UNESCO, Fighting for Heritage

Blue Shield plaque

Since the inception of the United Nations, in 1945, the member-states have tried to regulate their mutual behavior also in the field of culture. They do so by developing conventions, i.e. multilateral treaties which member states can join. Eventually, these conventions enter into national legislation through a two-step process. First you sign, then you ratify – like a voorlopig and definitief koopcontract. Between these two steps, a long period may elapse.

The first UNESCO cultural treaty was the 1954 The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. In peacetime, states should take action to protect their monuments, sites and works of art in case of war. They promise that in case of war, they will respect each others' heritage, marked by the special emblem of a blue shield (formerly: Banner of Peace). At the same time they agree to accept the consequences of non-complyance. Persons suspected of violation will be prosecuted, eventually by International Criminal Courts. A very important step, you might say, towards improving levels of decency in relations between countries.

The Netherlands were quick to ratify the The Hague Convention, in 1958. Not long after, a second major UNESCO convention was launched, targeting illegal trade in cultural properties – read: criminal art trafficking. Though proposed in 1970, the Netherlands took almost 40 years to ratify it, only 3 year ago. Apparently we did not want our interests as a trading nation in any way to be criticized let alone curbed.

The best known of the UNESCO conventions is the one on World Heritage, from 1972. It aims at protecting, for the whole of mankind and generations to come, cultural and natural heritage monuments and landscapes that are of exceptional, universal value. It is the list enumerating all the monuments and landscapes, now with over 900 entries, that makes the headlines all the time. Note that also here, the responsibility for ensuring the conservation of the object lies primarily with each individual state, but "it is the duty of the international community as a whole to ensure such conservation." Take notice, your neighbours are watching you steps.

The Netherlands ratified the convention 20 years after it was first published. We now boast 9 such sites. The Teylers Museum would be the 10th, having been entered on the Tentative List in August last year. When former Culture Minister Rick van der Ploeg became one of the 21 members to sit on the Unesco World Heritage Committee, our country officially refrained for the duration of his office from proposing new entries to the list - to avoid possible conflicts of interest.

In the last few years, UNESCO produced an increasing number of related treaties: in 2001, on the protection of underwater heritage. The NL are not a party to it yet, though we're expected to join soon. Last week, the wreck of the RMS Titanic received UNESCO underwater Heritage protection, at the 100th anniversary of its sad demise. In 2003, a Convention on the protection of intangible heritage was made public, which our government is expected to ratify still this year. I bet Sinterklaas and koninginnedag will be nominated. Another Convention, on the diversity of cultural expressions, is even more recent, but remains largely unknown in this country.

Less than half a year ago, the UNESCO General Assembly approved a motion by Brazil for the protection and promotion of museological heritage and collections. Apparently, museums deserve to be considered a special class of cultural good and as a special carrier of social and democratic values, so much so that they qualify for their own protective measures.

So far so good.

I have always been critical of lists, the Top 40s Popular Music, Canons of History, Literature or Art, Eurovision Song Contests, Michelin Star restaurants… and also World Heritage Lists. Though it's surely fun to go check them out. Are there such things as universal cultural values? I don't know. Perhaps there are outstanding qualities, typical for our Planet Earth, but I'm afraid you'd only properly appreciate them when looking from very far away, say the planet Mars, and then comparing it to something else. And what to think of all those poor monuments, sites and landscapes that did not make the list. Are they really less valuable, is their meaning really less universal? To whom and why? These and countless other conceptual and political paradoxes still make me wary about the seriousness of the whole operation.

This was exemplified in a remarkable way at the temple complex of Borrobudur, on Java. During a visit, two years ago, we were ordered by a huge UNESCO sign to pay respect to and to try and understand the universal cultural values of the site. Upon our polite inquiries what these might be, neither the site officials nor the Jakarta national committee officers that we consulted, were able to enlighten us. It remains a mystery...

Back to the World Heritage Convention. Yes, I know the list came into being as a result of international co-operation in the 1950s in Egypt. Many countries assisted in rescuing important archaeological sites, like Abu Simbel, that would otherwise have drowned in the huge lake resulting from the building of the Aswan Dam. The Netherlands received the fabulous Temple of Taffeh in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden as a compensation for our efforts. It was then that the idea of internationally enforced state protection of exceptional cultural and natural sites through a list came into being. In effect against a country's own wish, haha.

But there's more.

I recently found that the idea of “world heritage” was in fact born much earlier. It goes back to the predecessor of the UN, the League of Nations – or rather, the Intellectual Co-operation Organisation, one of the League's branches. Started still during WW I, this was a rather idealistic idea of several leading intellectuals and artists (Einstein, Bartók, Thomas Mann). The original idea was to establish a fund from which grants could be made to countries with limited economic and technical resources. That didn't work. Another idea was that war between nation states should and could be prevented by co-operation in the field of science, education and culture. Science, since the way of operating there was and still is strictly international, without any bias to national aims and practices. Also the case of culture was special. What would happen when we, as warring nations, would have to recognize each others' national symbols of art and history, used to legitimize a country's claim to nationhood? Evidently, this could only take place by pushing aside prejudices, enemy images, and other black-and-white stereotypes of Demonized Otherness. If this would be enforced on a mutual basis – you will accept and respect my monuments, and I shall do likewise with yours – then presumably an important condition for enduring world peace would be met.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is to me the historical root which explains and indeed almost redeems the notion of World Heritage, however obscured its original goal (understanding between states as a means to preserve peace) may have become. Universal cultural values are non-national values. There is more that we share than what we differ in, more that unites than what separates. This system of recognition, inclusion and openness should weave a tapestry of mutual understanding and respect. It's not about things, it's about people. At least that's the intention.



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