Conserving Culture and Conserving Nature: Assets and Liabilities

The World Heritage Convention is nearing the end of its 40th anniversary, and since what we do here at Global Heritage Fund is help preserve World Heritage Sites in developing countries, I have been fielding a lot of inquiries on the status of the World Heritage Convention. As in so many aspects of heritage conservation/historic preservation, I have seen evolution in the field. In terms of sites inscribed on the World Heritage list, I would venture that we have seen some of the same shifts we have seen in “historic preservation” as a whole.

When World Heritage began in 1972, it focused, like the rest of the field, on iconic and visual landmarks that were clearly identified with their countries or cultures, places like the Taj Mahal and Machu Picchu and the Statue of Liberty

Been there, done that (1986)

I shot this in January 2012

2010, summer

Interestingly, this focus on “monuments” which characterized much of our field well into the 1980s, also included natural areas. Indeed, one of the curiosities of World Heritage status is that much of the world has used it to register key cultural sites that are architectural and artistic, like Versailles and Khajuraho and Suzhou’s gardens, while the U.S. used it mostly for national parks like Yellowstone and the Great Smoky Mountains, and very early historical sites like Cahokia Mounds and Independence Hall.

1982, my first trip to Europe

1986 again. Who knew the Internet existed in the 10th century?

Dear Suzhou, Lion Grove gardens, just this last June

Monk’s Mounds, Cahokia, 2008

Independence Hall in 2010.

The Europeans have even inscribed modern architecture on the World Heritage list, while the U.S. has only just gotten around to doing a Frank Lloyd Wright listing that is still being nominated. The addition of modern architecture to the mission of heritage conservation happened early in Chicago, but only starting in the late 1980s elsewhere.

Rietveld Schröderhuis, shot in 2010. Man, that was a busy year

Now, there were many iconic places on the World Heritage list from the beginning that were collections of monuments, essentially historic districts, such as the city centers of places like Rome and Florence and Salzburg and L’viv and Quebec and Cusco. City centers or historic districts make up a significant percentage of the sites, and even in an archaeologically rich country like Peru, your World Heritage Sites are as likely to be cities as they are archaeological sites.

Firenze, 1982 again

L’viv (L’viw) 2006

Cusco, January 2012

The criteria for these sites can be summarized by the phrase “outstanding universal value,” a phrase with meaning that has clearly shifted a bit over 40 years. Just as our heritage practice has expanded beyond monuments to districts and cultural landscapes, so we have expanded beyond a European notion of the artifact to include Eastern ideas about intangible heritage. China has proposed for inscription villages in Guizhou that we are currently investigating, and there the significance lies in their preservation of the intangible cultural heritage of minority groups like the Miao and Dong. Many of the newer listings are described as “cultural landscapes.” One of my favorites was the Wachau, a stretch of towns, vineyards and drop dead Baroque churches along the Danube River in Austria.

Stift Melk, 2005

Durnstein, 2005

Celtic stone circle in Nesselstauden, also 2005

Now, the World Heritage list has three categories: Cultural, Natural, and Mixed, and all three are still inscribed each year. A lot of these are iconic as well, places like Ha Long Bay in Vietnam and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

Halong Bay, Vietnam. 2001. This is getting to be like a James Bond movie location list.

Archaeological sites are frequent on the list as well, both cultural ones, like Chavin de Huantar in Peru, where GHF has been working for almost a decade, and sites like the 2012 listing for a seam of dinosaur fossils in China. Another site we worked on, Catalhoyuk in Turkey, was inscribed this year, and our other project there, Göbekli Tepe, is very likely to be inscribed soon. Archaeological sites require conservation from the moment they are unearthed, but they also reveal in their investigation their “outstanding universal value.”

Catalhoyuk, Building 77, 2010. Global Heritage Fund photo by Banu Aydinoglugil

I field a lot of questions from reporters about how World Heritage listing protects sites, and of course the answer is that the listing alone cannot restore or even protect sites, as the 2001 destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas and the current destruction of Islamic World Heritage sites (by Islamic rebels – it’s complicated) in Mali at Djenne and Timbuktu proves. Like any landmark status, World Heritage opens doors to funding, generates public and private support for protection, but relies of local laws for protection. We learned this working in Lima, another historic city centre. And of course, it has been in the news with the civill war in Syria.

Barrios Altos, Lima, 2012

World Heritage status can also generate tourism, as sites like Lijiang in China have demonstrated. In fact, it can generate too much, as both Machu Picchu and Angkor have learned.

Lijiang, 2008. I was also there in 2004.

Looking the other way at Machu Picchu. Toward the terraces that made it all possible. 2012.

Crowding out Angkor Wat, 2012. I guess this was a busy year too.

Natural. Cultural. I was sitting in the forest at home looking at the trees a few nights ago and I had a revelation about the difference between natural area conservation and historic preservation (heritage conservation). It is an economic difference, that has significant implications for those of us who try to achieve these things. Even more importantly, it has implications for how we raise money to achieve preservation of cultural sites.


One of my favorite World Heritage sites, Falun, a 300-year old open pit mine in Sweden. Photo from 2007.

Because if you look at the tourism angle, or even the house museum angle, you might see a great parallel between natural area conservation and heritage conservation of things like archaeological sites or house museums. Both require large infusions of cash and the only return they provide is from gate receipts, which typically only provide a fifth of the operating costs, not to mention capital costs.


Cave 16 (Kailasa) at Ellora, India. 1986. My FAVORITE heritage site. An entire temple, carved out of the side of the mountain from the top down. Twice the scale of the Parthenon. Way. Wicked. Cool.

It occured to me that when I help restore a historic World Heritage city like Pingyao, I am activating an asset. It may take some capital infusion to get it going, as we did by restoring courtyard houses there, but now the municipality is sponsoring grants to restore more houses, and new projects are activating this rich walled city. Pingyao is an asset, and it is an economic engine.

VROOM VROOM! June of this year.

Whereas if I am trying to save a wonderful natural landscape, I am working on the other side of the ledger. Wetlands and rainforests are obviously important, but in economic terms they are a liability. Now, having said that, I live in a place where real estate values are insane partly due to the amount of preserved natural areas. This is the idea behind common pool resource theory: the value of the natural area is alienated to the surrounding real estate. But to save it, you are still dealing with a liability, even if you tax all the surrounding property based on the increment it is earning from the conservation.

Natural area conservation is dealing with NON USE Value while much – most, I would argue – of historic preservation is dealing with USE Value. Conserving a natural area is a permanent drain on fiscal resources, but as Pingyao demonstrates, once you get a capital infusion into an historic building or district, it becomes a productive member of the economy, and can often pay its own way. Indeed, it should pay its own way.


Krems, Austria, 2005
What this means for organizations like mine is that not only is our mission different, but our way of raising funds is different, and can shift from a charitable to a business mode in a way conservation organizations can not. This is the idea behind an idea I have been working on with our Board of Trustees called GHF 2.0, which posits that we can become a more efficient organization by leveraging conservation, archaeological, architectural and economic development expertise through a model that recognizes that we are saving assets, not liabilities, and that they can become generative economic assets.


I don’t know if the World Heritage Convention thought of this in 1972 – I kind of doubt it, because we are still fighting our way out of the curatorial ghetto. But in 29 3/4 years of practice, I have seen how these engines work and I will continue to tune and prime them in the effort to save sites of outstanding universal value in a way that insures their social, environmental, cultural and economic sustainability.

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18 Responses to “Conserving Culture and Conserving Nature: Assets and Liabilities”

  1. Conserving Culture and Conserving Nature: Assets and Liabilities | birdmanps Says:

    [...] Conserving Culture and Conserving Nature: Assets and Liabilities. [...]

  2. birdmanps Says:

    Reblogged this on birdmanps.

  3. segmation Says:

    I love Frank Lloyd Wright and all of his work. Thanks for mentioning him.

  4. vanbraman Says:

    I should make a list sometime of the World Heritage sites I have visited. I did not know that some of these were on the list. Monk’s Mound for instance. I can count it on my list :-).

  5. jimceastman Says:

    Wow! You’ve got a very nice photos! Thanks for sharing:)

  6. susanportelance Says:

    Great post and wonderful photos. I’ve only seen a few of these in person. Time to start making a list.

  7. Mystery Tramp Says:

    Pingyao is incredibly well preserved. One of the most interesting places I’ve visited in China.

  8. Ranjhani Boss Says:

    its a wonderful place i like these photos

  9. lapotosina Says:

    Interesting article. Are models of sustainable tourism being used to preserve historic and cultural sites? If implemented right, tourism can provide sources of revenue to a cultural and heritage site, even a national park….

  10. vmichael Says:

    I think I have been to 84, which is less than one-fourth of those my friend Henry Cleere has been to.

  11. stephenfranano Says:

    Reblogged this on stephenfranano.

  12. leemajors Says:

    wonderful :-)

  13. segmation Says:

    Awesome. Thanks for stopping by my blog!

  14. Dave Jaffe Says:

    An impressive array of information and images, Vince. Thanks for visiting my blog so that I could learn about yours.

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  16. Cultural Landscapes: The Confluence of Conservations | Time Tells Says:

    […] and heritage conservation, especially in terms of use-value, as I wrote about last year in this blog. The basic point was that natural area conservation is largely about preserving non-use value […]

  17. 15: Between Nature Photography and Abstract Painting. | Almofate's Likes Says:

    […] A shade of pink | talainsphotographyblog * Conserving Culture and Conserving Nature: Assets and Liabilities | Time Tells * Homage to the Muse FRESHLY PRESSED | caleb hamm * Illustration Friday – Sky | Mais […]

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