As I rummage through volumes of graphic novels to find museum references and locations, I'm going to be posting some of the choice examples as and when they appear. Given that repatriation themes are never far away from the headlines, this scathing introduction to the British Museum by John Constantine in Hellblazer #1 from January 1988, seems an appropriately controversial place to begin.
Villas at jardins des Médicis © Adriano Bartolozzi
Another year of World Heritage committee sessions near completion and the World Heritage List creeps closer to the 1000 mark, now standing at 981 sites. We cover World Heritage as a concept at Caerleon every year, so it’s always worthwhile monitoring how this important programme grows. Over the years, the World Heritage List has never been short of controversy. Questions have been raised regarding how representative the list has been concerning the concept of ‘world’ heritage, whether conservation principles have given way to bloated tourism driven desires, and whether the whole notion of world heritage results in damaging those sites selected for inclusion, far more so than if the ‘elite’ sites had just been left well alone. This year’s entries will only further stimulate such discussions.
The classic criticism courted by the World Heritage List is that the list predominantly exists to serve the egos of western European nations. While UNESCO’s Global Strategy has been put to good effect to redress the balance of site distribution on the list, it is still apparent that the search for world heritage need not be conducted much further than the boundaries of the European Union. That being said, two nations well beyond the confines of Europe, received their first entries on to the list this year. In Fiji, the Levuka Historical Port Town is newly inscribed, though this remains a site dominated by the influence of European settlers. No such influence is apparent in Qatar though, where the Al Zubarah Archaeological Site becomes one of three sites settled on the Persian Gulf. This sort of expansion has been targeted by UNESCO in recent years, and for additional nations beyond the old World Heritage ‘heartland’ of Western Europe, to now be represented on the list can only be a positive thing. However the ‘heartland’ has not been overlooked. While Fiji and Qatar can celebrate their first entries, Italy enjoyed their 48th and 49th inscriptions, with Mount Etna and the Medici Villas and Gardens the additions to the distended mass of World Heritage on display. Valid though these entries might be, their inclusion does nothing but reinforce the disproportionate spread of sites globally, in-spite of the efforts of the Global Strategy.
Then attention might be turned to North Korea. The inclusion of the historical complex of structures at Kaesong may well be valid under the two cited criteria, but use of the World Heritage status might be more questionable. For the promotion of a nation, having a World Heritage Site or two is no bad thing. Global brand and associated expectations of a tourism boom are motivation enough for many to pursue this status. The well known, though perhaps less well understood, political climate in Korea should encourage more probing questions to be directed at this bid. Historical narratives have played a significant role in the positioning of the contemporary regime. Does World Heritage Site status act as an endorsement for the importance of these structures in North Korea? If so, does the status then legitimise North Korean narratives claiming historical authority over the unstable region? While this is certainly not what UNESCO had in mind, it may well be the result. Should such questions come into discussions on whether or not a historical site should be considered worthy or not for inclusion on the list? In terms of weighing the historic or cultural value of a site, certainly not, and yet the World Heritage List is much more than a catalogue of exemplar cultural and natural sites, it is increasingly a means for nations to sell themselves, and perhaps their ideologies, to the world via their cultural products.
In another two years, we will almost certainly ‘celebrate’ the 1000th World Heritage Site. At that point in time, it can be guaranteed that the same questions, queries and criticisms raised above, will be the subject of ongoing debate – and we will probably still be in want of any definitive answers to the problems raised.
The PhD drafting is almost at an end. A major assault on the footnotes to come, and then it goes off to the supervisor for one last editorial battering, then back to me for a final time, and then it will be done...so in many respects, not really at the end at all, but certainly no more research to be done at least. So the mind now turns to the summer and what next? Well, there are a number of irons in the fire, most of them article driven in one form or another, as thoughts turn to fleshing out the publication list. Unfortunately, the one thing I really want to write about is probably the least practically applicable subject, in terms of my career, that I could have thought of, and that would be graphic novels.
There’s a bearded American to blame for this one way or another, but that’s a story for another day. I actually started bringing in graphic novels into my teaching for the first time this year. I had stumbled across an old copy of Hawkman from November 2003, where Carter Hall (Hawkman) engages in a two page spread debate on the ethics of repatriation of cultural material. It struck me as a fairly obscure aside, but ultimately the narrative went on, perhaps unconsciously, to question the ethics of the excavation of human remains. Two themes then, that frequently engage the heritage community in discussion and publication, were being fought out in the pages of a comic.
Repatriation is one theme to have been subject to very specific graphic novel treatments. The most obvious example was published in 2011 as part of a British Museum exhibition on Manga. ‘Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure’ is an entire book committed to the exploration of repatriation themes, and, perhaps unsurprisingly given the publisher, the British Museum does quite well out of the debate. Biased maybe, but a good read nonetheless.
All of this got me wondering though about how museums are portrayed in graphic novels. What does the setting of Stonechat Museum in the world of Hawkman tell us about how museums are perceived? Does the museum environ reveal how wider attitudes towards museums are changing, or do they continue to reflect the dusty dark halls of stereotype? What about the activities that take place within museums. I can think of no shortage of murders, thefts and doomsday scenarios to occur within a range of unfortunate museums, but what about archiving and community outreach programmes? Okay, so the last two probably don’t lend themselves so well to a dynamic storyline, but that would make it all the more interesting should such themes ever actually get displayed, if only in the background.
So, there is at least one summer plan – wading through comic books to find examples of museums, in whatever form or storyline they might come up in. Not entirely sure what I’m going to do with this research once it’s been compiled, but I’ll certainly do something! There are a good range of journals covering graphic novels now, but then this might be something, depending on results, that might sit more comfortably within a museum journal, we’ll see. However, any help or suggestions would be very welcome on this one, as there are only so many comics I can read over the summer!
Just a quick one here to say that the new article on 'Intangible Cultural Heritage in Wales: A Need for Safeguarding?' is now available. It can be accessed either via my academia page or at the International Journal of Intangible Heritage site. This explores examples of intangible cultural heritage in Wales, and questions why this fragile form of heritage would benefit from UK ratification of the 2003 UNESCO convention.