On Monday, April 15, 2019, the world watch in shock as the 850-year-old Cathedral of Norte Dame in Paris, France, became engulfed in flames. While much of the historic and iconic structure was destroyed in the fire, valiant efforts led to the saving of precious artworks and most venerated relic. Reports suggest that aside from precious artworks, a nail from the cross of Jesus Christ and what is believed to be the Crown of Thorns, were housed within its walls.
The people of France are deeply affected as they mourn what is being described as its “Lady” and the soul of their country. The French President, Emmanuel Macron, who was on the scene, was quoted as saying, “Notre Dame is our history, it’s our literature, it’s our imagery. It’s the place where we live our greatest moments, from wars to pandemics to liberations. This history is ours. And it burns”.
The Cathedral has come to epitomise France and the French people feel a sense of connection to it as many around the world, whether they were Christians or not, including the millions of tourists with cherished memories. Even in the face of its destruction, it remains a towering beacon of unbridled pride.
Macron wasted no time in announcing that the Cathedral will be rebuilt. Citing that it’s probably part of the French destiny, he said a national donation scheme which will extend beyond the borders of France, will be started. That swift announcement speaks to the tremendous value that is attached to the Cathedral by the people of France and what they know it means to millions of others across the world.
France is not the only country that is cognizant of the value of its historic buildings. Many countries have enshrined the protection of these edifices with parts of towns and cities being safeguarded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, (UNESCO). The Norte Dame Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Such sites offer a glimpse into the past and serve, in some instances, as a reservoir or as pivotal focal points to understand, not just history, but the cultural journey over time. It also identifies with the individual countries. Guyana is not devoid of such buildings that are of immense historical value. Sadly, some have been destroyed and not rebuilt while others, even though a bit more fortunate, need much care.
Cognizant of the need to help preserve these historical sites, the Government established the National Trust of Guyana in 1972. It has expended much efforts over the years however, gauging from the appearance of some of the buildings, resources may be a suggested constraint. It is tasked with preserving national monuments and buildings it has declared as part of its overall responsibilities.
Its powers, however, were brought into question when State House, which is categorised as a national monument on its website, was painted in green after the current Government took office. Green is the colour of the A Partnership for National Unity, the dominant party in the coalition Government.
Since May 2015, a number of public buildings and bridges were repainted to reflect that party colour in what seems an exercise for it to be imposed. The Office of the President was also not spared. Many objected, especially to the repainting of State House, however their cries fell on Government’s deaf ears.
The basic understanding that generally governs heritage sites globally is that any refurbishing cannot alter the appearance as agreed for preservation. This does not in any way prevent restoration work; work which Sate House has undergone when the People’s Progressive Party (PPP) was in government. Whatever was done then to keep the building intact, seemingly confirmed to the guiding protocols.
That said, questions were raised as to whether the National Trust was consulted on painting State House green. It remains unclear if it was and if so, why it may have agreed. As it is, the appearance of this national monument was altered thereby deliberately interrupting its historical aesthetics which is considered a direct contradiction of the policies of preservation. This can be easily interpreted as devaluing its historical worth and even desecration seemingly just for political gratification.
It clearly sends the wrong message to the current and coming generations. If only those responsible could have been aware as to what State House, built in 1823, and other historical sites mean to Guyanese, as President Macron is for France. What makes this Government’s actions even more baffling to the point being worry, is that the Head of State is a historian who needs no lecture on the value of our historical sites.
The value of the Norte Dame Cathedral to the French people over the many centuries, transcended political boundaries. It is part of what made France, France. Similarly, here, there are sites that make Guyana, Guyana. All it takes is for more awareness be brought and for them to be respected.
What happened to State House smacks of disrespect to both its historical value and the National Trust; a stark contrast to what currently plays out in France even as the Norte Dame Cathedral stands in ruins.