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The role of international organisations

What can international organisations do to preserve and promote cultural heritage? In this step we will look at the difficulties that they may encounter, with the examples of the two sites that were removed from UNESCO’s World Heritage List: the Oryx Sanctuary and the Dresden Elbe Valley. We will also take a look at a successful alternative with the case of Humayun’s Tomb.

There is a wide variety of transnational or international cultural heritage organizations (UNESCO, ICOM, ICOMOS, ALECSO, Aga Khan, Europa Nostra, Global Heritage Fund, World Historic Cities, World Monument Fund). These examples are either foundations based in a specific country and operating globally or a network of actors of the heritage sector that enables heritage professionals to interact globally and promote a certain vision of heritage preservation.

Beyond the local or national interests, some organisations try to promote heritage beyond state boundaries, either based on the assumption that cultural heritage is universal (like UNESCO or ICOMOS), or by supporting the heritage of a community that goes beyond national boundaries (like Aga Khan or Europa Nostra).

Generally, international organisations cannot impose their decisions on national authorities or local government. Rather, international heritage organisation’s actions create willingness to preserve and safeguard heritage by exchanging ideas and norms or by providing resources.

The world heritage committee of UNESCO is a rare case that has legally binding instruments as it operates through international conventions like the 1964 Venice Charter. Yet, it can be difficult for UNESCO to coerce states or local communities in their behaviour related to cultural heritage. The only means UNESCO has to enforce the preservation and protection of heritage are either putting a site on the list of endangered heritage or to unlist it. The latter has happened in two cases:

  • in 2007 for Oman’s Arabian Oryx Sanctuary, which was degraded because of oil extraction activities;

  • in 2009, Dresden Elbe valley was removed from the list because of the construction of a four-lane bridge on the site.

But these examples show that in the end, UNESCO was unable to stop local authorities from degrading their sites.

In this context, international organisations try to encourage the sustainable use of cultural heritage and mobilize human resources or financial support. International organisations play a key role in the transnational circulation of ideas, practices, and models of heritage policies. Some foundations like Global Heritage Fund or Europa Nostra operate on an international scale to provide human and financial support for cultural heritage.

Here is an example of an interesting cultural heritage project that Aga Khan Trust For Culture has conducted:

The Humayun’s Tomb – Nizamuddin area in Delhi has continuously evolved and been inhabited since the 13th century. Over the past 700 years, a profusion of monumental tomb building occurred in close proximity to the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya, a revered Sufi saint. Here, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture commenced a major Urban Renewal Initiative spread across 224 acres, following a 2007 MoU with the Archaeological Survey of India, Central Public Works Department and the Municipal Corporation. … Since 2007, a multi-disciplinary team has worked with local communities to fulfil these objectives. Work is underway on the development of a 90-acre city park and conservation of over 30 monuments dating from the 14th century onwards. However, the project’s principal focus remains leveraging cultural assets for the communities’ benefit. With a density of 70,000/sq. km., this was to be achieved by providing health and education infrastructure, creating economic opportunities, an improved urban setting with neighbourhood parks landscaped for community needs, an improved sanitation infrastructure, creating performance venues, holding festivals to promote seven centuries of food, music, craft traditions, and the restoration of significant monuments. … Since 2007, dialogue with several government agencies coupled with sustained community engagement with local leaders, religious heads, men and women, youth, vendors and commercial establishments has ensured that many facilities have been created; today, many of these are managed by residents themselves after receiving the necessary training.

’Humayun’s Tomb - Sundar Nursery - Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti Urban Renewal Initiative 2014

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What do you think is the most effective way for an international organisation to intervene in the preservation or promotion of cultural heritage?

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This article is from the free online course:

Cultural Heritage and the City

European University Institute (EUI)

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