Six questions about the Sorbonne University Heritage Observatory (OPUS)

Opus, the Heritage Observatory, was launched in October 2016 and is one of Sorbonne University’s thematic institutes. The people in charge of Opus will tell us about the significance and strengths of this institute. Dominique Guillaud, anthropologist-geographer at the Institute for Research and Development, Jean-Pierre Van Staëvel, archeology specialist in medieval Muslim culture in Western society at Paris-Sorbonne, and Philippe Walter, physical chemist and director of the Laboratory for Molecular and Structural Archeology at the UPMC.


1) Why do we need an institute dedicated to heritage?

The Convergence Program, thematic research chairs, Labex and innovative teaching initiatives, to mention just a few, show how issues linked to cultural and natural heritage have become one of the main themes of interdisciplinary projects backed by Sorbonne University to investigate new paths for research and education. Opus should make it the community’s field of reference.
“As with other Sorbonne University instititutes, it is neither a laboratory nor a research funding agency,” Philippe Walter explains. “This approach is mainly destined to bring together human, social science and natural science teams that currently work on or are likely to work on heritage issues, in order to develop collaborative dynamics and more innovative projects.” 

2) What strengths are needed for this?

Opus already brings together a dozen leading laboratories, such as the Middle East & Mediterranean lab for archeology and ancient sources, the Centre André Chastel for history of art, Patrimoines Locaux et Gouvernance (PALOC) for the study of construction and deconstruction processes of natural and cultural heritage, the Archeozoology and Archeobotany labs for the history of natural and cultural interactions between human societies, animals and plants, and the Molecular and Structural Archeology lab (LAMS) for the physicochemical analysis of works of art and the study of the properties of ancient materials. The Obvil Labex is also a partner. It digitizes a considerable body of literary works and develops computer tools that allow people to explore them.

In total, 70 research and educational organizations have taken part in heritage projects backed by Sorbonne University or have been involved in various Labexes and may also potentially be involved in Opus. Furthermore, Sorbonne University, and the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in particular, both have a significant museological approach. They also have extensive naturalistic, ethnographic, anthropologic and zoologic collections, as well as medical, scientific, technical and documentary collections.

“We have an exceptional range of expertise. Our technical facilities are just as extraordinary,” Philippe Walter notes. “Let’s take Plemo 3D, for example, a 3-D digitization and modelling platform for objects and monuments; and there’s MH@SU, the human evolution research and education platform at the Musée de l’Homme; Lams’ tools for non-invasive analysis of materials used in works of art; Obvil tools for analyzing large text databases; and the Sorbonne University Institut des Sciences du Calcul et des Données’ calculation and visualization tools. Opus will be a fantastic tool for creating synergies among these strengths. Moreover, three reputable institutions – the BNF, Musée d’Orsay and Musée du Quai Branly – have shown interest in becoming partners, which will provide even more opportunities.

3) What sort of heritage objects will this involve?

Dominique Guillaud, anthropo-géographe à l’Institut de recherche pour le développement.Over decades, the notion of what heritage means has changed considerably. Whether you are referring to museum collections or national parks, archeological sites and monuments or indigenous languages, literature or local products, and music or biological and genetic heritage,
“These objects all have common criteria – they echo sustainable development principles,” Dominique Guillaud explains. “It is collective communal property that has been inherited over a long period, which needs to be passed on to future generations and therefore needs to be protected.”

Opus will study this property and its diversity, using three approaches:
Studying heritage objects, their origins and their uses, analyzing them and so on, all of which is carried out by archeologists, for example;Studying how to manage, preserve and promote heritage vis-a-vis the general public; andStudying heritage in terms of ethical and epistemological research on changes in what heritage means and heritagization phenomena.Generally speaking, these three approaches are segmented. We aim to cross-analyze them, to encourage the people involved to work together and build a genuine chain of heritage studies, which will enable the Heritage Observatory to become an international center of expertise in this field.”

In the first instance, Opus will deploy these study subjects based on topics that have already been studied in interdisciplinary projects. For example, agrobiodiversity and silvicultural practices plus ancient and current agricultural and pastoral practices, which will be a converging point with the Sorbonne University Environmental Transition Institute. Or even the material history of the arts, following on from studies from the Polyre thematic chair, which, by associating physical-chemists, archeologists, prehistorians and art historians, has laid the foundations for a history of colors. Little by little, however, other topics should emerge.

4) What makes this an observatory?

Jean-Pierre Van Staëvel, archéologue spécialiste de l’Occident musulman médiéval à Paris-Sorbonne.As with all Sorbonne University institutes, Opus will be an interdisciplinary research project incubator and a driving force in bringing forward proposals regarding education. However, it will also be an oversight mechanism, first of all in terms of heritagization phenomena via its epistemological approach.
“The notion of heritage was once determined by elites and state authorities, and used to be very standardized,” Jean-Pierre Van Staëvel emphasizes. “Today, communities and local populations assert their own local heritage, and the meaning of the term is being stretched even further.

It is a fundamental trend, which has political, social and economic implications and therefore requires further analysis.” “All around the world, there is turmoil regarding the meaning of heritage,” Dominique Guillaud adds. “Heritage is becoming increasingly used as a lever and even taken hostage, just like the Jihadists when they destroy international symbols. By acting as an oversight mechanism for these processes, Opus will differentiate itself and demonstrate its originality to the scientific world.”

Its role as an observatory does not stop there, however. It will also seek to understand society’s heritage expectations and see how Sorbonne University can meet them.
“At the moment, the university’s heritage expertise is rarely used to its full extent, which is why we want to promote it more efficiently,” Jean-Pierre Van Staëvel explains. “We are accountable to taxpayers, who fund our research, as well as the societies we study. We must give the results of our work back to the people, going further than simply publishing our scientific findings. Otherwise, we are only partially fulfilling our task.”

Opus will set up a unit that will bring together experts from various disciplines and reputable outside academics from the world of arts, industry, civil society and so on in order to act as an oversight mechanism.

5) What types of expertise can be provided to society?

“Opus has only just been created and we are still only in the hypothetical stage,” Dominique Guillaud states. “But we can help draw up requirement specifications for local produce labelling, or provide expertise to public authorities that want to get a natural or historic site listed, and even provide advice on what sort of museum should be set up to promote a specific sort of heritage. Paloc, the UMR I am part of, is regularly confronted with these requests from southern-hemisphere countries. These requirements are also relevant to northern-hemisphere countries.”

“We can also provide theoretical and practical training courses for heritage and fine crafts professions,” Jean-Pierre Van Staëvel notes. “For example, we can teach staff, working on preserving sites or collections, how to model the buildings and objects in 3-D digital format. This technique is often used for reconstituting monuments or displaying objects that are too fragile for exhibition to the general public. Nevertheless, it remains rather inaccessible in the field.

6) What is the roadmap for the next few months?

Firstly, we need to establish exactly those Sorbonne University specialists who are likely to contribute to the Opus oversight mechanism and expertise missions.Philippe Walter, physicochimiste, directeur du Laboratoire d’archéologie moléculaire et structurale de l’UPMC

“Then, we want to launch a call for proposals to initiate interdisciplinary research and education projects, as well as expertise-promotion projects,” Philippe Walter explains. “We also want to organize scientific education activities, with seminars open to community researchers and students as well as to external researchers, since it is important that we expose ourselves to other university dynamics. The analysis involving Opus and its inaugural colloquium, in October 2016, has helped to develop the first signs of a new collaborative dynamic that we now need to consolidate. We are therefore aiming to launch these actions as soon as possible in 2017.”

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