Two public lectures coming up in September

On Sept. 5, 2019 at 14.00-18.00, Think Lounge, in Tiedekulma (second floor). Open to all.

Think Lounge
Think Lounge space in the University of Helsinki’s Think Corner. Image from University of Helsinki

Special presentations from Dr James Nisbet, Associate Professor at University of California, Irvine, USA and Dr Catherine Laws, Reader in Music at the University of York, UK.  This event is co-organized with the 3D3 Doctoral programme of Falmouth University, Plymouth University and University of Western England, who are in Helsinki for the week. The event complements the Doctoral Programme in History and Cultural Heritage annual Summer School, but is open to all.

James Nisbet is an art historian whose research addresses contemporary art, theory, and criticism, with a particular focus on cultural issues on ecology and environmental history. He received his PhD in Art History from Stanford University in 2011, and is currently Associate Professor at the University of California, Irvine in the Department of Art History and PhD Program in Visual Studies. His first book, Ecologies, Environments, and Energy Systems in Art of the 1960s and 1970s, was published by MIT Press in 2014. Recent essays have taken up more contemporary environmental politics, as well as tracing the deeper roots of scientific theories of energy within the history of photography. His writing has appeared in publications including American Art, Artforum, Art Bulletin, Art Journal, Grey Room, Modernism/modernity, Photography and Culture, and X-TRA, in addition to many edited volumes and catalogues. Nisbet’s research has been supported by fellowships from the Getty Research Institute, Harry Ransom Center, Georgia O’Keeffe Research Center, and Dumbarton Oaks. His talk examines the wide-ranging concept of energy and its intersection with contemporary visual art.

Catherine Laws is Reader in Music at the University of York, UK, and a Senior Artistic Research Fellow at the Orpheus Institute, Ghent. As a pianist Catherine specializes in contemporary music, working collaboratively with composers and often drawing other artists, especially theatre and film makers, into her projects. Her artistic research is focused variously on processes of embodiment, subjectivity and collaboration in contemporary performance practices. She currently leads the research cluster ‘Performance, Subjectivity and Experimentation’ at the Orpheus Institute, exploring how subjectivity is produced through performance practices associated with new music: the co-authored book Voices Bodies Practices: Performing Musical Subjectivities (Leuven University Press, 2019) is one of the outcomes of this research and includes extended discussion of her recent multimedia performance piece, ‘Player Piano’. Catherine’s research in the field of word-and-music studies examines the relationship between music, language and meaning, focusing especially on Samuel Beckett and composers’ responses to his work. Her book, Headaches Among the Overtones: Music in Beckett/ Beckett in Music, came out in 2013.

Young World Heritage professionals shared experiences and discussed future challenges in Baku

Oona Simolin participated in the Young World Heritage Professionals Forum in Baku, Azerbaijan, from 24 June to 2 July 2019. The 1.5-week forum had 30 participants all over the globe. Read more on Oona’s experiences on the Forum and insights on the challenges of World Heritage.

In what context do we usually hear about World Heritage? Probably when planning holidays and searching for things to see and do in your destination. We check Tripadvisor or even read a city guide and there it is: one of the main attractions is described as being on the Wold Heritage list. Being recognized by an international organization like UNESCO is like a certificate for heritage saying, “this is worth seeing”.

Despite this popular use, many are not familiar with the process through which the sites actually get on the list. I was really lucky to be able to get a first-hand experience on this process in July when I attended the World Heritage Young Professionals organized in Baku, Azerbaijan in conjunction with the World Heritage Committee session.

The Old City of Baku Icheri Sheher was the first Azerbaijani property to be inscribed on the World Heritage list in 2000. The Old City is architecturally distinct from the newer parts of Baku. Image by Oona Simolin

The forum consisted mostly of site visits, lectures and discussions. Throughout the forum, more experienced World Heritage professionals generously shared their experiences and insights on World Heritage under the subtitle “Local insights for global challenges”. During the last few days of the Forum, we had the opportunity to attend the Committee meeting. There we delivered a declaration that reflects our group’s understanding about the issues that World Heritage community could work with to become more inclusive. The declaration as well as a video documenting the forum is available on UNESCO’s website (

Becoming part of the World Heritage community

Maiden Tower
The Maiden Tower is one of the UNESCO inscribed monuments of the Old Town and a symbol for whole Baku. According to UNESCO, the earlier structures of the tower date back to the 7th or 6th century BC. Image by Oona Simolin

Though the practical outcome of the forum was the aforementioned declaration (and a global active network of young professionals), one of the main outcomes for me was to hear insights from the Committee sessions and nomination processes as well as practical site management experiences from all over the globe. Learning about the practical dimension of cultural policy and site management processes definitely give new perspectives to my current work as a doctoral candidate. When you are using most of your days with books, your research materials and a writing software, it is rewarding to hear stories from people who approach World Heritage from different perspectives in their daily work.

Moreover, I felt an important part of the forum was to immerse ourselves in the procedures and discourses of World Heritage. We pondered what authenticity and integrity mean in the context of different sites and discussed about the values and attributes attached to the places we saw. Our training in the so-called UNESCO-ese didn’t end here: we also simulated the Committee meeting before attending the actual Committee meeting. The goal of the full-day simulation was to understand the process through which the Committee’s decisions are made. Valdimar Hafstein, who has worked extensively with intangible heritage in UNESCO, describes UNESCO’s high-level sessions as metafolklore, a performance with its own scripts . Based on this experience and as a trained folklorist, I recognize this viewpoint. The simulation, as well as drafting the declaration, can be regarded as initiatives to ‘acculturate’ us young professionals to this global (meta)heritage community.

One of the exercises was a World Heritage Committee session simulation where we discussed whether the imaginary site of the Magic Lands should be inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Image by Oona Simolin

Current challenges for World Heritage

The intensive forum gave us no illusion about the future of the World Heritage Convention: there are several prevalent challenges.  In few words, the core of 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage (‘the World Heritage Convention’) and UNESCO as an organization have been to protect heritage globally and therefore to nourish respect and peace between people. Today the ever-growing World Heritage list already has 1,121 properties and it has run into some fundamental questions. Can the listing continue endlessly? Are the goals of heritage protection and peacebuilding still there or have they been lost somewhere on the way?

One of the most discussed challenges of the World Heritage initiative is tourism. It is indeed a challenge for conservation and environment. Moreover, uncontrolled or poorly managed tourism may affect the local communities and their cultures in many ways and even harm the income of the local residents. However, several sites have done great work in planning and managing tourism, predicting trends, limiting or controlling access to certain places and establishing partnerships and networks.

One of the site visits was made to Lahij, a village whose tradition in copper craftsmanship has been inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Having a photo break on the way. Image by Oona Simolin

During our lectures, we also recognized another tricky challenge, the question concerning professionalism and expertise. In the case of World Heritage, I see this challenge as something coming from three directions. Firstly, the status of heritage expertise has changed within the World Heritage Committee. As stated in the convention text, the representatives in the Committee used to be trained experts in the field of heritage. Lecturers in the forum illustrated how this changed: today the delegations coming from the States Parties include more professionals from other fields. This illustrates how the political meaning and economic interests related to World Heritage have become more prevalent. The critiques say that this has led to the situation where the outstanding universal value and the ten criteria for the inscription – the factors that should be the arguments for inscription – are overlooked and the decisions may be affected more by other things.

The heritage of Baku has many layers and has been influenced by Eastern and Western cultures. This building used to have text in Arabic but it was covered with a star during the Soviet era. Image by Oona Simolin.

On the other hand, the whole concept of outstanding universal value has been challenged as an elitist notion that gives heritage experts the priority to classify, evaluate and valorise heritage from above. From the critical viewpoint the search for universally outstanding heritage does not make sense: the importance and values of heritage should be evaluated from the viewpoint of the groups to whom it belongs. Furthermore, the idea of universal values has been regarded as inherently Western which has been reflected in the World Heritage list – just have a look on the spatial distribution of the inscribed properties ( To respond, UNESCO has worked with the concepts like intangible heritage and historic urban landscape that have served as ways to take new paths in the implementation of the Convention.

Finally, the challenge for World Heritage and all other experts comes from the changing society where the status of experts is increasingly questioned. As discussed in the forum, the future heritage specialist should be ready to argument the importance of their work and be transparent about the positive and negative impacts their actions might have on the communities. I think that listening to the aforementioned critical voices and grass-root communities as well as organisations are also necessary qualities for the future professionals working with World Heritage.

The natural heritage of Azerbaijan includes mud volcanoes. This volcano is located on the way to the Gobustan Rock Art Cultural Landscape which is also inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Image by Oona Simolin