Reconciliation policies beyond the heritage of wars and conflict

An important aspect connected to heritage and reconciliation that emerged throughout the research process was that even though numerous heritage related practices and actors in the Western Balkans and SEE have been appropriating the phrase ‘reconciliation and peace-building’ in their rhetoric and project documentation, hardly any of these clearly articulated what they mean by this in relation to heritage, neither philosophically nor politically. National heritage practices continued to work on mutually competing ethno-national identities, while international organizations and foreign actors who promote reconciliation have rarely been clear about what exactly they promote within post-conflict international development aid for the heritage sector.

At the same time, none of these actors were willing to truly change their conceptual basis related to heritage. Therefore, there was no clear conceptual, normative or pragmatic description by international organizations, public institutions and civil organizations of what reconciliation, justice, democracy and dialogue through heritage should look like, nor how these would relate to the traditional understanding and uses of heritage. What took place in SEE, stayed mostly at the level of transitional professionalization and regional cooperation in the improvement of technical care for heritage, spiced up with buzz words such as dialogue and reconciliation. The attachment of peacebuilding phrases to regional initiatives became naturalized and selfexplanatory.

In the absence of transparent, explicit and developed reconciliation policies in the heritage domain, this research concentrated on some tools created and used by different actors in the name of reconciliation. These policy tools created particular structures of heritage governance involving extra-state, state and inter-state actors. I was interested to explore those very rare projects which worked around issues of contested meanings of heritage, around heritage dissonance. The four projects analysed in this research are therefore exceptions from mainly consensual regional cooperation in heritage. Importantly, they are not exceptional examples of heritage dissonance which prove the rule that all other heritage is not dissonant. On the contrary, they show that dissonance is embedded in heritage as phenomena and is related to the very processes of selection, interpretation and communication of heritage. Therefore, they indicate that the very idea of dissonance as a strange, challenging and exceptional feature of certain heritage is inherently problematic.

What makes them exceptions is their current position in relation to regular practices, politics and principles within the field of official cultural memory in SEE. They are exceptional examples of creating new discursive spaces outside actors’ everyday context and practice. In these new spaces sedimented heritage myths of one community can become questioned by other competing discourses and heritage myths. As such, they not only make dissonance visible, but highlight the paradoxes of traditional ways of thinking and doing heritage. With the high ambitions they set at the beginning, they are exemplary of the limitations and tensions which arise when one attempts to work with diverse and sometimes contested interpretations of the past. As most which could be achieved in the context from which they grew, they show how small and unstable steps are to reconcile, reinterpret or dialogue around competing interpretations of the past and heritage in the region. They also reflect on the enormous symbolic capacity of heritage in shaping identities and group memories and in raising broader questions of rights to voice and memory as related to heritage dissonance.

Even though reconciliation and sustainable peace are usually considered as related to transitional justice that deals with recent wars and violent conflicts, these examples show that the reconciliation of dissonant memories of wars is just one way of using heritage for inter-personal, inter-community and intercultural understanding and dialogue. As a result of being more remote from people’s direct experiences and more ‘naturalized’ within discourses of ethnicity and nation, heritage sites practices and museums not directly connected to war and atrocity sites, are an invisible basis for cultural violence packed with latent or active dissonance. As such, they are an integral aspect of culture that “make direct and structural violence look, even feel right - or at least not wrong” (Galtung 1990, 291). If reconciliation is understood as a process in which all sides are willing to step beyond their conflicting divides, enter into active dialogue and cooperate in creating new values and patterns of interaction, then the pertaining historic divides, power relations and conflicts within particular contexts are at least as important as what has taken place during the violent past. The histories of cooperation, coexistence and peaceful interactions also play an important role in redefining social relations.

All four cases in this research show that dealing with the past cannot be exclusively connected with histories of active violence and their commemorations, but should address exclusions, divisions and symbolic conflicts related to the interpretation and uses of ‘normalized’ aspects of heritage, particularly those related to national, ethnic, gender or class identities. As such, they indicate the need for similar continuing efforts not only within the third sector dealing with human rights such as Documenta, but more importantly, of the need to question and redefine traditional public memory institutions and AHD on a conceptual, normative and pragmatic level. Finally, they show that the concepts of dissonance and reconciliation have much wider implications on heritage management and policy, which go beyond cases of post-violent conflict areas throughout the world.

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