Engagement for heritage

Farah Al-Akkad, Tuesday 30 Nov 2021

Last month’s Alexandria Heritage Days were a successful example of how the wider public can engage with local and national heritage, writes Farah Al-Akkad

Karmouz district (1899)
Karmouz district (1899) showing Pompey s Pillar which still stands today

When a British expedition was excavating at Qusseir by the Red Sea in the 1990s, it found that some members of the local public were not familiar with the site or its importance, causing them to downplay the need to protect it because they did not understand its real value.

Members of the expedition then decided to establish an information centre, something like a community centre, to provide local people with information about the site and its historical importance. Visits were held to the site for local people, providing both children and adults with information about the ancient ruins and the Islamic monuments in the city as a practical example of public engagement with heritage.

While the centre was later closed, according to professor of maritime archaeology and founder of the Alexandria Centre for Maritime Archaeology and Underwater Cultural Heritage Emad Khalil, “the concept has remained with us. The idea of sharing knowledge with the community is a very old one, and, if done correctly, it can allow the public to be part of protecting archaeological sites after they have learned how valuable they are.”  

Public engagement has been promoted over recent decades in the form of community archaeology, Khalil said. “Once the work of archaeologists is done at a specific site, they may not have the tools to fully protect it. This opens up a role for the wider public and local community, who are the most capable of preserving and protecting the site, even more than the archaeologists themselves or security guards employed to do so,” he added.

“There are more community members, and they are residents of the city or neighbourhood concerned, which makes it easier for them to be part of the protection of the heritage, particularly if they feel connected to it as part of their culture or identity. There may also be something in return, some sort of payback to the community, as some museums will allow free entrance or parking for community members or free nurseries for children where they learn about history. These initiatives, in place at many heritage sites abroad, are examples of how community members can be part of protecting archaeological sites.”

 For Khalil, “the protection of archaeological sites is in fact also a ‘social’ responsibility of the community in the area.” As a result, when archaeological projects take place, there should be a plan to illustrate and explain them to community members, dealing with questions such as what the historical value of the site and its importance are, how people can benefit from it, and how it can be protected and preserved.

“All these questions should be raised as part of any archaeological site plan,” Khalil said. “However, community archaeology and public engagement are still not that common in Egypt, meaning that the public as a whole is still not that concerned with archaeology and the need to protect it.”

Things are changing, however, as awareness campaigns around the country are engaging the public more and more through exhibitions, field trips, and outreach programmes including taking artefacts to schools, clubs, or community centres and explaining them to children and their parents. “Instead of going to museums, the museum goes to them. In the UK and France, many museums have portable collections including original artefacts that they take to school exhibitions,” Khalil explained.

Something similar is happening in Egypt, and for Khalil it is part of a wider movement. In the early times of archaeological discoveries, researchers were often not concerned about engaging the public, but this changed when there was a need to explain the importance of such discoveries to the public.

Public engagement became a social duty to the extent that studies were conducted on how to engage the public in archaeology and how best to do so.