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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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. Essentially, it is about sustainability of heritage. 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

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.

While these aims are highly laudable, fulfilment is potentially complex and in some contexts politically sensitive.

This brief introduction to the background of World Heritage 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.

Let us now examine some examples of these different categories of ‘heritage’.

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