If the challenge is the Western model of a universal value-based system, then can the current cultural institutional model generate alternative ways of seeing the world?
In her Master-class titled ‘UNESCO heritage and outstanding universal value’, which took place at FARO (Flemish Interface Centre for Cultural Heritage), in Brussels on 31 January, Dr Sophia Labadi, Director of the Centre for Cultural Heritage at the University of Kent, questioned the limits and effectiveness of institutions such as UNESCO projecting Western-derived cultural values as universal values.
Labadi asked specifically whether the World Heritage Convention is in fact a “virtuous instrument” and whether UNESCO can claim that its policies and actions lead to peace and to positive economic impact.
The tension, in her view, lies in a dichotomy between actions and principles whose coexistence is neither coherent nor sustainable. On the one hand, a framework that encourages the application of common standards of achievement for all peoples and all nations keeping the Universal Declaration of Human Rights ‘constantly in mind’, and on the other hand, the non-recognition of these values by peoples and nations that do not see them as intrinsic to their culture. All of which takes place in a global context of ever more pressing calls from policy makers and civil societies for increased flexibility, responsiveness and adaptability.
It is clear from the public debate that there are questions regarding the positive impacts of international cultural cooperation policies and initiatives between Western institutions and third countries. Sophia Labadi pointed to issues of recognition by others in third countries of values promoted by UNESCO. People do not always recognise the attributions or values of UNESCO’s actions or policies. This has provoked in some cases sentiments of exclusion, misrepresentation, and dissonance. Western cultural institutions are often seen as attuned neither to contemporary aesthetic values, nor to demands for bottom-up approaches, inclusivity within civil societies, community led action etc.
The master-class concluded with a presentation of practical measures, which can bring opportunities for all, including forging gender equality, encouraging recognition of potential from locals, develop capacity building and social entrepreneurship.
From the perspective of an independent organisation that occupies a so-called “in-between” space, we look at the current critique of cultural institutions as a point from which we can start to consider alternative ways of seeing. I suggest that a pre-condition for change is the creation of new structures which can act independently of established institutions, are not bound by their values, path dependencies or organisational cultures. What is needed is the creation of a neutral space that can attract a plurality of voices, forge transdisciplinary approaches, and generate new frameworks from which to experiment with alternative interpretations and possibilities to engage in meaningful new ways.
Arts Cabinet sees itself as a constantly evolving platform that provides conditions to experiment with alternative ways for considering and maybe changing the current state of things. Art and research is our framework through which we ask critical questions, identify potentials to transform the current state of powerlessness and open possibilities to look at things in terms of the future, rather than the past.
Svetlana Sequeira Costa
Brussels, 1 February 2018