A tale of two cities: The fate of Delhi as UNESCO World Heritage


Lynn Meskell (Pennsylvania)

Co-organised with the American Academy in Rome as part of the 2021 Jerome Lecture Series.

This event will be in English.

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In June 2015, a nomination dossier entitled “Delhi’s Imperial Capital Cities,” combining the two imperial capitals of Shahjahanabad and New Delhi, was proposed for the UNESCO World Heritage List. I trace the trajectory of the dossier and events surrounding its withdrawal to reveal the political imbrications of urban conservation, international institutions, neoliberal governance, and colonial histories. I situate Delhi’s heritage within the ambit of neoliberal governance that recalibrates and promotes urban heritage preservation, while similarly encouraging development and economic growth. I consider how sustained government efforts to reframe Delhi as a “global city,” coupled with the identification of Delhi’s imperial capitals with Mughal and British rule, resulted in the dossier’s withdrawal. The episode reveals tensions in this specific political moment over contemporary perceptions of imperial occupation and “foreign” empires, which plagued the dossier from the outset and continue to reverberate in India today.

Lynn Meskell is Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor in the School of Arts and Sciences and Professor of Historic Preservation in the Weitzman School of Design. At the Penn Museum she is curator in the Middle East and Asia sections. She is also AD White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University (2019-2025). Lynn holds Honorary Professorships at Oxford University, Liverpool University, Shiv Nadar in India and the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. Previously she was the Shirley and Leonard Ely Professor of Humanities and Sciences in the Department of Anthropology at Stanford University. She is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. She has been awarded grants and fellowships from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the Australian Research Council, the American Academy in Rome, the School of American Research, Oxford University and Cambridge University. Lynn is the founding editor of the Journal of Social Archaeology. Her most recent book A Future in Ruins: UNESCO, World Heritage, and the Dream of Peace (2018, OUP New York), won the Society for American Archaeology book award and reveals UNESCO’s early forays into a one-world archaeology and its later commitments to global heritage.