World Heritage
World Heritage

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World Heritage

2.2 The development of World Heritage

From its inception as a concept World Heritage has been integrally linked to international politics, and those who are excluded, or exclude themselves, from the moral world community have invariably been excluded from decisions about World Heritage. After the First World War the League of Nations, established in 1920, aimed to promote peace and encourage international cooperation. It was far from inclusive, for despite the enthusiasm of President Woodrow Wilson (US president 1913–21) one of its main promoters, the USA, refused to join. Germany was excluded until 1926 and the USSR denounced it as a capitalist club until it eventually joined in 1934. Although partly undermined by such structural problems and deepening political crises, the league had some modest successes and its international agencies did much to foster internationalism. As far as heritage was concerned, under its auspices in 1931 the International Council of Museums (ICOM) promoted a congress in Athens which established basic principles for an international code of practice for the preservation and restoration of ancient buildings. The congress conclusions and the subsequent Athens Charter (ICOMOS, [1931] 1996b) reflected a growing consciousness about historic sites, and opened up the debate about conservation issues and the nature and value of international heritage. The charter set important benchmarks for future technical and moral cooperation, on the role of education and the value of documentation.

Established near the end of the Second World War to help stabilise international relations, the United Nations (UN) came into being in 1945. As the successor to the league, the UN inherited similar problems, notably the conflicting interests of the five permanent members of the Security Council – Britain, China, France, the USSR and the USA – plus the numerous issues surrounding peace keeping in a world divided by the Cold War between the capitalist West and the Communist bloc. At the outset many countries we know today were missing from the UN but from the mid-1950s onwards, with the creation of new states, the number of members grew very considerably and the residual colonial position of the leading European powers, notably Britain and France, dwindled. This exercised considerable influence on the UN’s many organs, among them the one that came to play a central role in World Heritage. Postwar reconstruction in Europe, the Far East and elsewhere was to include the rebuilding of education systems, and the organisation to facilitate and promote this, UNESCO, was also founded in 1945. The UNESCO mission statement focuses on the promotion of peace and harmony between nations and this has continued to underscore its work. Indeed, it has become one of the key ‘uses’ of heritage.

From the outset UNESCO also played a role in the promotion and rescue of historic sites. In Europe postwar reconstruction from 1945 to 1955 brought about the large-scale restoration of damaged cities including Dresden, Warsaw, Gdansk, Blois and Vicenza, among others. Concern at the scale of war damage was such that the Hague Convention produced in 1954 a convention on the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, and which arguably had considerable significance for World Heritage in the longer term.

Another important trigger to further action was the international concern raised by the construction of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt, which would flood the valley containing the Abu Simbel and other temples, significant relics of ancient Egypt. In 1959, following an appeal from Egypt and Sudan, UNESCO instigated a major conservation programme which involved intensive archaeological excavations and the removal, stone by stone, of the temples that were reconstructed on higher ground above the flood line (Figure 1). The Aswan project cost US $80 million, half from fifty donor countries, an early indication of solidarity and nations’ shared responsibility in conserving outstanding cultural sites. At the time of writing twenty-six international ‘safe guarding campaigns’ were devoted to saving a range of sites including Venice and its lagoon, the archaeology of Mohenjo-Daro in Pakistan, and restoring the Borobudur temple compounds in Indonesia.

These campaigns are much broader in scope than the preservation of specific World Heritage sites, being more technologically complex and often involving investment of millions of US dollars. The Venice project, dating from 1966, following UNESCO’s decision to promote a campaign designed to save the city after the disastrous floods of 1965, is one of the most complex (Figure 2). This, as UNESCO notes, was a task requiring time, high levels of technical skill and, above all, money. But the international synergy arising from this project proved a vital inspiration both to the production of the Venice Charter and to the later World Heritage Convention.

Figure 1 The Rialto Bridge, Venice. Unknown photographer. Photo: © Siwiak Travel/Alamy.

Venice came to be associated with the second major protocol concerning conservation, for there in 1964 an international congress of heritage experts produced the Venice Charter. This defines internationally accepted standards of conservation relating to buildings and other sites. It emphasises the importance of authenticity and maintaining the historical and physical context of the site, and makes clear that monuments are to be conserved as historical evidence as well as cultural artefacts. It also spells out a code for restoration and preservation. While concerned mainly with buildings and cultural sites, the Venice Charter continues to be the most influential international conservation protocol.

Figure 2 Sandstone head of Ramses II being moved to be reassembled at the new site of Abu Simbel, 1966. Photographed by Terrence Spencer. Photo: © Terrence Spencer/Time and Life Pictures/Getty Images.

The Venice Charter became the founding document of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), another international NGO with roots going back to the First International Congress of Architects and Technicians of Historic Monuments which had produced the Athens Charter. ICOMOS, formed in 1965, assembled a network of architects, historians, landscape architects, engineers, archaeologists, geographers, town planners, anthropologists, conservators, heritage administrators and site managers to help assess sites. It was to provide evaluations of cultural and mixed properties for inscription in the World Heritage List (see below). The Parisbased ICOMOS, assisted by a growing number of national committees, thus became a key player in World Heritage selection.

At the same time the concept of combining conservation of cultural sites with natural sites was gaining currency in the USA. In 1965 a White House conference in Washington DC called for international cooperation to protect ‘the world’s superb natural and scenic areas and historic sites for the present and the future of the entire world citizenry’. In 1968 another NGO, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which had been established with its headquarters in Switzerland, developed a similar set of proposals. Presented to a UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm these proposals established international measures of protection and conservation similar to those for cultural sites.

Hence the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (or ‘World Heritage Convention’) developed from the coincidence of separate movements focusing on the one hand on the preservation of cultural sites, and on the other dealing with the conservation of nature. Ultimately a single text was agreed to by all parties and the convention was adopted by the General Conference of UNESCO in November 1972. Since then all countries joining UNESCO have ratified the convention.

The Venice Charter and ‘pre-convention’ background are vital to an understanding of the relationship between the major heritage charters since 1964. The sheer number of different charters indicates the increasing ‘governmentalisation’ of heritage over the course of the late twentieth century.

This background also helps de-code what has become politically an increasingly complex field reflected in a large international bureaucracy and a proliferation of related national organisations. On the ground there has been increasing diversification in listings, with more groupings of sites, some in quite interesting ways, like serial (or groups of similar) sites, route ways, industrial heritage, designations of heritage cities and cultural landscapes, the emergence of new heritages (such as intangible heritage), and of large-scale restoration and safeguarding campaigns.

UNESCO claims the World Heritage Convention is not just ‘words on paper’ but an instrument for concrete action in preserving threatened sites or endangered environments, species and, more recently, cultures.

The convention is an important document and merits close analysis, albeit briefly in this context. In short, it:

  • defines the cultural and natural heritage
  • calls for national and international protection of the heritage established by the World Heritage Committee (see below)
  • calls on states to submit lists
  • draws up a World Heritage List
  • defines World Heritage in danger
  • promotes international assistance, supported by state parties
  • sets up a secretariat
  • establishes a fund for the protection of cultural and natural heritage
  • promotes educational programmes.

Hence the convention established the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, comprised of twenty-one state parties (countries) which are elected for a fixed term by the General Assembly of State Parties. A growing number of countries have ratified the convention: 184 in total by 2007. The convention has encouraged these countries to endorse its objects, and to catalogue, name and conserve sites of cultural or natural importance to the common heritage of humanity. Under certain conditions listed sites can obtain funds from the World Heritage Fund.

While these aims are highly laudable, fulfilment is potentially complex and in some contexts politically sensitive, but there are obvious benefits. The overarching benefit is being part of a global community dedicated to conserving international cultural and natural heritage. The main rewards are: sharing a commitment to a heritage legacy; raising awareness about preservation in localities and regions; access to funding via the World Heritage Centre, especially for threatened sites (and the list of World Heritage in Danger repays investigation); development of management plans for sites and training in heritage conservation and promotion; the prestige of inscription of national sites; and economic development, especially sustainable (cultural and environmental) tourism (UNESCO, 1972; World Heritage Centre, 2005).

Once more reflecting UN political principles, there is a strong element of international cooperation and goodwill reflected here, plus the obvious influence of World Heritage accolade(s) on attracting initial funds, medium and long-term investment, and the multiplier effect on the economy, notably through tourism. Although little of this is apparently contentious, it can be, as was the case in 1986 when President Ronald Reagan (US president 1981–9) withdrew the USA, a move interpreted at the time as a reaction to UNESCO’s anti-imperialist messages and accusations of corruption. Margaret Thatcher (UK prime minister 1979–90) followed suit with considerable implications for UK heritage accreditation. Arguably, as many heritage professionals can testify, despite its enormously rich heritage, it took the UK years to recover its influence after Tony Blair (UK prime minister 1997–2007) returned the country to the UNESCO fold in 1997.


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