Constructing Destruction: Heritage Narratives in the Tsunami City. By Trinidad Rico. London and New York: Routledge, 2016. Hardback, 136pp. ISBN 978-1-62958-437-9.

Not long after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004, I visited one of the UK’s seismology monitoring centres in relation to its heritage. I dwelt on a printout that was stuck to the wall. With a pained, indeed hurt, look, the senior seismologist explained that it bore witness to his own bearing witness as the waves of an ocean earthquake spread their destruction. The lack of a warning system meant that all the high-tech seismic monitoring in the world was meaningless in the few hours it took for the tsunami to hit hard across the Indian Ocean. The earth wobbled on its axis.

In one of the most affecting discussions in Trinidad Rico’s important book Constructing Destruction: Heritage Narratives in the Tsunami City, the author gives consideration to the affect of weather system imagery, fixing the discussion on an image that was pinned at the centre of an open-air display next to the “tsunami boat” PLTD Apung 1. This boat was an electric generator ship, the fate of which was to be flung inland (4 km) in Banda Aceh, the capital city of Indonesia’s Aceh region, and one of the worst-hit areas. Rico chronicles the transformation of the boat from collateral damage to “unorthodox” heritage, and then to protected heritage. It was on a notice board at the ship site that the image was pinned, surrounded by a collage of photographs of the death and destruction caused by the tsunami printed on A4 sheets. The image was a satellite printout of “what first appears to be a cloud in the shape of a spiral”, and which a self-appointed guide described as “the hole that the tsunami created in the ocean” (88). The image was seen by visitors as a part of the collage – a central source for the destruction depicted around it. It takes on a cultural identity – violent and wrathful – in context, symbolic. “I saw clouds, many saw waves. Where I saw the eye of a hurricane, they saw a sign,” writes Rico:

Moreover, it occurred to me much later that the way that the tsunami was predominantly depicted cartographically – as a concentric design with a center at the epicentre of the earthquake and concentric circles representing the wave expansion across all directions and reaching the mainland – could have significantly influenced the way that it was imagined to have taken place in real space and time.

The satellite image, Rico later found, had been widely used to represent several natural phenomena extreme events, but was in fact a NASA image of the path of Hurricane Floyd in 1999.

This episode is just one of several expertly drawn out observations that serve to illustrate the “vulnerability” of disaster narratives – their tendency to be swept up, discarded, enhanced, distorted by any number of pushing and pulling forces that seem at odds with one another. It is a compelling narrative in itself which forcefully, but without labouring, describes the susceptibility, even receptiveness, of heritage interpretation to ideological, deterministic definitions, and its resilience – or at least the resistance of both official and unofficial practitioners to the dialogical approaches Rico advocates. Aceh, a landscape of destruction post-disaster, becomes a canvas for heritage-makers. Beyond preservation, the work of heritage as future-oriented, constructive, is made explicit.

Significant space is given over to drawing out the complex and contested past of Aceh. This gives room for contemplation of a place before disaster strikes. Rico opens up Aceh’s uniqueness without discounting the uniqueness of, well, everywhere. Coming, as it does, after the striking introduction to the tsunami boats (4 km inland!), the tsunami is reversed, its effects muddled by the many threads, warp and weft, that have woven a textured history. Are we really to believe that all that heritage can be undone over a few hours? Aceh is situated in Islamic Indonesia (Banda Aceh proudly wears its nickname “the Veranda of Mecca”, after its position as a stopover for hajj pilgrims), and Rico draws out the province’s competing interests, its periods of calm and conflict, within a contextual backdrop that allows her to interrogate not only the warnings given in advance of her fieldwork (there is little in the way of tangible heritage, or even interest in it in Aceh, she was told before setting off), but also the “convincing” theories of the embedding – or not – of trauma within a landscape of as-yet unreconciled loss through years of violent interaction with Indonesian state forces. The tsunami therefore overwrites a landscape already unreconciled to its past. This is the backdrop for her heritage ethnography: a study of the players and processes in Aceh’s response to its disaster heritage – as opposed to its heritage, post-disaster. This close-looking results in a detailed, evidence-based ethnographic analysis of how heritage is made. The nod to Geertz, however, comes in Rico’s use of his characterization of Indonesian Islam as “a struggle for the real” (91). This strikes me as the perfect metaphor: this volume pulls out the head-scratching difficulty in a responsive heritage. The “official” response becomes a Modernist heritage centre – reinforced concrete, one presumes – built on a hill that became imbued in the post-disaster period with a mythological reputation as a place of safety. Rico is unconvinced and the persuasive rendering of the backdrop of its construction certainly carries the reader into this zone of scepticism. None of Rico’s informants or, seemingly, any regular folk, are invited to the opening. There is no need to signpost the meaninglessness of this sort of gestural marking. Meanwhile, an NGO-funded peace garden presumably disposes of some balance-sheet excess. A Japanese initiative of pillars that mark the water height reached at points of the city is given short shrift, and with no ownership within Aceh, Rico presumes it will fail. The signage of the “unorthodox” boats becomes sturdier – from chalk to incised copper – and the boats themselves become supported by load-bearing concrete. “Official” monuments decay in Aceh’s harsh climate, but the “unorthodox” endures.

The importance of the work lies in this durational approach to the observation of heritage creation. The usefulness of ethnographic observation cannot be overstated. The persuasive argument for “alterity” in heritage, of decentralized approaches that accommodate the breadth of experience and respond more intuitively to specificity, in this post-disaster context extend beyond what is a very particular case study. The uniqueness of Aceh is universal, and although (as a long-time heritage practitioner myself) I do not recognize a universal characterization of a bulldozing “orthodox” practice community – in itself it is diverse – the need for frameworks that can incorporate muddle, mess, competition, and conflict; well, that is universal. But… how? This is an extraordinary, quietly insistent, important book – perhaps on too many counts: there are so many rich points made here, so many complexified heritage orthodoxies, so many examples of heritage in-the-making, that one hardly has a chance to think through before the next hits. But that is its strength. A small case study – albeit after a big disaster – has everything to say. With its weather eye, heritage bears witness: to really represent a place and its experiences, the smooth, universalized process enacted by helicopter practitioners alone must become a thing of the past itself. This is a continuing piece of work: its own waves should be felt for some time, from the granularity of its uniqueness, to the broader lessons of globally invested response. In so many ways it is a sad book, not for its subject, but for the lack of creativity that it recounts at all corporate levels: city, region, state, state religion, internationally. But as an illustration of the endurance of heritage as an autonomous, reiterative, creative, popular practice, perhaps, one should look no further than a rusting generator ship that flew 4 km inland, and stayed there.

Review by Sefryn Penrose
Atkins Heritage / UCL Institute of Archaeology