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Saving the Past for the People: A Critique of the “Universal” Heritage Model with Stephennie Mulder


Institute For Middle East Studies

For the past six years, the world has watched in horror as Syria, Iraq, and Yemen have endured some of the worst human and heritage violence since World War II. In this talk, Stephennie will argue that the dominant universalist model of archaeological heritage preservation, wherein heritage is envisioned as a property-based model belonging “to all humankind”, has in fact been an important motivation for the destruction of heritage in wartime and the alienation of local communities from their heritage following reconstruction. Archaeologists, as researchers on the past who can assist in shaping the narratives of the present, should instead work to understand local models of heritage and support communities traumatized by war to rebuild in ways that serve local needs first. Often, post-war reconstruction has only multiplied the trauma of people in the aftermath of conflict. However, if sites damaged by war are rebuilt in an inclusive manner, reconstruction has the potential to be a genuinely healing act of resistance to the violence perpetrated during wartime.


  • Stephennie Mulder is Associate Professor of Islamic Art and Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin. She is a specialist in Islamic art, architectural history, and archaeology. She worked for over ten years as the head ceramicist at Balis, a medieval Islamic city in Syria, and has also conducted archaeological and art historical fieldwork throughout Syria, Egypt, Turkey, and elsewhere in the region. Her research interests include the art and architecture of Shi’ism, the intersections between art, spatiality, and sectarian relationships in Islam, anthropological theories of art, material culture studies, theories of ornament and mimesis, and place and landscape studies. Dr. Mulder also writes on the contemporary aesthetics of the art of resistance in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East.