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



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.

At the Athens Acropolis. / Photograph by Daniel Lobo (2006).

When UNESCO or the UNHRC view access to culture and education as a right, they are extending a disability rights discourse with early 19th century roots and that took on an activist tone fifty years ago. In the 1970s, U.S. residents with physical and cognitive disabilities demanded an end to the medicalization of their disabilities as aberrations that required treatment and instead focused on the social and physical structures which exacerbated their lived experiences. The “independent living movement,” a disability civil rights movement centered in the San Francisco Bay Area, demanded access to education, public space, transportation, and to live independently of institutionalized care. The provision of ramps and elevators, braille panels and accessibility devices transformed experiences of space predominantly for those living in European and North American cities and having the means to afford them. Disability rights continues to evolve with equal emphasis placed on transforming social attitudes towards disability as much as the social and physical structures which present potential limits. The extension of disability access rights to historic monuments represents a late-stage of much earlier efforts, as heritage has often been imagined beyond access due to its age and the needs of historic preservation. In the U.S., for example, many historic structures are free from being held to the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

While the majority of disability rights work has been focused in Europe and North America, four-fifths of the world’s disabled population lives in the Global South. The World Health Organization (WHO), the organization that discovered this disturbing statistic, defines disability as “the umbrella term for impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions, referring to the negative aspects of the interaction between an individual (with a health condition) and that individual’s contextual factors (environmental and personal factors)” (“World report on disability,” 2011). The terms “individual” and “contextual” that I have highlighted in this quote acknowledge debates in North America and Europe regarding how disability should be defined: is it a quality of people or a quality of their surroundings? As it is regularly pointed out among disability scholars, very little research actually examines the experiences or politics of non-European or North American experiences with disability. One potential reason may be that the Euro-American disability rights frameworks often mean little in contexts where oppression based on race, nationality, and religion is a far more urgent issue.

If the Global South is the epicenter of disability, it is also a part of the world whose physical cultural heritage has borne disproportionate threats, expropriations, and/or is rendered unrecognizable due to colonial violence, social conflict, and looting. The majority of UNESCO’s list of fifty-four endangered world heritage sites are in Africa and the Middle East; and with the exception of the city-center of Vienna, these parts of the world hold all of the architecture sites listed as endangered. A history of disablement and cultural destruction would be a disturbing and large undertaking and would encompass any number of regional narratives. We can find numerous connections between colonial practices that simultaneously disabled populations and disinherited them of cultural sites, artifacts and their “intangible heritage.” The writing of Sven Beckert on the interconnections between the 19th century British colonization of India, the destruction of its weaving economy and urban centers, and the expansion of the Atlantic slave trade are instructive in the global scale of physical and cultural debilitation. The writing of architecture historian Alona Nitzan-Shiftan on the late 20th century transformation of Jerusalem demonstrates much more recent histories of dispossession, cultural appropriation and historical reconstruction (see Seizing Jerusalem: The Architectures of Unilateral Unification, 2017).

Gissen Funambulist (3)
(left) Entrance of the Mỹ Sơn temple complex. / Photograph by Shankar S. (2016).

The contemporary and liberal project of making cultural heritage monuments more accessible often fails to address historical and geographical relations between physical and cultural harm — contained within many sites. The world heritage site Mỹ Sơn (pronounced “me sun”), located in the center of Vietnam, is one of many potential sites where we can imagine more complex relationships between historical monuments and disabilities. Mỹ Sơn is one of the largest extant “Cham” Hindu temple complexes in South East Asia; and has a nearly 1,000-year long history as a site of worship and one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in Indochina. During French colonialism the site went through processes of “disengagement” that involved evicting the remaining residents who lived among its buildings, removing soil and plant life from the structures, casting and photographing them, and transforming the site into an archaeological park for tourism.

During the U.S. War in Vietnam the temple complex became badly damaged due to the U.S. Air Force’s decision to “carpet-bomb” the valley in May of 1969. This specific air campaign resulted in a still-unknown number of Vietnamese deaths and wounded, though we know that more than 10,000 people were killed in this month alone throughout all areas of the U.S.War in Vietnam. The temple grounds and surrounding landscape are pocked with bomb craters, and many of the temples were transformed into piles of debris. In the past fifteen years, the Vietnamese government has raised funds to support reconstruction of several of the original buildings, but the surrounding areas of Mỹ Sơn are dangerous due to unexploded U.S. ordnance. A site such as this one, which contains histories of colonial excavation, destruction, war and trauma, might provide us with opportunities to probe more deeply into the rights of maintenance and accessibility that hover around the concept of cultural heritage.

Gissen Funambulist (4)
Crater created by U.S. airforce’s bombing during the war. / Photograph by Shankar S. (2016).

Mỹ Sơn is inextricably entangled with histories of colonial violence that register in multiple ways — on the stones and bricks of its excavated architecture, in piles of rubble and bomb craters, visible damage to the surrounding vegetation and forest, and most significantly within the memories and disabilities of Vietnamese people. To begin addressing such geopolitical complexities of monumentality and disability involves understanding how rights to cultural histories might unfold in space. On the one hand, we need to consider how the Euro-American concept of the monument actually creates limitations to more complex histories and sensibilities of culture. On the other hand, we might consider how the right to access cultural history can be staged at sites such as Mỹ Sơn as more complex assemblages of subjectivity and history.

WHO’s conception of disability (divided between the individual and the environmental) and UNESCO’s concept of world heritage sites limit the conceptualization of contact between disability and history to one of access. But a site like Mỹ Sơn demonstrates how disability is not only individual and environmental but historically produced as well — part of a struggle for independence from colonialism. Mỹ Sơn, and the many other sites with analogous histories, enable us to ask how monuments and disability might reconstitute the other at a more structural level.

Keys to evaluating the above will be shifting disability away from its role as a way to evaluate a pre-existing site of heritage and culture. Rather, we might imagine differing physical and cognitive capacities and their relationships to specific places and sites as one origin point in identifying, conserving and restoring historical knowledges and experiences. In other words, the context or environment that would otherwise stand in the way of a disability would become generated in and through a disability perspective. As mentioned earlier, what and how sites are preserved and reconstructed already contains the experiences and imaginations of those with the capacity to undertake this work. What would a monument remade through the experience of immobility or blindness, among other possibilities, look like? Disability and disabled bodies would cease being a topic of concern — in the manner of UNESCO and UNHCR’s project of making culture accessible — and become instead the generators of spaces and histories.

Gissen Funambulist (5)
Part of the temple endangered by the effects of time and war. / Photograph by Shankar S. (2016).

The reason Mỹ Sơn, and other sites like it are so provocative, is that what I am calling a disability perspective would likely be locally inflected based on the experiences of people recovering from the experience of the U.S.war that was waged here. Finally, such a perspective might also recast who we consider disabled: to paraphrase an observation made by political theorist Jasbir Puar in a different context, who would we define as “able-bodied” in the immediate aftermath of the American carpet-bombing of Mỹ Sơn? Clearly, the staging of this idea of accessibility and disability rights at Mỹ Sơn will result in much more than ramps and braille panels!

To imagine the globalization of rights to access heritage, requires understanding the uneven distribution of risks faced by cultures and the uneven exposure to processes of disablement. Once we understand these histories, the experiences of physical and cultural debilitation need to be woven into the historical narratives of heritage spaces. Knowledge and evidence of such processes in no way guarantees lament; it might result in punishment of the perpetrators of violence, but it is absolutely part of a heritage — however troubling. Once we acknowledge this, we can envision how disability becomes a subjectivity from which to begin reconstructing the experience of history for all and a more just and authentic vision of world heritage.