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 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 (https://whc.unesco.org/en/activities/958).
Becoming part of the World Heritage community
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.
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.
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.
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 (https://whc.unesco.org/en/interactive-map/). 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.