Dr Cristina Clopot
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
Professor of Slavery and Emancipation
Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull
A headline in the media in recent weeks brought to the fore the lingering role of colonialism in current affairs. In a media show in France, two scientists were invited to reflect on the ongoing health crisis and the quest for a vaccine. The scientists are reported to have suggested at some point that the best testing ground for a vaccine study would be Africa, where weaknesses in local health systems might lead to more accurate results. While the reaction of the two scientists is solely reflective of their own views, not of their respective institutions or countries, it still raised some harrowing and, at the same time, interesting reflections on the persistence of colonial mentalities. In a press briefing, the Director General of the World Health Organisation, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, condemned the comments of the two scientists as racist, adding that: “the hangover from the colonial mentality has to stop”. Part of the challenge we have set for ourselves on the EU-funded ECHOES project is to suggest some improvements in the way we address Europe’s colonial past, so as to hopefully prevent such embarrassing public displays in the future.
Heritage diplomacy at the centre
On the ECHOES project, we work mainly with the concept of ‘heritage diplomacy’ (for conceptual discussions see Winter 2015 or Clarke 2018). We relate this to the currently used term ‘international cultural relations’ (ICR), or ‘culture in external relations’. Whereas the latter inter-related concepts have the potential to bring about significant change in engaging with partners across the world, our research has highlighted that official discourse and related practices in both EU institutions and member states’ representative institutions still reflect Eurocentric discourses.
We argue that drawing on long-standing narratives of European exceptionalism can be detrimental to addressing the deep wounds of Europe’s colonial past. Moreover, such narratives run the risk of occluding the experiences, knowledges and memories of those groups who might be described as the ‘victims’ of colonialism. It is for this reason that we believe alternative strategies are needed to address these pitfalls, while at the same time maintaining fairer international partnerships based on reciprocity and trust. For further details, please see our policy brief.
Official and unofficial agents
The ECHOES’ understanding of heritage diplomacy builds on a complex network of agents that operate at different levels. Relating our work on ECHOES with what we are currently experiencing in the ongoing health crisis, it is evident that information-sharing is not only happening at state level, but that scientists, medical research institutions and others are finding ways to collaborate that were not previously considered.
Similarly, a complex web of museums, artists and NGOs or community groups working on the ground can bring about significant changes in collective understandings of colonial heritage’s legacy. Addressing issues such as persistent racial inequality or disparities between North and South comes naturally to these agents, as does accepting and working through the resentment generated by former colonial relations. With current digital technologies, even individuals can spark international reactions, as the example presented at the beginning of this post shows.
On this point, we recommend that policy makers should ‘revise existing models for collaboration for heritage diplomacy to include networks and movements that are influential at local, national and international levels’. Research in ECHOES from different countries has highlighted time and time again how changes are brought about by such unofficial agents (see more in our prepared outputs).
One of the domains in which a Western bias is maybe most clearly seen is that of indigenous knowledge. Indigenous knowledges are often relegated to the margins and while official positions have been presented by different indigenous groups’ representatives, these have limited reach. In relation to the recent health crisis, the Chair of the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues within the UN remarked:
“Indigenous peoples can contribute to seeking solutions. Their good practices of traditional healing and knowledge, such as sealing off communities to prevent the spread of diseases and of voluntary isolation, are being followed throughout the world today.”
The impact of such declarations is difficult to measure, as Western representatives and institutions dominate public opinion and knowledge production. In our work we emphasise the importance of intercultural dialogue that can bring new forms of collaborations to the fore.
At first glance, we are currently experiencing a health epidemic, yet its implications are much wider, spilling over into different fields of activity. Although ECHOES deals mainly with cultural heritage, we have found many parallels with the current situation. This is fittingly so, as different indigenous knowledge systems often emphasise holistic approaches, while at the same time rejecting Cartesian divides between nature and culture, or clear demarcations of scientific fields. The ongoing crisis with its impetus for international solidarity can therefore present a further opportunity to reflect collectively on the importance of colonial legacies in shaping behaviour and policy.
 Clarke, A. (2018) Heritage Diplomacy. In Handbook of Cultural Security, edited by Yasushi Watanabe, 417–36. Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA, USA: Edward Elgar Publishing.