By Mounir Bouchenaki

When historians study the half century preceding the beginning of the third millennium, they will certainly point out the very important change in mentalities, particularly in the Western world, after the two major disasters of the World Wars, during which so much destruction of historic buildings occurred. It was with a view to avoiding such a situation in the future that the first international normative instrument for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was prepared and adopted at The Hague in 1954.

The creation of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in the middle of the 20th century was certainly a landmark in the process that has led to an increasing awareness of the world's cultural heritage. Its constitution, adopted in London in 1945, stated that UNESCO was entrusted with the task of "ensuring the preservation and protection of the world heritage of works of arts and monuments of historic or scientific interest."

At the same time, the world was witnessing the decolonization and independence of most of the colonized countries in Africa and Asia. Along with this new political trend, the consciousness of cultural identities also developed, represented by cultural heritage. It was recognized that "political emancipation is of little significance unless it entails cultural emancipation" (1982 UNESCO report "The Cultural Heritage of Mankind"). Historians will certainly note that various organizations dealing with the protection of cultural heritage were also born in this context.

The oldest nongovernmental organization (NGO) in this field is the International Council of Museums (ICOM), created shortly after UNESCO. Very closely associated with UNESCO, ICOM has made a significant change in the role and function of museums in contemporary society. "Scattered over the five continents, there are many museums which are breaking new ground, in an effort to prove that the museum is not necessarily an obsolete, elitist institution and that it has an essential part to play in the world of today and tomorrow," wrote Kenneth Hudson in his 1977 report Museums for the 1980s. "To achieve the impact [museum professionals] are anxious to achieve, they are coming to realize that they must involve the community in what the museum is trying to do."

Conservation image
 

As mentioned in the 1995 Report of the World Commission on Culture and Development, "since the end of the Second World War, there has been an exponential growth of museums throughout the world, and probably well over 90 percent of the total number of the world's museums postdate the creation of UNESCO and the International Council of Museums (ICOM) in 1946."

ICOM was followed by the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), the second international NGOin the field of cultural heritage—this one dealing with immovable heritage. ICOMOS was created in 1965 in Warsaw just one year after the elaboration of one of the most recognized international charters on the conservation and restoration of monuments and sites, known as the Venice Charter. As one of the founders of ICOMOS and the main drafter of the Venice Charter, Raymond Lemaire, wrote years later: "ICOMOS was conceived as an organization aimed at promoting on an international level the conservation, protection, utilization, and valorization of monuments, ensembles, and sites. Following the accepted concept, which was very innovative at the time, the objective could only be reached through a large interdisciplinary collaboration. It was therefore necessary to gather within one single organization all institutions, organizations, and people professionally interested in the protection of our historic architectural and urban heritage. This professional aspect appeared to us very important, since it guarantees the scientific value of its activity, thereby giving it authority."

Nearly 30 years after the founding of ICOMOS, a great number of experts in the field of cultural heritage met in Nara, Japan, in November 1994 in order to discuss the various aspects of the criteria of "authenticity" and—as K. E. Larsen, chairman of ICOMOS Norway and scientific coordinator of the Nara conference, observed during the meeting—to move forward —the international preservation doctrine from a Eurocentric approach to a postmodern position characterized by recognition of cultural relativism."

A third organization, this one with an intergovernmental character, was founded by UNESCO in 1956 and located in Rome after 1959 following an agreement with Italy. The main purpose of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) is to link governments and specialists in the safeguarding of both movable and immovable cultural heritage; its statutory functions were defined as documentation, technical cooperation, research, training, and awareness building in member states. ICCROM is known as one of the world's international "centers of excellence" that deal with training and education. Hundreds of architects and conservators from all over the world have followed and are following specialized conservation training programs in areas such as architecture, mural paintings, stone, wood, paper, and textiles. As Jukka Jokilehto—former assistant to the director general of ICCROM and current president of the ICOMOS International Training Committee—noted in 1995, "international courses should be understood as part of the professional career structure of a professional, particularly when aiming at a leading position in one's country."

Our historians analyzing the role of international organizations during the 20th century would consider many other professional institutions that were also developing programs and activities related to cultural heritage during the second half of this century: the Council of Europe (as an intergovernmental body), the Getty Conservation Institute, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the International Foundation of Landscape Architects (IFLA), the World Monuments Fund, and many others at regional and subregional levels, such as Europa Nostra. All of these organizations faced the challenge of preserving the values of the past in a changing world in which heritage is often at risk.

Conservation image
 

The main achievement of these international organizations, according to historians, would certainly be the raising of international concern. This is, in fact, the first time in our history that the international community is considering expressions of the creativity of mankind, in both their tangible and intangible forms, as an indivisible whole. As the tangible expression of each national genius is now seen to be part of the world's heritage, all such expressions must therefore be respected, preserved, studied, and passed on to future generations.

This international perspective developed when the Egyptian temples of Abu Simbel and Philae were threatened by the building of the great dam in Aswan in 1960. Both Egypt and Sudan presented a request to UNESCO for assistance in their safeguarding, and this was the basis for the first international campaign of UNESCO. The response from public and private bodies was quite surprising. Even children from schools all around the world reacted by sending small contributions. The message was clear: these monuments do not belong only to Egypt. They represent a value to each and every one of us. It is no exaggeration to say that international campaigns for preservation undoubtedly constitute one of the key areas for the implementation of the concept of universal heritage.

This concept is the result of the development of the modern historical consciousness of the values of heritage that paved the way for the 1972 Convention, also called the World Heritage Convention. It was a significant innovation, as it linked sectors that had hitherto been considered very different—the protection of the cultural heritage and that of the natural heritage. The 20th century introduced the idea of world heritage, the significance of which transcends all political or geographical boundaries. The experts of all specialized organizations mentioned above have contributed to the development of this new concept and the doctrine applicable in this domain.

Conservation image
 

How will this emerging consciousness continue in the next century? Today, as we enter the year 2000, the number of states party to the 1972 Convention for the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage is 158, and the number of sites inscribed is 582. This spectacular increase reveals the determination of states to preserve their cultural heritage and their readiness to recognize that heritage is not the exclusive property of one nation but is, instead, the common property of the whole of humanity. These figures and the great commitment shown by authorities at all levels when a site is declared to be on this list suggest a trend that is likely to continue.

I have had the opportunity to attend ceremonies in various parts of the world in which the whole population of a given site has been present, singing and dancing, showing happiness and pride at having the site recognized by the international community. When attending a 1997 ceremony to unveil the plaque declaring the Medina of Meknès, Morocco, as a World Heritage site, the delegation headed by Federico Mayor, director general of UNESCO, was surprised to see the population of the city in the streets expressing their joy. On many other occasions—for example, in Italy in 1999, for the unveiling of the plaque declaring Paestum and Il Valle del Cilento as World Heritage sites—I again saw the population attending the ceremony and celebrating the recognition of its heritage.

Conservation image
 

Hence, the role and function of UNESCO and its advisory bodies for the implementation of the 1972 Convention would certainly be pursued and reinforced, despite the fact that cultural heritage in many parts of the world is under threat. International organizations can be part of the response against the number of growing problems, ranging from natural to human-made disasters. For example, the International Committee of the Blue Shield—developed by a number of NGOs in cooperation with UNESCO to disseminate information and to coordinate action in emergency situations affecting cultural heritage—could constitute a way of strengthening the international campaigns.

In the same spirit, the intergovernmental committee created as an advisory body for the implementation of the UNESCO Convention of 1970 on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Importation, Exportation, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, should be strengthened. At present, the illicit traffic of cultural assets is considered by all international organizations concerned as an expanding phenomenon. In his book, Trade in Antiquities, published in 1997 by UNESCO, P. J. O'Keefe writes that this intergovernmental committee "does not meet sufficiently often and is not representative of all parties involved. It would be desirable for formulation of the approach to take place in a non-partisan atmosphere. One of the large international foundations might be willing to provide the facilities for such meetings."

In conclusion, it is now apparent that the cultural heritage, as a legacy for all, cannot be treated only by local or national institutions. Concerted approaches and international cooperation with the public and the private sector are necessary to create the synergy that will ensure the participation of all the stakeholders. It is clear that international organizations have a major role to play in forwarding a global commitment to cultural heritage and development.

Conservation image
 

Mounir Bouchenaki is director of the Division of Cultural Heritage and the World Heritage Centre of UNESCO. Prior to 1982, he was director of Antiquities, Museums, Monuments, and Sites of Algeria.