Framing UNESCO Heritage: New ‘Danish’ World Heritage Site(s) in 2018

 

I usually have a quick look each year at the additions to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, partly to see what trends may be detected, and which oddities catch my eye; perhaps a cause célèbre (such as with the Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan, listed only after they were blown up). This year’s list has 18 inscribed properties, delineated in the usual UNESCO frames of reference. First, the sites are categorized as being ‘cultural’ or ‘natural’, with a third category of being ‘mixed’ always seeming to make the other categories redundant. Each site is accredited with a list of ‘criteria’ under which the inscription was made, with some declared as displaying 2 or even 3 criteria. And then each of the sites is ascribed to a nation state, since it is ‘states parties’ who sponsor the nomination process.

Of the 18 sites, 13 are described as being ‘cultural’, 3 ‘natural’ and 3 ‘mixed’, and in broad terms, there are 6 cultural landscapes (3 coming under the ‘mixed’ category), 3 archaeological sites, 3 religious sites, 2 cities, 1 industrial site and 1 ensemble of buildings in Mumbai described as ‘Art Deco and Victorian’. All three of the ‘natural’ sites are mountains. In terms of where they are, just 1 is in Africa, all three of the mixed sites are in the Americas, 6 are in Europe, and 9 are in Asia – of which 4 are located in west Asia/‘Middle East’, which is interesting. So, in spite of clear efforts to overcome a long established ‘Eurocentrism’ in the location of ascribed ‘universal heritage’, Europe still seems to be hugely over-represented (considering its size and population), there is nothing in Oceania, and only one site in Africa (a ‘natural’ site). The Americas seem to supply the sites where ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ become blurred, or where the ‘indigenous’ is somehow closer to ‘nature’ than in the supposed cradles of ‘civilisation’ in the ‘Old World’. In other words – from this 2018 list at least, it seems that archaeological landscapes in the ‘Old World’ are ‘cultural’, while similar landscapes in the ‘New World’ are ‘mixed’.

But what sense does it make to frame sites according to the nation states in which they are located today, especially when they are proclaimed as being ‘universal heritage’ on account of events, settlements and lifestyles from sometimes thousands of years ago? Even when looking at heritage examples that stem from more recent times, the national framing doesn’t seem to make sense, or at least testifies to greater complexity – as can be seen for instance with the case of the Victorian buildings in Mumbai; an imprint of British Imperial endeavor within an ‘Indian’ World Heritage Site.

Most conspicuously, however, the list of 18 World Heritage Sites includes an intriguingly ambiguous Danish element. On the one hand, there is one site listed as being located within the state of Denmark: that of Aasivissuit-Nipisat. On the other hand, another of the cultural heritage sites now inscribed by UNESO is the ‘Danevirk’ and Viking town of Hedeby; the border wall that once protected the southern boundary of Denmark, and one of the most important cities of Viking era Denmark – only, of course, these sites are listed under UNESCO framings as being in Germany!

It is interesting to click on the newly inscribed site of Aasivissuit-Nipisat  and see the Danish flag in the top right corner of the screen. Described as being an ‘Inuit hunting ground between ice and sea’, this site is located in Greenland. Indeed, the image of the Danish flag is slightly jarring – a strange remnant of imperial ambition that doesn’t sit well with the outward feel of the site’s inscription. The listing details describe how the site contains 4,200 years of human history – nearly all of which had nothing to do with Denmark at all. It seems a little ironic to proclaim how the area ‘bears testimony to the resilience of the human cultures of the region’, when the power and force of change against which this ‘resilience’ was measured was that of the Danish Empire! As with all World Heritage Sites, there is a slightly unreflexive section on ‘authenticity’, which focuses on material culture, though does mention that Inuit intangible cultural heritage and traditional knowledge contributes to this.

Since it is located in Germany, the nomination of Hedeby and the Danevirke was sponsored by the German state. It would be nice to know what Angela Merkel thinks about the proclamation of this ‘beautiful southern border wall’ (to coin a Donald Trump phrase) as universal heritage, especially with tensions over migration and border walls being so high up the political agendas in both Germany and Denmark. Once again, the material integrity of the site is the focus of the listing documents, though if you read various press reports, it is the ‘Danishness’ of the site that is most prominent. This is a key site for the Danish-speaking minority in the far north of Germany. I guess the question that is left hanging, is how such a definite boundary – a border wall – can be used to bring people together (German- and Danish-speakers, from both sides of the frontier), in the spirit of something called ‘universal heritage’?

Universal Heritage – from Brugge to Prague

Over the New Year, I had a weekend break in Brugge in Belgium. Brugge is a key UNESCO World Heritage Site, an “outstanding example of medieval historic settlement”, and famed for its brick Gothic buildings, which “form part of the town’s identity” (UNESCO website: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/996). We made our way slowly through the crowds in the Market Square, admired some of the medieval brick Gothic buildings, and then – along with everyone else – found a spot where we could eat chips with mayonnaise. After eating our chips, we found a quiet bar and drank a range of local beers, before buying some chocolate to take home.

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The notion of a World Heritage Site conveys a sense of universality of certain values and heritage assets that should be treasured and preserved. But what are these values? And what is universal about them? On the one hand, despite some broadening towards the intangible in recent years, much of the literature and policy documents surrounding World Heritage Sites focus almost entirely on physical objects and buildings, especially those of prestige nature, such as castles, palaces and cathedrals. There also tends to be an assumed hierarchy that places ‘high culture’, especially associated with the European Enlightenment at the apex of what must be valued.

Recent years have witnessed a good deal of criticism of UNESCO, and some concerted attempts to broaden the nature and remit of World Heritage status, to give more space to non-Eurocentric, and more intangible forms of heritage. Alongside this process, however, as Rodney Harrison (2012) has recently pointed out, UNESCO World Heritage Site status has become a powerful brand, which has arguably resulted in the displacement of families and commercial exploitation that is increasingly controlled by large businesses and the state. Furthermore, as John Giblin (forthcoming) has argued, there appear to be some inherent contradictions in the nature of ‘universal heritage’ as defined by the UNESCO brand – in particular, how the promotion of cultural diversity and heritage plurality fits into an ideal for shared heritage values and an obsession with universality.

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On the ground, however, while there is no mention of chocolate, waffles, chips with mayonnaise, and a plenitude of different craft beers in the official UNESCO documentation, it strikes me that most of the visitors to Brugge appear to have no problem in identifying some common traits and experiences in the heritage of this most valuable of World Heritage Sites. The Universality of World Heritage Sites, therefore, appears to end up as something that lies within the realms of a commodified and touristic experience, often to the exclusion of local people and the marginalised. Is there any ‘Universal’ heritage that we should celebrate at World Heritage Sites?

Two years ago, I visited Prague for a conference. Another key European city World Heritage Site – perhaps even more crowded and admired than Brugge – and “one of the most beautiful cities of Europe” according to the UNESCO website (http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/616). UNESCO implores the visitor to admire the castle, the palaces and the burger houses. There is no mention in any of the documents about the moment that I remember Prague for – the balcony speeches by Alexander Dubček and Václav Havel in 1989. When I visited Prague in 2012, I looked for the balcony. There were no UNESCO plaques or interpretation boards, but every local person whom I spoke to knew exactly where it was: a key site within the city that all residents were aware of and revered; where a seminal moment in the course of humanity’s existence on this planet took place …. An unmarked balcony above a large Marks and Spencer department store.

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Giblin, J. (forthcoming) ‘Post-conflict heritage: symbolic healing and cultural renewal’, International Journal of Heritage Studies, DOI: 10.1080/13527258.2013.772912.

Harrison (R. (2012) Heritage: Critical Approaches, (Routledge; London).

Photo of crowd scene in Prague, from Opportunist Magazine: http://opportunistmagazine.com/revolutionary-movements-the-velvet-revolution-name/