Dissension and controversy have plagued the identification and care of World Heritage sites.
Meskell (Anthropology/Stanford Univ.; The Nature of Heritage: The New South Africa, 2011, etc.) examines the origin, mission, and impact of UNESCO’s World Heritage program, offering a well-researched argument that UNESCO has become “a mere shadow of its former ambition for peace and mutual understanding between peoples.” The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization was founded in London in 1945, responding to the war’s “programmatic devastation of culture and heritage.” Its lofty mission was to foster peace, provide humanitarian assistance, and promote intercultural respect. This utopian goal included saving archaeological and cultural sites throughout the world, deeming them treasures for all of humanity. Meskell notes, to her regret, that archaeological research soon became subsumed “and heritage more likely to be considered architecture.” Rather than support excavations, which had the potential to reveal knowledge of the ancient past, UNESCO’s World Heritage program shifted to preservation and restoration of monuments that attracted tourism. Once described as “the laboratory of ideas,” UNESCO evolved into an “agency for branding” when it created a list of World Heritage sites that provoked competition among countries vying for the prestige of having a site inscribed. Because European nations were prominent in vetting the World Heritage List, non-Western countries felt slighted. Meskell portrays UNESCO as a bureaucracy mired in paper: “handbooks, manuals, guidelines, and other documents in multiple languages”; thousands of pages of documentation must be provided to support an application for inscription. Acceptance to the list sometimes causes unforeseen problems, as with Cambodia’s Preah Vihear Temple, for example, when inscription “inflamed a long-standing history of violence” between Cambodia and Thailand and involved the U.S., as well, when companies, such as Chevron, coveted access to natural gas reserves in the Gulf of Thailand. The creation of World Heritage sites, Meskell asserts, has “implications for power, authority, and legitimation” that may expose a “collision of worldviews” and even incite “dystopian scenarios” where terrorists or dissidents intentionally target listed sites.
A revealing investigation of the complexities of UNESCO’s mission.