H@R! : Heritage at Risk



ICOMOS, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, is the advisory body for UNESCO on issues concerning the world cultural heritage, in particular the evaluation of monuments and sites that have been placed on the World Heritage List or are under consideration for listing. With some 6000 members organised in 107 National Committees and 21 International Scientific Committees, ICOMOS is also committed to preservation of our heritage world-wide, wherever monuments, sites or cultural landscapes that are defined by historic buildings are affected. According to the preamble of the Venice Charter (1964), which is considered a founding document for ICOMOS, the preservation of the authentic material evidence of our history is at stake: "Imbued with a message from the past, the historic monuments of generations of people remain to the present day as living witnesses of their age-old traditions. People are becoming more and more conscious of the unity of human values and regard ancient monuments as a common heritage. The common responsibility to safeguard them for future generations is recognised. It is our duty to hand them on in the full richness of their authenticity."

Of course ICOMOS and many of its National Committees have always been involved in individual battles to save monuments, protesting against the destruction or endangerment of specific historic buildings. In the event of catastrophes we have also given on-site advice and have attempted to provide assistance, an example being the Greek National Committee’s missions in Kosovo in recent months. But new reports of dangers to our cultural heritage reach us almost daily: a call for help because of flooding in Venezuela, the recent report from the USA of fires in Mesa Verde National Park in the vicinity of the famous Indian cliff dwellings. In order to be better equipped for such dangers ICOMOS has a special Committee on Risk Preparedness which is concerned with the questions how to prevent the risks and how to mitigate the damage in case of accident. Going beyond the issue of risk preparedness, an initiative by ICOMOS and its then director Leo van Nispen further led in 1996 to establishment of the International Committee of the Blue Shield, a partnership of ICOMOS with the organisations for museums (ICOM), archives (ICA) and libraries (IFLA). In the coming decades this committee, which has even been recognised in the Second Protocol of the Hague Convention of 1954 for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflicts, could develop into a sort of Red Cross organisation for monuments and historic cultural goods.

But our endangered heritage needs solutions now, before it is too late. When the catastrophe has already occurred, something must be done, even if one was not at all prepared for the risk. Our Heritage at Risk initiative, developed by a task force from Australia, Canada and Germany and endorsed at the ICOMOS General Assembly in Mexico City in October 1999, is a critical first step in this direction. Just as only those monuments that are recognised and recorded as such can be protected with legal means, in order to provide help in case of risk there is first a need for world-wide information about the dangers that are threatening our monuments. Moreover we hope that the H@R report will inspire further commitments on national and international levels, generate new initiatives in preservation, and provide an additional positive impulse for existing institutions such as the ICOMOS-supported Blue Shield. The effect should also extend to international foundations that are involved in preservation such as the Getty Foundation or the World Monument Fund. The latter, sponsored above all by American Express, assists a small selection of monuments in connection with its announcement every two years of a "List of 100 Most Endangered Sites". This good example could also influence other internationally operating sponsors, now that there is increased awareness of the economic importance of heritage conservation and its special role in terms of the much-heralded "sustainable development".

With its first World Report on Monuments and Sites in Danger ICOMOS hopes not only to gain the moral support of the world public in the battle against all kinds of threats, but also to achieve practical results in co-operation with all forces that are interested in preservation/conservation of the cultural heritage. As a non-governmental organisation, ICOMOS can identify monuments in danger from a strictly preservation-based perspective without political considerations, can bluntly address the absolutely desperate situation facing the historic heritage in many countries of the world, and can detect dangerous trends at an early stage. The types of threats that show up in the reports that are presented here are very diverse. On the one hand mankind’s built historic heritage has always been threatened by natural disasters: by the consequences of earthquakes, typhoons, hurricanes, floods and fires, as well as by the effects of natural weathering and attack by insects or plants. On the other hand wars are still leading to tremendous losses; consider for example the aftermath of the wars, combined with ethnic confrontations and campaigns against culture, in the region of former Yugoslavia. But man-made disasters also include the consequences of world-wide pollution of our air, water and land such as the pollution-linked destruction of monuments of metal and stone, which in some cases have deteriorated faster in the last decades than they had in the previous centuries. The current threats to our historic heritage are incomparable to those of earlier times now that we live in a world that has been undergoing faster and faster change since the last decades of the 20th century. This rapid development, taking place under the pressures of world population growth and progressive industrialisation, leads to ever-greater consumption of land - destroying not only archaeological evidence under the earth but entire historic cultural landscapes - and to faster and faster cycles of demolition and new construction with their concomitant burden on the environment.

With this social and economic change historic buildings that are no longer in use become endangered, by deterioration or by destruction through neglect. Even for the historic building stock that is put to good use there is often a lack of means for the simplest building maintenance; in the long run this, too, leads to loss. In many countries, however, not only are the financial means unavailable to guide such developments in the direction of cultural continuity - so important for the identity of a land - but the political will is also missing. This is demonstrated, for instance, by the absence of a state preservation organisation with appropriate experts, by the total lack of preservation laws, or by legal regulations that exist but are not put to use. The continuous loss of the historic heritage is pre-programmed if there is not a certain amount of public-sector protection in the interest of the general public. Without sufficient protection the criminal scene operating in the background of the international art market can develop further. Many archaeological sites continue to be plundered by illegal excavations, and the illicit traffic of works of art represents a continuous loss of cultural goods that from a preservation perspective should be preserved on their original site. Not only paintings, sculptures and the artefacts of cult sites are being decimated in many countries through theft, but art monuments are actually being destroyed in order to gain fragments for the market: temple complexes are being dynamited, sculptures decapitated, frescoes cut up.

With or without an economic background, such shocking acts of vandalism now have an even worse effect thanks to the arsenal of destructive technologies that is available today, in an epoch in which even the most distant corner of the earth is "accessible". In some countries the tourism industry, ubiquitous in its connection with monuments, historic districts and cultural landscapes, apparently provides the only reason to protect monuments, at least as sightseeing objects. A community-based soft tourism naturally would have its positive effect on preservation. But mass tourism, to which entire cultural landscapes have fallen victim over the last decades, represents as before a danger. It remains a disappointment that, despite the many assurances at countless conferences on the theme of tourism and preservation, there is a lack of commitment by the tourism industry, which by now with its sales in the billions is the most important branch of industry world-wide. The tourism industry exploits the cultural heritage through over-use which is sometimes ruinous (consider some of the Egyptian grave sites), but does not render any serious financial contribution to the protection and preservation of the cultural heritage.

Finally, in the development of an increasingly globalised world that is dominated by the strongest economic forces, the tendency to make all aspects of life uniform represents an obvious risk factor for the historic heritage. With the new global "lifestyle", attitudes to historic evidence of the past naturally also change. However there is hope that in some places this very globalisation is causing a renewed consciousness of the significance of the monuments that embody regional and national identity. This trend can also be identified for artistic and craftsman’s traditions, out of which the historic heritage has developed in the course of centuries. Nevertheless the mass products of the industrial society that are distributed world-wide remain a tremendous threat because they continue to displace the historic techniques of the skilled craftsman, and thus prevent the possibility of repair with authentic materials and techniques that is so critical for preservation. Consider, for instance, the continuous replacement of traditional clay and wood construction with concrete structures to which so many traditional "house landscapes" have fallen victim.

In addition to the loss of handicraft traditions - a loss which must be fought in the interest of sustainable development - monuments are endangered during rehabilitation work by the use of inappropriate methods and technologies when properly-trained professionals and other preservation specialists are not available at all or in sufficient numbers and preservation know-how is missing. Thus many well-meant preservation measures also fail simply on the basis of lack of competence. I would like to emphasise here that in preservation practice the maintenance and repair of the existing building stock, which often would require only modest financial means, is more important than many a luxury rehabilitation or extreme reconstruction, which may in fact cause damage to a monument. Overzealous restorations based on aesthetic or sometimes even religious arguments can also represent a danger under some circumstances.

With its Heritage at Risk initiative ICOMOS is concerned with monuments and sites in the broadest sense: not only individual monuments but also different types of immovable cultural properties such as archaeological sites, historic areas and ensembles, cultural landscapes and various types of historic evidence from prehistory and ancient history up to the modern movement of the 20th century, as well as monument-related collections and archives. Given our cultural diversity, the threats and dangerous trends outlined above naturally have very different effects in the different regions of the world and in some circumstances endanger only special groups of monuments. For example countless archaeological sites are disappearing around the world because of the erection of dams, the most spectacular example being the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtse River; innumerable historic urban districts suffer from a careless, often totally unplanned renewal process and uncontrolled urban sprawl in their environs. In the face of the industrialisation of agriculture, vernacular architecture is particularly endangered in many countries, disappearing altogether or sometimes "surviving" only in a few open-air museums. Construction methods using clay, wood and stone - materials that are obtainable locally (a fact of great importance in terms of sustainable development in the future) and which once defined entire cultural landscapes but now represent a mostly unprotected historic heritage that is not recorded in any monument list - are being lost, making room for concrete constructions used all over the world.

But also the built evidence of our industrial history, structures erected with once modern techniques and now themselves worthy of preservation, poses difficult problems for the conservationist when the original use is no longer possible. As our world report shows, even architectural masterpieces of the modern movement of the 20th century are threatened with demolition or disfigurement. The monuments and sites, historic districts and cultural landscapes that are entered on UNESCO’s World Heritage List should actually be numbered among the non-endangered monuments, but our report shows that here, too, there are individual cases of substantial danger, above and beyond the List of World Heritage in danger, maintained by UNESCO; a case in point is the study presented here on conditions at Pompeii. On the whole, the UNESCO Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, passed in 1972, remains one of the few successful efforts at world cultural politics directed at saving mankind’s historic heritage, and ICOMOS is proud to be able to work with UNESCO as an advisory body. A certain unevenness in the representation of the non-European countries in the UNESCO World Heritage List, however, has to do with the fact that the Convention demands - justifiably - not only unique significance for the objects on the list but also appropriate state protective regulations for the monument and its surroundings, a protection that unfortunately does not exist in some countries. Thus for various reasons in future H@R reports even the greatest works of mankind may appear, "works of unique and universal value", as it says in the provisions of the UNESCO Convention.

Building each time on the foundation of the previously cited Venice Charter, ICOMOS has developed a number of universally acknowledged charters and guidelines for preservation, principles whose application can help to ward off dangers and prohibit mistakes in maintenance and rehabilitation. ICOMOS moreover is working toward continuously improved standards both for the training of conservationists and for use in daily conservation practice. Through its scientific committees ICOMOS supports the sometimes astonishing advances in certain fields such as archaeological prospection, historic building research, or the safeguarding of historic structures. "Safeguarding the Structure of our Architectural Heritage" is in fact the theme this year for a conference organised in Bethlehem in co-operation with UNESCO.

The first World Report on Monuments and Sites in Danger, presented at an international press conference at this Bethlehem meeting, may moreover be understood as an appeal to all colleagues active in preservation to intensify their efforts on all levels to develop solutions for the abundance of practical tasks facing us and to strengthen professional work overall. The field of conservation and restoration, which is not becoming any simpler because of our ever-increasing knowledge, is not a place for amateur activists, but rather presents a continuous challenge for professionals from various branches, including archaeologists, architects, art historians, restorers, specialised scientists and others. Under the leadership of my predecessor Roland Silva in the past decade ICOMOS has developed into a globally anchored organisation that is active all over the world. So, we must also make use of the principles of the profession, previously strongly oriented to a European understanding of preservation, in the direction of a "pluralistic" effort that is appropriate for our cultural diversity. And given the challenges, indeed the often desolate situation, revealed in our H@R report, for every preservation measure we must first pose the critical question as to whether it in fact serves the conservation of an authentic part of our historic heritage and saves it for the future, or whether it perhaps even pre-programs further loss of historic fabric and future risks.

ICOMOS is naturally aware that it has only a weak voice - a voice that in the past decades was perhaps not loud enough - in a global confrontation about the preservation or destruction of our environment, given the immense technical possibilities and the tremendous financial means that directly or indirectly contribute to continuous losses of the historic heritage today. ICOMOS is also conscious that this World Report 2000 on Monuments and Sites in Danger is out of necessity very incomplete. In the brief period between the H@R conference in early July 2000, organised by ICOMOS Germany with representatives from all the continents, and the conference in Bethlehem not all of our National Committees were able to submit their contributions. Nonetheless I am of the opinion that this initial endeavour, which offers a wealth of information, had to be made. The World Report 2001 will already have further contributions which can incorporate the criticism that is to be expected and the necessary supplemental material from our colleagues, and it will surely have additional emphasis. In conjunction with a continually updated presentation of our H@R initiative in the future, which will be available simultaneously on the Internet, a general overview of other initiatives in the field of preservation and their legal framework would also be of use; a model case study for the United Kingdom is offered in the present publication. Statistics on the number of protected monuments in individual countries also would be helpful, although the systematic survey of all the world’s monuments (even if only in the form of simple lists) must remain a task of the public sector monument offices (which unfortunately do not exist in many countries). A complete inventory and documentation of the world’s historic building stock, a task for the coming decades, cannot be achieved by ICOMOS; in its annual World Report ICOMOS can merely attempt to draw attention again and again to the current dangers, before the background of the enormous losses of monuments in the previous century.

ICOMOS hopes that the message from the World Report on Monuments and Sites in Danger will be understood as an urgent appeal to the world public to commit itself more than ever before to saving the cultural heritage that is invoked in so many international resolutions and conferences. We must also encourage our National Committees to make vigorous efforts to save our monuments. We must see practical results from our work, instead of merely being present at all kinds of new initiatives, such as the interesting scientific games our information society has to offer. Even if a "virtual heritage network" can now be created, as claimed by a recent report from the International Society on Virtual Systems and Multimedia, our handling of the authentic evidence of our history - of tangible monuments and sites - cannot be replaced by virtual reality, as fascinating as it may be. The attempt to preserve real authentic objects as memory is part of man’s essence as a "historic being", just as repair and reconstruction, an elemental concern of man practised over the centuries, takes us back to the roots of conservation theory and practice. We can certainly also build on the moral strength of our concerns, if we take seriously the challenges to the practice of globalised preservation which are contained in the H@R report. I hope very much that a Heritage at Risk report from ICOMOS - added to continuously, published every year, and also disseminated through the Internet - will reach far beyond the specialised circles organised within the ICOMOS framework to all those to whom the preservation of the historic heritage is important.

Michael Petzet



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