Illuminating Cultural Heritage

Earlier this year, the inclusion of Bagan in UNESCO’s World Heritage List was met with celebrations, as arguably Myanmar’s most famous heritage site was finally recognised internationally. Conserving cultural heritage is a complex task, and few people within the country have the necessary skills to manage this process. Here at Prospect Burma, we now offer potential funding for Museum Studies qualifications. In this article Joanna Barnard takes a look at conservation within the country, and speaks to our first scholar, Dhammasamilinkara, to consider how heritage may contribute to a more diverse and inclusive notion of nation building.

Bagan: Managing Heritage

The magnificent landscape of Bagan tops most people’s wish list of sites to visit whilst in Myanmar, and it’s not hard to understand why. Located on the central plains beside the Ayeryarwady River, the site was the capital of the mighty Bagan civilisation between the 9th and 13th centuries, the centre of an empire that stretched from Tanintharyi Region in the south to close to the modern-day Chinese border in the north. Governed by Theravada Buddhism, its tradition of merit-making led to the construction of thousands of temples, creating a unique and sacred landscape. In July 2019, to the delight of many observers, Bagan was inscribed onto the World Heritage List, managed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

The listing comprises over 3,500 monuments “including stupas, temples… extensive archaeological resources, and many inscriptions, murals and sculptures”.[1] Established in 1972, the list aims to recognise sites judged important to the collective interests of humanity; as of this year, a total of 1,121 sites exist across 167 countries. The listing was widely celebrated within Myanmar and internationally. Speaking to Reuters, Myanmar diplomat Kyaw Zeya commented “today we are celebrating… afterwards we will continue our efforts of conservation and management of Bagan so that this treasured heritage will remain for another thousand years”.[2]

[2] Reuters July 6 2019

Challenges to Inscription

Achieving this outcome took considerable effort behind the scenes, as the listing came more than two decades after its initial nomination in 1995, in part due to a lack of heritage expertise.

Bagan is a complex, layered cultural landscape which also incorporates living communities and contemporary urban areas. Many believe its authenticity has been impaired by inappropriate archaeological interventions from the 1970s to 1990s. Controversial commercial development has also changed the character of the site, intending to accommodate growing tourist numbers.

Furthermore, extensive damage has resulted from a combination of natural disasters and an unforgiving monsoon climate. In 2016, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake damaged nearly 200 temples.[1] Earlier that year, the Department of Archaeology announced that 300 monuments needed renovation, reflecting the need for a coordinated approach to conservation. In the final nomination dossier, the Myanmar government pledged to implement a management plan for the whole heritage zone, and has more broadly urged citizens to acknowledge and help protect their diverse cultural heritage.[2]

Existing Sites and Tentatives

Bagan was, in fact, Myanmar’s second addition to the World Heritage List, following the inclusion of the three ancient Pyu cities of Sri Ksetra, Hanlin and Beikthano in 2014. The largest of these sites – Sri Ksetra near Pyay, 260km northwest of Yangon – is less extensive than Bagan, and draws far fewer tourists per annum. Numerous other sites remain on UNESCO’s tentative list, including Inle Lake, the Indawgyi Lake Wildlife Sanctuary, and Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda.[1] Myanmar’s heritage sector undoubtedly needs expertise and coordination. In July 2019, President U Win Myint urged for more sites to be accepted onto the list,[2] indicating that the political will is in place to pursue successful nominations.

The next site being prepared for inscription is Mrauk U, the historical capital of the Rakhine kingdom. Those interested in Myanmar may be most familiar with Rakhine in relation to its troubled political situation. Indeed, some analysts view World Heritage status as a ‘label’ for nationalistic ends,[3] presenting a majority view of history that works to obscure contested histories and unequal power relations. This is not a debate unique to Myanmar, as sensitivity and balance are often difficult to achieve. What is needed, therefore, is appropriate education, endowing people with the necessary skills to conserve and curate Myanmar’s unique, distinct and fascinating cultural heritage. This extends across tangible heritage such as ancient archaeological sites, to intangible heritage such as the performing arts.

In this way, Myanmar people may celebrate their heritage how they and their communities see fit, making a space for alternative histories and a celebration of local customs, identity and religious practice within the wider project of nation building.

Opportunities for Study

At present, there are limited opportunities for study of this kind. Two performing and visual arts universities, the National University of Arts and Culture in Yangon and Mandalay, offer bachelor degrees across a number of disciplines, including drama, music and painting. The focus is primarily on traditional Burmese arts,[1] without a comprehensive programme of conservation management. Students may choose to continue into postgraduate education in Yangon, where Museology and Applied Archaeology are offered.

The Museology diploma was established in 2003 by Daw Na Mra Zan, a former Director of the National Museum, Yangon, who now works as a museum consultant to the government. This course helps to train a new generation of museum employees, but needs to be part of a wider system which places emphasis on vocational skills for the sector.


Prospect Burma supports acquisition of vital heritage skills

Within the last three years, we have been offering potential funding for young people to achieve Museum Studies qualifications abroad.

Our first student to be offered a place is Dhammasamilinkara, a 29 year old scholar who is currently reading for an MA in Cultural Heritage & Museum Studies at the University of East Anglia. Dhammasamilinkara’s interest in heritage began when he was engaged as a teacher at a monastery and secular high school in Mandalay, arranging study trips for his students to Bagan and other historical sites. Due to the limited educational opportunities available to monks, he pursued a secular education with Phaung Daw Oo, subsequently moving to Sri Lanka to study for an MA in Buddhist Studies, and then on to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London to complete a Postgraduate Diploma in Asian Art.

“I was struck by the way Bagan was a crossroads of cultural integration, mingling the cultures of Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, Hinduism and local animism,” he explains.

He explored this multiculturalism in his course thesis, which focused on the development of Bagan in the eleventh century and contrasts the vibrancy of the site’s history with the sterility of modern Burmese and Buddhist nationalism.

He situates his work as a counterbalance to this lack of tolerance, rather “offering a path towards the acceptance of cultural diversity in this ethnically and religiously diverse country”. Engaging with these cultural resources, therefore, becomes a fundamental element in the creation of a new national identity, one founded upon acceptance and peace.

“It is my firm belief that this promotion and tolerance of diverse cultural heritage is significant in the moment of political transformation in Myanmar,” he adds.

For Prospect Burma alumnus Hsar Doe Doh Moo Htoo, this message is fundamental to the Salween Peace Park initiative, which he contributes to as a member of the Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN). In addition to championing biodiversity and sustainability, the park also puts emphasis on the promotion of local cultural heritage: “It is my hope that our Traditional and Cultural School in the Salween Peace Park will have its own curriculum, research on cultural knowledge will be executed systematically.” You can read more about Hsar Doe Doh Moo Htoo and the Peace Park here.

For Dhammasamilinkara, engaging young people is a key piece to this puzzle. “The younger generation will play a vital role to ensure its preservation. If we have standard training and adequate knowledge, we will be able to tackle this in the best possible way.”

The scholarship grant will help Dhammasamilinkara increase his own knowledge, and inspire other young people to make a difference: “I aim to help other people to discover the mysteries and thrills of the past and the wider knowledge of cultural heritage and museum studies in creative ways.”

Myanmar’s museum sector

Myanmar’s National Museum, in Yangon

A number of different museums exist under the Ministry of Culture, ranging from large-scale national museums in Yangon and the capital Nay Pyi Taw to archaeological and memorial museums.[1] In addition to these, most ethnic states have their own ‘cultural museum’.

Between 2011 and 2015, modernisation and redevelopment of government-run museums took place, and 95% of the ethnic ‘cultural museums’ were also updated, with investment largely driven by Daw Nu Mra Zan. Myanmar’s newest museum, the National Museum in Nay Pyi Taw, opened in 2015 at the apex of these efforts. However, investment came to a halt in 2015 following the general election, as the Ministry for Culture and Religious Affairs had its budgets cut significantly.

Writing in Tea Circle, Mears and Dudley estimate that the museum sector workforce only comprises some 1,000 people.[2] Despite the limitations, the workforce remains keen to develop its knowledge and skills. The British Council has been working in the sector since 2014, conducting research into the cultural skills gaps across the arts sector. Targeted training programmes now contribute to addressing these shortages. There is also some recognition of how ethnic museums may take a more significant intermediary role in developing relations between the state and Myanmar’s many ethnic minorities, indicating that training young people in these vital skills will have a wider impact on the project of nation building.

Yangon’s built environment

Of all Myanmar’s cities, Yangon has one of the most diverse urban landscapes, and retains a significant collection of colonial architecture alongside lakes, parks and religious buildings across numerous faiths.

Decades of neglect, a lack of clear and concise building regulations and increasing pressure for urban development have put the city’s built heritage – and more broadly its character – at risk.

In 2012, the Yangon Heritage Trust (YHT) was founded by Dr Thant Myint-U and a determined group of architects, business people and historians, to work towards preserving Yangon’s unique architectural legacy. YHT is now supported by an international advisory group, and champions not only the preservation of historic buildings but also the establishment of a coherent urban planning process.

Other organisations, including Turquoise Mountain and Doh Eain, have focused on heritage-led urban regeneration projects in the historic downtown area. Their projects have captured imaginations, and show what can be achieved when conservation is taken seriously in development.

A long way still to go

We can see that while many challenges remain, some advances have been made in acknowledging and preserving Myanmar’s diverse tangible and intangible cultural heritage. Here at Prospect Burma, our investment in quality high education, in relevant subjects, are already starting to have an impact on the preservation of Myanmar’s heritage. While the representation of heritage can sometimes be used to present a centralised and majority view of history, it can also be a powerful tool in asserting different ethnic identities and practices, giving voice and form to people otherwise obscured.

In the words of Dhammasamilinkara, “I believe it is very important to build a nation based on inclusiveness and diversity. As far as democratisation in Myanmar is concerned, cultural heritage plays one of the most important roles in the nation-building project, because cultural heritage shows a respect for the presence of different national identities and ethnicities.”

Allowing young people to have access to international programmes and accreditation will provide a much-needed boost to the sector, and inspire others to follow in their footsteps.