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Dialogue between Rana Dajani and Zoe Butt

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

Rana Dajani

Molecular biologist and advocate for science education for women

Zoe Butt

Curator and writer

Vision for the Next 50

In the Next 50… Heritage is built on stories and narratives that are expressed by displaced people and people from the Global South in their own language to shape memories and change stereotypes.

In the Next 50… South-South exchanges and dialogue are fostered to understand the different contexts and to come up with appropriate solutions for heritage against global crises.


Dialogue between Rana Dajani and Zoe Butt centred around storytelling and the narrative of the Global South. Since storytelling is fundamental to transferring knowledge and informing different situations, intercultural dialogue is important to understand one another and envision the future that corresponds to different contexts. Dajani spoke about how storytelling is a crucial part of heritage because it shapes memories and thoughts, which ultimately constitutes heritage. She also believes that diasporas can serve as a bridge of exchange as they can better translate the context because of their understanding of two different cultures. Butt highlighted the role of artists as storytellers who use images and materials to remind us of the world today. She also emphasized the role of South-South dialogue to share different ideas and to work together to find solutions for humanity and for heritage.


Salam Aleykoum, which in Arabic means peace upon you all. Zoe, we come from very different sectors where innovation happens at their boundaries that together help us solve the challenges we're facing through heritage, culture and science. From your perspective, how was culture and heritage impacted by the pandemic in Vietnam and Southeast Asia in general? Do you think there will be a long-term effect?

I think the last three years has seen heritage say a big thank you to COVID. It didn't have tourists stamping their feet rather disrespectfully with very little knowledge of what context brought forth, be they natural wonders or built heritage.

When it comes to intangible forms of heritage, I think we'd all agree that globally we relied on many forms of cultural rituals, whether singing oral histories or certain forms of cuisine in order to embrace the amount of time we suddenly had, which took us away from our twenty-first century lives that are rather dominated by neoliberal worlds.

The impact of the pandemic made us stop to think about how much we need cultural forms of expression in ways that we perhaps hadn't quite valued enough before, which created a responsibility to serve our community. From what I can glean from your projects, such as We Love Reading, that it is something very central to my own practice, which is mentoring, and about really understanding the importance of dialogue in nurturing a historical consciousness that is not always practised.

How do you feel that this idea of literature can link to an appreciation of heritage? Do you feel that written words, circulating for a built heritage, give enough contextual background to its importance?

You are speaking to my heart. We Love Reading is all about storytelling. Storytelling is fundamental to our survival as a species and therefore, whether it's in the oral or written form, we are transferring knowledge across generations. This knowledge constitutes wisdom, best practices, values and ethics, all of which constitute heritage. If we look at who is usually telling the stories, they are the mothers. Indeed, if you go back to biology and evolution, it is the female that has evolved with a uterus and to nurse. It is through that extended and unique childhood experience that we transfer our social heritage. This social evolution is required so that the next generation can use the built knowledge and navigate through fellow human beings, but also between biodiversity and nature.

Storytelling is a science in itself and is part of the heritage we need to maintain. If individuals are not expressing themselves in their native languages, we will be losing a lot of our heritage around the world. This helps maintain our identity and the sense of pride of where you come from. So language is a powerful tool.

In my opinion, every story matters and every story counts, especially as there are so many stereotypes around the world being driven by the media for different agendas. Hence, the onus is on us to write our own stories. We owe it not just to ourselves but to future generations. In this way we are able to change our narrative, and thus our heritage, because stereotypes shape memories, which in turn shapes heritage.

Zoe, as you're an accomplished curator, and I know art and science are all connected, in your opinion, how can contemporary art serve to protect and promote heritage? Has the relationship between contemporary art and heritage been impacted by COVID 19?

Artists are incredible storytellers because they use images and materials that remind us of where we are today. This is where contemporary art gives us pause for reflection. Today, there is an increasing number of artists who understand the power of their voice and give context to the stories that we see, just as images in our saturated world. It’s important that we have more stories circulating and that those stories are not just written but have a sense of a new experience. I couldn't agree more that we must continue to prioritize the meeting of the physical self because that is where our stories really take root.s

Rana, to what extent does the imagination of the diaspora feed into your concept of heritage? Do you think that it has been impacted by COVID-19 at all?

We are all diaspora across time. When we speak about scientists in the diaspora across the world we should think of how we can harness that potential. We talk of brain drain, but I want to talk about brain circulation. How can we harness that power? We know many people in the diaspora who want to give back, and it's not just diaspora from the South going to the North but also South-South. How do we encourage a healthy circulation of knowledge, experience and expertise? These people are bridges of exchange because they understand both cultures and are therefore better at translating the context, which often gets lost in translation.

So how do we maintain a healthy balance between sharing the heritage without overwhelming it and erasing it?

I think it's about having a mindset that works in two ways. It is about mutual exchange, respect and trust, which has to be fostered through dialogue. It's not about capacity-building, it’s about sharing and learning. We should be very careful of the words we choose because heritage is formed by words, which are formed by thoughts.

COVID-19 has shown that everyone counts and everyone is important, and there's so much to learn from other cultures. There is not one story for the world but multiple stories. We hear in the media all the negative stories because negative is sensational, but how do we promote the positive so that it becomes the narrative and gives hope, builds resilience and reduces stress and anxiety?

Tell those stories, take a pen and talk about them and share them in different ways. We were able to do that through COVID-19 in the use of technology and communication platforms. So this has been a humbling experience for some and an empowering experience for others. People are realizing more and more how important it is to have open, equal dialogue with trust and respect.

I have a question for you Zoe. Coming from your background, how and why is it important to respond to the global crisis, and how can you imagine it impacting on the next 50 years of heritage?

South-South work and thinking has been a major part of my imagination for nearly two decades. I've experienced first-hand how young people assume and dream in the Global North where there is a context of ecology, funding, access and knowledge that they think they can just slot into. They then finish their education and return home where the landscape is rather different. In many cases I have witnessed something that made them quit, at least in the arts and in the humanities.

So I started to think more about how cultural life comes from the exchange of ideas across the globe. When we started to map our relationships we start to see solutions to our own dilemmas in different places, and we start to hear different stories which then gives us agency, then alternatives, and thus a different imagination. In conclusion South-South dialogue is incredibly crucial in all forms to give ourselves different images of heritage.

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Explore other sessions

Five dialogue sessions covering five themes take place in 2022, each joined by thinkers in paired dialogue from diverse regions. The interdisciplinary dialogues inspire new visions for the next 50 years of World Heritage.

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Imagining Heritage in the Digital Dimension
Heritage in the post-COVID World
Sustainable Tourism & Sustainable Heritage
Towards a Balanced Representation of World Heritage Sites