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Introducing contested heritage: The case of the Axum Obelisk

Jasper Chalcraft illustrates the idea of contested heritage
Developing a diverse and socially inclusive heritage is a difficult process. And one of the reasons it’s difficult is that all heritage is by its nature, contested. This is something that a number of critical heritage scholars broadly agree on. All heritage is contingent, contested, and difficult. And this is particularly true when we think of the heritages of colonialism, and of slavery, and fascism. The memories of colonised people are rarely found in European public spaces.
Until 2005, you could find a monument that attested to Italy’s colonial past in the centre of Rome, in the Circus Maximus, where the Axum Obelisk that had been stolen by Mussolini from Ethiopia, from the Ethiopian highlands in 1937, stood just outside the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation’s headquarters. It had originally been put there by Mussolini as an example of Italy’s conquest and domination of Ethiopia, a country that had remained independent and not colonised by any European power for most of the colonial period. Even though Italy’s colonisation of Ethiopia was short, brief, it was also incredibly brutal. And this is a fact that is largely unknown to most Italians. It doesn’t fit with the national image of Italy.
It is though, something that’s very well known to Ethiopians. One particular example demonstrates this contested nature of memory. The Yekatit 12 Massacre, otherwise known as the Addis Ababa massacre, which occurred in 1937 after the attempted assassination attempt of Rodolfo Graziani. Met with the massacre of between 20,000 and 30,000 Ethiopians in Addis Ababa, and even more around the country. Whilst the Axum Obelisk was stolen in 1937, it actually took Italy 68 years to give it back to Ethiopia. In fact, 10 years after it had been stolen, Italy agreed that it would restitute and return the monument.
And the fact that it took Italy so long to return it suggests both the continued problem of the collective amnesia about the colonial past, and a lack of public interest in meeting the quite legitimate claims of Ethiopia to have the monument returned. A monument of huge and important symbolic significance to Ethiopians. The monument was returned in 2005 after a long and extended period of Ethiopian lobbying to the United Nations for the monument to be returned. For a long time, a lot of European heritage and heritage management has represented very unitary and exclusionary views of the past that exclude the diversity of peoples that live in Europe.
Contested heritage and working with contested heritage represents, therefore, an opportunity to broaden out the way heritage is made, and to make the heritage space an area in which many different stories can be told. And a story that doesn’t necessarily have to lead to mutual antagonism. That can lead to a more socially inclusive future. The contested heritage of colonialism is a particularly good example of this. Italy’s collective amnesia is something that can be tackled, and is being tackled by a number of new, young Italians, and first and second generation migrants to Italy, who see in this country a rich and more complicated history than one that is just about Italy’s Renaissance and Roman past.

Jasper Chalcraft, from the University of Sussex, takes the case of the Axum Obelisk to illustrate the notion of contested heritage and the challenge it raises for cities.

Diversity may be successfully incorporated into a city’s cultural heritage and identity. However there can be difficult or contested issues from the past that have not been sufficiently elaborated and recognized so that all groups live their own history and identity is recognized in the city’s cultural fabric. Such issue can arise from the city’s colonial past (as the case of Bristol in the UK, discussed in a following step, suggests) or as a result of more recent population movements (as the case of Cologne in Germany, discussed in a following step, shows).

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Cultural Diversity and the City

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