By Timothy P. Whalen

Among the developments of the 20th century was a worldwide recognition of the concept of a cultural heritage that belongs to all of humanity. Over the latter half of that century, UNESCO devoted—and continues to devote—great efforts to promote the recognition of this concept and to put in place international instruments for the protection of cultural heritage around the globe.

During the same period, conservation became recognized as an important field of research and an activity critical to the preservation of the heritage that we now collectively treasure. Great advances have been made. We know much better how to slow deterioration, how to care for the objects in our museums, and how to protect our historic sites. The artistic and cultural heritage of the world has never held such interest and fascination for such a broad spectrum of society. The resources devoted to conservation—and the number of cultural tourists and visitors to museums—all reveal the value that we attribute to these objects and places.

And yet, despite this increased interest in conservation and the growth of the concept of a world heritage that is universally valued, the intentional destruction of heritage has by no means been relegated to the distant past.

Periodically—and more often than we would like to think possible—we are shocked by news and images of the willful destruction of objects of heritage (the 1,500-year-old statues of Buddha in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, are the most notable recent example). These acts of conscious and intentional obliteration of objects of heritage are painful reminders that the biggest conservation challenges we face are not necessarily technical ones.

The desire of some to annihilate what others consider historic or beautiful or sacred is an old one—one that has been present throughout the ages, as Dario Gamboni reminds us in his feature essay in this issue of Conservation.

Most in modern society, however, believe that these practices are no longer acceptable. Earlier this year, when the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia handed down indictments for the 1991 attacks by the armed forces of Yugoslavia on the ancient port city of Dubrovnik, Croatia, the indictments included one for the destruction of historic monuments. UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura noted the historic precedent this sets, as it is the first time since the Second World War that attacks on cultural property have been considered a crime by an international tribunal.

For those of us whose professional life is focused on conserving heritage, it is painful to acknowledge that not only is our passion not shared by all but that there are some in this world who can and will vigorously eradicate what we work to preserve. Although these destructive acts remain unjustifiable, I believe we must strive to comprehend what lies behind the desire to destroy.