Protecting cultural heritage as development priority

Published on 1 August 2010

Author(s): MediaGlobal/Diana Gregor

Type:  News

Reducing poverty is not only achieved by increasing productivity and income but also by allowing people to have access to what constitutes their cultural identity and cultural heritage

The earthquake that shook Haiti in January 2010 has proven how vulnerable cultural heritage is to natural disasters. In the wake of the earthquake’s widespread destruction were museums, galleries, and other places that contained Haiti’s cultural property. Haiti’s Centre d’Art has been severely damaged; the Musée d’art Nader has collapsed; murals in the Trinity Cathedral have come crashing down.

Elke Selter, UNESCO Programme Specialist for Culture in Port au Prince, told MediaGlobal, “The majority of cultural institutions were affected by the earthquake. Now, six months later, we are slowly able to track the number of damaged cultural properties. Artifacts are being stored in temporary boxes and containers, which is obviously bad.”

When asked about the difficulty of prioritizing cultural preservation given the direct need for food, water, and shelter, Selter said, “Cultural heritage is a necessity, it is your past. You cannot just leave a country to lose its history. One needs the past in order to move on to one’s future and therefore you cannot cut off people’s roots. Haiti has a history with very important moments.”

Culture is a common source of wealth. Reducing poverty is not only achieved by increasing productivity and income but also by allowing people to have access to what constitutes their cultural identity and cultural heritage. Over the last fifty years, the protection of the world’s cultural heritage from natural and man-made disasters has therefore been a major focal point throughout the world.

Yet, the extent of irreplaceable destruction of cultural sites, monuments, collections, and archives represents an imminent danger to cultural heritage and cultural diversity. The destruction of cultural property due to natural disaster and armed conflicts can be witnessed around the world as it includes cultural losses in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Haiti, Cambodia, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Bosnia among many other places.

The desire to protect cultural heritage has led to the establishment of international organizations for cultural heritage such as the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), the International Council of Museums (ICOM), and the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).

Currently involved in disaster recovery, educational workshops, and preservation of cultural heritage, the World Monuments Fund is a private organization founded in 1965 and dedicated to preserving architectural and cultural heritage sites in more than 90 countries around the globe.

Collapsed Presidential Palace in January 2010, Port au Prince, Haiti. (Photocredit Elke Selter.jpg
Collapsed Presidential Palace in January 2010, Port au Prince, Haiti. (Photocredit Elke Selter)

Lisa Ackerman, the Fund’s Executive Vice President and COO, told MediaGlobal, “The World Monuments Fund works on 40-50 projects at any given time and they span the globe. Every project is different and often each site has unique circumstances.

In Cambodia, the World Monuments Fund has worked on site at Angkor for 20 years and in the course of this work has trained Khmer professionals in architectural conservation practices, analytical tools, and conservation technology. The training is an integral part of the work undertaken. Preservation education and advocacy must be seen as tied to improving the living conditions of the residents in those communities.”

One of the side effects of the war in Afghanistan is the loss caused to the country’s cultural heritage. In March 2001, the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas, which until then represented the world’s largest standing Buddha statues. The Taliban declared that the Bamiyan Buddhas were idols that were against Islamic law and obliterated them. In Afghanistan, there is an additional problem to the war: smugglers. In spring of 2010, around 7,000 artifacts that had been smuggled out of Afghanistan were returned to the Kabul museum.

The war in Iraq has lead to the destruction of thousands of archaeological sites; during the looting of the National Museum in Baghdad, libraries were set on fire and ivories trampled underfoot. Iraq continues to struggle with the preservation of its museums and serious archeological work remains a challenge.

Martina Griesser-Stermscheg, member of the ICCROM-UNESCO partnership for the preventive conservation of endangered museum collections in developing countries, told MediaGlobal, “Cultural heritage constitutes identity; identity is being created through cultural symbols.”

Risk preparedness for the protection of cultural heritage is a key issue for developing countries. Besides the value of cultural heritage as a source of cultural identity, cultural property can provide opportunities for tourism and development – two vital generators for substantial revenues and employment.

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