The UNESCO World Heritage Program and its History, Politics, and Future with Lynn Meskell

ALL OVER THE PLACE PODCAST 011


In this episode, I speak with Professor Lynn Meskell about the history, politics, and future of the UNESCO World Heritage Program. We also talk about her new book, A Future in Ruins: UNESCO, World Heritage, and the Dream of Peace (Oxford 2018).

Dr. Meskell is Professor Archaeology at Stanford University. She has a long list of accolades and research experience in the field of archaeology. He has received honorary doctorates and is widely published.

Her book, while written for an academic audience, is insightful and should be read by any self-proclaimed enthusiast of UNESCO World Heritage sites and history lovers alike. It is based on deep archival research and uses examples of actual UNESCO campaigns as anecdotes to illustrate her arguments.


Links from the Show

More about Dr. Lynn Meskell


Transcript (Click to Expand)

Jeremy Bassetti
This is Jeremy Bassetti. And you’re listening to All Over The Place, a podcast on travel, culture, and the creative life. Today’s episode brings us to Stanford, California, where I speak with Professor Lynn Meskell about the history, politics and feature of the UNESCO World Heritage program. Dr. Meskell is Professor of Archaeology at Stanford University, and has a long list of accolades, including being the recipient of an honorary doctorate at the American University in Rome.

Jeremy Bassetti
But first, a little bit of housekeeping.

Jeremy Bassetti
Okay, so I’m back and rested after having taken 20, twenty-year-olds to Italy for a few weeks. Needless to say, I’m excited to get back in the studio recording more conversations. So keep your eyes open for new episodes that will be arriving in your podcasting app. The podcast has reached a milestone of sorts. Our 10 episodes so far have been downloaded and listened to by hundreds of listeners from around the world. Thank you very much. But if you find the show interesting, you can help spread the word by leaving a positive review on iTunes and your Apple Podcasting app or in whatever podcasting app you use. Reviews are really helpful in getting more ears and eyes on the program. As a way to say thanks, I have a handful of All Over The Place Podcast stickers that I would like to send you completely free of charge, including shipping, to wherever you are in the world. I don’t have very many to send though, so, first come first serve. Visit allovertheplacepodcast.com/stickers to sign up. And speaking of which, the All Over the Place Podcast website has undergone slight redesign. If this type of thing interests you. Feel free to go check that out. And while you’re there, feel free to leave a comment on one of your favorite conversations.

Jeremy Bassetti
Well, that’s about it this week. So now here is Professor Lynn Meskell.

Jeremy Bassetti
Today I’m talking with Professor Lynn Meskell about her new book, “A Future in Ruins, UNESCO World Heritage, and the Dream of Peace.” So great account of the history and workings of UNESCO. And although it’s an academic book published by Oxford, those interested in this subject, I think will find it accessible and definitely interesting. So Professor Meskell, welcome to the show.

Lynn Meskell
Thank you, Jeremy. I really appreciate it.

Jeremy Bassetti
If you don’t mind, I think what I’d like to do is talk a little bit about your background. And then we can talk about the book and the discussion of the development of UNESCO, and its history, and the complications. And then maybe we can spend a few moments talking about your personal thoughts on UNESCO and maybe some of the complications with overtourism and things like that, if that’s okay.

Lynn Meskell
Sure. Okay.

Jeremy Bassetti
Well, let’s start. I guess, can you–How would you describe yourself in your career up to this point, like, who are you? What do you do? All of that.

Lynn Meskell
So first of all, you should know that I’m Australian. And I studied in Australia, and then did my PhD in archaeology at Cambridge, on Egyptian archaeology, so I was familiar with field archaeology in the Middle East. I then went to Oxford, and then to Columbia to teach and, and now at Stanford. And I’m, I’m broadly trained as an archaeologist–I’ve worked in the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and in Australia in the Pacific. And I also did some ethnographic work, I sort of changed a little halfway through my career to do ethnographic work in South Africa, particularly around natural and cultural heritage. And so being trained in England, you trained as an archaeologist. But in the US, archaeology is housed within an anthropology program, so when I got to Columbia, I started to work across disciplines. So the work that you will see reflected in the book is really very archaeological take done through ethnographic methods. So, a lot of interviewing and participant observation, as well as archival work. So it’s very interdisciplinary. And I am, I think most people would say, rather unusual archaeologist having worked in so many parts of the world, I have a new project in India at the moment. So I’m very much driven by ideas and politics–the social life rather than certainly being object focused. Although I have done a lot of work to work for 14 years in Turkey on a project. So I’m a little unorthodox, you might say.

Jeremy Bassetti
I think that’s part of the the draw of the book– that it’s interdisciplinary nature. You talk about, as you said, politics a little bit about the history, which I just found fascinating and didn’t know about. You also dive into kind of social, contemporary issues that affect tourism. And so it’s kind of wide reaching, and It was surprising– I thought it would be more focused on the archaeology, but pleasantly surprised that it was so broad. So talking about this book. Now, how would you? We’ll go into the weeds here in a moment. But how would you, kind of, describe the overall argument or thesis of the book?

Lynn Meskell
Well, it is a history of the world heritage program and how it developed at UNESCO. The 1972 convention, is the sort of flagship, and I was drawn to this project after being on sabbatical in Oxford, talking to a colleague, and I thought working on UNESCO as an archaeologist is so many sites on the World Heritage List–that very famous list that every country wants to get on to–are archaeological site. And I said to a colleague, you know, that would be a great dissertation for somebody. And his response was: “Well, yes, because archaeology is so central to that list. And yet archaeologists know nothing about the workings and really have very little contact with UNESCO.” So it’s publicly a very high profile place for archaeology in the world. You know, if you think of Angkor Wat, for example, or, you know, there’s many–Stonehenge–there are many, many sites… over thousands. But archaeologists themselves are no longer really interested. And there’s a huge industry and critiquing UNESCO, but without very little knowledge of the background or workings of the organization. And I wanted to set that right. It’s too big for dissertation in some way. And it took me eight years, I guess. And it is fascinating and you can’t just do it as an archaeologist–you have to be someone who’s interested in history, and ethnography, and politics, because these sites are not divorced from contemporary settings. Of course, they’re not locked in the past. They’re, they’re caught up with all sorts of war and conflict, and tension, border tension, economic imperative. You know, it’s just not possible to look at aside, describe it anymore. We are and also archaeologists are enmeshed in those politics. And it’s not just in the Middle East, it is everywhere.

Jeremy Bassetti
Yeah, that was the surprising part of the book–is how much you know, getting on that list is embroiled in politics and financial disputes and back dealings. We’ll get into that a little bit. But yeah, that was really kind of eye opening in many, in many ways.

Lynn Meskell
As it was, for me, I’m supposed to attend to the meeting on the World Heritage Committee that happened to be in Paris, I was there in Paris doing another book. And I was very starry-eyed to go into something that was a United Nations organization to sit in the observer row. And, and watch these countries, you know, debating issues and trying to have their sights inscribed, talking about conservation. And I remember really getting very emotional when I think it was the Burkina Faso, but an African nation that often and took the floor and spoke and I thought, you know, this really is the dream of the United Nation unfolding in front of me. But then, by day three, I had realized that, you know, what a country like that said, and who they supported, and who they might have challenged, would then affect things like trade partnerships, their economic subsidies might be affected–I heard all sorts of things about veiled threats and various threat, aid being caught, Visas being denied. You know, it wasn’t. It wasn’t, of course, this wonderful gathering of nation.

Jeremy Bassetti
Political and bureaucratic, it sounds like on many levels. So you wrote in the preface of the book, and I’m going to quote your book here, you wrote that, “If we were to understand world heritage, we have to acknowledge the array of institutional and international actors that ostensibly, ‘make heritage.'” And so we get before we get into the complications of international bureaucracy and politicking. Can you explain how an agency like UNESCO could possibly “make heritage” instead of something like ack– simply acknowledging heritage?

Lynn Meskell
Sure, well. If you think about it, just generally, not everything that happened in history becomes heritage. You know, it is a very selective process. So the world is full of material remnants of the past. And we, we don’t save everything. We can’t save everything. We value sites and places differently, different monuments. Something is deemed, you know, a National Monument, other things are overlooked, denied, bulldozed, and constructed over. That happens, that happens everywhere. And it’s a very subjective process. I think we think school, I think, particularly in the west to think of certain monuments as sort of “undeniable heritage” that we should care about them. But then other things can be equally old, can be deemed worthless, they might be part of history, but they’re not going to be conserved, preserved, nominated to lists and so on. So you know, one country can bulldoze a temple to make way for something else. Another another can enshrine that on the World Heritage List. So it’s up to state organizations, bureaucracies, local actors can push for things. And then you know, you get right to the top to the supra national, to organizations like UNESCO, they deem something worthy of “heritage.” And there have been huge controversy. I remember a couple of years ago, when industrial site in France, was inscribed on the World Heritage List, and it was literally a slagheap, a mound, a sort of detritus of mining. And and there was the international outrage in the media that “How could this pyramid be compared to the Great Pyramids of Giza, also on the World Heritage List?” So that’s an example of when nations strategically you position sites to deem them a particular heritage of the nation and patrimony of the nation rather than seeing them as perhaps, you know, remnants of a past industrial age that we need to clean up and remove.

Jeremy Bassetti
Can you give us the shorthand on how a site can get on the list? And, by the way, is that the terminology for getting on the list, is to be “inscribed?” Is that correct?

Lynn Meskell
That’s right. That’s right. Yes.

Jeremy Bassetti
How does a site become it inscribed? Is there like a short version of the answer?

Lynn Meskell
[Laughs] It is a long process. And it has become a very costly process. If I can say in the early days, when sites like the pyramids or the Acropolis were nominated, and then inscribed- it is on one piece of paper, and somebody will write will “of course, this should be on the list, its a masterpiece.” Nowadays, the dossier though they called nomination dossiers, there are thousands of pages long, and take thousands– you know, you know, I’ve heard over a million dollars to prepare–consultants involved and so on. But the short answer, I hope, is that countries have to prepare a site nomination dossier for the tentative list first. And they get feedback and so on. But it has to be a nationally recognized, protected site to begin with. It’s on that tentative list, they can work with UNESCO and get advice. They’re also with their advisory bodies. And they then have to decide which sites on that list to go forward now, because there are so many sites, and UNESCO is under severe a financial pressure since the US withdrawal, financial withdrawal. They can only do I think one cultural one natural site a year, which has great consternation, but they put those sites forward– the dossier–then UNESCO organizes site visits assessments, there are desk assessments, you know, it’s a long process. And there’s a lot of back and forth. There are factual errors that need to be corrected. And then if it all goes forward, if it’s been a complete file, that site will be discussed at the annual World Heritage meetings. And a committee of 21 state parties decide, debate, it’s very volatile sometimes. And there’s a lot of lobbying, as we could talk about later. And then a decision is made whether to inscribe it, not to inscribe it–which is, you know, which is very, very debatable–, or other measures which to refer it back, that it needs more work, and so on. And that’s… these are long and costly processes, as you can imagine. That’s why we have European nations and wealthy nation dominating that list. While, you know, countries from the developing world, for example, just cannot afford to be involved in that long and arduous and expensive process.

Jeremy Bassetti
So is it is it all about money? I mean, is that is that why, kind of, the Atlantic world, North America and Europe have some 45? 47? Nearly 50% of all sites? Is that purely financial?

Lynn Meskell
No, it’s not purely financial. It’s also Eurocentric centric bias that we need, oh, you know, more and more, you know, cathedrals and palaces. And, you know, that’s what monuments on the list. It’s also because of the expertise by Western conservation experts that both prepare and evaluate the dossiers. It is about the financial resources, it’s about political will. It’s about how many members of your party that you can send to the meetings to lobby for you. It’s fulfilling the criteria that will Western oriented to begin with. There’s many, many reasons for that dominance. And they’re not all admirable.—And it continues, you know, there was a major investigation into this, and an attempt to address the global imbalance in 1994, called the Global Strategy, which tried to balance out this over representation of–on the European side. I mean, it’s like, you know, of course, we all want to visit as tourists and that’s part of it. But that strategy has failed. You know, and, and all the research that my colleagues and I’ve done has shown, as well as other scholars, has shown that that has really failed. And you look at the proposed list this year, and, its again, European countries are just continue to nominate–nobody, nobody is holding back somewhat to try and ameliorate that bias, you might say. It is very much self interest.

Jeremy Bassetti
So, to what extent is this what’s happening now, I guess, part of the legacy of UNESCO in general? I mean, it’s its founding mission, its founding idea? Can you can you talk a little bit about how UNESCO formed and what context it formed in? How it, I guess, became what it is now?

Lynn Meskell
Right. So, yes, so to understand where we are now, it is imperative, particularly in terms of that Eurocentric bias I just mentioned to remember that this is an initiative of the post war, the immediate post war, European world. Of course there was the League of Nations, before UNESCO, somewhat similar that had cultural and educational aims. That, you know, whilst it wasn’t simply the colonial nations running it, they were very much in charge. And that certainly carried through to UNESCO. It is not surprising that UNESCO is based in in Paris. It’s first Director General was was British. But, you know, it started in late 1945, when was only 44 nations really came together under the the aegis of the United Nations to form UNESCO. And it was really about education and science, both the the culture, the “C” in UNESCO was added later. And there was a meeting of the educational ministers in London, before the before the end of the war, to talk about how to rebuild these nations using education. And that was, I think, instrumental as the sort of platform to which UNESCO referred, that it should be educational, to reform the mind so that we don’t have the same sorts of global conflict in the future. So it’s very utopian. It was very much based on education. And then, you know, as I said, culture came next. But it was the victors, you know, the imminent victims of the war, that were really at the helm of the organization. And, you know, there are historians like Mark Mansell, who’ve written very effectively how UNESCO was all about, you know, the end game of Empire. And it was another vehicle for Britain and to some extent France, to hold on to it colonies. And it wasn’t about liberation, it wasn’t about the liberal developmentalism of the United States. And there was a tussle between whether an American or or a British Director General, would be the first. And they will consequences for that. But it was certainly in the minds of its early leaders, meant to be a way of, again, kind of controlling or, you know, holding on to Empire, and a kind of civilizing mission, if you like. But that, you know, that soon change when other nations moved toward independence, and those initial 44 members had to expand. And there were challenges from those nations.

Jeremy Bassetti
I’m sorry. When did “UNESO” become UNESCO? When does when was that “C” added? Was it added in the, in the late 40s? Under the supervision of Julian Huxley? Or–

Lynn Meskell
I think it was, I think it was in in those sort of early discussions. So it was founded as UNESCO. Yes. But initially, I think when those countries met to discuss what sort of organization they wanted to the reconstruction of the post war world, initially the emphasis was on education and science. That meeting in London of the educational ministers from countries that were in exile, plus the Allied forces, that was the spearhead. But remember too, I hark back to the League of Nations. And culture and museums was part of that. And it was absolutely felt that, that it wasn’t just education alone–that these cultural institutions. Remember that Berlin had been destroyed, looted to pillaged during the Second World War, so there was an idea of saving these masterpieces, restoring them, and then restoring people’s spirits with that, and again, this sort of utopian promise for the future that there could be a cultural unity amongst peoples through these educational and cultural vehicles.

Jeremy Bassetti
Is that what you mean–in the book–is that what you mean by oneworldism?

Lynn Meskell
Yes, but.. of course there was a one world that was entirely European in focus. And what you notice in the archives, whether it’s the league, or UNESCO’s early days, and also meetings of archaeologists at this time, they are very much dominated by European or North American experts. And you know, you may have one or two representatives from other regions, but it’s really such a Western preoccupation. But the oneworldism, so that one world stemming from European priorities, was also connected very much in the early days to people like Julian Huxley, the first director general of the organization. And this idea of humanism, or a scientific humanism or sometimes called secular humanism.

Jeremy Bassetti
Yeah, he–I was surprised to, to learn that he was the first director general, precisely because of his pedigree, his background, and, you know, his famous grandfather and indeed, brother. But they do seem, from what I understand of Thomas Henry and of also Aldous, they share some of the concerns for the future of humanity, much like Julian. But also, perhaps, you know, it was thinking about, you know, the influence of Darwin and Julian’s ideas, and maybe there is something–that we’re uneasy with talking about or thinking about here. You know, in terms of the genesis of UNESCO, because of Julian’s kind of history of eugenics, right. And those ideas.

Lynn Meskell
Of course. Yes. Yes. And he published some of his work on the philosophy behind UNESCO after he had finished his term as director general. And I know at that point, UNESCO wanted him to publish that independently, rather than to be some imprint of the organization. They were, I think uncomfortable with, with giving it their imprimatur, if you like. He was an obvious choice. In some ways. Many of those UN organizations, in the early days was set up by, you know, British intellectuals who had done this sort of colonial service. I think Huxley was also in Africa. He was a polymath, interested, obviously, in ornithology, biology, but also philosophy. He was very interested in development schemes like the TDA, or the Tennessee Development Authority. He was incredibly broad ranging. He was also fascinated by archaeology and archaeological sites, and archaeological method, which was new to me, which, you know, I had sort of discovered in the archive. So he was sort of a world thinker, and UNESCO was dominated by these great statesman in those early days. And he was somebody who was somebody to bridge the sort of nature and culture. And remember to that UNESCO was very, very involved in science. In nuclear science, for example. We don’t see that much anymore. But he was a very fitting choice in the early days. His term was only for a couple of years. It was cut short, by the Americans basically who wanted their own person to head up UNESCO, but that that was the deal coming in that he would only have, I think, a two year to believe. He did, he did promote his vision of scientific humanism, which has come around, you know, in recent years, it’s been rejuvenated, as it were, as a sort of philosophical and ethical commitment. So it hasn’t gone away, you know, the root of UNESCO are still there.

Jeremy Bassetti
Yeah. And so, I understand that the roots of UNESCO also involved archaeology. But that has become less of a focus, right? I guess for the listeners understand this–How would you describe, I guess, an archaeologist versus someone who’s concerned with UNESCO style conservation? Is there a distinction here?

Lynn Meskell
Well, yes. I think there has been a distinction has it impact. And I’ll give you an example. When Huxley went to archaeological sites in the Middle East, he was promoting research. He was promoting excavation that involved international collaboration. Some of it may have been very colonial, but and very British focus, but the idea was, there was a mutual–possibly a mutual understanding between people of cooperation. But it was about research, we will find in things like the origins of writing, or life in the Middle East. And these new discoveries would also fuel a common humanity, you know. It fitted very nicely into his scientific humanism, which was all about, you know, humanity, or if he would have said mankind in charge of their own destiny. And that, you know, it wasn’t always about religion. In fact, you know, he was trying to get away from those things. So, actually having all these different cultures being excavated and on public display, and being discussed in public and then on museums, that museums would then create development and tourism, archaeology was very much part of that. But it was seen as an intellectual and scientific endeavor. And, so, archaeologists themselves, were writing histories of the world that he would then promote as the UNESCO books. They were given public lectures. So there was a sort of university attachment, particularly British archaeologists, of course, where in his main circle. And many that were at University College London. And, yeah, so it was really at the forefront. And they’re all, you know, elite, high level men for the most part. But that that’s very different from the conservation of sites, which is a particular expertise around preservation that–that can include everything from structural engineering to restoration and art historical approaches. And that’s certainly in UNESCO history, that was quite different from archaeological excavations and surveys. That was more about conserving standing monuments, particularly architecture, and making those both stable and presentable to public audiences. And I think we see that tension in the second chapter of the book where I talk about both the archaeology and the conservation after the flooding of the Aswan Dam, the saving of the Nubian Temples. That is a good example of how the archaeology and the conservation work were two very, very different aspects of that project.

Jeremy Bassetti
Okay, maybe we can talk about that a little bit. I’ve spent some time in, in Madrid, and bar none the most, I guess, non sequitur that I found in Madrid was the Temple of Debod, right, which is reconstructed Egyptian temple that is on a hill, and it overlooks a beautiful park, and people go there to drink beer at sunset. It is a beautiful monument that seems out of place. But that’s, I guess, intimately related to this, this effort by UNESCO to kind of conserve or preserve, I guess, some of those monuments. So could you talk to us a little bit about the Aswan Dam project and how temples like the Temple of Debod, you know, ended up in Madrid?

Lynn Meskell
Right. Well, the Spanish example was very, very interesting. This was happening, you know, in Franco’s regime. So, you know, many countries were supporting, yes, supporting financially and with expertise, the working agent, which was both archeological which no one ever talks about really, but all the surviving and excavation of sites that were going to be lost when the water when the waters rose. And then the conservation of temples will already known–or monuments that were already know. And Spain was a contributor to that. And like the United States, and the Netherlands, Spain also got in return for that participation and–and help from the Egyptian Government, well, actually, also the countries are petitioning were petitioning to have something in return. It was very much a system of partage. You know, it wasn’t, it wasn’t a wholly, string-free gift, if you like. So they got in return one of those amazing temples. But what’s so interesting that also, you know, this is the time of the Cold War. So we’re talking late 50s, 60s. Franco’s regime, he sends archaeologists, he use that as a sort of PR tactic to show that, you know, Spain is not isolated, that is part of an international endeavor and something to be proud of. You know, the same happens in Poland. There are a lot of Polish archaeologists and conservatives working on the project. And, you know, pictures of the incredible Coptic churches that they were working on and restoring, of course, because of the, the link to Christianity, was very welcome at home. And so this was the promotion of, you know, under the Soviet-era, promotion of Polish identity abroad at a time when people couldn’t leave the country. So, you know, it’s full of contradictions like that. But it was, you know, despite the sort of politics, it did in a way galvanize UNESCO’s founding mission of creating this one world archaeology or one world heritage. It was the nascent stirring something that has turned into the world heritage program, of bringing scholars from different countries together on a single mission. And we’re going to see anything like that again. And interestingly, it was about conservation and salvage, it was not simply–it wasn’t about the sort of branding and national competition that we see today. That wasn’t just about in describing a site. It was about protecting and conserving sites, and recording them–the research part, the archaeological part–researching them, because they were going to vanish. And having that for posterity. And creating, you know, the resources, the materials, which scholars could work on for decades to come. So, it was magnificent in many ways. Very much a Cold War project. Very filled with tension. But, you know, again, we will never see, you know, it’s like again.

Lynn Meskell
Could this example of the Aswan Dam project, could this be an example of what you mean by UNESCO changed from being something about discovery and transforming and something about recovery, you know, of archaeology, research, and preserving or conserving something? So, the focus changes…and is this around the time when UNESCO, in your opinion, becomes more about the recovery instead of hardcore research?

Lynn Meskell
Yes. Absolutely. Spot on. And I think there’s a number of reasons for that. This is their first foray into a major field archaeology. And we’re talking about covering the southern part of Egypt and then into Sudan. You know, it was massive. And, um, you know, its incalculable how many sites were recorded, because need a country kept a register. But, you know, we can say thousands of sites, you know, literally recorded and somewhere excavated. Some were at least studied in some form. And now, much of that has been lost. But, it is a time where UNESCO had to grapple with, you know, international field archaeology. The time. The expense. The competition between countries to get what concession to work on. Who was going to get the good, who was going to ship, you know, what, back to their respective countries? What would stay in Egypt, what was stay in Sudan? When it would be published, how much it would cost. Again, how long that would take? And I think the certainly the bureaucrats at UNESCO found it, from my archival research, it very difficult and incalculable in a way. Because of course, you don’t know what you’re going to find. You don’t know the extent of what you’re going to find. What you’re going to need to analyze. Certain predictions can be made, but, you know, it is a point of discovery. And, you know, that research, all those materials is still ongoing in some respect. Some of it is still not published, which is another kind of scandal. But you know, you had many nations also trying to work together. Which, of course, causes other sorts of tensions. Even between the number of American institutions and universities involved. And then on the other side, you have the [inaudible] temples. But what was needed there was some plans. Different nations and companies tend to plan, of course, you’re dealing with companies that can give you a budget and an estimate, and a timeframe. And they managed it. And within a certain timeframe that was finite. So there was a cultural ability about the conservation that could not be transferred to the archaeology. And, and those two sides of the project were not really done in tandem. It was like they will all different projects. And many of the bureaucrats would say, “you know, it’s like we work with–we’re not all in the same game here.” So you know, you’ve got engineers, consultants, and business, you know, making money. And then you’ve got academic.

Lynn Meskell
Right, and I think, in the next–in the next chapter, when you speak about the Mohenjo-Daro campaign and Pakistan, I mean, it seems to be the main point, or one of the main points of this chapter is that, you know, UNESCO becomes about–all about sending or, you know, a major part of its mission is, is about instead of sending archaeologists to learn about things, their sending technocrats and kind of engineers, as you say, to, to go do things and preserve things instead of field research.

Lynn Meskell
Yes, yeah. So there is a major, there is a major shift. And I think the Aswan–or the Nubian monuments campaign was just such an exhaustive mission, as they will also working in places like Raqqa, in Syria, and in Pakistan. And it became clear that the organization couldn’t marshal that huge international campaign machine again, that it was so exhaustive. That every country would then be–it would be a terrible crisis, every country within want something like that. So we see in, in Syria and Pakistan the idea that UNESCO puts it back on the state party, that they will organize that part, that they can enter into bilateral agreements with different other, you know, supporting participating nations or universities. It’s up to them. UNESCO is not going to be the coordinator for these enormous salvage regimes. And in Mohenjo-Daro, very clearly, UNESCO wants to do technical assistance. And this comes at the same time when you have American Director Generals. People like Luther Evans say, you know, it’s not about, you know, changing people’s minds, it’s about technical assistance and transfers, so you know, what consultants can we send out to, to give us a finite plan? Or tender a program of conservation of these particular sides? It’s going to take five years, and you know, is it hundred thousand dollars 200,000? You know, we want to work on this much more bureaucratic and business model, that we can’t be coordinating all sorts of international excavations. We just need to save these sites as they are. We don’t want to fund new research, new excavation.. we just really want to sort of prop up these monuments that we have. And when you call an archaeological site, a sort of “monument,” then you, you are already signaling that you’re not going to be doing ongoing research there. It’s already fixed.

Jeremy Bassetti
It’s done and game over for research. Do you think that–do you think this is about the point in time in the organization when the utopic vision of I guess the purpose of UNESCO that starts to change? Or do we not see that until…

Lynn Meskell
I think there’s a it’s taken a major hit. I mean, its used a lot in rhetoric, you know, changing the minds of men and, and what you see the director general, using, using that sort of language of the sort of one world peace and culture in their speeches–in a very sort of rousing speech, and their calls to arms, they’re not actually that they’re not actually willing to put the resources in. They’re hoping to outsource that, we might say, to other nations on a bilateral agreements, but also asking for more experts, it becomes more consultant driven, it becomes more national with Mohenjo-Daro We start seeing the Chinese for example, also to give support, but only if Chinese engineers are used, for example. So we get a very of the instance of state based self-interest. And as I talked about in the book, you know, UNESCO began as an organization, with incredible statesman like Julian Huxley. You know, you have the sort of great and the goat of Europe. You have poets, you have scientists, and then it turns very quickly into an organization of great states. That’s how I describe it. So it becomes about nation states, and national interests. And you can see that in the difference between the countries that funded the work in Egypt and Sudan versus who wants to be involved in the Mohenjo-Daro. And that’s much more an Asian focus. The US takes a long time to get involved to pay anything towards Mohenjo-Daro, but does know as part of a Cold War initiative towards the end. But you know, Australia gets involved. You see much more regional, a regional interest in, you know, even giving some funds or wanting to be involved. And the Dutch are one of the major contributors there because it’s the Dutch water experts that we see all over the world we see in Indonesia too, the Dutch are very interested in putting their company in Pakistan, because the issue with Mohenjo-Daro was about again, like the Nile, it was about a river–changing the course of the river. So, the same Dutch consultants that were involved in Egypt came to Pakistan. It just becomes big business.

Jeremy Bassetti
Yeah, well, I was just about to go there. You know, the pessimists in me thinks that this is very much about national profits as it is about national prestige. Instead of this kind of utopian, you know, vision of “let’s try to stop war.” And as you pull up in the book, in later chapters, UNESCO, this utopic organization, in some ways, that was developed to end war has been kind of caught in the middle of conflict and disputes and, and war. Right? We can go there in a minute. But let’s, let’s circle back here and talk about this idea of national prestige. And, you know, these UNESCO sites.

Jeremy Bassetti
In your book, on the chapter that deals with Venice, there’s this nice picture of St. Mark’s Square, and in the background, there’s a massive cruise ship. And just a day or so ago, the there was a cruise ship that actually, kind of, lost control and ran into another boat, another tourists but, or whatnot. But, you know, this is a very much, you know, on the public’s mind, right? This idea of overtourism, but also kind of exploiting the national monuments–national, cultural, and natural monuments–for economic gain and also national prestige. So I was wondering if you could tell us what you think about, about that idea in light of the UNESCO mission?

Lynn Meskell
Yes. Well, it’s an obvious example to use Venice because it’s one of the most egregious examples. And, you know, Italy sees itself as the Capital of Culture. It has the most sites on the World Heritage List. And Venice has been in danger, as I talk about in the book, probably for over a century. But it’s certainly been more endangered through–not through natural catastrophe, necessarily, there was the flooding–,but actually through man-made decisions. And it’s not just Venice, the settlement as it were that is listed, it’s also the lagoon. So the decision to dredge the lagoon to allow for these larger ships to come in are all decisions to enhance tourism, not to consider the sites. Nor, very importantly, the people who live there, because the UNESCO particularly in World Heritage, is also concerned, you know, with things like sustainable development with communities. And I’ve been in Venice and lectured there and met with members of the community who are very vocal, whose lives are really ruined the Venetians themselves who are less and less each year, because of forced out for various reasons. Really, you know, their lives or their and their livelihoods, I think are really impinged upon by the sort of massive international tourism asset that the that authorities in Venice, including, of course private individual, are involved in. That site should have been discussed over many, many committee meetings, as a potential to be inscribed on the World Heritage was in danger. But Italy wields an enormous power in the world heritage arena. And for political reasons, you know, that has never happened. I wonder now–if this was a great fear that an enormous boat would crash into the harbor a damaged monuments there. I wonder, Is that what it would take to have another discussion? I’d be very surprised if it was inscribed on the list of World Heritage in danger. But yeah, you know, there are all sorts of factors why certain countries have had their sites listed or even discussed as being, potentially, in danger or threatened in some way. And of course, all of this is, is about generating tourism when it comes to Venice. And, and it’s true that UNESCO did in its early days in the 50s, 60s, 70s, try to use culture for, particularly for developing nations, they tried to use that to enhance tourism. UNESCO was also involved in training for hospitality, countries like Jordan and India, as a way to boost or, you know, uplift nation through culture. But what we see now, of course, is not necessarily in developing nations–its in these, you know, rich and expert-driven nations like France and Italy, Spain–we see this use of world heritage as a sort of brand, without any of the conservation concern, preservation communities that we saw, perhaps, with Egypt in the Nubian case, now it’s just a kind of raw, national, and economic promotion.

Jeremy Bassetti
Like an exploitation of national monuments for economic gain. And, you know, I, I get the financial appeal to this, and, and how something like a site inscribed on the list could, could lift up communities financially. But it seems like the conservation question is an afterthought, right? The ship’s barreling into the harbor–

Lynn Meskell
We see that, we see that reflected very, almost quantitatively at the World Heritage meetings. These couple of days, that, or maybe even one day, that is devoted to conservation issues out of the 10, where the World Heritage Committee meet and all the countries and their representatives, if they can afford to, the conservation agenda items move very quickly, no one really wants to talk about them. But when we get to the three days of world heritage inscription, hours and hours will get expended on one site, arguing and lobbying to try and get it inscribed. So your three days of intense… you know the room is full. When it comes to the inscriptions and the press is there. It’s incredible. It is a circus. But you want to talk about the conservation of the 1000 plus sites on the list. Nobody’s in the room and no one’s interested. I have seen empty rooms when Palmyra is being discussed. You know, so yes. And I don’t think the public has that perception. Again, it’s an example of the self-interest of states.

Jeremy Bassetti
So, how have the inscription debates in these, in these meetings, or the inscription debates that go on behind the scenes, are there any examples of how they have been corrupted by political or military or financial means in terms of like international competition or self interest?

Lynn Meskell
Well, now that the World Heritage meetings are live streamed, and you can get them on YouTube, and you can get them on the UNESCO website, people can see more transparently how all of these alliances are transacted. But I was fortunate enough to be pointed towards the example of Preah Vihear, which is a temple site, a Hindu temple that was inscribed on the World Heritage list that’s now– was inscribed, nominated by Cambodia, but in disputed territory between Thailand and Cambodia. And there was always talk that this had much to do with, you know, increasing Chinese infrastructure and access to sites, that they may have been some oil deal that helped government support from certain nations that kind of “you help me on this, I will support your nominations.” And I was pointed in the direction of Wikileaks of all things, which I thought at the time by some diplomat comparison, I thought at the time was very conspiratorial, but they were absolutely right. A cable, something called cable gate, which was a dump of embassy correspondences, appears on the WikiLeaks website. And it shows very clearly how this one nominated temple site had been caught in an enormous array of political, economic, and military imperatives by a number of countries. Now, what we see is the United States, and its involvement there, we obviously don’t have access to every country that was involved, but through the American correspondence, we can also see what other nations were doing. So you see the American interest, if they support Cambodia, you know, that they want to get certain companies established there. But they’re also slightly worried because they have a military advantage and an Air Force Base in Thailand, and they want to keep the Thais happy. So this is a great example that I’m sure there are many, many others that you could, that you could use, but this one we just happen to be fortunate enough to, to see the interstices is being discussed, and then captured on WikiLeaks.

Jeremy Bassetti
So, what is your prognosis, I guess, of the future of UNESCO and its methods for inscribing sites? Are you optimistic for change, or do the conflicts and the destruction of sites like the Buddhas that were destroyed the sites, as you mentioned, the Palmyra sites and Aleppo–Do you have a lot of optimism that the course will be corrected?

Lynn Meskell
I mean, it’s very difficult to go back after this sort of progression of state-based self interest. And, that countries are not willing to give money for conservation, unlike they did with the Nubian campaign or even with Borobudur, saving that temple, or even a little bit with Mohenjo-daro. I think given the financial constraints the organization was incredibly cash strapped it cut divisions, its had to, because of the hundreds of millions of dollars that they would have received, had the United States paid his dues. And I don’t see that being rectified given that the US is withdrawn. So, this is an organization I have a lot of sympathy, you know, they’re trying to do more and more with less and less. And the countries never ease up on the sorts of requests that they put on Paris’ head office, they want, you know, the countries themselves the member states want more and more help from UNESCO, they want more mission sent out more advice, more expertise, studies done. And yet, you know, when I first went to Paris, they were more than 70 people employed at the World Heritage Center, now there’s about 20. Positions have been cut. How is this possible? So they are also living on consultants and volunteers to staff. I mean, I have students that go that have been by Stanford to also help with the World Heritage Committee, for example. So there’s, there’s enormous pressure on those people. And also, you know, they have a lot of pressure exerted by the countries directly because they want those inscriptions. And, you know, it’s a it’s a very tense atmosphere. Now, other countries going to ease up on the numbers of inscriptions? Absolutely not. This is a suggestion that’s been put forward many times, and the country will not cease from inscribing and nominating more and more site, and they’re very aggressive about it. China and Japan, France. Yeah, they’re not going to stop. So. So the mechanism is very overstretched. The desire is enormous and growing. And, you know, are people wanting to conserve and help, you know, countries like Yemen? I don’t see any evidence of it. Yemen doesn’t even can’t even afford, obviously, in the middle of this horrific conflict to send a delegation team to report on the status of its world heritage sites. And interestingly, there is no censure either. It’s a great example of politics, there’s no censure, because of the destruction. You know, that is largely led by a coalition including Saudi Arabia, the UK, the US and others. There’s no discussion of that. Because these are the powerful members states. But if something happens in the Democratic Republic of Congo, everybody’s named and shamed. So it is, you know, the countries also see a great hypocrisy that’s being played out there, too. I’m not very optimistic I, I think it started off as a wonderful mission albeit with its colonial overtures. But there was a kernel of something very worthwhile there. And it could be, again, but the fundamental structures are leading us in this particular direction, it’s hard to see how that can be rectified. And it’s up to the member states, they are, after all, the United Nation. You know, it’s up to countries, not some bureaucrats in Paris to change things.

Jeremy Bassetti
Unfortunately, I think they’ve all you know, already put the cup up to their lips and tasted how sweet all of the tourism dollars are that come with an integration and you know, that the ROI, the rate of return on, on getting a sign on that list is probably significant.

Lynn Meskell
Oh, absolutely.

Jeremy Bassetti
Hate to be a pessimist about this. But it seems that that’s kind of a very important motivating factor behind this, if not, you know, the most important one.

Lynn Meskell
Well, I think it has been but I would also say something else to watch out for, which is that UNESCO inscription is now being used as a kind of territorial marker, or a way of inscribing a particular version of history from one country to another, in fact, inciting a kind of conflict. Preah Vihear is one example from 2008 that sparked a war border war between Thailand and Cambodia. But we see the same thing happening, particularly with China and Japan. So inside inscribing and inciting at the same time, particular versions of the Second World War. And we it’s not just in the World Heritage List, but the list of intangible culture. So there’s a kind of tit-for-tat going on between countries, as well. It’s very, very unhelpful. You see a country like Turkey nominating Ani(SADASDSA), which is an Armenian site. You know, there are there are sort of flashpoints. And remember, I said you have a whole list of sites on your tentative list. The government’s choosing which ones to put forward and how to frame those. So it’s the economic, the territorial, the political issues tied to sovereignty. I think there’s a lot to watch in that dynamic going forward. And, again, that is up to the member state’s decide how to use the list.

Jeremy Bassetti
Right? Well, yeah, look…

(laughs)

Jeremy Bassetti
We’re getting a little bit close to our time here. And but I guess what I was thinking about also is is not just the national and the financial, but also kind of the religious disputes. The non-state actors, right. I guess what first opened my eyes to this was the destruction of the large Buddhist–the Bamiyan statues, the non-state agents can effectively use UNESCO heritage sites as hostages to get their demands not only heard but satisfied. And so there’s the kind of that element of this puzzle too, unfortunately.

Lynn Meskell
Yes. Yes, you’re right. But I also think there’s a way in which the over-privileging of monuments and the, you know, the undermining of people in communities and other sort of aid has also created and exacerbated these tensions. And I think if things would have been done differently, we may be in a different situation. And I think, the idea of living culture, and living communities, rather than always this very monumental, you know, we can more about things and people attitude, has not, has really not helped. And that goes back to my initial points, that supporting research, and, you know, people to people transpose it were, and cultural exchanges, and also the living aspects of heritage, rather than just saying, well, we only care about the classical past like Palmyra in the Middle East, you know, that there’s a lot of evidence now that suggests that, understandably, people are concerned about that. But that’s not, that’s not a helpful attitude. And it’s a very Western and imperial attitude. And we did have, we did have glimpses of that also with Aswan, when Nubian heritage was at risk. And, you know, the last few hundred years of an incredible tradition, architectural tradition, and there just wasn’t the interest to record and salvage that, because living people want deemed as important or magisterial as the pharaohs. And that’s just, that’s just not an attitude that we can sustain today. I just don’t think that’s ethical or appropriate. I’m sure UNESCO is making all sorts of efforts. And I know it has with different conventions to do that. But that’s also part of the reason that these disciplines like archaeology and anthropology are just as important now to include. So that it can’t just be about cathedrals and churches and palaces and statues that we deem aesthetically pleasing.

Jeremy Bassetti
That reminds me of the Thomas Paine attack on Edmund Burke, where he, you know, rails against Burke for, I guess, promoting the authority of the dead over the rights and freedoms of the living, right, and the words of Paine.

Lynn Meskell
And they were all going back to right at the beginning of this interview, when we talked about heritage and history. You know. It is what who deems what important. And there are heritage sites that are living sites for people that have temples and mosques and places of worship and places of visitation. And the idea that we just deem something, particularly in the Middle East or in Europe, or something that has a classical what we imagined to have some sort of Western resonance, as opposed to the sites that people themselves value on the ground. And that’s the work and the research that needs to be done, particularly in the Middle East. That we learn, we learn rather than just impose our values. So there is work to be done. And there’s real research to be done that I think could be that I know some of my colleagues that we are talking about that needs support, that that could have a real impact.

Jeremy Bassetti
Well, I, I hope that this work continues, and I hope that we get a chance to speak more about this in the future, especially, you know, within the international context. And I hope you know, you continue to do this, this work. Thank you for your time. And thanks for chatting with us. I think your book is really interesting. Obviously, you know, this, this conversation I think could go on. So, thanks again for your time and good luck to you, in your travels and in your work.

Lynn Meskell
Thank you very much.

Jeremy Bassetti
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