Wars, pandemics, artificial intelligence, galloping climate crisis… The world is changing rapidly and human communities must adapt to many challenges. In this context, World Heritage presents a kind of double paradox: while the world needs solidarity and collaboration on a global scale, World Heritage sites serve as cultural totems for the different nation-states, which can themselves even be in conflict. As we anticipate and adapt to change, World Heritage is looking back. Fifty years after the creation of the Unesco World Heritage Conventionit is time to look to the future.
To this end, over the past decade, our team has contributed to an ambitious research program on “the future of heritage”which aims to study the role of heritage in managing relations between present and future societies, and has created a Unesco Chair. After publishing a series of articles and books describing all that we have learned, we now take stock.
World Heritage has a long future ahead of it. But can its management and messages remain unchanged, as people are forced from their homelands, as the machines we create increasingly control our lives, and as greater human trust in (and among ) companies is necessary? In the next half-century, Unesco would benefit from imagining and implementing promising strategies that meet the needs of future generations. Here’s how.
Step 1: Recognize the Dangers of “Presentism”
When my colleague Anders Högberg and I started working on the future of heritage, we interviewed over 60 experienced cultural heritage managers in several countries, from local municipalities to Unesco itself. In collaboration with Sarah May and Gustav Wollentz, we have been surprised to see that no one had ever systematically asked themselves for which future(s) they were managing the heritage and what role this heritage could play in these futures. They simply assumed that the current uses and benefits of the heritage would somehow continue into the future, or that future generations would fend for themselves. Indeed, much of today’s World Heritage policy is based on the assumption that the future will be like the present – even though we know it will be different.
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For example, the World Heritage Convention requires that properties inscribed on the List meet the condition of“authenticity”. While the importance of taking cultural diversity into account “in time and space” has been recognized in the Nara Document of Authenticity from 1994, applications of the term authenticity remain firmly anchored in the conceptions of the present. This raises the question of to what extent the underlying concept of the convention of outstanding universal value will always be “universal” in the future.
Step 2: Imagine alternative futures
Foresight allows us to think about the future in different terms than our present, and also allows us to imagine different futures. These futures are multiple and alternative, and are not necessarily beneficial and desirable for all. That’s why our choices and decisions, now and in the near term, matter. The future is not predetermined but gradually takes shape – in fact, many different futures are taking shape, divided by time and space. We have the power to influence those futures, and that’s where World Heritage comes in.
World Heritage is often linked to how people perceive the world: it can evoke deeply held collective identities, emotions and associated cultural values. The way World Heritage sites are managed today influences how people make sense of the world they live in, and the values they consider important in their lives.
The 1972 World Heritage Convention falls within the framework of Unesco’s efforts, expressed in its Constitution of 1945, to promote peace and security in the world by promoting knowledge and understanding between peoples. This mission is palpable on sites such as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial and his museumwhich explain to visitors the horrors of nuclear weapons and propagate the message “Never again Hiroshima”.
The climate crisis has put issues of sustainability and adaptation on the agenda of societies around the world. The speech on the cultural heritage, climate change and sustainable development, which is rapidly changing, should pay more attention to how people think and act in response to this situation, which is linked to particular cultural contexts and therefore specific in terms of time and geographical locations. As circumstances change over time, cultural heritage and its management will also need to change.
When heritage institutions think about the future, their time horizon tends to be short – the goal is to support current policies, after all. For example, a 2015 study by Historic England recognizes that it is essential to be ‘better prepared for change’, but focuses more on how discernible trends may impact current programs rather than exploring possible future programmes. In doing so, there is a risk of losing opportunities to make a difference for future generations by uncritically pursuing current heritage practices.
To increase the chances that assets achieve the expected results, managers can rely on anticipation and strategic foresight. The futures we can anticipate understand the significant impacts not only of accelerating climate change, but also of pollution, wars, pandemics, AI, current demographic trends, and social conflict. The Strategic targets for the benefit of humanity include:
social cohesion and security
trust within and between societies
a healthy planet and environment.
Unfortunately, common perceptions and uses of cultural heritage do not necessarily favor these outcomes. Worse, in some cases, they can even threaten human rights and reduce socio-cultural cohesion and resilience by exacerbating discrimination, fueling violent conflicts over power or territory, and generally making necessary transformations more difficult. . We must not take the value and benefits of cultural heritage for granted. After all, the Taliban, too, base their program on a particular cultural heritage, which led them in 2001 to destroy the Buddha statues in Bamiyan.
One of Unesco’s central aspirations is to promote world peace, and a concrete example of the growing need to provide for changing nature of conflicts around the world.
Rather than purely state conflicts, there is a clear trend towards civil conflicts involving, for example, ethnic or religious groups which are sometimes supported by the forces of foreign states. The “old-fashioned” World Heritage system, which relied on state-wide cohesion, no longer unites all warring parties, reducing its potential to promote peace through mutual cultural understanding . What is needed is to design a global heritage by potentially advancing local or global agendas rather than primarily national agendas.
Step 3: make a difference in wealth management
There is an urgent need for the world’s cultural heritage to embrace foresight and future thinking in a more professional and systematic way. To make a difference, we are associated with the Futures Literacy Network of Unesco and have contributed to the project of strategic foresight of the International Center for Studies for the Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), an expert organization that supports the World Heritage Convention. At the beginning of this year, we even published a animated video on the future of heritage.
Given how rapidly our world is changing, we must prepare to manage our global heritage differently for the next 50 years.
50ᵉ anniversary of the World Heritage Convention (16 November 2022): World Heritage as a source of resilience, humanity and innovation.
We would like to say thanks to the writer of this write-up for this remarkable material
Heritage conservation facing the challenges of a changing world
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