World Heritage Now

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In the 50’s and 60's, when my future parents had not yet met, UNESCO coordinated several international campaigns: to rescue the Abu Simbel temples in Egypt from their demolition, planned in order to make way for the Aswan Dam in 1959, and to protect and reconstruct Florence and Venice after disastrous floods ravaged the cities in 1966. In 1972 the General Conference of UNESCO adopted the Convention concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage, which laid the foundation for the first inscriptions in the World Heritage List six years later, two months after I was born.

Until now I have visited roughly 10% of the nearly 1,000 properties that have been added to the list since 1978. I have spent a great deal of my lifetime in and around World Heritage sites, from the celebrated tourist magnets in Italy and Greece to more farflung sites such as the city of Kaesŏng in southern North Korea (DPRK) or the protohistoric settlement and necropolises of Bat in the desert of the Sultanate of Oman. In 2010 my hometown of Amsterdam became a World Heritage site when the famous canal area was inscribed in the List. 3


Since the late seventies I have quadrupled in height and the world’s population grew from four to seven billion people— meanwhile UNESCO continuously devoted its time to protecting the world’s heritage from the negative side-effects of rapid demographic and spatial developments, the rise of mass tourism, climate change and other threats.

In 2013 the List and I both turned 35, the age at which you are eligible to run for the US presidency. The apparent expectation is that one is wise enough at this age to take responsibility for global matters. We now both have to live up to these expectations.


Throughout 2013 I had the honor and pleasure of being the inaugural guest curator of the so-called World Heritage Podium in Amsterdam, a new and permanent information centre to introduce everyone to UNESCO World Heritage in The Netherlands and across the globe from a critical viewpoint. My involvement helped me to develop a better understanding and a more nuanced perspective on the importance of World Heritage.

While working on the content and design of the Podium, I started collecting news items and other sources that addressed both the positive and negative developments that shape World Heritage (sites) today. And 2013 was a turbulent year. The World Heritage Commission inscribed 19 new properties in the List but also added 7 properties to the List of World Heritage in Danger, including the Ancient City of Damascus and Aleppo, which are both situated in war stricken Syria. UNESCO also levelled criticism at several others, including Paramaribo and Pompeii for insufficient maintenance of their World Heritage properties. UNESCO’s worries are not always equally shared by everyone. Last summer I visited Pompeii with my wife and our 4 year old 4

daughter and we were more concerned with the hordes of tourists that could trample our child than with the risk of stones falling due to neglect. And in 2009, the same year in which my daughter was born, UNESCO removed Dresden’s Elbe Valley from the World Heritage List due to the construction of a bridge that UNESCO deemed to violate the property’s “outstanding universal value as inscribed”. Yet in August 2013 thousands of people attended the official opening of the bridge, which a majority of the local residents had voted in favor of in an official referendum. Right now there are 44 properties on the List of World Heritage in Danger that are waiting for UNESCO’s final verdict, and this number keeps rising.

In this publication, the official document is confronted with the evidence and collateral of being read. Precursory scribbles, my own personal observations and recent news items from around the world are injected into the pages of the UNESCO original. The tensions between the unruly reality of the world we live in today and the original aims and prescribed methodology of UNESCO are revealed and examined, facing the problem of how we can ensure the World Heritage List’s sustained relevance in a world in flux— during my daughter’s lifetime and into future generations. 5


Looking at and reading the official ‘Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention’—the original document which describes the criteria and procedures for new inscriptions and what could be called the World Heritage process—many questions and doubts about the List’s robustness and effectivity arise. World Heritage properties suffer increasingly from neglect, commercial exploitation, local resistance and other forces, and in an ironic twist of fate World Heritage has itself now become vulnerable and requires extra care from all of us.



The annual limit set on the number of property nominations the World Heritage Committee will review is 45. This means that the World Heritage List could conceivably grow from the current number of nearly 1,000 properties to more than 2,500 sites by 2050. And although the Committee encourages nominations of properties from categories and regions that are underrepresented, the List remains largely imbalanced with cultural sites in Europe and North America overwhelmingly dominating, while Africa and natural sites lag behind. One way to rectify the shortcomings of the current system, which inadvertently but systemically favours certain types of heritage from only a small part of the world, is by adopting new ways to select properties.

Alternatively, sticking to the culinary reference, UNESCO could find a solution in someone like Jamie Oliver. His charity work has had a lasting, measurable and highly visible impact on the quality of food that is served to children in schools around the UK. Perhaps someone like Bjarke Ingels—a young popular Danish architect who recently designed a subterranean museum under the Kronborg Castle World Heritage site—could become a Heritage Ambassador for UNESCO. His work shows that creativity and preservation can happily go hand in hand. 15


For example, UNESCO could look at the Michelin model for rating and ranking restaurants for their Red Guide. Whereas World Heritage properties must be nominated by their respective national governments, Michelin employs full-time professional inspectors who proactively and anonymously visit and rate restaurants. Likewise, UNESCO could send inspectors/selectors to underrepresented parts of the world to scout for new sites.



UNESCO has a long tradition when it comes to public-private partnerships with, for example, National Geographic, Panasonic, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft. More recently, individual World Heritage sites have reached out to companies for financial aid. As funding cuts threaten Italy’s cultural heritage, fashion house Fendi gave over two million euros to fund the restoration of Rome’s famous Trevi Fountain. And leather goods maker Tod’s has pledged 25 million euros (33 million US dollars) to restore the 2,000 year old Colosseum in the eternal city. This generous support affords Tod’s the right to use the Colosseum’s logo for a period of 15 years and to put its own brand on the tickets bought by the six million visitors annually. Their help comes at a price, and Rome is willing to pay.

Sometimes, locals react to and take control of their own situation. The gigantic Louis Vuitton suitcase in Red Square in Moscow, which ignited such huge uproar that it was subsequently removed, shows that not all World Heritage sites lend themselves to being branded. UNESCO could act as a mediator in these cases—instead of reactively responding to an emerging crisis situation, it could actively assist in balancing public and private interests by informing both sides of the potential benefits and risks. 27


There are many examples of more questionable support and (ab)use of World Heritage sites by (global) brands. Online you can watch a popular video of professional wakeskaters skimming the waters of the pristine Banaue Rice Terraces in the Philippines, World Heritage since 1995. Despite a lot of criticism, sponsor Red Bull defended the event, claiming that the local community granted them permission to shoot their video and build a small rail and also that respect for the environment was a priority.



Technology can help World Heritage sites to better protect and communicate their properties, off- and online. Recent experiments with physical and digital reproductions present World Heritage in new ways. The internet also offers many opportunities. The Lascaux IV Cave Museum, currently under construction, will allow visitors to explore and learn more about this 20,000 year old site. There will be full scale interactive reproductions of the cave’s paintings and geometry, complete with dramatic lighting.

Others are using technology to protect their heritage. Philippine Robotics is creating robots that help preserve the country’s World Heritage sites, and the Sydney Opera House has launched an online crowdfunding platform to fund the icon’s renewal. Can UNESCO itself actively stimulate innovation? One good option would be to start an online platform where conservationists, scientists, designers and others can co-create new solutions to certain challenges. Using their global authority, they could collaborate with Wikipedia, OpenIDEO, Ushahidi or other important online knowledge sharing platforms. 39


Meanwhile, the internet has placed even distant heritage within arm’s reach. Google has added imagery of World Heritage sites into Street View, showing millions of photos taken ‘on the ground’, enabling online visitors to individually explore the ancient streets of Pompeii or the canals of Venice. This service will never replace the sensory experience of actually walking around any of these cities, but it does allow more people to enjoy an impression and understanding of them. In the same vain, U.S. based nonprofit CyArk plans to digitally preserve 500 heritage sites in just five years, with UNESCO collaborating as a partner organization.



UNESCO’s nomination procedure for the World Heritage List is highly prescriptive. Only countries that have signed the World Heritage Convention are allowed to nominate new properties, and then only if these properties have first been put on the Tentative List, an inventory of a state’s own most important natural and cultural heritage sites. Although national governments are encouraged to prepare their Tentative Lists with the participation of stakeholders such as local communities and NGOs, in the end only official States Parties can make new nominations. But what if you live in a “failed state” with a weak, malfunctioning or even outright corrupt government? Shouldn’t it be possible for grassroots initiatives to bypass their national government and go directly to UNESCO to nominate a threatened heritage site?

With grassroots initiatives and popular movements emerging all around the world, UNESCO should open the nomination process to more parties. Dresden’s Elbe Valley was removed from the List in 2009 because of the construction of a bridge that was approved by the majority of voters in a local referendum. Ideally, a referendum would instead raise support for World Heritage; but this demands the involvement of people right from the start. 49


World Heritage is a system tailored for state action, and it is getting stuck when states turn their backs on heritage. Take, for example, Romania, where in recent months thousands of people have protested against the construction, by a foreign company, of a gold mine in Rosia Montana. Independent (foreign) experts have acknowledged the potential World Heritage status of the site, but according to them the government has largely ignored and even distorted their findings. And this case is not isolated and restricted to “weak states”.



According to Rem Koolhaas’ office OMA, around 12 percent of the planet now falls under various regimes of natural and cultural preservation. In their view the world is slowly becoming a nature reserve. While a World Heritage status helps to protect precious heritage within a property’s boundaries and its surrounding area (the buffer zone), it also increases the tension between the inside and outside world. Possible side effects such as increased tourism and restrictive zoning laws put pressure on real estate prices and public services.

World Heritage status is not a Trojan horse that smuggles new restrictive legislation into a World Heritage site. If anything, UNESCO’s rules leave a lot of space for interpretation and specification per case. Therefore it is important for UNESCO not only to emphasizes the unique value of World Heritage sites and the ways to protect them for future generations, but also for it to actively promote public engagement with them. Increased transparency and communication of the nomination process is an important first step. Just take a look at the many preservation projects on crowdfunding website Kickstarter, where eager individuals persuade others to “kickstart” their project with a financial donation. Instead of providing financial aid, UNESCO could stimulate local (crowd)funding initiatives. 61


However, many of these perceived side effects are simply false assumptions. Consultancy firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers has calculated that UNESCO recognition generally has a very low impact on tourist numbers. Fears that regulations will be tightened after a site’s inscription also have no real foundation when you consider that most local laws have more authority than UNESCO. Ironically, only heritage sites that are already well protected make it to the list.



The World Heritage Convention describes World Heritage as ‘the cultural and natural heritage that is among the priceless and irreplaceable assets, not only of each nation, but of humanity.’ Properties can be nominated if they meet one or more of the criteria that validate its so-called ‘Outstanding Universal Value’. Nominated properties shall, in the case of cultural heritage for example, ‘represent a masterpiece of human creative genius’ or ‘exhibit an important interchange of human values.’ Properties should also meet the conditions of ‘authenticity’ and ‘integrity’ (or intactness). But what if nominating parties and UNESCO itself were to apply these criteria in a more open and creative way?

By stretching the boundaries, World Heritage can become a tool for prospective preservation. It will empower people to look at the world with new eyes, allowing them to value their environment as it takes shape and decide on the heritage value of new things. Will Dubai’s palm tree shaped artificial archipelago ever be considered a ‘traditional human settlement which is represen­ tative of a culture (or cultures)’ according to UNESCO’s criteria? Wouldn’t it be interesting if one could nominate a 3D-game environment from Second Life or SimCity as (what UNESCO dubs) an ‘artistic work of outstanding universal significance’? 73


If Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial and the Bikini Atoll Nuclear Test Site can both be World Heritage, why not nominate the nuclear power plants in Chernobyl or Fukushima as, to quote UNESCO, a ‘unique testimony to a cultural tradition which has disappeared’? And we could even leave the Earth: some experts suggest the possibility of giving the Apollo (and recent Chinese) landing sites on the Moon World Heritage status, which would force UNESCO to either rename the List (‘Universal’?) or create a new one.

Rafe Copeland (1988) is a designer, writer and publisher. He studied Philosophy at the University of Auckland and Graphic Design at Auckland University of Technology. He is the editor, author and designer of multiple publications, and has earned awards for his work in this capacity. In 2011 he made a cultural and geographic shift from Auckland to Amsterdam, where he has worked for several (cultural) organizations. Like Michiel, he forms part of Non-fiction. In 2013 Rafe was responsible for the graphic design of the World Heritage Podium. 77


Michiel van Iersel (1978) is an urbanist, writer and curator who studied Business and Cultural Studies at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam and Metropolitan Studies at the HumboldtUniversität zu Berlin. He started his career working for several arts organizations, before co-founding the interdisciplinary cultural collective Non-fiction in 2008. In recent years he has curated exhibitions and festivals and worked on research projects and publications that bring together the arts, urban issues, heritage and technology. In 2013 Michiel was co-author of a publication for the World Heritage Centre in Paris and was appointed as the World Heritage Podium’s first guest curator.


Michiel van Iersel Design

Rafe Copeland Editing

Reinier Mees, Mildred van der Zwan Prepress

Gradience Media Works BV Printing

Dijkman Print BV COLOPHON


Metric, Kris Sowersby CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) Engine

Securimage, Drew Phillips Published in 2014 in an edition of 1,000. This a publication of the World Heritage Podium. The information and views set out in this publication are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official opinions of the World Heritage Podium or UNESCO. All rights reserved by images’ original copyright holders. Texts in this publication are licensed under the Creative Commons AttributionNonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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