Engineering Internationalism: Colonialism, the Cold War and UNESCO’s Victory in Nubia

By Department of Religion and Classics

Monday, October 25, 2021 5:00pm to 6:30pm

755 Library Road, Rochester, NY 14626

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The Department of Religion and Classics presents the annual James Conlon Memorial Lecture Engineering Internationalism: Colonialism, the Cold War and UNESCO’s Victory in Nubia with Lynn Meskell (University of Pennsylvania, Department of Anthropology). Livestream information below.

Much has been written about UNESCO’s Nubian Campaign, from the heroism and humanism promoted by the agency’s own vast propaganda machine, to the competing narratives of national saviors whether the French or Americans, to Nubia as a theatre for the Cold War, right down to individual accounts by technocrats, bureaucrats and archaeologists. What crystallized in UNESCO’s midcentury mission in Nubia was a material attempt to overcome the fissures that were already appearing in their postwar dream of a global peace. Portrayed as a vast international co-operation with unrivaled grandeur and romance, saving Nubia potentially relegated the crisis of Suez to history, manufactured much-needed harmony in the Middle East, demonstrated once and for all that culture could contribute to a Kantian perpetual peace and, acquisitively, it would recapture the materialities of civilization for the West. Humanity as a whole could claim its inheritance from Egypt, thus reinforcing UNESCO’s lofty ideals of world citizenship: a common humanity in the past paired with a common responsibility for the future.
Being poised for futurity requires a certain mastery of the past. Despite having no initial plan to do so, this meant that UNESCO had to embrace large-scale and transnational archaeology, bringing archaeological research into a monumental project with a predominantly conservation agenda. While only fleeting, and not entirely successful, this foray into field archaeology would mark both its apogee and demise at UNESCO and, in some respects, a wider intellectual landscape. Archaeology would soon become the handmaiden of heritage, subservient to the more calculable metrics of physical preservation and restoration, the global rise of conservation ethics and the marketable glamour of ancient monumentality. People too would be relegated by these grand designs, as thousands of Nubians were relocated with the rising waters. And this ever-increasing combination of infrastructural development, monumental preservation and the secondary status of people with their own living heritage would become the hallmark of the modern conservation industry. 

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