Archaeologists criticize hasty World Heritage Listings

The International Committee on Archaeological Heritage Management (ICAHM) held its first conference in April on how to manage the world’s myriad archaeological World Heritage sites. Prof. dr. Willen J.H. Willems, ICAHM co-president and dean of the Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden University, sharply criticized the way that sites are proposed and awarded World Heritage inscription.

World Heritage sites are a wildly varied array of places and encompasses many of the most celebrated sites of human cultural accomplishment and catastrophe - everything from the pyramids and Roman fortifications to Mongol-era tombs and prehistoric rock art. ICAHM’s key job is to advise the World Heritage Committee about new sites proposed for the famous list.

Criticism on World Heritage listings

In his 9 April keynote, Willems put the core issue on the table. “Archaeology is the study of the past,” he said, but “the past doesn’t exist anymore. Heritage is about the use of the past in the present.” And that's where it gets complicated.

Too many countries are rushing to use the past - their heritage sites - for present purposes. Willems sharply criticized the way that sites are proposed and awarded World Heritage inscription. According to the World Heritage Convention, an international treaty, sites should be awarded a place on the list based on solid scientific and academic reasoning. "Not happening", said Willems. The World Heritage Committee has been approving too many applications based on economic and “radically political” expediency.

Tourism unleashed

For most countries, World Heritage status is a much desired prize. Why? Prestige in part, national pride in part, yes, but also that modern vein of gold: tourism! An inscription puts you on the travel map.

“Best management practices” plan
The archaeologists at the conference were not calling for an end to tourism - not at all. They want the world to share the thrill and knowledge of these places. But like any predictable flood, the torrent of tourists needs careful control and planning. ICAHM's other co-president, Dr. Douglas Comer (Baltimore, Maryland) called for a requirement that site applications include a credible “best management practices” plan - tourism impacts included - and that inscriptions be made provisional, becoming permanent after convincingly long-term demonstration of those best practices.

Not ready for prime-time

That takes us back to Willems’s complaint with the World Heritage Committee’s performance over the past few years: “In 44 percent of the cases, the Committee proceeded to inscribe sites on the World Heritage List that in the judgment of the advisory bodies had not met the requirements for inscription.” He called it “extreme disregard of expert advice.” In his view, these newly listed sites are ignoring the speed limit and heading for Dead Man’s Curve. 
Willems doesn’t say these sites are unworthy of inscription, just that they’re not properly assessed, protected, and ready for the attention inscription could bring. 

Source: National Geographic Traveler, d.d. 18 April 2012

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Last Modified: 01-05-2012