By Marta de la Torre
The Asia-Pacific region encompasses a cultural heritage as diverse as its geography. Yet, the nations of the region confront many of the same problems in preserving that heritage. As part of the search for preservation solutions, a group of cultural heritage professionals from the area gathered in Colombo, Sri Lanka in July 1993 for a meeting organized by the Getty Conservation Institute.
The meeting was a follow-up to a conference in Hawaii organized two years earlier by the Institute, the United States Information Agency (USIA), and the United States National Committee of ICOMOS. During the Colombo gathering, representatives from Australia, India, Japan, Nepal, New Zealand, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, UNESCO, US/ICOMOS, and USIA spent two days discussing issues that ranged from legal protection of cultural heritage and the impact of tourism, to public education and training.
Of grave concern to many working to preserve the region's rich heritage is the continuing international commerce in illicitly exported cultural objects. At present, such commerce is enjoined by the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Participants in the Colombo meeting noted that until more of the principal art-importing countries in Europe and Asia become signatories to the Convention, its effectiveness would remain limited. They urged UNESCO to increase its efforts to obtain ratification. At the same time, it was acknowledged that nations losing their heritage through pillage and illicit traffic must increase efforts to solve the problem at their end. Many at the meeting felt that the answer rests partly in national efforts to educate people on the value of their heritage.
Also helpful would be improving access to the international network for the recovery of illicitly exported or stolen objects. Local channels for contacting international organizations such as Interpol are often inefficient and transmit information only after long delays. Cultural preservation officials need up-to-date information on ways to reach these organizations in a timely way.
Another concern of conservation professionals in Asia and the Pacific is increasing tourism and its impact on the preservation of cultural heritage. Carefully considered site management is essential to control the negative impact of visitors. However, the effects of tourism can go beyond the deterioration of buildings and sites. At the Colombo meeting, Graham Park, Director of the Auckland Institute and Museum, offered the example of the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. The Maori currently are struggling with the changes that tourism imposes on their cultural values. Because they believe that their culture should be shared only for spiritual reasons, never for material gain, many Maori feel that by participating in tourism development they compromise their deepest beliefs.
A conflict exists in many developing nations between the desire for income generated by the tourism industry, and the concern the damage that uncontrolled and unplanned tourism can cause. Some local and national authorities value cultural resources primarily for their potential to attract foreign visitors, and fail to provide the funds necessary for conservation and maintenance.
Miguel Angel Corzo, Director of the Getty Conservation Institute, asked the Colombo group to consider the role that cultural organizations could play in shaping the development of tourism. He pointed out that tourism is often promoted and financed by foreign tour operators, who will almost never limit the number of visitors out of concern for conservation and will only do so if it is dictated by local authorities.
Giora Solar, Head of Conservation for the Israeli Antiquities Authority, observed that cultural organizations frequently have difficulty influencing national tourism policy. He suggested that cultural administrators try to apply some of the nature reserve concepts to cultural sites, such as limiting the number of visitors. He also stated that the concept of "sacrificial" cultural sites will have to be discussed seriously in the future.
Many participants of the Colombo meeting felt that countries relying heavily on income from tourists should establish a tourism council at the ministerial level of government, where all interests can be represented. This mechanism could help to develop coherent national policies that would avoid the contradictions of one government agency inviting tourists to "come pot hunting with us," while another one asks them to "help us preserve our cultural heritage."
Dev Mehta, chairman of India's Maharashtra Tourism Development Corporation, presented the development plans for the Ajanta-Ellora caves in India where the needs of both conservation and the visitor are considered. The plans include locating visitor facilities a distance from the caves, and special itineraries on the site. However, as Mr. Mehta himself reminded the gathering, even a plan as advanced as the one for Ajanta-Ellora, is only a temporary solution, and in the twenty-first century, as visitor numbers increase, difficult decisions will have to be made.
The importance of educating and enlisting the public in efforts to protect cultural heritage is widely recognized. Methods of increasing public awareness can take many forms. Russell Keune, US/ICOMOS Vice-President for Programs, outlined the advantages of establishing an independent, nongovernmental agency that can undertake public education with help from local groups. National private groups have successfully created local branches that work to develop local educational materials.
Karna Sakya, President of the Nepal Heritage Society, discussed his country's National Center for Conservation Education, which promotes awareness and care of the natural and cultural heritage. Although the center's work currently focuses mainly on ecological issues, many of its activities can be extended to cultural heritage. Dr. Sakya described an educational project for Lamaist monks who are brought to Katmandu and given information and training on the conservation of their heritage. This project has great potential for impact since the lamas are figures of authority in their communities and can easily influence the population's respect for its heritage. The Center is also developing a curriculum on conservation for primary and secondary schools that will be the first in Asia.
Discussions in Colombo touched on the problems of training abroad. Ahmad Nabi Khan, Pakistan's Director General of Archaeology and Museums, expressed a view held by some that upon returning to their countries, many trainees face difficulty adapting their newly acquired knowledge to local conditions. He and others believe it is better to bring specialists into a country where they can work with local professionals to develop practicable solutions. Some important training initiatives already occurring in the Indian subcontinent include those of the National Research Laboratory for Conservation in Lucknow, India, the Cultural Triangle Project in Sri Lanka, and the new Pakistan Institute of Archaeological Training and Research.
As nations throughout Asia and the Pacific grapple with the problems of preserving their cultural treasures, meetings such as the one in Hawaii and Sri Lanka can strengthen the region's heritage networks and provide encouragement to professionals and others working to save their cultural heritage. In support of their efforts, the Getty Conservation Institute will continue to act as a clearing house and disseminator of information of developments in the region.
Marta de la Torre is Director of the GCI's Training Program.