Preserving Cultural Heritage: A Worldwide Cooperative Effort


Our cultural and natural heritage is an irreplaceable source of life and inspiration. It is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations.

–UK National Commission for UNESCO

Since the conclusion of World War II, the effort to preserve important sites of national and cultural heritage has been a priority for hundreds of nations around the world. According to UNESCO, “Cultural heritage refers to monuments, groups of buildings and sites with historical, aesthetic, archaeological, scientific, ethnological or anthropological value. Natural heritage refers to outstanding physical, biological and geological formations, habitats of threatened species of animals and plants and areas with scientific, conservation or aesthetic value” (2008).

The preservation of cultural and national heritage becomes excessively important during times of turmoil or war, when many times important sites and objects are lost.  Recently, for instance, archives in Sarajevo were burned due to violent political protests in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  The documents lost included archives from the Ottoman empire, archives from the period of 1878-1918, as well as documents from the war crimes committee after World War II. The current war in Syria is also resulting in the damage and destruction of many cultural heritage sites.  The Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology is one Syrian group that has emerged from these events to document threats against important archaeological sites in the country and raise awareness about their preservation. The organization Heritage for Peace and the UK National Committee of the Blue Shield have released a “No Strike” list of twenty of the most important cultural heritage sites in Syria which they are asking any armed forced involved in conflict to avoid.  In addition to war, cultural heritage can also be threatened by natural disasters, such as the earthquake in the Phillipines in October, 2013, which not only resulted in the loss of many lives but also in the destruction of some significant heritage landmarks.  

The preservation of cultural heritage is not merely a suggestion, however.  It is an obligation that 126 countries of the world are bound to uphold through international agreements. The first international treaty protecting cultural and national heritage sites was the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict (1954). The Hague Convention requires states to protect cultural property during war.  This convention created an international symbol for identifying cultural property that is to be protected.  This symbol is the Blue Shield.  The Convention concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage was then adopted by UNESCO in 1972.  This international treaty was created to identify, protect, and preserve cultural and national heritage around the world.

There are currently 981 cultural heritage sites in 160 countries of the world.  The International Committee of the Blue Shield (founded 1996) has country-level sections all over the world that work to protect national and cultural heritage property.  The organization describes itself as “the cultural equivalent of the Red Cross.”  It does this by collecting and disseminating information about threats to cultural heritage, spreading awareness about cultural heritage, and facilitating the creation of localized cultural heritage organizations.

We have some great opportunities to study international cultural heritage right here at the University of Illinois.  CHAMP @ Illinois (Collaborative for Cultural Heritage Management and Policy at the University of Illinois) is a research center that focuses on worldwide cultural heritage and museum practices in the context of globalization.  Through Heritage Studies and Museum Studies graduate minors, as well as nearly thirty faculty members teaching in these areas, CHAMP maintains an active research program.  CHAMP also frequently hosts talks and discussions on different aspects of world cultural heritage.  This month, CHAMP is hosting a lecture series by Professor Mike Robinson, Director of the Ironbridge International Institute for Cultural Heritage at the University of Birmingham.  These talks will take place April 3rd, 7th, and 14th. A full schedule of events for CHAMP can be seen at their home page.

Many members of the University of Illinois community are involved in research on the preservation of cultural heritage.

Some selected publications by University of Illinois faculty:

Jenkins, Christine; Wayward, W Boyd. (2007). Introduction: Libraries in Times of War, Revolution and Social ChangeLibrary Trends 55 (3).

Moustafa, Laila Hussein. (2013). Disaster Management Planning in the Times  of War: the Case of the Middle East’s Libraries and Archives.  Conference Poster.

Silverman, Helaine. (2010). Cultural Heritage: Opportunities and Conundrums.  Policy Brief. Center for Global Studies.

Urban, Richard J.; Twidale, Michael B.; Adamczyk, Piotr D. (2010). Cultural Heritage Information Dashboards. Conference paper/Presentation.

Some additional important cultural heritage organizations:

International Council of Museums (ICOM)

The International Council on Archives (ICA) 

International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS)

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