Posts Tagged ‘UNESCO’

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.

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I spent today and yesterday at the ‘I Know Where I’m Going’ Conference in Edinburgh. The conference was about remote access, with a focus on World Heritage Sites (it was part-organised by UK UNESCO). That may sound like the conference was all about technology, and we did indeed hear a great deal about the many fantastic solutions that are out there to help support remote access.

However, the conference also highlighted the complexity surrounding the issue of remote access.  While one speaker from England asked, When would you not want to offer remote access? the traditional owners of Uluru in Australia pointed out that pictures and video recordings of their sacred site (as remote access media) weren’t something that their culture easily embraced.  Uluru of course is a very good example of a site that is physically remote and under physical (and cultural) pressure from tourists.  Remote access seems like the ideal solution, and yet, beside the owners’ cultural unease with mechanical representation, they also felt that remote access wasn’t enough to give people a true understanding of the importance of the site, and an appreciation of their culture.

This brings us back to the question of whether interpretation has to happen in view of the thing itself.  From the point of view of interpretation, my answer remains, no.  You can absolutely interpret a site hundreds of miles away from it.  In fact, an excellent example that I heard during the conference was that of laser scanning.  CyArk use this technique as the basis for follow-on presentations, such as 3D environments that a web user can explore.  And this is just a (fairly traditional) example of what can be done (CyArk had many more examples, and many of them brilliantly creative and interactive).

However, like the traditional owners of Uluru argued, I think for those truly committed to and respectful toward heritage, nothing can beat the experience of being in the place.  And yet, how many tourists are truly that committed?  At Uluru, they still climb the rock despite being asked not to.  What (good, really good) remote access interpretation might achieve here is two things: one, it might be able to begin prepping tourists for their visit as they begin to plan it.  They could be exposed not only to the rock that they are primarily drawn to, but also introduced to the surrounding cultural importance the place holds for the local guardians.  I don’t think we’ve tried this enough yet to dismiss the hope for such pre-visit behavioural change, as it were.

The second possible outcome of (good, really good) remote access may be that it gives those less-committed tourists enough of an experience so that they may not feel the need to come in person.  That’s not just a perfectly acceptable outcome of interpretation in my mind, it sometimes is a matter of survival for the site.  St Kilda is one such example, where you can just image the damage that would be done to the fragile bird habitats on the island by commercial tour operators arriving there on an hourly schedule (luckily, it seems, the stormy sea prevents this anyway).

In other words, remote access can become another layer in the interpretive offer, and at this point it might be good to briefly remind ourselves that remote access doesn’t have to be just fancy technology.  Storytelling, as one speaker pointed out, can be another form of remote access to heritage, as are travel accounts, and photographs.  My only hesitation about these media with regard to good, really good remote access would be that they aren’t quite powerful enough to fulfil their (remote) purpose.

Why?  These more traditional access media are still very one-dimensional and especially, one-directional: from interpreter to audience.  With many of the remote access technologies that were discussed at the conference, however, what struck me was their interactivity.  It became the most obvious in a talk given by a Nokia representative.  He started off by talking about ICE – Inspiring, Connecting, Exploring.  That sounded so much like Tilden’s interpretive principles that I was just about to switch off, when he explained that by ‘connect’ he didn’t mean ‘connect with a site’ – he meant, ‘connect with peers’ (of course, Nokia’s strapline is ‘Connecting people’).  Equally, by explore he specifically didn’t mean just telling people to ‘look at this’.  He meant to provide content that people could interact with, and preferably add to.  That is quite a refreshing way for interpreters to look at interpretation.  The strength of such remote access isn’t just with regard to providing access when people, for whatever reason, are not able to or are not allowed to come to a site.  This kind of remote access can also extend the experience, and can finally help to consolidate what we as interpreters so desperately try to achieve during the brief time visitors are on site: to ge visitors to understand the site, to care for it, and to engage with it further.  Again, remote access here is simply another layer of interpretation.

The key is to ensure that remote access is of high quality. If we think of remote access as actual, off-site access to a site, then it becomes clear that simply providing the same content and interpretation that we offer on site isn’t enough.  We need to really go that step further, and offer an experience of the site.  Just as on site, you don’t want to get in the way of people’s first-hand interaction with the site itself by forcing them to look at a screen for a long time, off-site you don’t want them to feel the absence of the physical experience with every click of the mouse (or whatever it is).  Remote access becomes a different way of thinking about interpretation away from the site.  Only once we stop treating it as the ‘second best thing’ will we be able to fully take advantage of what remote access can offer – a way of supporting conservation and an opportunity to enhance the visitor experience.

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Last week, I attended the Foundation Assembly for Interpret Europe – the European Association for Heritage Interpretation.

This was the first time that I was part of a truly historic event and that in itself makes one’s heart beat faster.  But what was more important was that with Interpret Europe interpretation finally receives its deserved voice across Europe.

Interpretation in Europe is still very much in its infancy.  While European conventions such as the Faro Convention of 2005 [1] increasingly invoke the benefits of heritage there is no official reference to how these benefits should be communicated to the public.  In other words, there is no reference to heritage interpretation.

In individual European countries the situation looks even grimmer.  In Germany, for example, relevant heritage legislation such as the Denkmalschutzgesetz (heritage conservation law) of the individual Bundesländer does not even talk about public benefits of archaeological heritage – the focus is firmly on conservation for conservation’s sake.  One is not surprised, therefore, that the discipline of heritage interpretation is virtually unheard of.

Things stand quite differently on the global stage.  UNESCO, for example, can be credited with having formally introduced the concept of significance into heritage protection [2], which begins to hint at conservation for a greater purpose.  In 2008, then, ICOMOS agreed its charter for the interpretation and presentation of cultural heritage sites, thus lifting interpretation out of the personal commitment of those who have been practicing interpretation for the public benefit over the last decades and into the limelight of good practice in cultural heritage management.

In light of this, it is quite depressing to find the discipline of interpretation so neglected in most European countries.  The sad consequence is of course that much of what serves as interpretation falls sadly short of achieving objectives (if any have been considered at all), never mind showing visitors that a site holds many benefits for them (and thus why they should support its conservation).  Again using Germany as an example, the predominant practice is still to recruit specialist experts such as historians or archaeologists to do an interpreter’s job, often as part of their (primary) role as researchers [3].  Patrick Lehnes, a fellow German and the man whose brainchild was Interpret Europe, found that panels along a nature path in the Black Forest region only met a few aspects of what is generally considered to be interpretive best practice.  He also found that these panels were largely left unread [4] (I will refrain at this point to draw attention to the fact that panels still are the dominant form of interpretation on offer in Germany – I have previously voiced my opinion on panels and shall presently hold my peace).

It is to be hoped that the formation of Interpret Europe will not only provide networking opportunities for the lonesome interpreters dotted around the union but will also increase heritage managers’ awareness of the need for professional interpretation.  There has been much discussion in the period leading up to the founding assembly about the differences in legislation and practices in individual European countries, and this will undoubtedly continue to be an issue as the association grows.  However, this is not only a challenge but also an opportunity which I see as a reflection of some of the core values of interpretation: to keep an open mind, to remain flexible and to strive to find the best solution to any given challenge.  I’m happy to be a part of it.


[1] The Faro convention so far has only been ratified by a handful of countries – not including Germany.

[2] Significance, albeit in the guise of ‘interest’, was first used in US American legislation, namely in the Antiquities Act of 1906.  In the United States, public benefit has been part of all heritage protection since Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872.  It is probably for this reason that the first association for heritage interpretation was formed in the United States, as far as I understand.

[3] A casual glance at the job listings on the German Museums Association website will give you plenty of examples.

[4] Lehnes, P. (2004) The interpreter’s dilemma – and what visitors think of it. in: Regionale Identität, Tourismus und Landschaftsinterpretation: Eine natürliche Symbiose? (ZELTForum – Göttinger Schriften zu Landschaftsinterpretation und Tourismus Bd. 1), p. 41-46

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