As a result of the pandemic, one of the many areas which has completely shut down is that of the preservation of national monuments and historical heritage sites; cultural festivals and such have also been halted due to the inability of people to gather together in large groups. Organisations involved in the conservation of these monuments have realised that the neglect of these monuments will cause severe damage and hinder the progress which has already been made in regards to its protection.
The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) Sri Lanka, a local body, has been involved since of late in trying to educate the public and also the officials involved in these projects about the pressing importance of the matter. While ICOMOS Sri Lanka is a local body, its parent organisation is based in Paris and is involved in similar matters worldwide. Since its inception in 1965, ICOMOS has been the advisory body of the World Heritage Committee for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation). It examines the applications for cultural property and ensures the state of conservation of the properties inscribed on the World Heritage List. Currently, ICOMOS is made up of members from 151 countries, of which Sri Lanka is one.
A few weeks ago, ICOMOS Sri Lanka held their first panel discussion with panellists Director General of Archaeology and ICOMOS Sri Lanka Past President Prof. Senarath Dissanayake, Central Cultural Fund Director General and current ICOMOS Sri Lanka President Prof. Gamini Adikari, Special Advisor to ICCROM (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property) and WHITRAP (World Heritage Institute of Training and Research for the Asia and Pacific Region) and ICOMOS Sri Lanka Senior Vice President Dr. Gamini Wijesuriya, University of Kelaniya Retired Professor and ICOMOS Sri Lanka Vice President Dr. B.D. Nandadeva, University of Moratuwa Faculty of Architecture Dean and ICOMOS Sri Lanka Council Member Dr. D.P. Chandrasekera, and ICOMOS Sri Lanka Heritage Conservation and Management Expert and Joint Secretary Dr. Nilan Cooray.
Following their discussion, they were able to identify a few issues and solutions which Dr. Wijesuriya explained to the public through another video. He also spoke The Morning Brunch, elaborating on these points.
Dr. Wijesuriya shared that the main problem with managing the monuments and heritage sites of Sri Lanka is that there is a lack of funding for these projects. Although some time ago a decision was made by the Cabinet to allocate funding for the Department of Archaeology – which he describes as the “legal custodian of all heritage sites in the country” – this, he says, was exploited and the money never came through. Hence, they had to depend on the funding given to them by the Central Cultural Fund (CCF), which was completely reliant on foreign tourism.
However, now as a result of the lockdown, they simply cannot cope with the immense amount of work that needs to be done with the little funds available. Furthermore, while maintenance does take up a lot of funding, there are also labour costs, Dr. Wijesuriya said, and explained that collectively, the Archaeology Department and the CCF employ around 4,000 personnel, all of whom need to be paid full salaries. Currently, all of their money is being spent on maintaining their livelihoods and they are unable to focus on any sites.
This arises from a lack of a preparedness plan, according to Dr. Wijesuriya. He said that while he was at UNESCO, they often planned for contingencies, but this was never implemented in Sri Lanka. Now, rooms in temples and such which need ventilation are closed up, causing the valuable material inside to rot, while excavation sites are left open, too exposed to nature, causing whatever valuables which might be there to once again get damaged.
Another problem is that our country lacks local support in preserving their own heritage, said Dr. Cooray, speaking to The Morning Brunch. He also shared that they were trying to overcome this issue through the webinar series.
These experts have come up with a few options as solutions; they would need to first do a proper assessment of all the sites and festivals in our country, the staff working there, and the visitors they attract. Then, they can allocate funds and also come up with a preparedness plan.
Next, they are planning to use this time to conduct “capacity building” sessions for idle staff and also policymakers, as they have already identified a lack of proper knowledge amongst these individuals who are, in fact, randomly allocated to their tasks. They believe that the “first and last” line of defence in these locations are the people, and so they have begun to look for more ways to get the locals involved in the conservation of monuments. They have also begun to implement ways to educate children about these matters, and of its importance.
Lastly, Dr. Wijesuriya said that the Cultural Triangle of Sri Lanka which has more funds allocated to it should be thought about by the Department of Archaeology, which has more authority, along with the rest of the monuments in their feat to preserve Sri Lanka’s heritage; they need to rethink the process of conservation altogether. He believes looking at it from a holistic perspective and getting the support of the public would help conserve the heritage of Sri Lanka.