Prof. Dr. Renate Nestvogel

[+]Cover_HS Vol 3_40 Years WHCMarie-Theres Albert, Birgitta Ringbeck, 40 Years World Heritage Convention. Popularizing the Protection of Cultural and Natural Heritage.
De Gruyter 2015, ISBN 978-3-11-042776-9, 214 pages, ISSN 2196-0275

Review by Prof. Dr. Renate Nestvogel

In this third volume of the Heritage Studies Series, the authors present the manifold facets of World Heritage since its formation and the adoption of the World Heritage Convention in 1972. First of all, they point out that the current 1031 cultural and natural sites registered on the World Heritage List exhibit a striking regional imbalance.

More than half of the World Heritage Sites can be found in Europe and North America, that is, on only 28% of the entire land area of the earth and in the hands of only 16% of the world population. Not only the European notions of culture and cultural assets dominate the heritage of humanity. The inscribed European monuments of Christendom, the Baroque castles or medieval townscapes also reveal a bourgeois, material concept of culture. Furthermore, the authors broach the tension between protection and commercialization, as well as between positive and negative guiding principles. By means of some salient examples they outline exemplarily the range of World Heritage (historic buildings, archaeological remains, symbolic sites, natural heritage, cultural landscape) in the second chapter. They then go on to differentiate the individual types and characteristics based on the Convention text and close with examples from the “List of World Heritage in Danger”.

In chapter three, they show chronologically, beginning with the war and destruction experiences of the second world war, the emergence and further development of various conventions and charters for the protection of cultural assets, which led in 1972 to the adoption of the World Heritage Convention. They critically analyze the implementation on the basis of four phases (1978-91, 1992-99, 2000-05, from 2006), delineated by Founding Director of the World Heritage Centre, Bernd von Droste. The first phase comprises numerous inscriptions, in which cultural and natural heritage were still strictly separated, the procedure for delisting World Heritage Sites was introduced and a regional balance was sought. This could not be achieved, however, even to this day. As an innovation during the second phase, the cultural landscape type was included, which also contained, unlike the self-evident tangible monuments, intangible meanings and functions and thus a different understanding of heritage. The authors note the increasing commercial use of World Heritage sites as negative in this second phase. A Global Strategy adopted in 1994 was supposed to restore a geographically and culturally balanced World Heritage List. It served in the third phase to initiate a thorough examination of previous development errors, where a trend of taking greater account of perceptions of World Heritage from developing countries became apparent. Thus a development emerged, which then also included intangible forms of heritage such as traditional knowledge, art, rituals, customs in the tangible sites. In the fourth phase this led to a greater consideration of the participation of local communities and thus also of so-called non-experts.

In chapter 4, the authors deal with the multifaceted term “heritage”. They explain that this term is used, in addition to the passing on of objects, primarily in the sense of values, which are passed on to subsequent generations and form consciousness as well as identity. The latter is, as the authors write, although in the Convention, not taken sufficiently into account in its implementation. The numerous European castles (18% of all inscribed monuments) on the World Heritage List bear witness to this. Their unique architecture is highlighted in the discourse of UNESCO experts, without however considering the megalomania of feudal rivalries and competing power structures, which lie at the basis of this tangible heritage. Masterpieces of European engineering from the Industrial Age are classified equally ethnocentrically since they are honoured apart from their historical context (e.g. colonialism). In opposition to these tangible discourses, which as part of UNESCO are considered legitimate and thus as a matter of course regarded as “authorized”, are the “non-authorized” discourses, which have developed out of social science (critical, postcolonial) theories and understand heritage procedurally. In these discourses, World Heritage is understood as a phenomenon embedded in historic, socio-economic contexts and dynamically evolving and not just a static and tangible object. This should, according to the authors, have an effect on the composition of the expert committees for evaluating nominations and their exclusive rights to correct or incorrect interpretations of heritage, because often these represent only an elite minority.

Then, the authors present an approach beyond the two outlined positions, which they call the “Heritage Studies discourse”. This discourse addresses the impacts of globalization, climate change, tourism, migration, technological change, heritage communities, participation and sustainability, paradigmatically and at the same time disciplinarily and interdisciplinarily with a comprehensive understanding of heritage in the interest of human development. The associated challenges as well as the contradictions should be worked out holistically, theoretically and methodologically.

The fifth chapter focuses on the effects of the popularization of World Heritage, which is above all expressed in the transformation from an asset worthy of protection to a commodity – similarly to the entire arts and culture sectors. The authors question the relationship between protection and use of a site and disclose the political strategies of the World Heritage Committee. They show trends in nominations of inscribing sites to promote national (cultural) political and economic interests regardless of the votes of the advisory reports and thus violating the spirit of the World Heritage Convention. Although not yet investigated, whether the World Heritage label generates higher visitor numbers than would be the case without a label, it can be stated that economic and touristic interests dominate – despite propagated sustainability concepts.

The authors devote chapter six to intangible heritage, which was recognized in 2003 through a corresponding convention and was ratified in 2006. They trace the background history of this development. Intangible heritage was associated in the 1980s primarily with folklore and traditional customs, in the 1990s with endangered languages, later also with intangible aspects of cultural landscapes. These ultimately resulted in the Intangible Heritage Convention, which now emphasizes the vitality and presentness of cultural heritage and thus the opposite of a musealization. In only six years (until 2013), 327 expressions were listed, including a particularly large number in countries that were previously underrepresented on the World Heritage List.

In the prospects for the future, the authors emphasize once again the success of the World Heritage Convention, but also its ambivalence, which is manifested in functionalization for very different interests. They mention the potential that World Heritage holds for sustainable human development in the broadest sense, for identity building and peacemaking. To this end they call insistently for, among other things, the participation of local people. The outlook closes with many unanswered questions and thoughts that seek for what are certainly not easy solutions – if one considers just how much World Heritage has been destroyed lately in the eyes of the world public and how much cultural diversity is devalued and deformed in the wake of globalization, commercialization and technological development. The authors succeed with their very living and urgent examination of World Heritage issues – the numerous photos of various World Heritage examples also contribute to a stimulating acquisition of knowledge – in involving the readers in a process of reflection – in keeping with a much advocated participation and shared responsibility for the protection of the cultural richness of human life.

(Translated by Hannah Laub)