In January, Webber Ndoro started as director-general of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (Iccrom), which works with conservators, curators, archivists and archaeologists to safeguard global cultural heritage. Ndoro, who was previously head of the African World Heritage Fund in South Africa, now oversees the intergovernmental organisation, which is based in Rome. We sat down with him after his participation at Abu Dhabi's CultureSummit.
What are your plans for the organisation?
A Iccrom has 136 members, and is owned by its member states. Iccrom should reflect the richness of its member states, and my thrust is to make sure all the member states are the driving force behind Iccrom. It's not one region that has to dominate, or one country that is to dominate – it is the collective that has to shine.
Is there a sense that one country or region has dominated before?
Not necessarily, but coming from where I’m coming from, it’s always looked at like most solutions come from Europe, and we need to be listening to what the Europeans have to tell us in terms of how we profile cultural heritage. In terms of research, yes, Europe comes out quite prominent. But I think Iccrom has a chance to profile other regions, and research other parts of the world, like Australia, Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Morocco, the Middle East – places like here. Europe can also learn from these regions. I’m not saying that this didn’t happen before, but this is what I feel I should bring.
You recently wrote the book Managing Heritage in Africa: Who Cares? What do you think has been ignored in African heritage?
Let me give you a fairly simple example. When you look at the world heritage list from Africa, almost 60 per cent of that list is European heritage, or what you might call dual heritage. For example, places like Asmara and Mombasa.
Could you explain what you mean by dual heritage?
Dual heritage is heritage that is owned by two different cultures. If you’re talking about Asmara, it’s owned by the Eritreans, but it also has an Italian flavour. We have such places in South Africa – heritage that is emanating from the Dutch, but which is in South Africa, so has to be looked at as dual heritage. Where you’ve had colonisation, you always have this element of dual heritage.
If you look at Africa, we need to have more sites that reflect the African aspiration – sites which the world may feel very uncomfortable with because they may not want to celebrate that. Again, I can illustrate: for example, the sites related to the genocide in Rwanda have had a big, big problem in being nominated to World Heritage listing, again because of the politics surrounding that.
Have you ever wondered why sites pertaining to slavery are very few on the World Heritage list? To me Bagamoyo in Tanzania is a site related to slavery.
What is significant about Bagamoyo?
This is where the slaves from East Africa were sold to the Middle East and India. But also sites related to slavery on the Atlantic. Ouidah in Benin – for the past 20 years, people have been working on it, but it has not been nominated to the World Heritage List. But it’s easier if I say I’m going to work on Grand-Bassam historic town, which is a French colonial city. It takes two years and it’s nominated – because its heritage is familiar, probably because of its European tracing.
So there are lingering effects of at play here?colonialism
In my view, yes, but that’s not to blame the Europeans or anybody. Africa itself has to come up to plate and profile these sites which relate to their heritage.
You have called this the “heritage of pain”
At some point, yes, I did. The heritage of pain – the heritage of things which we may not want to remember. I’ll give you another example - Robben Island. What do you know about Robben Island?
t’s where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned
Yes, but in the World Heritage nomination, there’s no mention of Nelson Mandela. Its universal value is the multi-layered history of the island.
You see how things, in my view, then are made not to glorify or not to emphasise the African-ness of this heritage. Anybody you talk to about Robben Island, the first thing they mention is Nelson Mandela, but you can’t go to world heritage and say, well, we’re nominating for Nelson Mandela. You have to find another angle to it, which is we have a multi-layered history – there are penguins on Robben Island, and, by the way, there was also in the last few years a prison.
Are your views controversial, or is it accepted that Iccrom and the world heritage community need a bit of self-questioning?
You asked me a question about African heritage, and I replied that this is how I looked at it. This is not the views of Iccrom in that sense. Iccrom is very much trying to look at the different regions and trying to promote heritage in different regions.
My emphasis for Iccrom is to try and reflect on the member states who constitute Iccrom. For us to be able to service them better, we need to understand their needs, whether they’re in Europe, or Africa, or Asia. And not just what are we providing, but also what are they able to help with.
Sharjah with their Iccrom office contributes to the Iccrom mandate in the Arab region, which also includes North Africa. We need to have more of these member states doing that. It makes it easier, if we have an office here, to answer the questions that are regional. If we are based in Rome, yes, we can have international places all over the world, but at times the regional element can be lost, and this is a role that the Sharjah Iccrom office is playing.
Would you say that you have one passion in the wide field of heritage that particularly animates you?
Cultural heritage in all its forms: be it artefacts, be it sites, and what it can contribute to life and to communities, what it can contribute not just to the economic well-being of people but to social cohesion.
One of the things that I’ve also been trying to look at is how cultural heritage is an important element in urban environments, in places in South America and Africa. The youth of most of these developing countries are unemployed, and cultural heritage could take them away from drugs, take them away from crime, and issues like that – social ills, which if we don’t really pay attention, we may lose our youth to.
In Johannesburg, for example, there is a redesign in the Maboneng precinct, which used to be a derelict area, and then it was turned into a cultural precinct. Now it’s a vibrant area and crime has gone down. The major asset there is cultural heritage.
That has been one of the major focuses of this event, the idea of culture not just as an object to be protected, but as a means to protect it – something with economic benefit. Is that something you ascribe to?
Not just economic benefit, but social benefit. There is an overemphasis on the economy – which is in some ways right – but culture has much more than that. The good thing about the economy is that you can put figures to it. The social element might be difficult to quantify, but it is equally important.