Delegation of the European Union to Sri Lanka and Maldives

Valuing cultural heritage: Cross-cultural perspectives from Europe and South Asia

Colombo, 01/04/2019 - 10:47, UNIQUE ID: 190401_1

Head of Delegation Opening remarks at Living Heritage 2019.

It is a real pleasure for me to welcome you to the 2019 edition of the Living Heritage series which takes place this year at the Galle Face Hotel, one of Colombo's iconic heritage buildings.


Yesterday the participants of the conference visited several places of historical and architectural interest such as the General Post Office in Fort,  the Grand Oriental Hotel, the Dutch Museum, the Wolfendahl Church and  the Red Mosque  the old Town Hall in Pettah  and several other iconic buildings of the city of Colombo.


It is therefore particularly appropriate for a conference that deals inter alia with the living heritage of this city  to have its mayor grace the occasion.


Our initiative comes in continuation of two earlier events on living heritage organised by the European Union in partnership with its Member States, their cultural institutes, along with key Sri Lankan authorities and experts, many of whom I am happy to see here today.


We had agreed that in times of rapid change, this conversation had to continue and today's conference titled "Valuing Cultural Heritage: Cross Perspectives from Europe and South Asia" will be, I trust, another significant benchmark in our joint endeavour.


As you are perhaps aware - for us in Europe - 2018 marked the European Year of Cultural Heritage. The spirit behind the label was to celebrate cultural heritage as a shared resource, raise awareness on Europe's common history and values and thereby reinforce a sense of belonging to a common cultural space.


It was decided that heritage should be placed higher on the EU's agenda in cooperation with organisations such as the Council of Europe and UNESCO.


Exchanges on best practices and lessons learned have also started in countries where the European Union is represented.


Let me first ask: what is cultural heritage? Cultural heritage is a common good passed from previous generations as a legacy for those to come and I am therefore pleased to see the younger generation in today's audience.


Let me also emphasize that our aim today is to look together at cultural heritage as a resource for the future, to be safeguarded, enhanced and promoted by also encouraging synergies with contemporary creations. We also know that all over the world, we need to develop pragmatic, sustainable and integrated solutions to urban challenges.


The experts and practitioners who are gathered here today will be addressing a number of key issues, such as how to regenerate cities through cultural heritage, how to promote smart restoration and adaptive reuse of heritage buildings, or how to make cultural tourism sustainable and compatible with natural heritage.


Cultural heritage is fragile and vulnerable to destruction and decay. Natural disasters and threats caused by human actions which include neglect, man-made destruction through conflict also have to be factored in.


This is where the responsibility of stakeholders in ensuring quality and well-conceived cultural heritage interventions comes into play.


Raising awareness and stimulating participation in cultural heritage activities remains a challenge, therefore education is key. Schools and universities have a key role to play in sensitising the young on the value of their cultural heritage, tangible and intangible.


The distinguished speakers gathered today from Europe and South Asia will share their experiences in the challenges they have faced, are still facing and/or envisage to have to overcome.


Heritage, if properly utilised and in a participatory way, can be a major asset that benefits the society as a whole on many levels – both economically and in terms of social cohesion. This is something that is unfortunately too often overlooked.


Sri Lanka is an ancient civilisation, rich with history and stories to tell. Its potential could be increasingly realised through its rising attraction as a tourist destination.


How could Sri Lanka benefit from its vast potential in a sustainable way? Sri Lanka is also home to several religions. Everywhere in the world, rich heritage and artistic expression are stored in religious buildings. In Europe, churches are examples of architectural traditions/styles (be it Roman, Gothic, Baroque), and at the same time repository of layers of history.


Religious buildings are also natural living heritage that foster engagement from and between diverse communities as well as across borders.


I also wish to emphasize the crucial link between heritage and identity, especially in the context of globalisation and rapid economic growth.


It is a fact that accelerated growth and subsequent urban development, when not thoughtful and inclusive, might hinder the sense of local identity and in the worst cases even threaten their very existence. Local residents can face extremely vulnerable situations due to short-sighted city planning and may even be displaced.


As you know the displacement of people can lead to critical and irreversible social divides by creating new forms of ghettoes. How do we thus best ensure that urban areas and public spaces are accommodating diverse needs and not only those of the economically dominant?


To avoid these potential drifts, there is an urgent need for a new approach and this is why cherishing local heritage remains essential as a means to promote social inclusion in urban planning. By tapping into the intimate knowledge of local residents, a sense of belonging can be maintained, strengthened and made compatible with change.


This requires exploring the role this can play for society as a whole. By engaging with citizens, stakeholders have a chance to deliver sustainable urban development that serves the principle of "by the people for the people".


What is needed is a long-term vision taking into account people's perceptions and needs. The responsibilities of relevant authorities come into play here. It is therefore necessary to create a platform for a continuous dialogue between civil society representatives and official stakeholders.


Could I add here that encouraging more women to join the field of architecture where they are still under represented (at least in Europe where they constitute a third of the profession), could also lead to a more inclusive approach and new vision.


There also needs to be mutual commitment and engagement to this dialogue across the board to make the dialogue meaningful. A multi-disciplinary approach is necessary to deal with what is and will remain one of the most complicated, multi-layered issues for generations to come.


Indeed all the needs and inbuilt potential related to a people-centred urban development while preserving heritage can only be fulfilled when historical, artistic, sociological and economic aspects are taken into account.


We have gathered here today to engage in this exercise by pursuing this conversation. The participants and the audience have numerous experiences, good practices and expertise to share.


I am convinced that this event will serve as an ideal forum to build further connections and foster ideas on future initiatives and would like to thank once again all our committed partners in this endeavour.