“Safeguarding the past to shape a better future for all”

“Our collective memory is rooted in records left by past generations,” declared UNESCO Director-General, Irina Bokova, in her I.P. Sharp lecture at the University of Toronto on 18 November. The Director-General was invited to give a lecture on “Safeguarding the Past, Shaping a better Future: UNESCO Soft Power in the Digital Age”.

“These mark milestones in human history. They show how small and great gestures can change the course of history, not only for individuals but for whole societies,” she continued explaining to an audience of over 300 that this is the “objective of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme – to safeguard and promote humanity’s unique documentary heritage, for the benefit of all, for encouraging shared value systems and knowledge of history that matter for choices that individuals and societies make today, to shape more inclusive, peaceful and sustainable paths for future development. The Memory of the World is not just about documents and books. It is deeply anchored in human experience, it matters for belonging and identity, and carries universal value.”

The Director-General gave examples of UNESCO’s recent work in Iraq, where we see unprecedented cultural cleansing, cultural eradication and cultural looting, and in Mali, where extremist groups attacked Timbuktu last year destroying 14 of the 16 mausoleums inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. “I see this as the essence of UNESCO’s ‘soft power today – to bolster the foundations for peace and sustainability, through dialogue and cooperation by strengthening the idea of a single humanity, holding a past and a future in common,” she said.

The Director-General thanked the Government of Canada for its leadership in bolstering UNESCO’s action, saying “I thank you for your commitment to the goals we share, to safeguard the past to shape a better future for all.”

The lecture was co-organized by the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Information directed by Dean Seamus Ross, and the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, presided by Dr Christina Cameron.

The I.P. Sharp Lectureship was established at the Faculty of Information Studies in 1989 with an endowment from Reuters Information Services (Canada) Limited in honor of its founding president and former chief executive officer, Ian P. Sharp. It is intended to bring internationally renowned individuals to the campus to explore the transformative effects of information practice. The lectures are delivered every three to four years by a distinguished figure in information science and related fields.

On the same day, the Director-General took part in a roundtable discussion on “Protecting our Heritage and Fostering Creativity” organized by the University of Toronto Faculty of Information and the Canadian Commission for UNESCO, focused on the role of museums in fostering social cohesion, mutual understanding, and promoting social and economic development.

The University of Toronto was a fitting organizer of the lecture as it holds the collections documenting the discovery of insulin, inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2013 in recognition of its global significance. Housed in the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library – a cathedral of ancient manuscripts frequented by the writer Umberto Eco – the collection includes over 7,000 pages of documents linked to the research which won Dr Banting and Dr Macleod the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1923. The Director-General viewed pieces from this collection, including moving letters written by children who had benefited from the life-changing discovery, as well as the original Nobel gold medal and certificate. In Ms Bokova’s presence, Dr Banting’s great nephew described his uncle’s collection “as bringing together one act of kindness”.

During her day-long stay, the Director-General held meetings with the President of the University of Toronto, Mr Meric Gertler, the President of the Board of the Canada Council for the Arts, Mr Joseph Rotman, the Dean of the Faculty of Information Mr Seamus Ross, and Mr Drew Fagan, Ontario's Deputy Minister for Culture, Tourism and Sports.