Beyond Between’ by @solavisions. Reproduced with the kind permission of the artist exclusively for the purpose of this symposium on Völkerrechtsblog.


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Bridging Epistemic Divides

Introducing the Symposium on Cultural Heritage Protection


This symposium invites readers to think with us and the authors about bridging epistemic divides both in the theory and practice of heritage policy. While the symposium continues the discussions we started during a workshop at the European University Institute (EUI), it is intended primarily to serve as an invitation to continue this conversation across points in time, geography, and discipline.

To understand our aim, context is important here: In May 2023, we – as the EUI Cultural Heritage Working Group – organised a workshop entitled ‘Bridging Epistemic Divides in Cultural Heritage Protection: An Exercise in Confrontation and Conversation’ at the European University Institute (EUI), Florence. The workshop was intended to bring together people engaged in cultural heritage law-making and policy in different spaces – whether geographically or epistemically defined. As researchers interested in matters of cultural heritage policy, we have frequently been puzzled and even angered by how notions of expertise have served to separate peoples and their knowledge. What struck us as even more puzzling was that only some disciplines appear to even be interested in probing these partitions. In critical heritage studies, for example, it is more common for discussions to focus on absences and biases in norm-making. In contrast, international law and history are often unwilling to acknowledge their complicities in perpetuating epistemic inequalities. Our workshop was therefore aimed at opening up these disciplinary silos as an attempt to overcome epistemic exclusions.

As the workshop was supported by the Decentering Eurocentrism Research Cluster of the EUI, the focus of the workshop explicitly extended to critiques of Eurocentrism. While vocalising our commitment to challenging Eurocentrism was easy, actualising it was not. In planning the workshop, the true extent of just how deeply Eurocentrism is entrenched in academic institutions like ours became overt. We experienced first-hand that combatting Eurocentrism required us to address and take steps to overcome several social and epistemic barriers. In what follows, we recount some of these encounters. Our encounters offer crucial insights into why discussions such as those hosted by this symposium are not simply matters of academic curiosity and in fact have bearings on how our academic disciplines are made and practiced.

The Social Barriers

Academia – especially in the Global North – normalises and authorises a distinct type of social profile, one that is able to find, qualify for, and eventually access Global North academic spaces. This profile is expected to be: familiar with the right access points (online or otherwise), fluent in English, trained in “academic speak” and the distinct forms and expectations of the Academy, institutionally affiliated (preferably one with repute) and having the means and ability to travel. In this post, we’d like to call this profile the “Harvey Specter” profile, from the popular TV show Suits.

(Artwork titled ‘Harvey Specter’ by Xavier Peron Wiseman, age 8)

In designing the call for papers, we consciously strove to avoid a scenario we know all too well: an academic room primarily comprised of Harvey Specters. To this end, our call welcomed abstracts in all languages, mediums, and styles. We made an explicit commitment to prioritising financial support for early career researchers and applicants from the Global South. In the weeks following the release of the call, we reached out to civil society organisations, practitioners, artists and researchers, in an attempt to ensure that our call reached those who have traditionally fallen outside channels of academic dissemination. Even having taken these steps, which are by no means exceptional or burdensome, most of the applications we received were from Harvey Specters. In fact, some regions – such as Australia and Africa – were completely unrepresented in our applicant pool.

Since we had received sufficient funding from the Decentering Eurocentrism cluster at the EUI, we – perhaps naively – believed that this could easily help mitigate access barriers for those not fitting the Harvey Specter profile. However, as we started to work with attendees, it became increasingly clear that access frameworks, including at our own institution, were stacked against us. For instance, we learnt that even with official invitation letters from a well-reputed European institution, applying for an Italian visa in Jerusalem or Karachi is a lengthy, cumbersome, and infuriating process. While we were aware of such problems having faced them personally, we were surprised by the reluctance of institutions to engage with requests to ease the process, whether by providing documents to expedite waiting time or testifying to the purpose of the applicants’ visit. Further, in order to secure the visa, it is required to show proof of both accommodation and flights. However, generally, institutional policies require participants to pay upfront for their expenses and receive post-facto reimbursement. Post-facto financial support is of little help when these expenses (often exorbitant in the case of long-distance flights and visas) must be borne by already disadvantaged applicants in order to make it to the workshop in the first place. Many of our applicants ultimately could not receive visas on time, and this was a heartbreaking but all too common reality that we had to reconcile with.

We were also aware that academics often grapple with other barriers to physical attendance as well, such as caring duties or disabilities. For that reason, we had anyway arranged for hybrid functionalities during the workshop. However, it was important to us to remind ourselves and our workshop participants who managed to make it to Florence, of the severe access barriers that systematically worked to prevent some of us from joining us in person. The differences in our lived experience beyond the often-isolated bubble of academia (in this case, a Medici villa in the picturesque Florentine hills) reared their ugly head again when some of our participants experienced racism within hours of arriving in Florence; reminding us that the ideological consequences of Eurocentrism are not simply an academic hot topic but a painful, political reality for many.

The Epistemological Barriers

Moving into the workshop itself, we tried to foster an environment where different epistemological perspectives could breathe. We were inspired by Mbembe’s calls for epistemic pluriversity, which decenters the hegemony of knowledge production and embraces a “horizontal strategy of openness to dialogue among different epistemic traditions.” With this in mind, we identified four core coordinates of particular salience in mapping our workshop’s epistemic cartography.

The first of these was language. As with the call for papers, the workshop proceedings were multilingual. Hearing presentations in Vietnamese, Brazilian Portuguese, and Tamil made us all conscious of how rare it was to hear a language that was not English or French spoken in an academic setting. For those of us identifying as belonging to the Global Souths, it made us realise that even our own vernaculars hardly find representation in academic conversations back home. Underscoring how epistemic cartography remains static even when we move geographically.

Our second epistemological coordinate was form. Traditionally, academic conferences pedestalise the speaker, creating a format where the presenter speaks at rather than with their co-presenters and audience. The layout of conference rooms also visually mirrors this dynamic, as does the didactic style expected in these settings. In an attempt to subvert this, we adopted a hybrid long-table format. Intended to encourage intimate, open-ended, non-hierarchical and informal discussions, the long-table format places individuals from radically different disciplines in conversations with each other. Presenters were grouped together based on thematic commonalities. A month prior to the workshop, they were put in contact with each other and encouraged to jointly decide on a creative format for their particular session. This allowed us to see a vibrant assortment of formats such as: interactive dialogues with the audience, interviews between panelists and audio-visual presentations featuring the often-overlooked creative and technical team.

Our third coordinate was space. From the outset, we were discomfited by the optics of organising a workshop on decentering Eurocentrism in a Medici villa that was home to a European Union institution. To problematise this, for our in-person participants, we organised a tour of the EUI grounds exposing the colonial pasts and presents of the space we occupied. We were also conscious that the centering of certain spaces has logistical implications. Often, if you are attending a conference/workshop in Europe yet are located in Mexico, Singapore, Australia, Japan or Vietnam, as our online presenters were, there is a tacit expectation that you will show up to panels regardless of how that translates to your time zone. We were conscious not to feed into the normalisation of the imposition of a CET schedule. To this end, we started preparing our workshop schedule based on our online participants, making sure to place their panels within their local working hours.

The fourth and final epistemological coordinate was community building. From the outset, we wished to break the artificial separation between the personal, the political, and the academic space to treat all three of them as equally relevant and mutually reinforcing. This made the workshop a space of political confrontation and contestation, especially in the context of discussions about colonialism, religious factionalism, and illegal occupation. Despite all the obstacles, we were heartened by the candor of our participants and their generosity towards making the workshop a truly generative and reflexive exercise. We treated the workshop as the start of a conversation rather than an isolated academic opportunity. It is in this spirit that this blog symposium hopes to continue the conversation even further.

(Artwork titled ‘Beyond Between’ by @solavisions)

The Symposium

This symposium draws on three themes, each zooming into a different location of critique within heritage policy. On the theme of ‘custodianship’, Anaïs Mattez periodises the political timeline of public critique of the role of museums in heritage protection, and how the fields of post-colonial studies, art crime, and international law shaped this discourse. Sophie Starrenburg challenges how these notions of custodianship are even created, asking the question of whether communities are given the right to refuse to be subsumed by universalist visions of international heritage law.

The second theme is the ‘normative role of law in heritage protection’. Sabrina Ferrazzi tests if international legal regimes for proprietary rights to be revisited to make room for community claims to heritage.

The third theme is ‘epistemic authority in cultural heritage management’. Manvita Baradi and Anurag Anthony take us to the Indian UNESCO World Heritage city of Ahmedabad and use the example of private heritage buildings as an illustration of the difficulties of apportioning managerial responsibilities between states, individuals and institutions. Tejas Rao, Roger Negredo, Tatiana Rozochkina, and Elisa Fallani use a conversational format to discuss how heritage frameworks can be rewritten to foreground community agency. They also ask how cultural heritage sites may become instruments of soft power for nation-states.

Even as we are heartened to see the symposium come to life through such a rich discussion of various heritage themes, we are conscious that not all our efforts towards epistemic pluriversity have borne fruit despite Völkerrechtsblog’s openness to different languages and forms and our own prompts to contributors. All pieces in the symposium have been written in English and only a few pieces play with academic form. We are also deeply conscious of how the academic disciplines this symposium engages with – whether international law or heritage policy – have repeatedly failed peoples under occupation (some of whom also form part of this symposium) and the pain and futility of even producing critical academic scholarship in a world of violence. This is a reminder to us to reinvigorate and sustain efforts to encourage epistemic pluriversity in our individual and institutional capacities. We would like to leave our readers with an invitation to join our conversation: to write to us with their reflections and rejoinders as they read and absorb the pieces of this symposium.

Happy reading!

Jadé Botha

Jadé Botha is a PhD Researcher in International Law at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence. Her research interests are transitional justice, the African Union and international criminal law.

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Raghavi Viswanath

Raghavi Viswanath is a PhD Researcher in International Law at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence. Her research interests are international human rights law, international criminal law, international heritage law, and decolonisation.

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Jessica Jessica

Jessica Wiseman is a PhD Researcher in International Law at the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence. Her research interests centre on international heritage law, law and language, decolonisation, human rights law, and international criminal law.

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