Jun 13 2014

Studying Asian heritages

Philippe Peycam

After the celebrations of IIAS’ twenty year anniversary, I can now return to a more regular recounting of what the institute is up to and how the different programmes under the three thematic clusters are progressing (Asian Heritages, Asian Cities and Global Asia).

I will discuss here some developments within the Asian Heritages cluster, as the last six months have seen a number of projects taking a more solid if not institutionalised form, while more events took place or are being scheduled: a series of conferences on heritage politics in Southeast and East Asia, in collaboration with the Institute for Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS in Singapore) and Academia Sinica (Taiwan); the formalisation of a graduate teaching programme at Leiden University, and from Sept 2014, at National Taiwan University; and the continuation of the in situ roundtable series now in conjunction with IIAS Summer/Winter Schools.

Before I do that, I would like say something about the first Africa-based conference on Asian studies that IIAS, through the ICAS Secretariat, is helping to organise in collaboration with the Association for Asian Studies in Africa (A-ASIA) next year. This international conference entitled 'Asian Studies in Africa: Challenges and Prospects of a New Axis of Intellectual Interactions', will be held in Accra, Ghana, on 15-17 January 2015.

It will be an event of historical magnitude for what it means in terms of long term development of a corridor of intellectual, academic and cultural exchanges between the two continents.

I would like to thank the numerous people and institutions in Africa, Asia, the United States and Europe who have expressed interest in participating in this pioneering event, and those who are supporting it. We have been amazed by the number of paper and panel abstracts already submitted and by some fascinating ideas that have emerged for proposed roundtables. This enthusiasm is shared by people from US Liberal Arts colleges to prestigious academic centres in Senegal, India, Ethiopia, China and Southeast Asian countries. It shows that a real ‘axis of knowledge’ between Asia and Africa has now become a necessity. In anticipation to the Accra conference, I want to, on behalf of the organising committee, express my gratitude and satisfaction (for more information about the conference: www.africas.asia).

The role of social actors in heritage-making

I am returning to Heritage. Heritage as a discourse corresponds to the rise of the modern nation-state, and its formulation is constitutive to the nation-making ‘project’. Yet, heritage is signified and produced as a result of a complex process of power relations involving social actors such as the state, local communities, activists, and civil society organisations – including universities – as well as international/interstate entities such as UNESCO, Asian Development Bank, ASEAN, etc.

To address the complexity of this power relation, IIAS, ISEAS and Academia Sinica decided to explore the role of these social actors in context, and in their interactions with each other.

Three conferences
The first conference took place in Singapore in January 2014, focusing on the role of the state. It was a great success, especially given the choice taken by the host partners, ISEAS and National University of Singapore, to juxtapose situations occurring in various countries with that prevailing in Singapore, particularly in the aftermath of the planned destruction by the Government of the Bukit Brown Cemetery.

The second event is to be held in Taiwan in December 2014. It will focus on the role of citizens, local communities and civil society organisations in heritage-making. It promises to be another landmark event, largely because of the vibrancy of Taiwan’s civil society.

The third meeting will most likely take place in the Netherlands toward the end of 2015, and will focus on the role of international organisations and global heritage activism.

Each of the events will result in a collective edited reference volume.

Graduate Programme in Critical Heritage Studies in Asia and Europe

The second major breakthrough in the field of heritage studies is the establishment of a trans-regional graduate programme on Critical Heritage Studies in Asia and Europe. IIAS is here acting as a ‘middleman’ between universities such as Leiden, National Taiwan, Gaja Madah and Yonsei.

Under the coordination (and teaching) of Dr Adele Esposito, the MA programme track started officially in September 2013 in Leiden. Its Taiwanese counterpart will begin in Taipei next September, under the coordination (and teaching) of Professor Hoang Liling.

We expect to see our Korean and Indonesian colleagues to begin the following academic year.

This undertaking has profound implications in the way faculty and students will frame their teaching and studies; but also, now that the participation of Professor Michael Herzfeld from Harvard University as IIAS Visiting Professor has been confirmed, a continuing dialogic platform will be established, involving language-based and/or historically knowledgeable scholars. This model will contribute, in a truly contextualised fashion, to the study of the production of cultural knowledge – ‘heritage’ – and its contemporary uses. It is a challenge that the universities mentioned above have been willing to take on, with the additional objective of engaging their societies and peoples in the whole debate over culture and identity, at home and in relation to ‘others’.

Roundtables and Summer/Winter Schools

In parallel to these two initiatives in the field of heritage, IIAS continues to help local partners in organising in situ roundtables where representatives of the civil society, local authorities and local universities are engaged in the revitalisation of an urban area. These events are usually developed in collaboration with UKNA members or affiliates (Urban Knowledge Network Asia, www.ukna.asia).

The most recent roundtable took place in Macau, with a special focus on the city/port and now Special Administrative Region’s ‘Inner Harbour’ (Portuguese: Porto Interior, Chinese: 内港 ). The area represents one of the oldest points of contact between China and Europe and was, for at least two centuries, the only allowed centre of commerce between the Empire and the rest of the world. The roundtable was organised in collaboration with the Institute of European Studies of Macau, Macau University, the SAR’s Cultural Bureau and local civil society actors.

It took place prior to IIAS’s Winter School, this time in collaboration with Macau University, on the theme of ‘Urban Hybridity in the Post-Colonial Age’ (16-20 Dec 2013). The co-conveners were Michael Herzfeld, Akhil Gupta and Engseng Ho, with the participation of Tim Simpson, Jose Luis Sales Marques and Non Arkaraprasertkul. This Winter School, with twenty-six participants and twenty- one nationalities, proved to be one of the best ever organised by IIAS.

We are now preparing the upcoming heritage-related Summer School, to be held in Chiang Mai next August, this time on ‘Craft and Power’, in collaboration with Chiang Mai University, and with the participation of Achar Chayan, Aarti Kawlra, Pamela Smith and Françoise Vergès. The Summer School, made possible by a grant from the Mellon Foundation, will be followed by an in situ roundtable with textile weaving communities.

Relevant to all our activities, including the IIAS Summer/ Winter Schools, is the continued collaboration with Asian partners, to further anchor IIAS and its network at the core of knowledge-making in and on Asia.