This week, Asia Society is convening cultural heritage enthusiasts and professionals alike for the second edition of its Arts & Museum Summit, “The Past and Present Preserved: Assuring Our Cultural Legacy in the 21st Century.” Taking place at the Asia Society Hong Kong Center (ASHK), the principal discussions revolve around the preservation of intangible and tangible heritage in Asia, which—as we were quickly informed by Asia Society president Josette Sheeran—is facing a critical threat.
Day one of the Summit, which took place on November 19, began pleasantly with an introduction from ASHK executive director S. Alice Mong, who enlightened us with a story about the two fruit-bat families that inhabit two specially protected trees in the Center’s luscious green gardens. Her point was to remind us that some things are worth taking care of—even at the great expense of designing the garden’s outdoor walkway in a zig-zag formation, just so that it evades the trees. These are some lucky bats, indeed.
The heart-warming ambience of Mong’s introduction took a quick turn, however. In the Summit’s keynote address, which was presented in the form of a pre-recorded video speech, UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova urged that “we must all join forces to defend this conviction.” Working on the frontline of heritage preservation (not to be confused with “conservation”), Bokova assertively labelled the destruction of cultural heritage a “cultural cleansing” of sorts and a “war crime” that must be faced head on by all—frankly, a rather frightening thought.
As I germinated on this idea, the renowned Vishakha N. Desai, president emerita of Asia Society, expanded on Bokova’s words with a solemn reminder that the destruction of cultural heritage—regardless of whether or not it is intentional—is a repeating concern in history. Moreover, she points out that with each occurrence of destruction, a part of human civilization inevitably vanishes. The first speaker of the subsequent panel, Timothy Whalen from the Getty Cultural Institute in Los Angeles, presented a case study of conservation being undertaken on wall cave paintings at the Mogao Grottoes, a UNESCO listed World Heritage Site situated on the Silk Road in northwestern China. The project, which has been ongoing since 1989, is in partnership with China’s State Administration of Cultural Heritage and Dunhuang Academy. Whalen notes how, over the years, the methodology of conservation has had to evolve in accordance with China’s socioeconomic changes, environmental disasters (largely sandstorms and floods) and the impact of mass tourism in recent years.
Moving onto the topic of intangible culture, Phloeun Prim, director of the Phnom Penh-based Cambodian Living Arts introduced the various projects of his organization and the challenges it faces in reviving and continuing the arts in a country where 90% of its prominent artists were once lost to the genocide under the Khmer Rouge. On the issue of engaging the interest of a younger audience, and addressing the generational gap within the Cambodian population, Prim posed the question of tradition versus contemporary, suggesting that perhaps the two need not be mutually exclusive. Expanding on that thought, Hammad Nassar of Hong Kong’s Asia Art Archive (AAA) demonstrated that art history is rooted in the practice of contemporary artists, using AAA’s project of excavating Hong Kong artist Ha Bik Shuen’s archive as a case in point. Ha, as Nassar notes, was a natural archivist of Hong Kong’s exhibition and art history.
The question of authenticity led the discussion for the second panel of speakers. Turning towards science, Helen Philon, co-founder of Deccan Heritage Foundation in Mumbai, spoke rather quickly yet densely about the organization’s recent work restoring three qanat hydraulic systems—ingenious sloping tunnels made in clay or carved in rock that transport water from its source of origin to an inhabited area—in and around the city of Bidar, India. A very personal presentation followed next from Restu Kusumaningrum, founder of arts agency and consultancy Bumi Purnati Indonesia, whose words conveyed her passion for her native country and its performing arts. Sharing several of her company’s performative theatre projects, Kusumaningrum expressed that “we are not in globalization, we are after globalization,” leaving open the question of how traditionally authentic art forms could continue to exist in the 21st century and remain contextually relevant. The final topic for the day appeared to also be the most hotly debated. Google Cultural Institute’s (GCI) Bárbara Navarro gave what seemed like a very business-minded talk on the organization’s efforts in preserving (a term whose usage was later challenged by an audience member) the world’s cultures through fast-speed, high-resolution digital technology. Ending with a short Google-style promo clip, Navarro cemented the point of GCI: reaching a global audience and innovating the way children learn. Although Navarro noted that 65% of the world’s population were still offline, the big question that remained unanswered was how GCI would educate those without the first-world privileges of high-speed internet and smart devices.
Nonetheless, day one of the Summit ended as pleasantly as it started. The Dimen Dong folk chorus from southwest China serenaded us with centuries-old traditional songs, poetically conveying their people’s tribal stories, as well as courtship and drinking rituals. Residing in the Guizhou province, the Dong people have neither written language nor musical scores—everything is learnt and memorized phonetically. The performance, and our night, ended with a drinking song, which involved the performers cheerfully bringing around small cups of wine and serving them to selected people—audiences were warned it was not custom to touch the cup themselves—and ultimately ended in a group dance. Lucky for me, the wine was light fruit wine (transporting alcohol on the train is forbidden, which necessitated the Dong’s original rice wine to be substituted with the alternative), or else my two cups may have had me dancing on my two left feet.