Accessing the Ruins of the Ruins: Monuments, War, and Disabilities

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In the past fifteen years, the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sought to improve the physical accessibility of the global monuments that it catalogs in the international list of “world heritage” sites. Improving accessibility of world heritage, would enable people with forms of physical, visual and cognitive disabilities to experience aspects of global, regional and local historic preservation sites. The accessibility of culture actually constitutes an emerging component in the discourse around human rights. Article 27 of the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” outlines the right to cultural production and maintenance, and the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) is exploring language that would inscribe the accessibility of culture as an international human right, as well: “the right of individuals and communities to, inter alia, know, understand, enter, visit, make use of, maintain, exchange and develop cultural heritage, as well as to benefit from the cultural heritage and the creation of others.” If cultural maintenance was once the chief concern of international rights organizations, cultural accessibility has also become an international movement. But this latest staging of heritage rights raises larger theoretical questions regarding relationships between heritage and disability at a geo-political scale.

Gissen Funambulist (2)
At the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. / Photograph by Honza Soukup (2008).

Currently, the discussion of culture and access imagines on one side a series of artifacts and monuments — which a culture has a right to own and safeguard — and on the other lies a series of physical and cognitive impediments and experiences — which need to be accommodated to experience culture. This formulation has several problems. On the one hand, it perpetuates a a dualism: the Global North dictates paradigms of cultural meaning into the Global South. The idea of the World Heritage Site already instantiates Northern European concepts about monumentality and history globally, and the disability rights discourses utilized by UNESCO have their origins in the United States. On the other hand, much discussion of monuments and disability ignores the manner in which monuments and disability already have an intimate connection. What becomes monumentalized as cultural heritage has built-in concepts regarding mobility, vision and cognitive experience that begin to be questioned in disability rights frameworks. Many monuments have histories of disability as aspects of their histories that become lost when they become reinterpreted through preservation and heritage practices. This can include a range of sites from pilgrimage sanctuaries, plantations, to battlefields. Finally, and maybe most critically, we need to acknowledge both the uneven global distribution of culture at risk and the uneven global distribution of disability, relative to the above ideas.