View of the Alhambra from a distance, 2011
Blog Post

Looking to the Future: Global Challenges to Cultural Heritage Preservation

View of the Alhambra from a distance, 2011

In this article from World Monuments Fund's 2021 Watch Magazine, WMF Vice President of Programs Jonathan Bell takes stock of our cumulative impact over these past five and a half decades and considers how best to enhance our efforts protecting and supporting the world’s most incredible cultural landscapes, architectural marvels, and places of shared significance.

After decades working to underscore, preserve, and rehabilitate key cultural heritage in countries around the world from Albania to Zimbabwe, our commitment to our planet’s monuments of cultural expression and human ingenuity is as strong as ever. We must, however, recognize that the global challenges facing the cultural heritage we endeavor to protect have changed and created a new landscape across which World Monuments Fund must operate and demonstrate relevance. The global pandemic that has plagued the world through most of 2020 has drastically changed the way we all work and play.

An empty San Marco Square in Venice, Italy.
An empty San Marco Square in Venice, Italy.

Since the international recognition of the novel coronavirus at the beginning of this year, we have witnessed unprecedented changes to the interactions between people and places of significance. With fewer visits to historic buildings and archaeological sites resulting in a dramatic loss of revenue for these places and their adjacent communities, the critical link between tourism and local economies has become painfully apparent. At the same time, significantly diminished travel and sparse crowds have led the way to cleaner air and waterways, welcomed frolicking wildlife into the world’s urban centers, and replenished the sense of place and idyllic beauty once enjoyed by local residents without the canopy of mass tourism.

Amid the throes of this pandemic, continued police violence toward people of color in the United States and the effective organizing of the Black Lives Matter movement sparked an unprecedented worldwide recognition of painful histories embodied in the statues and monuments erected in public squares and before town halls around the world. Spurred on by social media networks and covered by traditional media, the groundswell call to remove these monuments associated with historic injustice has helped showcase that celebrated heritage often represents privilege. Some stories are told in stone and bronze for the world to see, but many others lack recognition and remain unseen and unheard.

Rapa Nui National Park on Easter Island, Chile.
Rapa Nui National Park on Easter Island, Chile.

While our relationships with our cultural heritage evolved over the past year, changing rainfall patterns, intensifying storms, and rising temperatures continued to pose challenges. The pervasive nature of climate change means that no building, landscape, archaeological site, or adjacent community is spared the need to adapt and develop solutions to this invisible and unpredictable force. Tied to changing weather patterns is an increase in disasters from flooding, sustained high winds, unusual temperature extremes, and drought, all of which present distinct challenges for the places and communities where World Monuments Fund works.

As we consider the events of this past year and our priorities for the future, we recognize that World Monuments Fund must act as an agent of change. We remain committed to working with local partners and communities to protect the world’s most important places; this is our mission. Additionally, we must ensure our impact is not only measured in finished projects, but in the cumulative effect of outcomes on some of the world’s most pressing challenges. By curating our portfolio of projects such that multiple places can develop viable mitigation and adaptation strategies to similar challenges and threats, World Monuments Fund can employ a multiplier effect that has widespread and lasting impact.

To this end, we have identified three global challenges that will help shape our portfolio of projects, focus our resources, and coalesce our individual efforts into far-reaching solutions. By helping partners develop sound local and regional tourism strategies, we will work to mitigate the negative impacts and harness the economic and social potential of imbalanced tourism. In strengthening our commitment to work with unrecognized heritage places and integrate diverse perspectives, we will bolster the role of underrepresented heritage in global discussions and preservation decision-making. Through developing site-specific solutions to changing weather patterns, we will underscore the threat that climate change represents and contribute to adaptation strategies around the world.

Imbalanced Tourism

The adage that “tourism is a doubleedged sword” is well known to preservation professionals, since the field has long struggled to promote patterns of visitation that can sustainably support heritage places with adequate revenue and minimally impact the physical fabric or sense of place. As many of us have experienced, popular destinations are quickly overrun and the visitor experience significantly diminished by large crowds that leave their mark on the monuments, exasperate the local community, and support the local economy with mixed results. For some places, the promised economic development never comes, as visitors are few or inconsistent and revenue may be funneled to external entities or local powerbrokers through prepaid packages and foreign tour operators. At other locations, tourism leads to rampant growth that gentrifies neighborhoods, encourages new development, and forever changes the composition of local communities and the character of the heritage.

One strategy lies in developing and coordinating a wide array of visitation opportunities at a regional scale, as opposed to focusing on individual sites. Such an approach requires working closely with local and regional authorities, resident communities, and site managers to coordinate decisionmaking and tourism promotion. World Monuments Fund is developing this approach at 2020 World Monuments Watch sites Bennerley Viaduct (UK) and Canal Nacional (Mexico), working closely with local community-based organizations to enhance and highlight incredible infrastructure that shapes the landscape and provides a wide variety of recreation and tourism opportunities. In the Jewish Mahalla of Bukhara (Uzbekistan) and the historic neighborhood of Axerquía in Córdoba (Spain), a similar approach at the neighborhood levels will help strengthen interest in and visitation of traditional houses and streetscapes that epitomize the local vernacular architecture and culture.

Another tactic that has flourished throughout the pandemic is digital tourism—experiencing the world’s cultural treasures from the comfort of your own home through the marvel of technology. World Monuments Fund is integrating digital documentation and the development of virtual experiences to raise awareness about the places we work and share the wonder and rich history with a broad audience. We have already developed interactive online experiences for places like San Pedro Apóstol de Andahuaylillas (Peru), as well as an award-winning virtual visit to La Garma cave (Spain). This approach not only allows larger numbers of people to “visit” these incredible places, but contributes to their protection by preventing high-volume tourism that could be detrimental to their survival. Altogether, these approaches support the development of a more sustainable tourism that not only bolsters destinations and resident communities, but also provides for a richer and more fulfilling visitor experience. World Monuments Fund will continue to work closely with our partners and stakeholders on the ground to develop viable visitor management strategies that distribute tourism at a regional scale and help reach new audiences and supporters of cultural heritage. A commitment to balanced tourism enhances our efforts to support the places we work.

Underrepresented Heritage

As the debate over monuments this year has clearly demonstrated, power and privilege are often tied to celebrated cultural heritage. The architectural marvels of the past that regale throngs of visitors with stories of pageantry and conquest frequently embody rarely recounted stories of servitude, subjugation, and exclusion. These are the stories of the disempowered communities whose land was stolen, who labored as enslaved people, or who paid oppressive taxes to fund the opulence and splendor of many feted destinations. The artistic achievement is lauded, but the associated sacrifice is often ignored. Despite recent efforts at historic sites to interpret these stories and provide a richer narrative, diverse perspectives and stories of injustice are rarely integrated. Moreover, there are many places of significance that do not appear on any sanctioned list and lack broad support for protection because they have been sidelined for generations. These heritage places hold incredible importance for the communities that value them and often represent unique facets of human ingenuity, creativity, and artistry that are otherwise unrecognized. Their demise would be an irrevocable loss for humanity.

Encouraging inclusion of diverse perspectives and narratives is a crucial path forward to recognizing and protecting humanity’s rich heritage. The most iconic historic places comprise countless unheard stories and unrecognized contributions by disenfranchised communities. World Monuments Fund renews our commitment to the heritage of underrepresented groups exemplified through previous work in Essaouira (Morocco) and with Voices of Alabama (United States). In these projects, the narratives of minority communities were recorded and disseminated to raise awareness of the significant role their heritage plays in local identity. Current projects at the Woolworth Building in San Antonio (United States) and the Mam Rashan Shrine in Sinjar (Iraq) underscore the wealth and distinctiveness of so many underrepresented heritage sites and the threats they face, ranging from lack of recognition to targeted destruction associated with genocide.

World Monuments Fund will continue to engage a wide variety of stakeholders and capture divergent perspectives as an essential component of our work. Through close collaboration with local communities, we commit to highlighting the wonder of humanity’s rich accomplishments while denouncing past and current injustice. Ensuring that recognized cultural heritage embodies our diversity and portrays the complexities of history enhances its relevance for communities everywhere.

Climate Change

Our built heritage has always contended with the elements. Crucial components of local architecture, sense of place, and even cultural mores have developed over centuries in response to climate. In recent years, we have seen weather patterns change around the globe such that temperatures are shifting, sea levels are rising, and storms are intensifying. Communities and the places of importance that help nourish them must adapt to survive. Despite the concept of the monument as a beacon for the ages, extreme temperatures, violent winds, and excessive or inadequate rainfall represent new threats to their longevity. Year after year, increased flooding and wildfires damage and even destroy historic sites in countless nations around the world. The global nature of our changing climate underscores the need for pragmatic, replicable strategies to safeguard our cultural heritage.

A principal approach lies in the development of adaptation strategies that provide historic and cultural resources with the ability to withstand climatic changes: shed and drain larger volumes of water; withstand stronger winds; tolerate more extreme temperatures; and endure drought. In many cases, traditional natural resource management and building techniques already provide the answers and simply require renewal and strengthening. World Monuments Fund’s past projects in Kilwa (Tanzania) and current project at a 2020 Watch site in Vijayapura, Karnataka (India), integrate rehabilitation of traditional land and water management systems as a strategy to protect and revitalize the historic sites. In other cases, such as Wat Chaiwatthanaram (Thailand), modern engineering solutions and drainage plans have been implemented to protect this Buddhist temple complex from flood events exacerbated by a changing climate.

Cultural heritage is also emblematic of the urgency of climate change—iconic places are dramatically swallowed by the sea or destroyed by gale force winds. Places of importance can serve as rallying cries for global coordination and commitment to the climate crisis. With our projects at Blackpool Piers (United Kingdom) and the Coral Stone Mosques (Maldives), World Monuments Fund has aimed to highlight the plight of our heritage in the face of climate change and work closely with local stakeholders and international institutions to develop strategies to save them.

We have the duty to protect the world’s cultural heritage from the immediate effects of climate change and the opportunity to emphasize the need for action through work at these places. World Monuments Fund is committed to playing a key role in both arenas, working closely with local and international partners to find solutions to immediate needs and to contribute to long-term mitigation. Our approach is to learn from our work and disseminate the lessons of successful strategies and failed tactics alike to improve our global capacity to safeguard our places of greatest significance and the communities that turn to them for affirmation, solace, and the promise of cultural resilience.

To read more stories from the 2021 Watch Magazine, click here.