Helen Maclagan is the UK National Commission for UNESCO’s Director for Culture.
She wrote the following article for the UKNC Network Link newsletter, after the 2014 World Heritage Committee’s Conference that took place in Doha that summer.
The UNESCO World Heritage Committee, at its meeting in June 2014, inscribed the Okavanga Delta as the 1000th site on the List, with warm congratulations for Botswana from the assembled Delegates. Indeed, all new inscriptions were greeted with applause, especially when it was a country’s first, such as the Pyu Ancient cities of Myanmar. In total 26 new sites were inscribed in Doha resulting in plenty of people celebrating on behalf of proud countries.
It is heartening to see heritage held in such high esteem, and some credit for that should go to UNESCO’s 1972 World Heritage Convention. But amidst all the celebration, there is scope for reflection.
Often, inscription is seen as a mark of status, rather than an opportunity to contribute to global heritage conservation. Does inscription lead to better management and appreciation of that site? And what is the impact on other sites?
What is the impact of the process on the heritage capacity of the state party and indeed of the world community of heritage professionals? The process of achieving and retaining inscription consumes time and resources: does it attract additional resources, or perhaps divert them from physically caring for heritage?
Should, and indeed can, UNESCO’s World Heritage List expand indefinitely? How deep is the global pool of heritage of ‘Outstanding Universal Value?’ The List is known to be geographically unequal, reflecting (particularly in early years) heritage management capacity as much cultural resource. It is certainly good to see some redress to the balance, but should it be assumed that every country contains heritage genuinely of both Universal and Outstanding Value?
Finally, it may be particularly apposite, as anniversaries focus minds on war and on peace, to ask what contribution World Heritage Sites make to UNESCO’s mission to build peace in the minds of men and women?