‘This blessed plot, this earth:’ The UNESCO World Heritage Register

Survived Week 2! Turns out life isn’t so bad when you’ve not got a cold – this whole crazy commuting thing might turn out alright after all!

After our Week 1 crash course on history and theory, we have finally gotten to the fun bits: actually getting our hands dirty with the real work of conservation. My first attempt to survey the dimensions of a room using a ruler, a compass, and a technique called “triangulation” was pretty comical, but we’ll leave aside tales of me on my hands and knees crawling under antique furniture and poking my nose into really really dirty corners of staircases to examine their construction for another post, when I have a better sense of what I’m actually doing.

This week was also our first taster of elective courses, and mine – World Heritage – is totally awesome. By now pretty much everyone has heard of the UNESCO World Heritage sites – if you’ve ever seen the Statue of Liberty, the Great Wall of China, Notre Dame de Paris, Westminster Abbey, visited Yosemite or Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, or set foot in the city of Edinburgh, congratulations! You’ve experienced a monument of “outstanding universal value” to the entire race of mankind. Really the list is quite extensive – now over a thousand entries – and growing every year. Here’s a version from the World Heritage Centre’s own website, grouped by country: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/

But the rationale behind the list might be surprising. Okay, the sights I listed above – you might think the Statue of Liberty, how *yawn* very American (even though it’s French) – seem like an obvious “who’s who” of tourist destinations, almost to the point of being trite. But really the list (which you should totally spend a couple hours poking about and getting lost in), is a lot more complex in its composition. Even though lots of people turn it into a kind of to-do list, the “attraction” of the site, or the ability to take a selfie in front of it, takes a backburner to the significance of the site, which might not be that instagrammable, or even suitable to visitors. If the list were all just castles, cathedrals, and national parks, it would hardly be a comprehensive representation of globally valuable heritage. No, the scope is so much broader, and encompasses, for instance, sites that illustrate progress in human development. Yes, the Golden Gate Bridge is very impressive, but think of the power of a site that tells a story not just about one nation at one time in history, but actually links in with our evolution as a species. For example this site near Mount Carmel in Israel, contains an unbroken record of human habitation, stretching back over 500,000 years, leaving archaeological remains that actually trace our development from pre-human species, to hunter-gatherers, to settled cultivators of the land. But pictures won’t tell you that, and millions of tourist feet tramping over the site would only damage it. (This is one of the unfortunate consequences of the list. Inclusion on the list does not come with funding for maintenance, but it does usually come with hordes of tourists who use UNESCO as a sort of hit list)

Apart from including sites important to humanity, UNESCO also tries to include a diversity of types of sites, that can be representative or typical of some particular aspect of nature or culture. This includes sites of colonization or settlement, such as L’Anse aux Meadows, the site of pre-Colombian Viking settlement in Canada, as well as testaments to human technological and industrial achievements, such as the Wieliczka Salt Mines outside Kraków, Poland.

Natural sites are fair game as well, and are selected for inscription based on their extreme aesthetic beauty or remarkability, for their perfect illustration of geologic phenomena, or by representing phases of the earth’s formation. The Grand Canyon seems a no-brainer judging by its listing description as “the most spectacular gorge in the world.” The Galápagos Islands were the very first site to be listed, based on their clear evidence of the volcanic processes that formed them, and on their status as a “living museum” of evolution.

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More recently, the focus has shifted to sites that span both the human and the natural worlds, under a category called “cultural landscapes,” that illustrate ways in which spectacular natural formations have interacted with outstanding human settlement or achievement. This encompasses sites such as Thingvellir National Park in Iceland, where the medieval Norse settlers used the dramatic rift between the North American and European tectonic plates as a titanic ceremonial stage for their sophisticated and participatory system of law.

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The spectacular and dramatic formations of South Africa’s Drakensberg Mountains are littered with prehistoric human settlements and contain the largest concentration of cave paintings south of the Sahara. And the Tokay Wine Region in Hungary is remarkable for its centuries-old tradition of a very specific, highly regulated viticulture, making use of the landscape and traditional methods to make [really really delicious] wine. In an otherwise unremarkable region of Sweden, one large hillside is littered with the remains of an ancient people, who carved tens of thousands of images into the rocks of the landscape, over a period of several thousand years. The Tanum Rock Carvings depict an amazing variety of very human images, such as two lovers embracing, or a woman mourning a man, and they interact with other archaeological features in these hills, such as enormous chambered cairn tombs.

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Here are the 12 sites that comprised the very first list published in 1973, and from which the present list has grown: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/06/13/travel/unesco-first-12-world-heritage-sites/

Check it out, and prepare to be surprised – given what we think of as the world’s great tourist sites, the ones that made the list of the dozen most important sites in the world as of 1973 are probably not what you’re expecting… 🙂

The Beauty and the Beast – Conservation Contrasts at Edinburgh University

If you’ve known me recently, it’ll come as no surprise that I’ve recently begun an MSc in Architectural Conservation at the University of Edinburgh. I mean, historic buildings, Scotland, and my continuing reluctance to let go of the University lifestyle – it ticks all my boxes! It’s been pretty grueling commuting in from Glasgow every day, but we’re all still here at the end of week one, so so far so good!

I’ve spent the past year and a half totally immersed in the history and theory of conservation for my last thesis, so in some ways I’m still just doing what I’ve always been doing: reading articles and books about conservation, and going to castles and historic sites not only to revel in their beauty and atmosphere, but to silently make snarky judgments about their conservation decisions and historic interpretation. This master’s course is going to take me way beyond what I’m able to master myself, and teach me all the things I wish I knew about how buildings work, how to read their layers, and about the actual physical work of preserving them.

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The crew in front of Stirling Castle

But the single biggest change is that now finally I’m not alone. I’m not going to lie, spending two years writing a massive thesis with no classes to attend, and nobody in the department working on anything even remotely related, was actually a bit of a lonely process. My world was rocking: I’d discovered a whole discipline that seemed to synthesize all my interests, I was engaging with philosophical debates, applying them to what I saw at castles and historic sites, and trying to draw meaningful conclusions out of all of it – but there wasn’t really anyone around to share it with, bounce ideas off, help refine my thinking, etc. But now, besides the actual faculty of the Edinburgh department, there are twenty other people all doing the same thing, with roughly the same goals: to learn and understand as much about the field of conservation as possible within these nine months. Let the geeking-out commence! 😀

What’s more, I’m not the only one in the class sharing my experiences with the internet! Taylor Dickinson has a blog, which you should definitely check out, particularly as she’s done an impressive recounting of the details of our trips to Stirling Castle and to Newhailes House. She also has lots of great photos that show the details of the two sites – I’m terrible for forgetting to take pictures!

The first week has been spent getting acquainted with the history and theory of conservation, how it began, developed, and where it stands today. The gist of it is that conservation efforts as we recognize them really developed in the Renaissance as part of the nascent understanding of history as a thing separate from the present. The rediscovery of ruins like the Roman Forum and classical sculptures like Laocoon not only inspired artists, as we were all taught in high school, but also forced questions of how to care for these historical relics that were suddenly being valued, rather than used as quarries for new building material, as the Coliseum had been for over 1,000 years. As the Renaissance gave way to the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries, and finally to industrialization in the 19th century, the modern idea about history being a thing different and separate from the modern day solidified, as did appreciation for the specialness of historic places as places that evoke and hold evidence of the past. But opinions differed about how to care for them, with some championing lavish restorations that often played fast-and-loose with historical accuracy, and others preferring to leave things more or less in their current state, just keeping them from deteriorating further. Finally, after massive destruction during WWI and II, a trend began for international agreements ratified by many nations, in effect agreeing upon a “global” ideal standard for conservation. Today restoration is generally unacceptable according to the standards of the charters, and the preferred method is a conservative approach of small-scale maintenance and repair. In reality though, conservation policies run the entire gamut from restoration to preservation and everything in between.

As a kind of taster for the first week, Glendinning (our programme supervisor) arranged for us to see two cases in Scotland that exemplify the two extremes of conservation policy: Stirling Castle, and Newhailes House.

Stirling Castle used to be a spectacular Renaissance palace complex built by James IV and V, but in the 17th century the monarchy departed and the military moved in, and all the elegant buildings were converted into barracks, storerooms, and other more utilitarian defensive structures. Since the military vacated in 1964 and the castle came into state care, the later alterations to the major buildings were stripped away, and the buildings restored to their 16th century appearances. Now Stirling has a bright, lavishly decorated great hall, chapel, and palace, populated by costumed interpreters bringing the spaces to life and engaging with the millions of tourists that Stirling attracts annually.


Not pictured: 50 visitors all trying to squeeze into the same room.

Now Newhailes House, a 17th/18th century suburban mansion outside Edinburgh, you’ve probably never heard of. Although begun in the 17th century, the greatest building phase dates from the early 18th century, when the Dalrymples, new owners, extended it and refurnished it in the latest Rococo fashion. Part of what makes the house unique is that, since the Dalrymples bought it and began redoing it in 1709, the family continuously inhabited it and changed almost nothing, until the final owner gave it up to the National Trust for Scotland in 1997. Now for a house that’s over 300 years old, it looks pretty good. But as far as something that’s been continually lived in and hardly updated, by the measure of other historic properties it looks pretty shabby. The furnishings are a bit threadbare, the external render is sloughing off in sections, and the interior wallpapers and paint are in rather poor condition. Rather than renewing and refreshing everything, the NTS has kept it almost precisely as they found it, preserving all the shabbiness, even the watermark from an old leak in the ceiling, just stabilizing everything – to the tune of 4.5 million pounds – to keep it from deteriorating further. In contrast to Stirling, where visitors stampede through the palace at will and shuffle for a place to stand, Newhailes is only viewable by small-group guided tours, in which a volunteer guide will carefully explain the complex, and controversial, conservation policy.


I suppose this is what they have in mind when they say “gently mouldering…”