Any space for heritage in the future?
Out of habit we may think of our heritage as something which has preceded us. Education and tourism campaigns, addressing our children and tourists, less so young or older adults, and when they do, relying on inane posters that evoke nostalgia and rarely reflection, keep telling us so. For instance, Heritage Malta, like many heritage guardians around the world, encourage us to keep our past alive. I wonder how many of us would want to do that – isn’t the past dead? Isn’t keeping it alive similar to what the Egyptians did with their mummies, the Capuchin brothers in Floriana with their departed brethren, in pop culture what zombies are, as evoked so thrillingly by Quincey Jones and Michael Jackson in 1982, and what Mary Shelley described as the gruesome experiment of Dr Frankenstein?
It may be time to adopt a different perspective. We could consider our heritage as something we engender. For instance, as something that is still to come, and something we have full capacity and responsibility to shape. Many times we hear about what we shall leave the younger generations in terms of legacy. Following the European Capital of Culture experience in Malta in 2018, this concept was bandied around balefully in the cultural sector, but the results today look stillborn. Today’s destruction of our heritage, and its misuse through unenlightened commercialisation, will leave us with what to pass on?
The 2022 UNESCO global summit held in Mexico, MONDIACULT, at which Malta participated, and which came in for criticism of its regular chipping away at and ensuing devaluing and hollowing out of its own heritage, was all about our common good and our common heritage. This perspective is interesting, as heritage is neither seen solely as something which preceded us, and not only as something we engender. By evoking the Brundtland Report of 1987, Our Common Future, the awakenings of civil society activism in an urban context in the West in 1960s, led by urbanists like Jane Jacobs, the development of sustainable thinking, the concept of doughnut economics, the annual Pope Francis Assisi economic fora, and the writings and interventions of Bruno Latour who passed away recently, one sees a pattern that should inform policy and set strategy for present action with future consequences.
A number of religious, classical and more recent classical tales from Western culture allow us to reflect on this delicate cycle. The metaphors applied and the strong images therein are effective to make the point that the way we inhabit our natural and built environments has direct repercussions on how we live and our wellbeing.
Take King Midas. He stands for that part of humanity that may in turn become too powerful, too greedy, too materialistic-minded, and eventually starve oneself in spite of unlimited access to sustenance. In my mind this Classical tale provides us with an example of what Malta and other places around the world are inflicting on themselves by persisting in practising outdated economic models. If one asks, ‘what should we do with all the heritage we have?’, the answer seems to be, ‘cook it, eat it and make a meal of it!’ The sprouting of restaurants, bars, take-aways, food trucks and food festivals, fundamentally disconnect us from the historical and traditional cultural contexts they have inflitrated and dominated. They act as an epitome of consumption culture.
If we would like to indulge in stories that further illustrate this misplaced nourishment, Jonathan Swift’s eighteenth century A Modest Proposal offered a way of how to turn a problem into a solution that is hard to swallow, but follows the all-consuming logic. While we seem to have too much heritage to manage and resort to eating away at it, Swift poked serious fun at contemporary British policy towards dealing with too many Irish Papist poor children by prescribing people eat their offspring. Soon after, the authors of the fictional character Sweeney Todd and Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle provoked their nineteenth century British readers by reflecting on the resourcefulness of human beings not in terms of education and skills, but fodder.
Further examples abound, enough to give us indigestion. However, let’s allow one more, and in a way bring it back to the beginning. The Greek Titan Cronus devours son after son in order to prevent them from taking his place, which he considered should last forever. A very powerful rendition of the myth strikes us through Goya’s painting of Saturn, the Roman version, feasting on his offspring. There seems to be something there we can spot in our society, where in their minds people suspend the natural cycle of life and death and behave as if all the past has to offer is theirs to be consumed, while the future, including their own children, is no concern of theirs.
Stories we have inherited remind us that we may be no worse than previous generations. They also suggest we are no better, in spite of the possibility of lessons having been learnt. We seem to be living out the eternal cycles that repeat themselves as envisioned by the Ancient Greeks and spun again much later by Nietsche on the cusp of the twentieth century.
So is there some form of salvation to be hoped for? Is there a break away, a release, for the prodigal son? Is there a father to welcome us back after having squandered our inheritance, eaten with the pigs in the trough, and having had to realise one’s mistakes and lack of balance, once the damage has been done? Is there experience to be learnt from and applied ahead? Is there any legacy of heritage to pass on?