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Dialogue between Adi Utarini and Frank Snowden

50 Minds for the Next 50. Heritage in the post-COVID World

Adi Utarini

Public health researcher and Professor of Public Health at Gadjah Mada University

Frank Snowden

Historian and Andrew Downey Orrick Professor Emeritus of History and History of Medicine at Yale University

Vision for the Next 50

In the Next 50… Heritage and health are more interconnected. We draw lessons from the resilience and innovation of communities for heritage protection during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the Next 50… The gap between science and culture is narrowed to serve each other. The memory of pandemics are recorded and preserved to celebrate past innovative solutions, which ultimately contribute to protecting heritage.


The dialogue between Adi Utarini and Frank Snowden mainly focused on the close collaboration between public health and heritage. Utarini and Snowden agreed that the pandemic was a multifaceted problem that affected both public health and heritage. Utarini emphasized the need for health systems to be more integrated into heritage because people gather at these sites from all over the world and work together to preserve their heritage values. She explained that COVID-19 highlights the importance of communities in demonstrating resilience, creativity and strong bonds. Snowden highlighted that the history of pandemics can be a meaningful source of lessons to bring about innovative and creative solutions. He envisions sites where the memories of people during the pandemic are recorded, preserved and made available. They concluded that COVID-19 taught us a lesson on moving towards a multidisciplinary approach for the next 50 years of heritage.


I will kick off our session by asking a very important question on the relationship between culture and health. During the pandemic, people argued that the relationship between culture and well-being was clearly demonstrated. Have you seen a change in the relationship of culture and health, and how is this likely to play out in the future?

The pandemic was an extraordinary time for people to discover this relationship between health and culture. I think it made an even stronger case for how culture and religion affect our health. I live in Yogyakarta, which has a very strong cultural heritage, and I live very close to a World Heritage site, Borobudur. Here there is a very strong belief and practice of gotong royong or community service, that is,to provide mutual help to others.

COVID-19 gave us lessons in both directions. On the one hand we realized that to be healthy, we need to create a healthy community around us. I've never before seen communities build their pride in such a way as during this time. For all the problems they faced during the pandemic, they were able to set up groups and quickly find very effective solutions.

On the other hand, in the beginning of the pandemic all cultural activities and values where restricted as they occurred in places where the gathering of people is really embedded in the culture. But despite this, we witnessed creativity and strong social cultural bonds, enabling the communities to find a way to preserve their culture and their safety at the same time. It’s certainly very unique and there was a dynamic on how culture is associated with health.

Talking about heritage in a post pandemic situation and given your expertise, how do you think pandemics and epidemics have affected built and natural heritage throughout history?

A very important mistake to avoid is to think that all pandemics are the same and that in the past they have all yielded predictable results in terms of heritage and culture. One could say that they have a spectrum and each one is different with its own individual place on that spectrum.

At one end, we could say, for example, that the Spanish Influenza actually had a relatively small impact on culture and the arts despite its enormous legacy of death and suffering. It's often called the forgotten pandemic. There are few sites of recorded memory and thus a relatively small production of literature. It's also true that the history of the pandemic only really got underway at its hundredth anniversary. So that's one extreme.

At the other extreme, one could say that the Black Death and cholera had a tremendous influence on religion, the arts and culture. Indeed, cholera had an effect on the built environment as cities across Europe were either retrofitted to make them immune against cholera or actually rebuilt, such as Paris, so that cholera would not return. Naples was also purposely rebuilt for that very same purpose. So there is this tremendous range of possibilities.

This provides a great opportunity for UNESCO and World Heritage to perhaps intervene to make a difference in an innovative way. That is to say, to stimulate thinking on these issues. I'd like to imagine the creation of a site of memory where the memories of people during this terrible pandemic were recorded, preserved and made available. There would be conferences and exhibits on the role of science, perhaps tracing the development of vaccines. There would be discussions on the impact on geography, thus preserving the memory of initiatives of resilience.

This could be at the level of intellectuals, for example, there has been enormous creativity in places like Paris around the ’30-Minute City’ as a place on the front line of zoonotic diseases in the future. So cities need to be reclaimed from cars and from pollution, which plays an enormous role in creating favourable conditions for diseases. This is one example of resilience.

Another are places of informal settlements like Lagos where people realized that the advice offered by metropolitan centres actually did not work, and social distancing and hand-washing was impossible to practise. So people came together to find new ways of understanding their relationship to the built environment and to promote that. So disaster and gloom is not the only part of the pandemic experience, it also provides hope for what people can do and the creative role of science with warnings about the misuse of science.

Culture also provides a means to have more scientific literacy among the general population. I like to imagine a site of memory in a place like Cairo, for example, where this would all come together in a place of memory to stimulate the arts, to remember peoples experiences, and to learn from this experience to avoid a repetition in the future. I think that UNESCO could intervene in a very powerful way in the present to preserve this ongoing experience and that we really need to understand if we're not to live through it again.

I think the cross-cultural approaches would be an interesting point, also because, in my view, this is one of the strong points we learn from the pandemic.

Absolutely, and I'm glad you stressed the interdisciplinarity of this experience. It is a scientific, medical and public health issue, but we also need the involvement of anthropologists, and artists who provide the lexicon and the image to help understand. This relates heavily to one of the long-term legacies, which is our mental health and not just physical health. One of the most powerful impacts of COVID-19 is on anxiety and depression, these sorts of psychological problems. I think that a memory of this kind and demonstrating what people have done shows that we are not powerless, we actually control our own destiny if we wish to accept that responsibility, which is terribly important.

On the same theme, do you think interdisciplinary collaboration and dialogue might be something that UNESCO could foster and promote between scientists, historians, artists, anthropologists, naturalists and environmentalists? What can UNESCO do to further that aspect that is so important in our cultural legacy?

I think this is a new area of interest with very concrete, tangible cases where a multidisciplinary, transdisciplinary approach is really needed, it is in fact an urgency. I have also never before experienced this very close link between heritage and health.

Culture and health is perhaps a broader conversation, but thinking specifically about heritage, I think there are plenty of opportunities to explore many unknown phenomena and also the potential interventions that perhaps were not explored in the past.

In terms of research and education there's great potential. Looking ahead, perhaps UNESCO could trigger strategic research in the areas of heritage and health. This could attract researchers from many different fields of expertise to come closer together, which is in line with education and could be strengthened As a new area for me, it's very interesting!

Absolutely. In many ways, it's not just a gloomy time but an exciting one, one that could have lots of positive contributions for the future. What are your thoughts on narrowing the gap between UNESCO and the World Health Organization (WHO)? Perhaps there is a place for fruitful dialogue between the two, especially as the Director-General of WHO spoke a lot about disinformation and misinformation and their terrible impact on this pandemic. Would you agree that this highlighted the importance of education and raising the level of scientific awareness of culture and indeed of the fact that we're all in this together? This pandemic clearly showed that national boundaries has no place in an effective plan to combat a world pandemic.

I fully agree with you. I can also imagine that, for example, the community surrounding the heritage site are the ones who can really be empowered on the risks associated with health and safety issues. I think there needs to be a more integrated system within the health system because heritage sites are potential places for people to gather from around the world and also for the community to preserve their culture. I strongly agree that UNESCO and the WHO should work closer together to bridge and integrate many of these different aspects.

This conversation shows in a way the relationship between two very different perspectives, of natural science and history, and that's just part of the model that needs to be taken forward, a lesson to be learned from this pandemic. This is a multifaceted and therefore multidisciplinary problem that needs to be faced.

I think we're talking of a vision that might be expressed, not in institutional terms but in something like a global ministry of innovation and ideas with regard to heritage and its relationship to health, and how we can avoid another pandemic experience. That would be my hope for the future.

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