On Delma Island, at Liwa oasis, and in the classroom, Robert Parthesius is helping NYU Abu Dhabi students discover UAE heritage — while challenging them to re-think exactly what “heritage” means.
Parthesius, a marine archaeologist and associate professor of heritage studies, is the director of the Dhakira Center for Heritage Studies at NYUAD. His work aims to expand the notion of heritage to include “the voices of people connected to, or living at, heritage sites.”
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has designated 1,073 world heritage “properties” deemed to meet certain criteria such as “outstanding universal value” as “a master piece of human creative genius” or “… exceptional natural beauty”.
This “monumental” approach, Parthesius said, has helped preserve many sites. But one byproduct has been a growing “heritage industry” of tourism and gentrification. Indeed some scholars around the world, he added, “argue that UNESCO and governments are dictating what is heritage … it’s seen as a sanitizing of people’s pasts.”
In truth, the past has many layers, and so “there must also be other ways to look at heritage,” he said. “In our view, the essence of heritage is not a thing or a city, it’s how people choose to use their past.”
“In the UAE people love to tell stories; their oral history is so strong. But almost everybody says ‘my story is not important, it’s only about my family’. So we’re trying to give them the floor. Let’s record their stories.”
"Heritage here is so important,” he added, “and there is the spirit to explore and willingness to invest in the past. With Dhakira we’re developing new ways of looking at heritage, with new tools. These new methods we are developing here in the UAE can be a model for other communities living on World Heritage Sites.”