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We should all get behind the #Unite4Heritage campaign

12 May 2016

Over recent years, the scale of heritage destruction worldwide has escalated, with the loss of important historic monuments at the hands of extremists in Syria and Iraq frequently making headlines. Less often reported has been the damage and looting inflicted on Libyan monuments, and the destruction of Yemeni heritage resulting from the country’s ongoing, bloody civil war. Beyond the physical destruction of monuments, extremists have also been using social media to launch attacks on cultural diversity, and to recruit young people to their cause.

To counter this extremist propaganda, in March 2015 in Baghdad, UNESCO launched #Unite4Heritage, a campaign aimed at celebrating cultural heritage and diversity. Although focused on conflict zones such as Iraq and Syria, the campaign is nonetheless a global movement, spreading awareness about the importance of safeguarding heritage worldwide, the threat to heritage posed by the illicit trafficking of cultural objects, and the need to make a stand against those attacking cultural diversity, wherever they may be.

The campaign is aimed particularly at young people, and encourages them to share stories and images about cultural heritage on social media and YouTube, their posts accompanied by the hashtag #Unite4Heritage. This is the campaign’s strength: people everywhere can feel a sense of immediate involvement. A few clicks, a bit of typing, and you’re already helping. Although social media is #Unite4Heritage’s backbone, the campaign also encourages people to visit local heritage sites, volunteer, organise events (potentially with local institutions), donate to the Heritage Emergency Fund, and bring heritage’s importance to the attention of government representatives.

To date, the campaign has reached millions of people worldwide, through social media, workshops, special events and even concerts. A 2015 ‘Photo and Story’ contest, to which people were invited to submit inspiring photos of cultural heritage, received over 10,000 Facebook and Instagram entries. The competition winner – a striking photo of traditional Moulid dancing in Egypt – illustrates that #Unite4Heritage is not only about preserving physical monuments, but intangible heritage too. Notably, the campaign has recently produced a YouTube video in association with Qisetna: Talking Syria; publishing accounts of personal experiences, this project draws on the country’s rich heritage of oral storytelling to raise awareness of Syrians affected by the war.

With many campaigns and heritage groups active internationally, #Unite4Heritage has also provided people with a common hashtag to share their activities. Its use also makes it easier to swiftly find information and news, whether about the latest UNESCO heritage protection meeting happening in Tunis (for example), or smaller, local initiatives that otherwise might go unnoticed. One notable campaign currently supporting #Unite4Heritage is #Faces4Heritage; with the aim of promoting ‘peace through heritage preservation’, the campaign encourages people to show their support for heritage by dividing their social media profile picture in two: the left side showing half their own face, and the right side half the face of a destroyed statue (a composite image that can easily be created using an application on their website).

One of the most recent #Unite4Heritage initiatives was Yemeni Heritage Week. This week-long celebration of Yemen’s heritage (24–30 April) helped to shine a much-needed light on a country often overlooked by the media, despite the large-scale loss of life and extensive damage to its unique heritage. Ten museums worldwide took part, among them the British Museum, the Louvre, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Each highlighted Yemeni objects in their collections, while also promoting the country’s heritage in social media, videos and blogs. The British Museum, for example, broadcast a live Periscope video about Yemen; posted a series of blogs on Tumblr; and uploaded a YouTube interview with their curator of ancient Arabia and ancient Iran. Although Yemeni Heritage Week appears to have made an impact, resulting in a proliferation of online videos and blogs about the country’s monuments, it remains to be seen whether this flurry of information will inspire the media to report regularly on Yemen’s ongoing plight.

Whatever the case may be, new projects continue to be developed in association with the #Unite4Heritage movement. The start of May saw the launch of Reclaiming History, a crowdsourced ‘online museum,’ where lost monuments have been digitally recreated through photogrammetry – a process that enables digital 3D models to be created from photographs. The project invites people to send over their own images and 3D models of lost monuments, providing the team with additional data for their developing virtual reconstructions. Once complete, these are uploaded to an interactive world map, simultaneously highlighting what has been lost, and what has now been saved, at least digitally.

Like #Unite4Heritage itself, the involvement of the wider public in the Reclaiming History project will surely help it to succeed. In this digital age, the opportunities to be involved in heritage protection, wherever we might be, are expanding and ever-changing. We can all be active in making a difference: it’s only one click away.

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