lives – people who need it the most – culture and heritage can do simply extraordinary things when at a local scale.  Here is soft power that invests not just in a magnificent building or tourism offer, but in people, in restoring pride and offering hope.