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Conserving heritage, conserving identity

  • Published at 03:54 am July 10th, 2013
Conserving heritage, conserving identity

Britain is not exactly lacking in castles, the oldest of which are about 1,000 years old, and the newest, not the numerous Victorian reproductions but real defensive fortifications, about six or seven hundred years old. According to published figures, there are at least 180 well conserved, even habitable buildings, and up to 1,500 or so sites and ruins or partial ruins.

From the royal castle at Windsor to the humblest baronial towers of Scotland, this is part of the rich heritage of the nation, which is one of the world’s leading destinations for heritage tourism. It is among the most valuable, socially and environmentally sensitive of tourism generating over £54bn a year from the kind of interested local tourists who one also encounters so often at sites in Bangladesh, and over £17bn in foreign exchange from the kind of international tourists that Bangladesh has plenty to offer. From lost, ancient cities like that at Wari Bateshwar, to partially excavated ones such as Mahasthangarh and Bhitagarh, through forts to centuries of social, cultural and religious remains and extant buildings.

There is a continuous process of preservation and conservation in Britain to protect the heritage that is a part of who the British are. The very ancient port cities, religious heritage, and remains of especially Mughal and British empires are as much part of who the people of Bangladesh are. They are invaluable symbols of their history, and a treasure trove of tourist destinations.

This part of the heritage in Britain predates, by centuries, the lavish stately homes, mansions and palaces. Many are, ironically, financed in large part by wealth generated from international trade, including, almost certainly since the time of Roman occupation nearly two thousand years ago, trade with and through the Ganges Delta that comprises so much of modern Bangladesh.

Such fortifications represent the troubled times of British history that enables today’s Britons to appreciate such social disruptions in other developing nations, and make significant contributions to making and keeping peace across today’s world, especially through their aid and development work.

Anyone familiar with Bangladesh will be astonished at the rate of disappearance of the tangible heritage of these lands that were once upon a time, two, perhaps as much as three, millennia ago, at the epicentre of international trade, with religious buildings, forts, ports, mansions and palaces to describe this heritage of ancient affluence. Fortunately, although the archaeological heritage can be destroyed, or even traded with foreign antique dealers, the rich documentary heritage that spans about 2,500 years is not lost. Nor is the enormous amount of circumstantial evidence in the sites, ruins, remains that are not completely eradicated.

Excavation, exploration, conservation, preservation and public presentation become prerequisites to realising the social and economic potential of these sites.

In Britain, once upon a time, the UK government made itself responsible for the expense of programmes of conservation of the publicly owned castles, and assisted conservation work in those that are privately owned. But, in these straightened times, even in Britain, the tourism industry is so fundamental to the economy, especially in remoter locations, that although excavation, discovery, preservation and display is still necessary to constantly enrich the “offer” for tourists, it is now, just as often, the private sector that steps forward to lead investment in such work. As the investors they know that there are potentially rich returns in their investment from tourism income.

In a remote corner of the Highlands of Scotland, often bypassed by visitors, stands the mid 18th century Egyptian style lighthouse built by the author Robert Louis Stevenson’s uncle at Ardnamurchan Point, the westernmost point of the British mainland. It was something of a “one trick pony” not worth a 50-mile trek on primitive, single-track roads to explore. The local landowner has taken into his own hands a restoration project, based entirely on the premise that his estate, with its shooting rights and self catering accommodation, will benefit sufficiently from his use of state-of-the-art technology to conserve the small, local, romantically positioned 700-year old cliff top castle to give a satisfactory financial return on his investment.

Since there are few places in Bangladesh lacking potential local attractions – from ancient earthworks through historic temples, mosques, and even usually unidentified, unexplored sites of Buddhist history, to ancient ports, cities, fortifications, mansions and palaces – the opportunities for even such remote locations in Bangladesh are certainly numerous!

Mingary Castle was built in deeply troubled times. For most of the first three hundred years of its existence it served as the stronghold of an influential family, or clan, the MacIains, until they enjoyed the (largely forgotten) distinction of being the first such clan driven off their lands into extinction in Scotland. However, their descendants such as John McCain, the US Senator and former US Presidential candidate, are scattered across the world, especially in the lands of the old Empire.

Taken over by another famous clan, the Campbells, the castle fell into terminal decline in the late 18th century. For over two hundred years it has slowly decayed on its cliff top location beside the Sound of Mull, which it once dominated – doubtless charging taxes to merchant vessels using this inner Hebridean island water way to shelter from the open Atlantic.

For years it has been barred to visitors in view of its perilous state, but now work has commenced. First of all a thorough excavation will be carried out by private sector professionals, an innovation that underscores the economic potential in such archaeology! It will then be followed by the stages that will finally transform the castle into either a commercial visitor centre, such as the local Community Centre pioneered in Scotland (under my guidance!) 14 years ago, or as apartments for self catering holiday makers, or a combination of both, and more.

The first stage, a thorough survey, is being supported by the use of state-of-the-art technology. Bangladesh would do well to take an interest in such developments, especially the use of ground penetrating radar to explore the subterranean signs, and “drone” technology to provide high resolution tours in interior and exterior, not the least of which benefits is, already, to stimulate rising international interest in the development.

A Blog has been created locally to keep interested parties locally, nationally and internationally, in touch with the developments. The blog offers a fascinating insight into the work, and might well serve as a model for exploration of heritage and conservation work as well as presentation in Bangladesh.

The website www.mingarycastle.co.uk will reveal some of the work being undertaken by private sector including participation of qualified archaeologists, with community involvement. For a real glimpse of heritage conservation and presentation as a state of the art discipline viewers can go to www.flyingscotscam.com/SB/mingarycastle.html. The high-resolution exploration of interior and exterior by the innovative “Octocopter” must surely inspire anyone from the younger generation previously uninterested in heritage!

The commitment to “Community Archaeology” pioneered and practiced in Bangladesh by such distinguished archaeologists as Professor Shahnaj of ULAB, especially in her remarkable work at Bhitagarh, and Professor Sufi M Rahman of Jahangirnagar University, working at Wari Bateshwar, marks a very open approach to such works in Bangladesh. However, the social and economic opportunities for Bangladesh in its remarkable heritage cannot be overestimated. But time is certainly not on the side of progress at the moment with widespread official failure to appreciate the real commercial and social potential, and the almost total neglect of history and heritage before 1947/1971 in the curriculum of Bangladesh schools and colleges.

Such neglect subverts the real opportunities for higher value employment of the rising generation of young Bangladeshis. It has the potential of millions of new jobs in a vibrant inbound tourism industry that has already flourished throughout other South and Southeast Asian countries.

However, embracing the challenge and opportunities would not just open new streams of national foreign exchange revenues, and create new jobs in restoration, construction, hospitality, guiding, transport and administration. It would also demotivate migration to the cities from the countryside, and also open opportunities in technology and state-of-the-art communications.

As Americans would say, surely “a no brainer.” Or, as we British might more modestly put it, in a country so dependent on jobs and foreign exchange earnings on a somewhat parlous RMG sector, considering investment in such diversification may be overdue!