Cultural Heritage Preservation: A Very Human Problem - by Charlie McBride. News in Conservation, Issue 49, 2015

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©Charlie McBride

As a student in heritage studies, I believed that I had found my career path, yet I craved a challenge and wanted to achieve more than appreciating ancient ruins and sacred places. When the opportunity of an internship with the promise of field work arose, it was an experience I could not ignore.

The heritage consultancy was Rogers Kolachi Khan and Associates and they were based in Pakistan. The Heritage site was located in one of the oldest and congested areas of the city of Rawalpindi. It was with a certain amount of apprehension that I boarded the plane to Islamabad.
Rawalpindi is the twin city of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. The two are joined by a highway called the Murree Road. Islamabad was designed to be the capital of Pakistan, with organised neighbourhood sections and tree lined roads. In stark contrast, the twin city of Rawalpindi grew sporadically from the original, more ancient village.
Rawalpindi has been described as an ‘organic’ city, with buildings all joined together creating narrow, twisting alleys and streets. When designing Islamabad the poorer workers and domestic household staff were not taken into account and as a result they built what they could in Rawalpindi. This added even more to the ad hoc architecture and narrow street plan.
The heritage site we were working on was a nineteenth Century Sikh Mansion (Haveli), located in Barbara Bazaar, one of the oldest neighbourhoods of the city. As a westerner, especially a female, I received a lot of attention. I found there was very rarely any hostility in people’s stares, only great curiosity. My guides soon told me that westerners had not been seen in some of these areas since the September bombings in the USA in 2001. We had to walk to the Haveli each morning, as the streets got so narrow, even motorbikes had trouble navigating them.
The Haveli was named after its architect and owner Sujhan Singh and was designed as his personal residence. Viewing the remains, we could see the great expense and special attention that Sujhan Singh put into his home. There were ornately carved wooden ceilings, opulent gold wall paper, imported steel trimmings on the verandas and stained glass windows in most of the doorways. The Haveli was designed to impress visitors and it would undoubtedly have done so. The main ballroom would have been especially impressive. We found remains of a vibrant blue paint on the walls, an ornately carved wooden ceiling and massive frames that would have featured stained glass patterns. At the centre of it all was an open courtyard, surrounded by arches that featured carved false columns bearing lotus shaped bases. Years later, the courtyard was still beautiful, a lavish area for us to rest and drink the constant supply of sweetened tea, a Pakistani custom that I happily embraced.
One of the biggest events in Pakistani and Indian history forced Sujhan Singh and his family to abandon their beautiful home. In 1947, upon making the decision to quit India, the British government drew up borders according to those who wanted to remain in a Hindu majority government and those who wanted an independent Muslim government. Racial tensions had been lurking beneath the surface for many years and when the borders were drawn, there was a massive explosion of human migration, as everyone rushed to be on the right side of the border. The violence that erupted during this time was widespread and leaves its mark on the two countries today (Ahmed, 2010) . Sujhan Singh and his family migrated to Sikh majority areas in India and the Haveli was abandoned.
Just as Sikhs and Hindus were migrating to India, Muslims were moving to Pakistan. The chaos of the Partition of Pakistan from India meant that the government was unstable and records were lost. During this time, the Haveli was used as a shelter for 43 families who were fleeing the violence of Partition. While these families lived crowded together in the Haveli, others were building outside, connecting buildings to house more and more people.
During times of violence, displaced persons can take shelter in heritage sites, especially when such places feature strong fortifications. Unfortunately, the problems that arise from such situations can be detrimental to these places. Families need water and sanitation as well as a means to make food. The overcrowding of the building led to water damage, rudimentary sanitation and a fire breaking out on the third floor, resulting in damage to the ceilings and walls. The fine decorative features of the architecture were looted to either sell or melt down, especially the decorative cast iron. Rudimentary walls were added to the architecture, for boundaries between the families. The Haveli was stripped down to the bare bones of the building. When the Government regained stability and decided to preserve the building, the families were moved out and to this day live in varying states of poverty around the Haveli, some right next door.
The conservation plan for the Sujhan Singh Haveli was based on the idea of “adaptive re-use”. This approach has been used for many historic buildings, the most common result being the transformation of a heritage building into a public Museum. In this case, the Haveli was to be transformed into an architectural field school for students from the nearby arts university and a museum for visitors. The architecture students would learn as they go, conserving the building while learning the correct method of doing so.
As conservation methods go, adaptive re-use is a method that can be very inclusive of the society that surrounds the building. Students were to be involved in the future conservation process and therefore had a personal interest in the building. Workers were hired from the area, for manual labour in a city where jobs are precious and money is scares. The surrounding area would be improved, with the long term plan of attracting tourists and more money.
My job was to document the character defining features of the Haveli. With such research included, the adaptive re-use would not damage any historic fabric, and the museum would tell the public the story of the building. Particular to this case is the protection this plan affords the Haveli. Much of the built heritage has been knocked down and rebuilt to make room for an ever expanding population. Part of the conservation plan was to increase awareness of the benefits of heritage protection, through public research programmes.
During these research programmes, we were invited into the homes of the surrounding neighbourhood and met some of the families who had once taken shelter in the Haveli. Many of these people had tragedy in their lives and visiting the building was for them traumatic. One woman could not visit the second floor because her son had been born there, and had recently died. One family was in mourning for a daughter who had died due to ill health, another family had a baby boy who was struggling to breathe. While researching the history of the building, the fact that these people had been moved and then forgotten was obvious. What about their heritage and history? Their presence in the Haveli had a very detrimental effect on the fabric of the building, but the government’s solution was hardly in the best interest of the community who were in need. But apart from removing them, what else could be done? The chaos and violence of Partition resulted in lost records, racial tensions and enduring trauma, lasting through the following generations. In such situations, people can easily be forgotten. This experience showed me that there is a notable gap between the ideals of cultural property recovery and its ability to aid displaced persons.
The merging of cultural property recovery with humanitarian efforts has begun to take hold around the world. Destruction of cultural property through cultural cleansing, targeted violence, displaced persons and deliberate destruction of heritage buildings has been recognised by the UN as a human rights abuse (United Nations General Assembly, 2011). Despite this acknowledgement, there remains a great need for coordination of heritage conservation work with humanitarian aid efforts. How can a building be preserved while displaced persons are using that building for shelter? Can aid organisations and cultural recovery efforts be integrated into a rapid recovery programme? How can cultural heritage and identity be rescued, along with displaced persons? In a country like Pakistan how do we work together with policy makers, ensuring a well-coordinated rescue operation?
These questions have stayed with me and will continue to drive my future career in heritage conservation.
Acknowledgements: All information learned regarding the history of the Haveli was learned onsite, while working under Rogers, Kolachi, Khan and Associates.