What can we do for UNESCO? Lessons of peace from Hadrian’s Wall

UPDATE – see the video of the conference, published by Tullie House,

What is the real reason Hadrian’s Wall is a World Heritage Site?  It’s not only because it’s part of the Frontiers of the Roman Empire,  a magnificent relic of ancient empire engineering, it’s also because “since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed” – the Constitution of UNESCO UNESCO (United Nations’ Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) inscribe World Heritage Sites like Hadrian’s Wall, Durham Cathederal, and Stonehenge amongst others in the UK. It was set up in the years following the Second World War by the UN to encourage what humanity shares rather than what divides us. Archaeology is the study of the past, which helps us understand our present and shape our future. Of all the 981 World Heritage Sites globally, Hadrian’s Wall is perhaps one of the most appropriate to illustrate the centuries long legacy that such divisions can create. At Tullie House Museum in Carlisle this week, an international gathering contemplated different perspectives on borders and frontiers. Reknowned artist John Byrne related public reactions when he set up The Border Interpretive Centre on the road between Dublin and Belfast. Photographer JR’s video put people on both sides of the Palestinian/Israeli Face 2 Face with each other. David Curtis from Medicins Sans Frontiers showed how impartiality and collaboration across borders saved lives in Lybia, particularly of those trapped against those borders. Film maker Dr Miriam Abu Sharkh was prevented from travelling to the conference, ironically by border controls, but we watched her short film about the smugglers who circumvent the controls in Gaza by tunnelling. The influence of the GDR State Security on the lives of  East German Olympic cycle athletes was examined through research interviews conducted by Anneke-Susan Hackenbroich. The day was top and tailed with a look back at the native British context of Hadrian’s Wall, and a provocation from Professor Peter Stone challenging the predominance of ‘heritage’ in World Heritage Sites over UNESCO’s purposes. The speech that was the most stimulating for me was that of Rory Stewart, Conservative MP for Penrith and the Borders. He was concerned with how Hadrian’s Wall helps us understand our present and importantly, shape our future, stating ‘frontiers create culture’. His agenda was overtly anti-Scottish independence, citing the Golden Age of Northumbria and the industrial renaissance during the late 17th and 18th centuries to champion the concept of a united kingdom, saying that this area’s worst times are when it is treated as a blank space: used as a nuclear dump, mined for resources or for rewilding. I don’t agree with some of the values he demonstrates in what he says. An edge can be seen as peripheral, but it is also a dynamic place of interaction and change. At Hadrian’s Wall we have space, space for other things which can have their value counted in other ways. Peace is constructed in the minds of men, as UNESCO says, and here we have an opportunity to allow those minds the space to explore ideas, underpin dreams, contemplate peace. People may come here because of the Wall, but they leave with their memories of the landscape. Walking the Wall, the tranquillity is unparalleled in England – the darkest skies, the cleanest rivers, the sparsest population – but it is occasionally punctuated by the MOD training – booms from the jets and bombs, gently dampened by the moss on the hills. So maybe this is the real reason Hadrian’s Wall is a World Heritage Site. It gives us a context and space to construct our own learning and perspectives on creating a peaceful future.    

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