Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

UNESCO - in-between a global intention and local appeal

When doing interviews for heritageradio to produce a Journal about UNESCO's way of dealing with tangible and intangible cultural heritage, the journalists came across subjects linked as well to the issue of cultural landscapes.

Insofar as UNESCO strives to preserve certain cultural and natural heritages by giving them the recognition and thereby the status of being a part of world heritage, this method has to be discussed both in terms of political and cultural ramifications. For the methodological approach taken by UNESCO to protect and to preserve cultural and natural heritage has numerous practical shortcomings. It may reflect logically speaking the limits of being an international organisation of a certain kind. It is situated in Paris in reflection of cultural dominance of the past, but can the same apply for world heritage in the twenty-first century?

Basically the methodology follows the original idea that by putting a cultural or natural heritage site on the world list, then it can and shall be protected better due to world attention given to these recognized sites. Protection means avoiding further destruction or even the complete loss of the site. But this principle of protection has been compromised as more and more municipalities, regions and nations have started to realize the economic advantage to be gained out of the status of having been recognized by UNESCO. For it has become a useful tool to promote tourism in the area. It means every heritage site has by now not only intrinsic cultural and natural but equally commercial values.

Practically the recent explosion in sites being recognized and put on the world list over recent years indicates such a trend. This dilemma can be best described as not having a reliable method by which recognition of the intrinsic value leading to preservation can be translated into such use which does not harm but enhances the site. Easily it can be seen that more tourists who shall visit more frequently the place does bring about a commercial value, but which can easily destroy one key value of any heritage, namely its authenticity.

That dilemma intensifies in case of natural heritage. This is not only due to the risk of over-fishing or over exploiting any part of nature and its species. Rather it can be linked to these places being disturbed if invaded by too many human beings.

Preservation by active use of cultural and natural heritage – a slogan of the HERMES project as well – does not take into consideration the need for mankind to leave areas of the world virtually ‘untouched’. In other words, any active use to bring more commercial value to the area brings with it the very destructive forces against which UNESCO has been called upon, in order to prevent further damages being inflicted upon existing world heritages.

Thus there is a need to draw attention to the ongoing process of destruction. It requires more than just recognition and the making possible another kind of use. For preservation must include that other dimension which lies outside the scope of any active use by mankind. Otherwise the notion of wild, equally untouched places is never understood as precisely those areas in need of being protected the most.

It seems that most cultures embrace a basic law which foresees only active use of the land. Only that seems to have value. That premise must be problematized at the very least by UNESCO if it is to face the new challenges to world heritage. If that is not consciously dealt with, UNESCO becomes very much like salt in the wound: rather than preserving heritage, by allowing itself to be used to instigate an even greater commercial exploitation of these sites, the protection policy adopted as a result ends up in bringing about just the opposite, less intrinsic value and another world heritage site more threatened than ever before.

As shown on hand of the example of the Cologne Cathedral, threats are perceived by UNESCO primarily in terms of a visual criterion. This can include other cases such as the Middle Rhine valley or the Elb Valley of Dresden where a construction of a bridge can destroy the original landscape of deep valleys through which the rivers run. The case made for such planned intervention is to allow for more tourism and easier traffic in the area. UNESCO seems conscious of this threat but responds only in terms of what is in its power to do, namely to alarm the rest of the world by threatening to remove the site from the list and thereby remove the recognition of the site being still a part of the world heritage. Once removed, UNESCO is no longer concerned about that particular site. There is no need to follow-up with further protective measures i.e. to reserve the decision and to get back the site on the list. It seems as if UNESCO can only use the power of removing the site from the list and thereby loose the prestigious status. That would be by like any shaming method not sufficient to motivate all actors to reconsider their decisions before intervening seriously in what has been up to now the status of this particular site.

More so, the argumentation of UNESCO ends up often to be a threat only at visual level. For example, the three high rise buildings would impede the view of the cathedral or else a bridge over the Rhine would spoil the view of the Rhine valley. That is similar to the archaeological law meant to keep free and thereby to protect the surrounding area of the Acropolis insofar as no high rise buildings should be constructed. This law is meant to prevent any larger building being constructed and thereby able to block the view of this historical monument. In other words, it reduces the interpretation of a threat to a world heritage site to the level of perception. By focusing only on such kind of risks, UNESCO obliterates many other threats to world heritage.

It is one thing what the world inherits from the past; it is quite something else how this inheritance is preserved in such a way that it can be passed on to future generations. The latter will not have the same unspoiled access to this heritage as those who grew up in times when globalization and destruction of nature was not as of yet so widespread as it is now. More needs to be done and courage taken from good practices which have managed to pass on heritage to future generations.

The very notion of cultural landscapes having a deeper value for mankind, that has something to do with how memory and identity are linked to the ability of mankind to appreciate what has been given to this earth and by cultures and civilizations over time. The very notion of appreciation means living a conscious tension. UNESCO could mediate between the global intention to preserve cultural and natural heritage and what must be done locally, on the ground, to put into practice these notions of preservation in a global age.

Two examples can be given: one is how the concept of cultural and natural heritage has been understood by the Council of Europe and the other is what a citizens’ initiative group wishes to appeal since there is a site under threat by land owners who wish to exploit a specific location in Athens i.e. with view of the Acropolis. They want to build at that spot despite the fact that this place has an intrinsic value and meaning to people knowledgeable about the history of Athens and of that place. While the latter involves memory and what seems most precious but at great risk to be lost, namely the intangible meaning people give to and receive from natural and cultural heritages contributing to the human stream of consciousness, the construction industry sees only the land value in terms of having a terrific view of one of the worlds's outstanding heritages, the Acropolis.

1) The global intention – example by Council of Europe

The cultural and natural heritage provides a sense of identity and helps to differentiate communities in a climate of globalisation. It allows cultural communities to discover and understand one another and, at the same time, constitutes a development asset. [1]


2) The local appeal by the Citizens of Mets Initiative in Athens that memory lives in ancient sites

Sites carry their history which lives on in the space itself

This physicality is what we wish to protect enhance and be part of especially when the site has continued to be a place of worship for different people in different ages and has survived to this day

Artemis Agrotera is alive after all these years in the centre of  modern Athens under the nose of the Acropolis yet lies buried like a sysmopath awaiting to be uncovered and revived. Let’s not allow her to be buried there forever under tons of speculative concrete. Let’s instead find ways to link up with other organizations and individuals worldwide interested to save endangered sites, find ways to "buy back" our heritage from governments and their policies which seem ready to sell out.

Cultural memory is physical as well as mental without it we wither and die

Cultural heritage belongs to all humanity. [2]


UNESCO should enter this tension to ensure that not only what is on its list must be recognized, but natural and cultural heritage linked to memory and meaning belongs to all people and therefore is in need of being preserved by discovering first of all what it takes to appreciate something free from any potential commercial value. For after all without such access human self consciousness would not exist.


Hatto Fischer  Athens 4.1.2006

[1] http://www.coe.int/T/E/Cultural_Co-operation/Heritage/


[2] www.artemisagrotera.org

The Citizens of Mets Initiative: Marianna Lyra


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