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Heritage is often figured as a gift from one generation to the next – a living link between the past and the future. What happens when the gift is dangerous?

This is a question that nuclear waste managers have been grappling with for decades. Spent nuclear fuel will be dangerous to life for up to 100,000 years. We pass that material and its danger forward to the future because it cannot be destroyed in the present. Responsible management involves containment; but because humans are curious about things that are contained, it also involves communicating the nature of the material to people over that extraordinary timescale. The committee of the International Atomic Energy Authority that deals with this problem is the Records Knowledge and Memory Group. They meet regularly to discuss how information can be passed, with an emphasis on practical issues, after all they are engineers. But they are aware that communication is a social issue, which is why our researchers Cornelius Holtorf and Anders Högberg were invited to join the group to provide understanding from the humanities.

But this isn’t the only danger, the only legacy that we risk passing from the past to the future. I’ve written elsewhere  about how the management of murder sites can learn from the management of nuclear waste. But sometimes the violence is at the heart of a national story. For instance, societies around the world are still dealing with the consequences of colonialism and its handmaiden slavery. How should heritage manage these dangerous pasts? As official heritage is often managed in the service of victors it can perpetuate the poison rather than contain it. But a strategy of containment may leave people unaware of the risks.

In the US there has been renewed criticism of the flying of the confederate flag and monuments to confederate figures like Lee. Paul Mullins has an excellent post describing the development of this dark heritage since the Civil War. Political movements, such as Black Lives Matter, have forced enough progress that honouring those who fought for slavery is less acceptable than it was. Since that conflict has continued to be the touchstone for white supremacy throughout the 20th century, there are many people resisting the removal of these symbols because they still view them as a positive part of their heritage. As the Mayor of New Orleans has said “After the Civil War, these statues were a part of that terrorism, as much as burning a cross on someone’s lawn. They were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge in this city,”

But there are also heritage focussed calls to leave the statues, so that ‘we don’t forget our history’. A Professor of Law at UNC Chapel Hill claims “My initial thought is that removing these monuments leads to forgetting … We need to be aware that people in power at that time thought it was appropriate to celebrate slavery and Jim Crow.”

Bree Newsome brings down a Confederate Flag in 2015. She was arrested for defacing a monument.

“We removed the flag today because we can’t wait any longer. We can’t continue like this another day. It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy and building toward true racial justice and equality.” Bree Newsome 27th June 2015

There is room here to learn from the initial findings of the Records Knowledge and Memory committee, that people tend to view plaques and monuments as celebrations. From pyramids and triumphal markers, to individual grave stones the long history of making enduring markers to things we value is hard to shift. The group considering markers for the WIPP repository in the Southern US (where the monuments in question are) made the point that the markers needed to indicate ‘This is not a place of honour’. Theoretically, we could present heritage interpretation at statues of Lee, but the very existence of the statue is interpreted as honour at a gut level for most people.

Calls to make sure that we don’t forget our history assume that we haven’t forgotten it in the first place. This summer Canada is ‘celebrating’ its 150 anniversary. Millions of dollars are being spent in a country with a comparatively small budget for heritage. But not everyone welcomes the celebration. Indigenous people have also been fighting for recognition of the violence done to them and see this event as a denial of that violence .

The institution of forced residential schools for indigenous children which continued into the 1980’s has recently been recognised as an act of genocide by a Truth and Reconciliation Committee . Inevitably, politicians want to jump to the reconciliation without getting bogged down in the truth. Although she was forced to resign from an aboriginal affairs committee there is still much support for a senator who claimed that residential schools were  ‘well intentioned’. Canadians may be more aware of violence that was deliberately forgotten and even the ongoing violence that we turn away from, but the Canada 150 celebrations show that even a Truth and Reconciliation committee won’t ‘make sure we don’t forget our history’.

So, just as nuclear waste management helps us understand how heritage works, heritage can return the favour. Sincere and well organised organisations like courts and international bodies may set up committees and make plans to make sure that important things are understood and not forgotten; but heritage is more slippery and more powerful than that. Records, Truth, Information are difficult to transmit, especially to a population that doesn’t want them. Effective communication in the present and for the future requires emotional and indeed visceral connection.

This is not a place of honour.

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Part of the work for the markers project for the WIPP repository in the US. Our partner Jon Lomberg of One Earth Message was involved in this project as well. People assume that monuments mark places of honour.

To design a marker system that, left alone, will survive for 10,000 years is not a difficult engineering task.

It is quite another matter to design a marker system that will for the next 400 generations resist attempts by individuals, organized groups, and societies to destroy or remove the markers. While this report discusses some strategies to discourage vandalism and recycling of materials, we cannot anticipate what people, groups, societies may do with the markers many millennia from now.

A marker system should be chosen that instills awe, pride, and admiration, as it is these feelings that motivate people to maintain ancient markers, monuments, and buildings.

Dieter G. Ast (Cornell University)