History of World Heritage

By Pearl Wang

The institutionalizing idea of cultural preservation emerged as early as 1854 with John Ruskin’s calling for the organization of historic monuments. Since then, cultural heritage has always been the major concern when there is the potential for tremendous damage. Conservation of cultural heritage was not much of an issue until the twentieth century as “[i]t was a century of dramatic urban expansion, improvement, and redefinition, but it was also a century when urban architectural culture was destroyed at a rate unmatched in human history” (Tung, 2001). It was also in the twentieth century, when many countries and international institutions spent much effort and achieved more to remind the world of the importance of preventing our cultural heritages from damage and loss.

After World War II, the focus of international historic preservation on cultural heritage had moved from the conceptual idea of protecting historic monuments to the substantial idea of structure restoration and philosophical thinking of cultural preservation. The fear of war was fading out along with the peace talks among the first, second and third worlds and the establishment of the United Nations in 1945. UNESCO, a subset of the UN, was founded in 1947 to protect of cultural heritage. 

Since UNESCO has been an international organization consistently involved in the regular base of cultural heritage, an international center, ICCROM, was created in 1959 to coordinate research and eliminate costly duplication of studies, collect and make the appropriate documentation available internationally, and contribute to the training of specialists. Followed by the adoption of the Venice Charter, UNESCO established ICOMOS in 1965 to promote the doctrine and the techniques of conservation. These two organizations are the advisory bodies of UNESCO, which exist to provide specialist knowledge on conservation and restoration of cultural properties, especially the application of materials submitted by State Members to inscribe World Heritage Sites. However, UNESCO has been passively providing assistance under requests from countries since its foundation. Yet the construction plan of the Aswan High Dam in Egypt in 1960 was the momentum to push UNESCO to be more aggressive with regard to particular international concerns. 

In order to correspond to the international environmental movement, UNESCO combined the idea of conservation of cultural heritage initiated by the United States and similar proposals from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and declared the Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage in 1972, upon ratification by twenty countries. The Convention was first operated in 1975. According to its provisions, a World Heritage Committee and a World Heritage Fund were instituted in 1976. In order to assure the day-to-day management of the Convention, a World Heritage Center was set up in 1992 (Cleere, 2000).