Challenges of cultural heritage reconstruction after conflict

The CRIC research project aims to improve understanding of the complex roles cultural heritage sites play during conflict and post-conflict situations, and to help guide crucial decisions made by policy makers and regional actors with regard to reconstruction efforts and the outcomes that can result from the reconstruction of such sites. The project’s findings are highly relevant in terms of helping to improve EU Member States’ inter-state relations, to create a forward-looking way of dealing with Europe’s complex past, and as an aid to reconciliation as heritage may be used for common tasks and forward looking enterprises.

Reconstructing sites of cultural heritage destroyed in conflicts has a complex impact on post conflict recovery processes, but this relationship has been poorly understood until now. Sites of cultural heritage in Europe - from churches, mosques, bridges and memorials to entire landscapes and villages - have through the centuries suffered accidental destruction or been deliberately targeted in civil wars, ethnic conflict or world wars.

A community’s shared sense of belonging is often rooted in heritage sites and landscapes, giving such places social significance. The destruction of heritage sites accordingly causes individual and collective loss and affects claims on identity and belonging. Their reconstructions, in turn, are complex and often become the focus for competing emotional, social and political claims. The impacts of heritage destruction and reconstruction are therefore far reaching and significant for societal wellbeing.

According to the results of the CRIC project, the reasons why such connections are made need to be understood to develop better informed heritage practices in post-conflict societies. Heritage construction has too often been the unintended catalyst for further dividing rather than uniting groups within societies after war.

Reconstructing iconic structures, such as the bridge at Mostar in Bosnia, or the Frauenkirche at Dresden, has been seen by the international community as a way of repairing conflict situations. However, the research found that reconstruction is never just a matter of physical design and resources, but is also about enabling societies to recreate their vision of themselves and reclaim their identities.

CRIC examined conflicts in Spain, France, Germany, Bosnia and Cyprus through case studies that represented a wide range of geographic locations, linguistic backgrounds, demographic make-ups, historical contexts and time-depths from the mid-19th century to the present day, providing a detailed and contextually varied set of data.

The case studies included in-depth field and archival studies of sites of destruction, reconstruction and commemoration. CRIC examined the links between heritage, identity, social memory, and political rhetoric, and looked for common characteristics within these processes to identify the factors that cause reconstruction efforts to be either beneficial or detrimental to a society’s recovery after conflict. The study drew on expertise from the fields of archaeology, social anthropology, history, human geography, sociology, political sciences and psychology.

In particular, commemorative events, such as those at Srebrenica in Bosnia, Gernika in Spain, Dresden in Germany and Verdun in France, were observed over successive years. Interviews were conducted, and substantial archival research carried out in order to record changes in the ways anniversaries of conflict are marked, and how communal notions of historical events and claims are formed. Short films of new CRIC research findings are available on CRIC YouTube1 and Vimeo2 channels for a general audience. In addition, a photographic archive of nearly 1000 images is hosted by the University of Cambridge’s digital repository3, ensuring public access in perpetuity.

CRIC has developed important analytical concepts that will have a major impact on future studies of the role of heritage in post-conflict societies. These include:

  • Institutionalisation - how heritage and identity moves from the personal or communal to become a matter of the state. There is an important tension between private and public spheres that needs to be recognised.
  • Spontaneous or grassroots memorialisation - an initial response to violence in which memorialisation becomes politicised and intertwined with claims, leading to heritage reconstruction and claims being used for political strategies.
  • ‘Biography’ of a place – the continuing accumulation of small changes in places.
  • Distributed ‘memorialscape’ - how memorials can construct, and exist as, a fractured yet linked network of references.

Major common characteristics in the process of reconstructing cultural heritage assessed by CRIC were:

  • The process of reconstruction consists of phases which are characterised by distinct concerns and different claims.
  • Anniversary events and other forms of memorialisation emerge in the early phases, and evolve to act as continuous reminders of the conflict. The partial and conflict-oriented character of most anniversaries should be recognised and new forms that emphasise shared tragedies or explicitly aim at reconciliation should be explored. An example of such an effort is the Slana Banja memorial complex in Tuzla, Bosnia.
  • Civic society and narrow interest groups often play dominant roles in setting the aims of reconstruction. There may be a risk of such groups hijacking the reconstruction process.
  • Ideological objectives often influence reconstruction strategies.
  • Heritage reconstruction can have a negative impact on the regeneration of society if it becomes ‘war by any other means’.


The implications for society and research into post-conflict heritage are clear and important, but also subtle. They should not be reduced to simplistic statements which are often appropriated and misinterpreted by reconstruction stakeholders resulting, at best in a waste of resources, and at worst in counterproductive results.

Studying processes as they unfold, whether related to the reconstruction of Mostar Bridge in Bosnia, the construction of memorials for the victims of the Madrid bombing, or the reinstatement of the Isted war memorial dedicated in North Germany in 2011 after it was removed by the local population in 1864, shows that the potential for conflict and contestation are ever-present.

CRIC has produced a statement of principle and outline recommendations which will be detailed and tailor-made in dialogue with relevant institutions and policy makers.

Statement of principle:

  • It is important that the necessary investment in heritage is efficient and reaches its objectives. Heritage should not be used as a means of escalating conflicts and its potential for playing a part in peace processes, reconciliation, and the rebuilding of society in the widest sense should be enhanced.

Outline recommendations

Future reconstruction initiatives should:

  • Avoid practices which allow the reconstruction of cultural heritage to become the focus for continuation of conflict by another means.
  • Maintain an emphasis on authenticity without marginalising local populations during the reconstruction process.
  • Exhibit a high degree of financial scrutiny of donors and external funding sources, to avoid the alienation of groups or development of conflict-laden symbolic attachments, or creating a sense of exclusive ownership.
  • Ensure that cultural heritage is disassociated from issues of establishing truth and claims.
  • Commit to long term engagement with and monitoring of cultural heritage reconstruction projects, to ensure greater integration of reconstructed sites with locales and communities.
  • Aim to make transparent the political and social objectives of reconstruction projects and the meanings that are being promoted through the sites.


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3 See:

CRIC – Identity and conflict. Cultural heritage and the reconstruction of identities after conflict (duration: 1/2/2008 – 31/1/2012). FP7 Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities, Activity 5 “The Citizen in the European Union”, Research area 5.2 “Diversities and commonalities in Europe”. Collaborative project (small and medium scale focused research project).


Contact: Marie Louise Sorensen,