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Timeless meets timely in Penn’s Master of Liberal Arts program

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Photo by Tom Stanley, University of Pennsylvania
Photo by Tom Stanley, University of Pennsylvania
January 14, 2020

Throughout history, some of the world’s most precious cultural artifacts and sites have been destroyed during times of war. Recent newspaper headlines show that the phenomenon continues today, with the 2001 demolition of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan, the 2012 destruction of Sufi shrines in Timbuktu, Mali, and the recent obliteration of historic sites across Syria and Iraq.

Though it may seem that cultural heritage destruction is an inevitable result of conflict, scholars say that is a misconception. Dr. Brian Daniels, director of research and programs for the Penn Cultural Heritage Center at the University of Pennsylvania, says, “Conflict actors explicitly target cultural heritage as a tactic to oppress civilian groups—often vulnerable Indigenous communities or religious minorities.”

In his course ANTH 527: Cultural Heritage and Conflict, available through Penn’s Master of Liberal Arts, Brian invites students to consider the aims and implications of conflict destruction. They explore how conflict destruction differs from other forms of heritage destruction—for example, looting, taking down monuments, and the loss of sites to development—and the different policy considerations required for each. Students also examine how the international community has (and has not) intervened to protect cultural treasures from destruction.

The course is taught in the anthropology department but attracts many students from outside the discipline. “I find that the students who enroll are often interested in political violence, international relations, the humanities, and cultural heritage more generally,” Brian says. That description fits art historian Allie Coppola, who took the course to broaden her “understanding of culture as a whole and how past and current events affect people’s lives.”

“The class covers a wide range of historical events and looks at compelling issues like the relationship between memory and memorial, and who decides what happens after a conflict,” says Allie. “Another takeaway for me was the importance of cultural sensitivity. You have to have a more open view when you’re working across cultural barriers, especially when there’s violence or conflict involved.” 

In addition to historical case studies, Brian says that “the news often teaches this course since inevitably a major event will come to drive the conversation. Last year, for instance, the Notre Dame fire opened up conversations about how cultural reconstruction works on an international scale.”

A highlight of the course is a museum evacuation simulation that students complete in teams. “I don’t want to give too much away because the surprise is a big part of it,” Allie says. “You’re thrown into a situation. Dr. Daniels describes what event has just happened and the circumstances on the ground, and you have a limited amount of time to work with your team to decide which are the most important objects to pack up and get them out. It was pretty much the most amazing thing.”

ANTH 527: Cultural Heritage and Conflict is an example of the advanced interdisciplinary coursework that characterizes the Master of Liberal Arts program at the University of Pennsylvania. Ideal for lifelong learners, Penn’s MLA program offers the independence of self-directed study with the expertise of world-class faculty and advising. You elect the courses most relevant to your interests, around your schedule. Nearly 90% of Penn MLA students study part time.

While earning your Master of Liberal Arts degree, you have the opportunity to earn an MLA certificate in one of several subject areas, including Cultural Heritage Management and more than a dozen others. Certificate curricula are designed by faculty members to help students build mastery of a given topic.

To learn more about the Master of Liberal Arts program and application process, register for a virtual information session with Program Director Dr. Chris Pastore.

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