Armed with a strong coffee in one hand and my laptop in the other, I was ready for day two of Asia Society’s Arts & Museum Summit held on November 20. The morning began with a lesson in conservation practices from two museums in Shanghai. Chang Lin-sheng, director of Aurora Museum, gave a walkthrough of history involving Chinese antiquities and provenance. Her point to take home, regarding a mindset many museums are yet to learn, concerned Aurora’s proud repatriation of not one, but several artefacts, which was conducted upon discovering that the objects had been previously looted and illegally traded.
When the second speaker, Chen Kelun of the Shanghai Museum, announced that his speech would be presented in Mandarin—rather ironically in Mandarin—the auditorium erupted into a quick scramble for interpretation headphones. Putting the simultaneous translator to the test, Chen spoke speedily on the state-of-the-art conservation technology employed by the Shanghai Museum. Come question time, I drew on my studies in art conservation (all one semester worth, that is) and proposed the query of how a museum comes to negotiate the choice between “preservation,” which retains an object in its present yet stabilized state, and “restoration,” which is the task of returning an object to its former state. Chen answered by affirming that the Shanghai Museum is highly skilled and capable of restoring artefacts to a pristine condition—such that collectors would be unable to ascertain if the object had been retouched. As this was not quite the answer I was seeking, my question appeared to have been lost in translation.
The next panel of the day focused on the performing arts sector, where Hong Kong’s own Louis Yu—executive director of Performing Arts, West Kowloon Cultural District—spoke fervently about Xiqu, which translates to “Chinese theatre” and not, as Yu was quick to point out, “Chinese opera.” Fairouz Nishanova, director of Aga Khan Music Initiative, discussed how “cultural development projects can not only stop being a burden, but can serve as a trampoline for social and economic projects.” Her presentation included selections of before-and-after photos of Aga Khan’s site transformation projects, including an industrial site in Toronto, Canada, which has since become parkland and a cultural precinct.
Risk management and threats, both environmental and manmade, formed the topic of panel three. Zeyba Rahman from Honolulu’s Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, whizzed the audience through the colorful and vibrant historic culture of Fez, a city in Morroco with a history dating to the 8th century. Meanwhile, Dina Bangdel, professor of art history at Virginia Commonwealth University of Qatar, discussed the idea of post-trauma recovery, in reference to the devastating earthquakes that shook Nepal in April. Ahmed Sarmast, who heads up projects at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul, gave a poignant yet all too important presentation on the power of music in defending the ordinary people in times of civil war and unrest. Sharing several incidences where the performing of Afghan music was tragically targeted by extreme fundamentalists, Sarmast finished his speech with a powerful statement that one must not give up in the face of violence. He ardently believes in “arts and culture for the better of the nation” and wishes for a time when the lives of children, thirsty and eager for music, would not come under lethal threats.
The fourth and fifth panels of the Summit built on many of the concerns that were raised in the preceding discussions. Indonesian performance artist Arahamaiani shared the stage with Singapore International Festival of Arts director Ong Keng Sen and Sarah Kenderdine of Sydney’s University of New South Wales to raise questions of ephemerality in the arts, and how one goes about working with, and archiving, creative projects that are not designed to remain static. The final panel brought together three deep thinkers with alternative approaches to preserving intangible and tangible cultural heritage. The cheerful Hongnam Kim, former director general of the National Museums of Korea, referenced several case studies of traditional villages and historic houses being preserved as cultural heritage, while sprinkling her presentation with undeliberate humor. Whereas Vasif Kortun, director of research and programs at Istanbul’s SALT, gave a largely academically-inclined talk on the importance of archives—including issues of ownership, interpretation and dissemination. Amplifying UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova’s stance, who views the destruction of cultural heritage as a “cultural cleansing” of sorts and a “war crime” that must be faced head on by all, Kortun declared: “It’s a battlefield out there.”
Rajeev Sethi, a renowned artist-designer and founder of New Delhi’s Asian Heritage Foundation, was the final guest of honor for the Summit talks. Explaining that in the past 24 hours he had been trying to understand why less is more when giving a ten-minute presentation, Sethi began his talk with the exclamation: “The [time-tracking] bell will decide if I’ve learned anything.” Perhaps the lesson was yet to be learnt. Sethi launched into a passionate, long and chiefly philosophical speech that ended with multiple “dings” of the bell and the panel moderator stepping on stage in an attempt to bring the panel to a close. It was a shame there was not more time; Sethi’s jam-packed slide presentation, which zipped through what felt like a hundred images of artworks, projects and festival documentations, was luminous and enchanting.
The Summit addressed many pressing topics arising in works being done to ensure the survival of cultural heritage for future generations. It would likely require more time before I can get a full grasp of the vast knowledge I consumed in these mere two days. Nonetheless, if there was only one lesson to take away from the past 48 hours of convening with some of the top minds in the arts industry, it is that cultural heritage encompasses many forms of creative culture, and its protection is a grave responsibility that we are all collectively tasked with.