Diversify/Decolonize Heritage: Summary of the Kick-off Workshop, 19th July 2020

Many organizations that deal with architecture or cultural heritage have already actively engaged in the ongoing debate on decolonizing and diversifying heritage. As a globally active organization, ICOMOS has an obligation to deal with this matter, apart from individual statements of some National Committees and Working Groups. This context prompted the kick-off workshop hosted by EPWG (Emerging Professional Working Group) and the ICOMOS Germany AG2020 Working Group on 19 July 2020 with participation of 40 members from a broad range of National Committees and International Scientific Committees.


At present, monuments of colonialists, oppressors and racists are being toppled around the world. A common theme within these responses is a demand for change in how we memorialize and represent history and how officially designated heritage specifically addresses racism, colonialism, enslavement and oppression. 
Many organizations that deal with architecture or cultural heritage have already actively engaged in the ongoing debate (e.g. SAHHistoric EnglandThe Architectural LeagueNational Trust for Historic Preservation). As a globally active organization, ICOMOS has an obligation to deal with this matter, apart from individual statements of some National Committees and Working Groups (US/ICOMOS statement, ICOMOS-UK EP statement). This context prompted the kick-off workshop hosted by EPWG(Emerging Professional Working Group) and the ICOMOS Germany AG2020Working Group on 19 July 2020 with participation of 40 members from a broad range of National Committees and International Scientific Committees.
The workshop began with a brief introduction of the current climate surrounding Black Lives Matter, racial justice, and the toppling of monuments. The floor was then given to all participants to contribute to an open dialogue that had been organized within three discussion sections: 

Representation, Ongoing Initiatives & Suggestions
  • Why are Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) underrepresented in ICOMOS?
  • How should ICOMOS position itself in the current debate?
  • How have other organizations and heritage communities addressed the on-going debate?

Reflection of thegroup and its mandate
  • What do you think are potential measures in the short and long term to achieve an anti-racist heritage practice?
  • How can we identify best practices for achieving inclusiveness in cultural heritage conservation? 
  • What are potential topics to be addressed by future workshops?

Next Steps 
  • Based on what you heard, what should be the immediate follow up of this workshop?
  • Do you think your National Committee, International Scientific Committee or Working Group will discuss this further? How? 
  • Who would like to get involved in organizing future workshops?
With antiracism work, it is important to recognize that it is complex and requires nuance. The two-hour discussion from the workshop ranged from examples of racism seen within interpretation to self-reflection of National Committees to wider conversations surrounding diversity, equity, decolonization, inclusion and antiracism within ICOMOS. Among the question of representation, the mandate of a reflection group was discussed as well as possible next steps.

Representation and Self-reflection of ICOMOS
The anger and calls for change seen within the Black Lives Matter protests have shed light on how whiteness prevails in the structure of organisations, but also as the dominant voice that is seen and heard within them. “In this regard, ICOMOS, needs to take a critical look at itself and the issue of underrepresentation of Black, Indigenous and People of Color in our organization,” aptly stated a participant of the workshop. Discussants addressed the lack of diversity within leadership roles through the different levels of ICOMOS and in general membership, but also how calls for diversity alone do not simply fix the problems of institutional racism. 
The conversations of the session often drifted back to the institution of ICOMOS itself. There was a noted tension of using the structures within an international organization built upon Eurocentric and white ideals to tackle the issues surrounding racism within the heritage field. The dialogue explored how to use the current systems and structures of ICOMOS or whether a larger call for change was needed. Several times participants stated that it was important to work towards something, even if it was not perfect. One participant reflected that this event suggests a need to re-examine what ICOMOS is about. 

Narrative Building – Contention in Heritage

Part of the discussion heavily focused on what stories continue to be told within the context of heritage: white and European. This framing has repressed Indigenous, Black and People of Color’s narratives, but also removed them from the positions of power which make interpretation decisions. By its very nature, heritage is contentious. It is seen, felt, and understood by a variety of actors. What is celebrated by some can be mourned by others. This friction has elevated certain identities (overwhelmingly white, European) as the recognized version of heritage while delegitimizing those already marginalized.

This preliminary workshop was developed because ICOMOS needs to deal more directly with what was transpiring in the world surrounding Black Lives Matter and the emotional and immediate responses happening towards racist and colonial monuments. ICOMOS states that its mission is to preserve and protect monuments and sites andthat it values cultural and social diversity. Monuments throughout the globe have been toppled as societies no longer wish to have racist figures within their communities, yet ICOMOS has remained silent. What does it mean to be an organization dedicated to protecting monuments and sites, when these spaces have racist and colonial histories that continue to perpetuate racism and are sites of pain and trauma to different communities? 

What’s next? 
From the discussion, there was a call for a more immediate response (i.e. a statement) but also for ongoing progress (“Big Picture”) to work to make ICOMOS more inclusive and antiracist in its practices and within its organization. “We also have to ask, who is the statement going to help? Is it going to help our organization look better? Or will it actually help the communities concerned?” critically stated a participant.
Besides the call to immediately recognize the political and cultural climate of the moment, there was also concern for a deeper reflection of ICOMOS as an organization. A few of the long-term suggestions included: 
  • Forming a decolonization working group or ad-hoc working group 
  • Listing and coordinating initiatives 
  • Organizing workshop(s) on monuments (case studies, contentious histories, etc.)
  • Inviting and paying BIPOC speakers and workshop coordinators
  • Promoting the discussion within NCS, ISCs and Working Groups
This workshop served as a starting point. It was a promising show of interest from ICOMOS members who want to challenge the lack of recognition from the organization over Black Lives Matter and adjacent calls to action worldwide. The conversations held will hopefully inspire members to have similar discussions within their own National Committees, Working Groups, and International Scientific Committees. The important question is: what’s next? How can we continue to advocate for antiracism work both within and by ICOMOS? At the end of the workshop, there was a call of interest to those who wanted to continue this work. At this point in time, an ad hoc working group appears to be the best means of continuing the work through ICOMOS systems, while also hoping to disrupt and change them. First, ICOMOS members and its initiatives have to come forward and express interest in organizing follow-up activities. One such example is the “Our Common Dignity Initiative (OCDI)” who is interested in being a party to future webinar on the topic of contested monuments. Those interested in being a part of the process should contact antiracism[at]icomos.org. There is still the more immediate goal of creating a binding statement as well as exploring and implementing long term antiracist initiatives. 
A detailed report is available here.

Inspiration from other organizations & ICOMOS 

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