Yesterday I attended ICOMOS-UK’s World Heritage for Tomorrow conference that marked the 40th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention. For me, the most interesting theme that ran through the presentations and discussions was the apparent tension between tangible and intangible heritage, and how to deal with it within a system that is concerned with designation.
Baroness Andrews, Chair of English Heritage, opened the conference with reflections on what the impact of the World Heritage Convention has been nationally. What struck me about her speech was a statement she made about heritage being finite: ‘we’re not making it anymore,’ she said. She didn’t elaborate, so I’m not clear about what exactly she meant by this. For even if we narrowly define heritage as tangible, and as buildings or monuments in particular, then surely that statement isn’t true. We are still creating amazing buildings, if not monuments, all around the world. Should these not be considered heritage? Should we only assign heritage status to things that are hundreds of years old? My answer is a resounding no, but perhaps this is still the underlying concept of heritage that powers the World Heritage List – even despite inscriptions of sites of more recent history.
At least this is what I gleaned from the two speakers that followed Baroness Andrews. Susan Denyer is World Heritage Advisor at ICOMOS, and she talked about how the understanding of Outstanding Universal Value (OUV) has changed since 1972. She said that people’s views about the values of a site are receiving more consideration, but it is the World Heritage Committee that decides what the Outstanding Universal Value of a site is – in other words, those values that make it relevant to all of humankind. Denyer emphasised that the committee recognises that the OUV isn’t fixed: it changes over time. Consequently, inscription is merely a statement about OUV at that particular point in time. The question that she left unanswered was what consequence this has for the enduring relevance of the World Heritage List. Shouldn’t we review it regularly, and change inscriptions, or delist sites altogether? Professor Christina Cameron of the University of Montreal reported that a 25-year review cycle has been suggested, but so far, no commitment has been made to this. In my opinion, this is a clear statement. It does imply a view of heritage as something of the past: It can be assessed and fixed in time, and the present’s claim on it takes a backseat to what experts have declared its overwhelming value.
The other interesting question that arose in Denyer’s talk was that of intangibility: can ‘sacred nature’, she asked, ever be seen and inscribed as heritage? She implied that this concept of sacred nature was not associated with tangible attributes. Leaving aside for the moment whether or not this is so, Denyer’s answer to the question was no, we cannot see or inscribe something as heritage without tangible attributes. The World Heritage List ultimately is about place. She’s probably right about this, but the question that this raises for me is again one of relevance. Can the World Heritage List, which seems so concerned with expert values about materiality, really be meaningful to the rest of us? Or are we actually dismissing the listing, or at best using it as another version of the Visit Britain awards?
That is in a nutshell what James Rebanks of Rebanks Consulting suggested. He’s done quite a bit of research into the benefits of World Heritage Status (WHS), and unsurprisingly he found that WHS alone doesn’t do anything – it’s about how you use it (well, and what your starting point is too). One of the key benefits of WHS emerged to be as a label, both for attracting funding and for marketing. It could also serve as place-making, in that the process of submitting a site for subscription requires those preparing the submission to do a lot of work with people. For Rebanks, heritage is first and foremost about local people. He gently criticised many authorities responsible for using heritage for the public good for narrowly focusing on tourism. I found it really refreshing that he made a point that we don’t hear often: tourism doesn’t bring jobs of high value, and the money a heritage site brings in isn’t actually spent at the site, but entirely around it, in the infrastructures of transport and accommodation. It was great to see someone being unashamedly economic about assessing heritage benefits, and yet coming to an insight that many heritage professionals still don’t have: that the value of heritage lies in what the people think, not in experts’ assessments of material attributes.
To a degree, this was also echoed by Adam Wilkinson, Director of Edinburgh World Heritage. He didn’t talk much about tangible versus intangible, or expert versus people values of heritage. In a way, it seemed that in Edinburgh they know that what makes Edinburgh special is all of the above together – there was no need to take it apart. Wilkinson talked about restoration projects and projects with disaffected youth, and most importantly, he made the point that heritage is about how you use it. What came through very strongly was the need to work with all the stakeholders, because, as Wilkinson said, ‘if we try to go it on our own we fail.’
So getting back to the question of tangible versus intangible, it seemed to me that those actually working with sites – trying to manage them for people, rather than being concerned with inscription – have a much more fluid understanding of heritage. It may be that materiality is an unfortunate concept that we cannot escape when talking about listing, and all the historic overviews that we got at the conference made it very clear that conservation of fabric, and thus listing, is important if we want to have a framework to guide our day-to-day decisions about planning and development. And yet, I worry that this material concept of heritage is actually sabotaging our effectiveness when keeping heritage alive. For me, all heritage is intangible, but generally linked to a tangible attribute, such as place. That’s not even a philosophical issue for me, but perhaps we need to make it one.