From the Lakes to Hebron: a history of UNESCO's heritage sites

This week the Lake District was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites as a Cultural Landscape. 

It’s been a long and bumpy road – or footpath – for the Lakes to receive this status and it is a contentious issue for some; although not as controversial as UNESCO’s emergency inscription of Hebron/Al-Khalil Old Town in Palestine as a World Heritage Site at risk.

The AHRC’s Leadership Fellow for Heritage, Professor Rodney Harrison, and his colleague on the Heritage Futures research programme at the UCL Institute of Archaeology, Dr Sarah May, look at the difficulties of gaining UNESCO ‘inscription’ and the implications once achieved.

Definition of UNESCO acronym

The World Heritage Convention was agreed in 1972 to promote world peace and understanding through the recognition that some places were of importance to all of humanity.

While the excitement of this latest decision has drawn attention to the 41st meeting of the World Heritage Committee in Krakow, Poland, it is the culmination of a long process of planning, negotiating and decision making for those involved.

Being added to the list, or ‘inscription’, is always a process that takes many years, but in the case of the Lake District it has taken decades. The history of the bid highlights some of the tensions that were apparent at this year’s meeting, and indeed, opens a space to critically reflect on the notion of heritage itself.

The first bid for inscription of the Lake District began in 1985, before even Stonehenge and Avebury, the first UK World Heritage Site, was inscribed. That bid was for inscription as a natural heritage site, like the Jurassic Coast.

It was deferred by UNESCO because they decided that humans had played a substantial role in the development of the landscape; it wasn’t wholly “natural”. This was a concern raised in relation to Qinghai Hoh Xil, the largest and highest plateau in the world, which became a natural heritage site this week.

The site was proposed by China, but an NGO representing Tibetan people pointed out that referring to it as natural overlooks the contribution of Tibetan herders to its development. The NGO is concerned the designation will give China political grounds to exclude herders from the landscape in the future.

It reminds us that while heritage is about processes of inclusion, it has always simultaneously been concerned with excluding objects, places, people and practices from a regional, national or global community.

The next World Heritage bid for the Lake District began in 1987, this time as a monument (a cultural heritage site). However, the committee decided the cultural factors alone were not sufficiently outstanding and unique to warrant inscription and that the natural landscape was an important part of the value of the site.

Sign for Ennerdale in the Lake District

Partially on the basis of this decision, UNESCO developed a new category, “cultural landscape”, to take account of this important category of place, where ongoing human activity is required to maintain the value of the landscape.

The development of the new category came with a provision that the Lake District would not automatically be considered for inscription on these terms. While the proposal that certain heritage sites have universal values has been criticised by many scholars – who rightly point out that what constitutes ‘heritage’ is culturally determined (and in this case weighted heavily towards Western European and monumental forms of heritage) – it also shows how universal systems must shift to accommodate new forms of value when they are proposed in such a way. Many people, in particular indigenous people, might argue that all landscapes are inherently cultural ones.

The effort required to make a bid for World Heritage Status is substantial and no further attempts were made for the Lake District for a decade.

A contribution to world peace or rebranding?

There are a disproportionate number of World Heritage Sites in Western Europe due to a combination of the emphasis on monumental architecture in the 1972 convention and the resource required to bring a successful bid.

To address this, UNESCO restricted the number of bids that could be brought each year. In 1999 the UK government created a ‘tentative list’ to manage the potential sites that were being considered for inscription and Cumbria agreed to include the Lake District as a deferred site on that list.

It was 2003 before a serious attempt at inscription was considered again, at which point the Lake District National Park set aside £50,000 to establish a partnership that would work towards a bid.

This partnership was established by 2006 and its first task was to determine whether World Heritage Status would bring economic benefit to the Lake District. As there is no funding associated with the status, and it brings extra responsibilities, the National Park and Cumbria County Council were reluctant to pursue it unless it could be shown to help the area financially.

This shift, from seeing World Heritage Status as an honour that allows a community to contribute to world peace to seeing it as a brand that will improve the economic viability of marginal areas, is in line with British landscape management more generally.

The research undertaken to establish how the status could have socio-economic advantages took until 2010. Establishing agreement between the stakeholders and strengthening the partnership to formulate the bid took until 2013 and the bid was submitted to DCMS in 2014.

Dissenting voices

You might think that all these years of negotiation, partnership working and research would lead to a consensus about the management of the area. The 1972 Convention was, after all, founded on the idea that these practices would improve understanding and reduce conflict.

But the power of heritage lies in its ability to surface conflict more than its capacity to contain it. The more one emphasises how important a place is, the more people feel forced to commit to specific futures for it.

List of UNESCO sites in UK and N.Ireland

Amidst the rejoicing about the Lake District’s entry onto the World Heritage List, there are dissenting voices. There are some who are concerned that World Heritage Status will turn the area into an open air museum. This is a common concern with heritage designation.

And there are some who worry that the wrong values have been valorised in this designation: writer and activist George Monbiot, a major proponent of ‘rewilding’, has coined the epithet ‘sheepwrecked’ to characterise the ecological status of this landscape.

He presents the UNESCO decision as an ill-informed error. But his most substantial piece on the matter indicates that he doesn’t understand the designation or management practices involved. He represents designation as an attempt to set the present in stone, something that can’t be undone and foresees no change.

He overlooks the management plans, periodic reports, and even the removal of the designation that all form part of how World Heritage Sites are managed. Yet he could hardly be blamed for this, given that heritage is almost always presented as a slowing or halting of change, or a return to the past, when in fact, we would argue that heritage is often more about imagining and assembling different kinds of futures.

It is this future orientation which makes heritage fruitful for surfacing conflict, keeping debate alive, and it is this future orientation for heritage and conservation that underpins our work on the AHRC-funded Heritage Futures research programme. In articulating a set of values identified as universal, that universality is always called into question.

Politics of heritage

Within UNESCO meetings these conflicts are rarely openly visible, but another inscription at this year’s session shows how intertwined these conflicts are with other conflicts.

UNESCO recognises Palestine and this year decided on an emergency inscription of Hebron/Al-Khalil Old Town as a World Heritage Site at risk. The status reflects the fact that ICOMOS (the expert body that advises UNESCO on cultural heritage) was not able to investigate the site fully because of the actions of the Israeli military.

A number of countries expressed concern about the ‘politicisation’ of UNESCO’s role. This is a common cry when heritage intervenes in established power structures. But the intention of the 1972 Convention, to increase peace and understanding through shared culture, was always a political intent. Understanding, and indeed peace, do not come through the restrained and congratulatory discussions and decisions at annual meetings, but through real discussion and debate about the future worlds we create through the past legacies we curate in the present.

Rodney Harrison is Professor of Heritage Studies at the UCL Institute of Archaeology and AHRC Priority Area Leadership Fellow for Heritage (Twitter: @AHRCHeritage). He is the Principal Investigator of the AHRC Care for the Future theme funded Heritage Futures research programme (Twitter @Future_Heritage). Rodney and his priority area team are currently organising a series of activitiesfor heritage researchers at the British Academy in October.

Sarah May is Postdoctoral Research Associate on the Heritage Futures research programme at the UCL Institute of Archaeology (Twitter: @Sarah_May1). She is currently undertaking qualitative research on how questions of uncertainty are managed in relation to heritage and long-term future making in the Lake District.

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