After witnessing the destruction of archeological treasures firsthand, Robbie Vigar, a second year anthropology Ph.D. student at the University of Pennsylvania, is advancing a relatively new way to look at cultural heritage preservation research: through the eyes of local residents.
Vigar, who was born and raised in Portsmouth on the southern coast of England, traveled to Egypt in the summer of 2011 after earning his undergraduate degree in Egyptian archaeology from University College London. He was not prepared for what he saw there: “looting, cultural heritage destruction and poverty.
“There was an uptick in looting of archaeological sites, libraries and museums following the Arab Spring,” says Vigar, who returned to his alma mater soon thereafter to complete his master’s degree in Middle Eastern archaeology, which focused on the cultural heritage of Jordan, Syria and Iraq.
This summer, Vigar travelled back to Egypt and to Jordan to conduct exploratory research that will help inform his Penn doctoral thesis about the role of community engagement in cultural heritage site development and preservation.
“My intention for this research is to take substantial direction from local communities,” he says, “with the goal of capturing their perspectives, agendas and aspirations with relation to their heritage and the advancement of heritage development projects in their locale.”
Tentatively named “(Re)Fabricated Landscapes: Cultural Heritage, Development and Community Engagement in the Middle East,” Vigar’s thesis will aim to identify to what extent community input has actually been incorporated into cultural heritage development sites, whether it is possible to use a community-based approach in reshaping a cultural heritage development agenda and which approaches to community engagement are currently in use.
As a starting point for his research, Vigar conducted semi-structured interviews with academics, cultural-heritage professionals and staff from non-governmental organizations. He asked about the ways community perspectives have been incorporated into cultural-heritage preservation and which ways researchers might be able to demonstrate that the local communities are an integral part of cultural-heritage development.
Next, he conducted informal conversations with members of the general public. He found these equally valuable in helping shape his research agenda. This population, he says, has been significantly undervalued and overlooked in approaching the topic.
“Local communities have historically been rendered silent in the prevailing narratives of cultural heritage in countries such as Jordan and Egypt,” he says. Rather, Vigar says, these narratives have been created by colonialist viewpoints, noting that even though most of the populations in both nations identify as Muslim, sites of Islamic heritage are largely not marketed to Western tourists.
The cultural heritage showcased in the brochures is limited to include only Roman, Pharaonic or early Christian sites, he says, which presents a “fabricated landscape,” where Western tourists can feel “safe,” far away from anyone anywhere that’s perceived to be associated with violence and terrorism.
However, development agencies are beginning to understand why it is critical to bring community voices into cultural heritage site management practices, and lately Jordanian scholars have been trying to document and collect local perspectives regarding cultural heritage development sites, says Vigar.
“There has been a movement by archaeologists and cultural-heritage practitioners towards addressing issues of interpretative inequity, suppression of local communities as fundamental stakeholders through the establishment of models for ‘community engagement,’” he says.
Following his research this summer, Vigar now has to decide whether Jordan or Egypt will be his final research focus.
“Both countries have a long history of investment from development agencies into areas such as agriculture, infrastructure, but, most importantly to this research, cultural heritage,” Vigar says. They also have been “affected in recent years by the ongoing instability in the region.”
While archaeologists are deeply troubled by the destruction of historic sites and the removal of artifacts from Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and elsewhere, he says it’s increasingly becoming a risky business.
“Groups of armed looters have established themselves across Egypt, making it difficult and dangerous for academics or civilians to intervene,” says Vigar, who has since 2016 helped to document cultural-heritage destruction in the Middle East through the Penn Cultural Heritage Center’s Safeguarding the Heritage of Syria and Iraq project.
“Local communities have an integral role and connection to cultural heritage sites,” says Vigar. “Understanding what cultural heritage means to local people, what is important and then developing preservation strategies with local communities as the driving force for any development agenda is the way forward for more equitable cultural-heritage practices.”