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’?

Hygge to become UNESCO recognised as Intangible cultural heritage?

In a post from January 2017, I examined the Danish word hygge . I said at the time that such a subject matter seemed a little odd in a blog about ‘heritage’, but it seems that my suggestion that hygge be linked to heritage was fully justified, since Denmark is now submitting an application to UNESCO for hygge to be recognised as Intangible Cultural Heritage, and listed as UNESCO World Heritage.

In many ways, I see nothing wrong in this – it’s a nice story about how ‘being nice’ and ‘feeling cosy’ should be valued and recognised by UNESCO as something worthy to protect. On a very positive note, perhaps this should spur UNESCO and other bodies into recognising hygge as a ‘Universal Right’ of all human beings, alongside education, clean water and decent health care. But I can’t help feeling a little queasy about it – perhaps even a little Uhyggeligt – ‘uncozy’!

As I have said before, I worry that the untranslatability of hygge might be used to create boundaries, that perhaps hygge will be something that is ultimately available only to ‘Danes’ – that since the word is ‘untranslatable’, it is also unavailable to anyone but true Danes. In other words, just as with other forms of cultural heritage, hygge contains the possibility for it to be weaponised. Perhaps just as Facebook as turned ‘memory’ into a commodity to be marketised for private profit, then hygge can be a subtle form of exclusion, and be used as a social code to mark out otherness.

Reading the commentaries about the UNESCO application, there is a lot to be positive about: In the Daily Telegraph article, the invocation of intangible cultural heritage as a lived process is clear: “The importance of intangible cultural heritage is that you have to live it. While it’s something we inherit from our past, hygge is absolutely relevant today and will have real value long into our future.” Also quoting Meik Wiking of the ‘Happiness Research Institute’, the New York Post underlines the idea that cultural heritage can engage and be useful to the world, purposefully seeking a ‘better society’: “With increasing societal pressures and the growing importance of wellbeing, hygge’s emphasis on togetherness and equality can have real and tangible benefits not only to the Danish people but to anyone that practices this uniquely Danish social ritual”. With so much to be gloomy about in the world right now, then this seems to be a positive development. As Dennis Englund of VisitDenmark adds: “We also believe that the fundamental quality of life that hygge encompasses is more relevant right now than ever, where many see that quality as being under threat, with growing pressure on proper work-life balance, an increasing digital complexity of social relations and the pressure on everyone to be just right.”

I like the ambition that hygge is available to everyone and anyone, but why does it have to be ‘Danish’ – and just how ‘available’ is it to non-Danes?

In my earlier post, I pointed to instances where Danish people have argued that non-Danes cannot have hygge, and so perhaps the UNESCO listing will mean that the grip of ‘ownership’ of hygge is released somewhat, and that the idea of a necessarily Danish authority and arbitration be dropped? At first sight, however, I remain a little worried, especially when the non-Danish owner of the ‘Hello Hygge’ website defers authority: “I’m not Danish so I can’t comment with any real authority here, but as an enthusiastic bystander I will say that ‘hygge’ appears to be becoming synonymous with ‘things I like’ in the English-speaking world – and there’s nothing wrong with ‘things I like’, but to me, the English usage of the word doesn’t always capture what I feel is the true essence of the word”.

So, there it is, once again: hygge, ultimately as an ‘essence’ that is untranslatable and un-reachable for anyone but ‘Danes’, who have absolute authority on what counts as hygge. Even non-Danish people who write websites dedicated to hygge have no real authority.   That’s definitely Uhyggeligt to me.

Or, perhaps we can’t have it all: hygge should have a bit less hubris surrounding it – and make way for lagom (a supposedly untranslatable Swedish word conveying a sense of sufficiency-in-balance and simple moderation).


Stonehenge, Big Roads and Heritage Process

Plans were announced by the UK Government in January 2017 to spend £1.4billion on building a large tunnel so that the major A303 trunk road can be put underneath the Stonehenge landscape. According to the National Trust and Historic England, the continuing presence of the road spoils the setting of the site, and so the tunnel will ‘improve our understanding and enjoyment’ of Stonehenge World Heritage landscape. Dan Hicks, of the Pitt Rivers Museum and School of Archaeology in Oxford has written an excellent commentary on the episode in the online Conversation (http:/, entitled “Archaeologist: the A303 is a crucial part of Stonehenge’s setting”. Although the title of Dan’s piece gives away his basic point of view(!), I feel it is worth reflecting upon and developing a little further here, since it strikes me that the episode chimes with so many crucial elements of present day heritage management – and identity politics in the UK.


Bouncing off Jacquetta Hawkes’ phrase that “Every age has the Stonehenge it deserves – or desires”, Dan Hicks charts the conceit of seeking to ‘preserve’ Stonehenge as an ‘authentic ancient monument’ by tunneling a dual carriageway under it; the fabrication and management of the illusion of an unchanging Neolithic relic. Stonehenge has been built, re-built, viewed, ignored and/or engaged with for at least five millennia. Developing this idea of Stonehenge having an on-going biography – or life history – Dan Hicks likens the present attempt to conceal the ‘modernity’ of the big road to a revival of Georgian aesthetics, whereby landscapes are curated by the scraping away of present day ‘eyesores’, in order to allow cultured elites to stroll through an ‘authentic’ landscape of artful charade.

image-0065This line of thinking reminds me of the biography of nearby Avebury (within the same World Heritage Site). From the 1930s to the 1950s the wealthy amateur archaeologist and marmalade magnate, Alexander Keiller, oversaw the scraping away of much of the old village of Avebury, the wholesale remodeling of the landscape, and repositioning of the stones, in order to create an uncluttered ‘Neolithic’ landscape, fit for the nation – and fit to become, ultimately, a World Heritage Site. Medieval buildings were demolished and many stones were re-erected to create a fittingly ‘national’ monumental landscape.

Avebury and Stonehenge are thoroughly modern landscapes, reflecting the hopes, desires and dreams of the present day, and it would be a hypocritical confection to pretend otherwise. According to Hicks: “Today, it is Stonehenge’s modernity that is under threat from a narrow vision of the past” – and so we need to make space for the story of the A303, rather than airbrush it out of the picture. In his Conversation piece, however, Dan Hicks goes a little further than this, implying an important divergence from the situation at Avebury.

Alexander Keiller’s never-fully-realised plans at Avebury, certainly saw the remodeled monument as a carefully curated national landscape, but it was very much a ‘public space’ – albeit with lots of interpretation boards and signage to moderate and control pubic behavior. In many ways, the equivalent development at Stonehenge, akin to Keiller’s vision, was that of Cecil Chubb who, in the early 20th century bought it and presented it to the nation. The site was ‘cleaned up’, with several stones re-erected, to become a favourite picnic spot for motorists on the nearby A303. This was the Stonehenge that I first visited in the 1970s; thermos flask and cups of tea laid out on one of the stones. Cecil Chubb’s gifting of Stonehenge came with the demands that no other building ever be erected on/close to the site, and that the stones should be maintained as far as possible in their present condition – it all chimes with an ambition for the site to be understood as an unchanging monument set within the neatly cut grass sward of the specifically ‘English’ countryside. However, Chubb also stipulated that ‘the public shall have free access’, although Chubb did allow for a ‘reasonable sum, not exceeding one shilling’ to be charged, presumably to cover the costs of cutting all that grass.

The £15.50 entrance fee for visiting Stonehenge, together with the practice of sealing the actual stones off from the public, represents what Dan Hicks argues to be an increasing restriction of access at Stonehenge. This is no longer a ‘public space’. I get this point – that the momentary view of the stone through a car window, as you speed past on the A303, while not necessarily the aesthetic view that might be shown on a tasteful postcard is, nevertheless, a thoroughly democratic view. I haven’t actually ‘visited’ Stonehenge for 30 or more years, but I have ‘kept an eye on it’, during regular car journeys; I have maintained a direct relationship with the site without ever needing to pay an entrance fee.

On the one hand, these recent developments make you reflect on all the other public spaces that are being ‘privatised’; pedestrianized shopping centres that are now patrolled by private security firms, or World Heritage Sites such as St Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, set amid a parkland that (according to an ivy-covered plaque) was ‘presented to the citizens of Canterbury’ as recently as 1977, but now only accessible through payment of £5:80. On the other hand, however, is a story of how singular (and often overtly ‘national’) ‘heritage management practices’, have themselves sidelined or obliterated alternative heritage narratives. The singularly most striking example that I can think of for this, is the Meadows at Runnymede, next to the River Thames just west of London.

As the site of the signing of the Magna Carta, Runnymede has a central place in any heritage narrative of democratic freedom. Not surprisingly, perhaps, as the ‘Birthplace of Democracy’, Runnymede has become a ‘monumental landscape’; a setting within which several monuments and memorial features can be visited; several monuments to the actual signing of the Magna Carta, as well as monuments to John F Kennedy, and the Air Forces Memorial, dedicated to dead RAF service personnel. It is – still – a ‘public space’, to be visited freely. But in laying out the national monumental landscape in the 1930s, the National Trust actively extinguished a whole range of local commoners’ rights. At Stonehenge, it is the every-day and slightly banal or mundane heritage of catching a glimpse of the stones from a passing car, which is removed from the public orbit. At Runnymede, there is a deep sense of irony, that it is the public rights of the Commons, which were over-ridden by the need to set out a suitably monumental national landscape! The public can still visit (and, unlike at Stonehenge, there is no £15:50 fee), but the terms on which the visit takes place is now that of the nation. The mundane and ever-day relationship between people and the landscape – the ‘right’ to be present – has been extinguished, as a relationship is re-forged and mediated through an official discourse related to a distinctly national story.

stone-runnymede2Back at Stonehenge, I am reminded of something I wrote back in 2006 (a chapter entitled ‘Landscape as Heritage’, in RJP Kain’s England’s Landscape the South West, published by English Heritage), when pondering the question of which landscape best represents the ‘essential landscape’ of the South West, I came up with the A30 trunk road (which is, essentially, the continuation of the A303, which passes Stonehenge, further up-country). “If we try to be honest about the aspects of the present-day landscape that the people of the future will remember us for, then the A30 would be a very good example. Today, the road provides an axis and backbone to the region, and is a symbol of the region …. [memories of sitting in traffic jams, and glimpsing the countryside as you go] is a far more meaningful memory to preserve than the typical picture-postcard images … the road network (love it or hate it) is surely among the most enduring symbols of early 21st century life”. I remember that, at the time, some of the bigwigs at English Heritage were quite angry that I had suggested this trunk road as the key item of heritage in the South West, but Roger Kain, the editor, stuck by me. Just as Dan Hicks has said that the A303 is a crucial part of Stonehenge’s setting, then the A303/A30 provides a crucial way in to understanding ongoing heritage processes, and will be a central part of what will become the future past.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder: Modern iconoclasm and the meaning of heritage

It has taken me a good while to put together this blog post – since it has taken me a while to try and make sense of the ‘destruction’ of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Palmyra, in Syria, by the ‘So-Called-Islamic-State’ (IS) last August. Indeed, the fact that I am writing it now doesn’t mean that I have somehow found ‘sense’ in these events, only that I feel that I am getting to a point where I can make some connections that can place the actions into a meaningful cultural, political-economic and longer temporal context, which I hope has some useful purchase. The pause has also enabled me to have several very interesting conversations with students – MA Sustainable Heritage students in Aarhus, Denmark, and final year BA Geographers in Exeter – and the thoughts in this blog have very much benefitted from these stimulating discussions.


It is testament to the power of UNESCO branding that many front pages of newspapers and slots on prime time news were taken up by reporting on the ‘destruction’ of Palmyra, and particularly the Temple of Bel. ‘UNESCO’ has become a globally recognized brand and a valuable commodity for a heritage site to possess. According to the UNESCO Website for Palmyra ( “An oasis in the Syrian desert, north-east of Damascus, Palmyra contains the monumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centres of the ancient world. From the 1st to the 2nd century, the art and architecture of Palmyra, standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, married Graeco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences”.

In other words, ‘from’ the 1st/2nd century, whose value is founded on specific cross-cultural architectural elements, recognized through expert aesthetic judgements. It is a site that is in Syria, but valued for its cross-cultural (tansnational) associations, though very little mention is made of the site’s story outside of a block of time of a few hundred years, around 2000 years ago.

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? 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 temples. It is on this basis that the newspaper reports on Palmyra in late 2015 focused on the ‘destruction’ of heritage. But what was actually happening with regards to ‘heritage’? Is ‘Palmyra’ really being ‘destroyed’, and what are the consequences of this action? And, if we make room for recognizing the intangible, and the value of certain practices, then can the practice destroying the remains of already ‘ruined’ buildings (and a fairly new heritage centre) be considered as ‘intangible heritage’. After all, there is a very long tradition around the world of such iconoclastic destruction, as a meaningful cultural practice.

In the first place, why did the blowing up of a visitor centre, a few old statues and some dusty ruins merit more coverage – in terms of column inches and airtime – than the brutal murder of Khaled al-Asaad (aged 82) the Principal Keeper of Antiquities at Palmyra, or the execution of many other civilians and captured soldiers at the World Heritage Site?

Khaled al-asaad

Khaled Al-Asaad, executed by IS fighters

Without wishing to sound slightly shrill with moral outrage, the murder of this man, together with the daily (and largely unreported – beyond the generic) killing and maiming of individual civilians in Syria is far worse than the bull-dozing of a few old ruins. Certainly, we have seen too many newspaper front pages with terrifying images of death in recent years. But these make the front page images of Palmyra all the more strange, since almost every newspaper went with a version of showing the space where Palmyra used to be – presence, marked through absence. Indeed, many of the newspaper images required a ‘before’ and ‘after’ shot, so that the viewer could ‘see’ what they were (literally) not seeing; a photo of ‘nothing’, where the lack of anything is the point being made.

Palmyra relote sensing images

Before and After Photos of Palmyra


But what is Palmyra? The UNESCO description notes simply that it is a city and temple complex from the 1st/2nd Centuries AD – as though it is somehow ‘stuck in time’, which somehow does not exist in any other period.

If we take a look at the longer ‘biography’ of the site, we find that the ‘Temple of Bel’ (destroyed by IS in 2015) was also destroyed over 1700 years ago. It was actually only the ‘Temple of Bel’ for a few hundred years. It was ‘destroyed’ first in the 3rd Century AD; repaired as a fort, and then converted into a Christian Church during the Byzantine era. It was transformed again into a Mosque in the 7th century, and then a citadel/mosque in the 12th century. By the time of the Ottoman Empire, in the 16th century, Palmyra was just a small village within the ruins of the old ‘temple’, but it was used as a garrison and prison in the 19th century, before the French turned it into a ‘site of antiquity’ in the 1920s. By removing the local population (and transferring them to a newly built village nearby), it is the French who made this site a declared item of ‘heritage’, to be understood within the context of colonial power structures and western-European renditions of architectural categorization – and a site without people.

The ‘Temple of Bel’ has only been The Temple of Bel for about 200 of the last 2000 years; a ‘universal’ site of heritage that is now universally known as a ‘former World Heritage Site’ – an empty space; now more famous and well known in popular culture around the world than it ever was as a built edifice. This ‘destruction’ is just the latest phase of the site’s ongoing biography, and for most of this time the Temple has been in ruins. Like the Atlantis of legend, the site is now generally known through its destruction – more in the public mind than ever. Like Atlantis, the non-existence of the site conveys a sort-of lesson – it perhaps has agency and an affective capacity. In its absence, it is perhaps more ‘present’ than it ever was as a managed ruin.


In the absence of tangible buildings, perhaps the heritage of Palmyra can do more work, and carry more burden of meaning, than it ever could as a ‘well preserved ruin’ of a once-destroyed Temple complex?

For IS, it stands for ‘the West’, and so its destruction can potentially send a powerful message of anti-Western sentiment. For the West, the World Heritage Site stood as a representative of universal human spirit and ingenuity and its wonton destruction is heinous barbarism – only that it is perhaps a bit more difficult to be so angry about the destruction of a former colonial prison and a heritage visitor centre than it is about the ‘Temple of Bel’.

In some popular reports, the destruction is portrayed as being ‘unparalleled’, but of course it isn’t. Perhaps the most famous parallel in recent years is the Bamiyan Statues in Afghanistan, destroyed by the Taliban in 2001



Bamiyan Statues: before and after ‘destruction’, and as simulacrum, ‘better-than-the-original’ 3D laser image

Western commentators were very upset by the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan – but, of course, the West is not really an innocent party when it comes to ‘destroying’ heritage in a purposeful manner.

In the 20th century, the easiest parallels, perhaps, can be found in the so-called Baedeker Raids of the Second World War, in which the Germans bombed several ‘heritage cities’ in the UK, including Bath and Exeter in 1942 – in response to the RAF bombing the heritage city of Lubeck in northern Germany.


Lubeck in Flames

March 1942, Lubeck in flames (above); April 1942, Bath and Exeter bombed (below)


But the history of such iconoclastic activity is actually much longer and more ingrained than these iconic events from the practices associated with colonial violence to the obvious examples connected to the Reformation and Wars of Religion; of Reformers tearing down and destroying what they saw as the imagery and memorials of ‘idolaters’. Interestingly, in the case of some iconoclastic acts carried out in the 16th/17th centuries, the actual destruction has ended up being a valued component of ‘heritage’ – an important element of the life history of a site. In other words, making reference to iconoclastic actions becomes a powerful means of managing the past in reference to the present and future.

As my blog post from December 2014 notes, such activity can raise an interesting paradox:

“If an authentic medieval statue is damaged, perhaps with iconoclastic zeal, then what should be conserved?: Should such a badly eroded statue be left to its own devices (eventually to dissolve into nothing)?, be replaced with a ‘new’ – but similarly damaged – replica (thus ‘preserving’ a semblance of the iconoclast’s authentic ire)?, or be replaced by a replica that tries to copy the medieval original (assuming that the design is known)?”



Exeter Cathedral-statue

Preserving iconoclasm (Exeter Cathedral)

If referring to the ‘heinous nature’ of an act of iconoclasm has such power, then it is in the interests of those that are shocked by such apparent barbarity that we should ‘preserve the memory’ of the iconoclast; as warning and/or as memorial. While much of Lubeck has been carefully rebuilt – to erase the memory of the RAF’s ‘visit’ in March 1942 (and perhaps to gloss over the memory of Nazism) – there are also many examples where ruins are preserved ‘as ruins’ to act as meaningful memorial marker.


Charles Cross Church-plymouth2

Charles Cross Church ruin, Plymouth

When managing built heritage, remembering (and preserving?) iconoclasm is vital. In the case of the World Trade Center in New York, the absent building has become an iconic element of heritage through the process of its destruction. In other words, its resonant meaning as heritage relies on the narrative of its destruction; and so destruction precedes its meaning as heritage. The World Trade Center is now marked both by a very large building, and by a memorial space on the site of the old World Trade Center footprint. Entitled ‘Reflecting Absence’, it is a prompt from the past, which is managed in the present with an eye to the future.



‘Reflecting Absence’, World Trade Center, New York

Perhaps this is more like martyrdom, in which an act of destruction and death is required to produce something more potent. The site of a martyrdom might be marked by memorials and buildings (etc.); monuments to an act of destruction, the memory of which requires preservation to be powerful and meaningful. The death of a saint is often a crucial element for their memory to be powerful: ‘this is the site on which an event took place. Look on and be a witness to destruction’.

In many ways, the easy dualism between ‘tangible’ and ‘intangible’ heritage draws a false distinction; all heritage, ultimately, is intangible. With Palmyra, we are asked to look and witness a space of absence – a space of destruction. We are witnesses to the power of heritage, not as a tangible thing, but as an idea.



Reflections from COP21, Paris: Trying to improve the treatment of cultural heritage within the IPCC Assessment Report

Earlier this month, I attended the COP21 IPCC Climate Change Conference in Paris to speak at an ‘Official Side Event’, organised by the United States National Committee of the International Committee for Monuments and Sites (US-ICOMOS) – see In effect, I was part of a team speaking on behalf of the broader ‘heritage sector’ to try and make the case for cultural heritage to be taken more seriously within IPCC reports and documentation, and for ‘heritage issues’ – broadly conceived – to be considered within debates about climate change in general.

As my last couple of blogs tend to reveal, I have been thinking about these connections for some time – with my ideas fermenting along the lines of thinking about how climate change debates often get conducted in a language that speaks to issues of ‘heritage’, both in the sense of seemingly cherishing something from a supposedly stable past that we must preserve, and also in the guise of all that rhetorical talk of a responsibility to our children and grandchildren.

The parking-lot rows of official airliners that I saw in Paris CDG Airport, with royal and presidential crests on the side, were testament that many of the world’s leaders were in Paris for this global Summit. Expectations were high. While the ‘real’ negotiations were taking place at a conference centre in Le Bourget, however, numerous Official Side Events were taking place at a range of venues around the City.

Paris was noticeably trying to do its best to get behind the Summit: the Champs Elysées had lots of swings and fixed bicycles that could be used to produce electricity to show your support of ‘global togetherness’. The instructions said: “To mark the COP21 in Paris, TOGETHER, let’s generate 100% renewable energy to light up the Champs-Elysées”. I didn’t see one person pedalling or swinging in support for the entire length of the Boulevard!

Paris-empty electric bikes

One of several ‘pedal-stations’ along the Champs Elysées. All were empty.

The US-ICOMOS and UNESCO organisers of our Official Side Event were very pleased with the turnout. Several IPCC ‘Chapter leads’ and assorted other influential people were present, including Dr Youba Sokona, an IPCC Vice Chair. Speaking up for ‘cultural heritage’ were Anna Sidorenko of UNESCO, Keith Jones of the National Trust, Anika Molesworth of the World Sustainable Farms Initiative, and me – as the ‘academic voice’: quite a daunting task!


IMG_3073-DCH talking

With chandeliers and ornate decoration like this, it has to be Paris. [Picture credit: Cristina Banahan (US-ICOMOS)]

Essentially, what I said was that an understanding of cultural heritage is of crucial importance for debates and actions around climate change issues. Firstly, human engagement with climate change has a heritage that must be considered. This speaks to the heritage of human-climate relations, as a present set of ideas through which stories about ‘the past’ are used to convey certain meanings, anxieties, coping strategies, duties and desires for an imagined future. Secondly, an awareness of climate change is often channeled through notions of heritage; indeed, I would argue that climate change issues need heritage in order to gain critical purchase. And then I developed each of these two themes in turn:

In terms of the heritage of human-climate relations, I see this through three connected lenses:

First, from practices and experiences of Meso-American farmers coping with environmental crises, to previous European struggles to acclimatise during the Little Ice Age, there is a wealth of human-climate heritage that can provide lessons for today. The idea that the study of past environmental change has many lessons for understanding contemporary and future climate changes is at the heart of Palaeo-environmental Science, but it always strikes me that the faith shown in this scientific approach is never very well matched by a deeper consideration of what might be learned from human experiences, mitigation and adaptation strategies – the sort of stuff that is often channeled through the realm of ‘Traditional’ or ‘Indigenous Knowledge Systems’.

Another facet of this heritage of human-climate relations can be witnessed through a site such as the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site in Dorset and East Devon, which has been a feature in several of my previous blogs. The duty to protect a World Heritage Site such as the Jurassic Coast has required an active effort to preserve ‘change’; dynamic processes of erosion and coastal evolution are required to maintain the integrity of the Jurassic Coast. On the one hand, this recognizes that ‘stability’ is only relevant within limits, is often un-achievable, and may not even be desirable. On the other hand, the examination of the Jurassic Coast opens up timescales (hundreds of thousands, or even millions of years) that are rarely considered within the ‘human dimensions’ of in climate change debates, but which are crucial to the cultural understanding of deep time, and the discovery and meaning of ‘evolution’. Although the Jurassic Coast is listed as a ‘natural’ World Heritage Site, the discovery and understanding of conceptions of deep time, and of evolution that the site has prompted place it centrally within the cultural realm – and leaves the supposed separation of ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ as clearly redundant.

The third element of the heritage of human-climate relations that I talked about is encapsulated by the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ironbridge Gorge (UK), which celebrates the human capacity to effect climate. (Another regular blog subject). As the ‘Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution’, Ironbridge Gorge is a key site in the unfolding ‘heritage of the modern world system’. Such sites prompt us to turn our attention to the future, and to think through what the ‘future past’ might behold. 300 years ago, no-one would have thought that an industrial site such as Ironbridge might turn into ‘heritage’; so what might be valued as ‘heritage’ in 300 years time? In 30,000 years time, famous WHSs such as Stonehenge or Venice will (probably) be dust – but we will certainly be leaving behind material and immaterial remains for generations in the ‘deep future’ to content with. For instance, drawing on the fascinating work of Holtorf and Höbjerg (, how will people in the distant future engage with elements of the present world system – such as radioactive waste – that we will be passing on to them? After all, the presence of radioactive waste necessarily impels us to consider – and hopefully, take some responsibility – for the cultural heritage of today for many millennia into the future.

Turning to the second key connection between heritage and climate change, I would argue that the debate and purposeful consideration of climate change that is encapsulated by the whole COP21 Summit desperately needs ‘heritage’ in order to make any necessary changes.

Climate change agendas require heritage in order to generate an ‘affective capacity’; one that opens out a more socially resonant and politically aware field of debate. This is both through the use of ‘famous sites’ and buildings, and also through the experience and meaning of ordinary people going about their lives: the ‘universal heritage of the everyday’. All climate change policies and attitudes operate through an implicit framework, of a perceived impression of the past, shaping a contemporary agenda geared towards sustaining a particular scenario for future generations. In other words, all human relationships with climate change, therefore, operate through a lens of heritage.

To paraphrase Holtorf and Höbjerg, there seems to be a human condition that we would like to be ‘good ancestors’ for the people of tomorrow. But how can this happen?

In my view, we should try and be optimistic and support an idea of ‘progressive’ or ‘purposeful’ heritage: in which ideas of heritage can engage as well as be engaged with. We need a more creative engagement with the ‘future past’, and to this end, maybe we should be asking a slightly different question: (Drawing on work by Holtorf and Höbjerg), rather than considering how we can ‘protect’ (physical and famous) ‘heritage sites’, from climate change processes, we should be asking what sort of future do we want to see, and how might cultural heritage play a strategic role in achieving this?

Revisiting World Heritage in Canterbury – and taking notice of half-hidden signposts.

As part of the Past-Place project, I visited Canterbury during the summer, paying a visit to St Augustine’s Abbey, which (along with Canterbury Cathedral and St Martin’s Church) is listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site:

Although tacitly espousing ‘universal’ heritage values, as with many UNESCO sites, the heritage narrative of Canterbury’s heritage is mostly conveyed through reference to specific events – time-tagged to the arrival of St Augustine in AD597, and the murder of Thomas Becket in AD1170 – and with a story that is contained within distinctly ‘national’ boundaries, with the ‘oldest church in England’. As critics such as Rodney Harrison and Marco D’Eramo have noted in recent years, UNESCO ‘World Heritage’ status has become a valuable ‘brand’, suggestive of a process of commodification that stretches between economic, cultural and political value. St Augustine’s Abbey is now managed by English Heritage. The entrance fee (£5.20 for an adult) seemed quite steep, but I guess that (in common with the National Trust), the fairly high one-off fee provides a strong encouragement to join the organisation at a fairly reasonable price, and thereby get ‘free’ entrance to many hundreds of properties across the country. This is a prompt to join a specifically ‘national’ club, whose sense of comradeship can perhaps be enhanced by the thought that the people who have to pay full fees for each property are mostly international tourists and those who are, for one reason or another, not prepared to be full members of the nation/club.

As I entered the site, however, I noticed an old green sign, mounted on the wall, which seemed to convey a different heritage narrative: “This garden was presented to the city of Canterbury in 1977 by the Trustees St Augustine’s Precincts Recovery Fund…. The fund was raised by public subscription with the purpose of making more beautiful the surroundings to the abbey and providing a garden for the enjoyment of citizens and visitors to the city”. Almost covered with overgrown ivy – this promised a free and open public space for the enjoyment of all. Surely something that any notion of ‘universal heritage value’ ought to be signed up to support, one would think!?


I paid my £5.20 and entered the sunny green parkland to find a controlled and curated space; a directed walk, with specified stopping points, punctuated by interpretation boards. People generally kept to the official path. This is a heritage FOR the people, but not necessarily OF the people. It is public education in a national story – but not really what was promised on the partially-hidden green signpost outside.


Drawing on the work of Patrick Wright, this seems to be a UNESCO-branded heritage-landscape that is ‘already achieved’ – it has a supposedly timeless historical identity, which demands only appropriate reverence and protection in the present. Frozen – cleared – cleaned – packaged. Rather than a celebration of ‘Canterbury’, or of the multiplicity of entangled heritage within the city, this seems to be a site that is bounded off from the city. While I feel that some commentators of the UNESCO process have been fairly over-wrought and shrill in their criticism of the ‘brand’, perhaps we can take more heed of the green noticeboard, half-covered with ivy. Rather than something that is ‘already achieved’, we need more open spaces for heritage to be produced by a heterogeneous society that makes its own history as it moves forward: a for the enjoyment of citizens and visitors alike.