History is written by the winners, it is commonly said. But heritage-the history that we shape to our own purposes-is increasingly shaped by the losers. Culture wars embroil nations and ethnic and religious communities all over the world. Demands for the restoration of property of every kind, for the return of treasures presumed to have been conquered by force or purloined or pillaged, for recognizing the rights of those deprived of autonomy and agency, and for acknowledging and repaying harm done in times past are increasingly voiced by ex-colonial peoples, minority groups, and indigenous peoples. Moreover, such claims are more and more accepted as morally justified by the international community and the great powers who are generally considered the perpetrators of past injustices. What is sometimes dismissed as ‘contrition chic’ has become sacred writ in such agencies as UNESCO, and is accepted as ethically just in the world of scholarship.
Yet setting historical wrongs right is often honoured more in rhetoric than in reality, and efforts to bridge that gap raise a host of perplexing and divisive issues. Questions of identity and entitlement based on blood and faith, of standards of historical evidence, of the sanctity of all aspects of artefacts and human remains, and of responsibility for both past and future generations are at issue. And they affect every realm of life from religion and law to politics and the art and antiquities market. At stake is not only the ownership, control of, and interpretation of the world’s heritage but its dynamic continuance and in some cases sheer survival. Participants in this event address some of these issues from diverse perspectives.