Cultural governmentality in the absence of a state: the practice and politics of heritage-making in Palestine

Review by Emilia Groupp
January 13, 2020

Heritage and the Cultural Struggle for Palestine

by Chiara De Cesari
Published 2019

Stanford University Press

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The institutional geography of heritage management in Palestine differs remarkably from other regions of the Middle East and elsewhere, where it has traditionally been monopolized by state and (neo)colonial forces as a crucial site for the promotion of national identification, political legitimacy and territorial sovereignty. Palestine offers a unique case, as it is the local civil society, not foreign and state actors, who are primarily responsible for the construction, preservation and management of cultural heritage.

In Heritage and the Cultural Struggle for Palestine, Chiara De Cesari provides an articulate and comprehensive ethnography of heritage-making in the West Bank, focusing on the recent heritagization[1] of the landscape and proliferation of museums in Palestine. De Cesari shows how heritage has been re-articulated and institutionalized over time in relation to political and social movements as well as the enduring occupation by Israel. In positioning her theoretical framework at the intersection of critical heritage studies and the anthropology of the state and neoliberal governance, De Cesari provides an analysis of Palestinian heritage NGOs and the urban regeneration of cityscapes and historical neighborhoods and critically explores the ways in which heritage is intimately enmeshed with politics in four detailed chapters.

De Cesari begins by tracing the history of heritage preservation in Palestine (Chapter 1), beginning with the work of Palestinian orientalists and ethnographers under the British Mandate in the 1920s and 1930s, followed by the folklore movement and its relation to the national liberation and the women’s movements of the 1970s and 1980s. In doing so, she shows how cultural heritage activism has deep roots in Palestine, situated in the locally based social organizing that forged an alliance between heritage, cultural production and liberation politics.

In addition, she draws attention to the ways in which both Palestinians and Israelis actively use heritage to lay claim to the land that they consider their own. Archaeology and cultural heritage have been indispensable to the nationalist-colonial project of the Israeli state, and the reinterpretation of the past is often used by Israelis in their expropriation of Palestinian lands (Abu El-Haj 2008). Palestinians’ use of heritage to counter Israeli colonization has emerged as a strategy of ‘activist preservation’ to resist Israeli settlement and expropriation of Palestinian land. To this end, heritage-making by Palestinian NGOs works to counter Israeli settlement projects primarily through repopulating and reclaiming urban areas but also as an institution building project and a technique of governance in the absence of stable state structures.

Following the trend of major international organizations in the 1990s who began to see heritage as a key resource to exploit for socio-economic growth, Palestinian NGOs have begun emphasizing the use of heritage for improving socioeconomic conditions rather than merely preserving what is seen as intrinsic historical value of sites or objects. In Palestine, practitioners refer to heritage as the ‘oil’ of the country, promising economic prosperity for the citizens of the future state (13). In focusing on urban revitalization projects in the Old City of Hebron, De Cesari shows how heritage NGOs have come to function as hybrid institutions of local government (Chapter 2), fulfilling municipal tasks under the banner of heritage through the provision of services and welfare for residents. De Cesari articulates the regulation and governing of heritage using the analytical lens of cultural governmentality to understand these new modes of urban government and the salience of heritage within them.

Further, she shows how Palestinian heritage organizations help create and sustain cultural nationalism and contribute to state-building (Chapter 3). In addition to providing institutions where the state does not yet exist, particularly through the work of informal governance in urban areas, multiple tensions between heritage NGOs and the fragile state institutions help to engender the state. Palestinian NGOs see themselves as the ‘civil society’ opposed to the ‘state,’ while neither society nor state is autonomous nor fully formed, and the boundaries between these two spheres are negotiated on the ground and fought over in multiple arenas intersecting with heritage, including the drafting of legislation (131). While contesting ‘the state’ (the Department of Antiquities, for example), heritage NGOs are deeply implicated in the process of state construction. Confrontations lead to public performances and representations, which lend a semblance of unity to a disassembled set of institutions, practices and processes, thus producing a ‘state effect’ in Palestine.

In addition, through the development of master plans for revitalization or lists of heritage sites, De Cesari shows how NGOs not only fulfill local government functions in areas of surveying, mapping, statistics, surveillance, and public infrastructure (Chapters 2 and 3), but that inventories of sites are akin to projects of legibility usually undertaken by the state to produce systematic and standardized knowledge, and to make territories legible and thus amenable to control and management (121) – practices that help to call the ‘state’ into being.

While rooted in local organizations, heritage-making in Palestine is also embedded in transnational linkages. Palestinian NGOs have developed a novel practice of heritage by articulating globally circulating policy ideas of heritage as development combined with an older Palestinian tradition of activist grassroots heritage. While inherently local, the Palestinian heritage movement cannot be divorced from globalizing processes, including the large influx of donor aid, professional services and universalizing heritage discourses. Although Palestinian heritage-making has provided new ways for Palestinians to engage in the struggle against (neo)colonialism, De Cesari shows how it has also created new dependencies with international donors who fund most heritage projects.

Finally, in the context of suspended, uncertain statehood, a number of different projects, mostly forwarded by artists and cultural producers, have tried to give shape to Palestinian national museums through art performances and alternative exhibits (Chapter 4). These have taken the form of virtual museums, nomadic museums, museums in exile and alternative art installations. New imaginaries of museum spaces have produced a number of institutional experiments that contribute to crafting the image of a state, such as an exhibition without objects, making loss and dispossession the driving idea behind the museum, or the focus on individuals, everyday objects and the banal stories that embody Palestinian experiences. Namely, by instantiating state-like institutions and representing the Palestinian nation-state before it fully comes to be, these institutional experiments help build the state in its current plural, fragmented, and embryonic forms (192).

Ultimately, De Cesari shows how the terrain of cultural heritage has become a key battlefield in the war of position and complex maneuvering of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Her ethnography reveals the relevance of new forms of cultural governmentality and the critical role of cultural heritage in governing where the state has not yet materialized fully. Further, she deftly illustrates how the struggle for freedom, self-determination and sovereignty in the face of continuing Israeli occupation is at the center of Palestinian heritage-making projects. In sum, her work is a vibrant contribution to the field, and is positioned to become a classic in critical heritage studies.


[1]The process by which objects and places are transformed into cultural heritage (Harrison 2013:69).

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Emilia Groupp is a PhD student at Stanford University in the Department of Anthropology and a Research Fellow at the Organization for Identity and Cultural Development. Her main interest lies in the intersections of law, labor and cultural heritage in the Middle East.

Works Cited:

Abu El-Haj, N. 2008. Facts on the ground: Archaeological practice and territorial self-fashioning in Israeli society. University of Chicago Press.

Harrison, R. 2013. Heritage: critical approaches. Routledge, Milton Park, Abingdon.

© 2020 Emilia Groupp

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