Review: Best Practices in World Heritage

Review of the II International Conference on Best Practices in World Heritage: People and Communities
(Mahón, April-May 2015)

by Nekbet Corpas Cívicos

Group photo of  the Conference assistants in the venue

Some weeks after the 2nd International Conference on Best Practices in World Heritage, it is time to take stock. This second edition, which focused on People and Communities, would not have been possible without substantial development in research and continuous effort. Excitement and accumulated experience were essential for the Complutense University of Madrid’s research team of which the Conference’s directors, Alicia Castillo and Ángeles Querol, are part. Once again, Menorca’s Council supported the event in its search for support to the Talayotic Menorca’s nomination to UNESCO World Heritage.
The topic of this second edition, held in Mahon (Menorca, Balearic Islands) from the 29th of March to the 2nd of April 2015, perfectly reflects current changes in Cultural Heritage Management; from a monumental approach to a social one. Take the evolution of the Conference itself: Archaeology was the topic of the first Conference (i.e. restoration, preservation, dissemination); the emphasis seems to be now put on people. And by this, we do not only mean those who work with or define Cultural Heritage, but also those who appreciate heritage properties and enjoy them —or just coexist with them.
The event began with a World Heritage’s thorny issue put forward by Claire Smith (University of Flinders, Australia): the use of these assets to make political statements through terrorism. Social Media seem to play a key role in augmenting the impact and results of these violent actions. Among the six guest lectures given during the Conference, one of the most interesting was probably the one about “Perception and Interpretation”. In this arena, Neil Silberman set the agenda of future research on collective memories and sensorial impact of cultural heritage sites.
Given the big number of communications presented in this Conference,  a great deal of time was necessary to monitor all of them. In fact, a system of yellow/red cards (like a proper football match) was established. The audience could show them when the speaker was running out of time —or was not being the most interesting speaker. Despite the brightness of the idea, its efficiency was decreased since many speakers did not look at the audience while reading their texts.
The second session, “Conflict Resolution and Social Implication”, opened with the difficult situation experienced regarding World Heritage in the Mexican city of Puebla. Defence of these assets by society was made self-evident through citizens’ demonstrations and activities —actions that have not reverted into the public benefit. This session was especially engaging due to the presence of several citizen associations created to protect their Cultural Heritage. The “live” status of Cultural Heritage properties was proved, challenging once again their label as “old stuff”.

Carlos Montero during his speech about Puebla, Mexico
What’s more, proof of such good health of Cultural Heritage was displayed that same afternoon by the Drama School of Menorca. A group of students enacted a play entitled “The Dilemma of Taulas”, which showed different hypotheses about the construction of Menorca’s unique monuments: taulas. The play was enjoyed, but also helped the attendees understand the reason why Menorca had been selected as the venue of this international Conference: Menorca’s people, their support to and pride in their heritage assets.
Actors representing the candidature logo after the performance of the play

Another participative action that took place involved the local association of chefs called Fra Roger Association. They organised a collaborative activity which brought together chefs and the Conference’s participants in order to ‘build’ with food the prehistoric landscape of the island and its characteristic monuments. The latter were made of vegetables and meat and were enjoyed with a glass of wine. Undoubtedly, this was an adequate end to the session of Cooperation —a real cooperation between speakers and the audience was achieved. Professor Yonas Beyene was the keynote speaker of that session and he defended the role of UNESCO in providing local communities with resources to protect their heritage. Nonetheless, he also recognized that direct communication between UNESCO and local communities is not always ensured. The key idea is that communities, unlike tourists, live in or nearby heritage properties. What prevails, then? To ensure the survival of these resources as meaningful and relevant landmarks and features in people’s lives, it is necessary to manage them in a balanced and cross-disciplinary way. An example was presented by Hang Peou, who -has worked in water resources of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat area in order to ensure water supplies to communities living close to this World Heritage property and to protect the foundations of this set of impressive monuments.

An image of the final plate "cooked" during the participative action

Although each one of the sessions ended with a round table of the speakers of those days, the last one was probably the most participative. Whilst previous round tables allowed speakers to complete their communications, this one enabled discussion of really interesting topics. Among them, an interesting division established since the beginning of the conference was realized; a division between “us”, that is to say scientists and experts in World Heritage, and “them”, i.e. the rest of society; as if the former were not part of the latter. Besides, it was recognized that society is usually homogenized by using labels such as “community” or “lay society”. The most controversial topic might have been World Heritage nominations and the arguments used to justify them, which are normally away from people —although theoretically founded on them.

The fifth session was opened by Professor Jordi Tresserras who presented a series of ideas to ensure sustainable cultural tourism. Especially interesting is the idea that instead of managing visitors, their experiences should be managed. However, tourism is the second step when the status and protection of World Heritage of a site is ensured, something that is not always granted. This is the case of the Palestinian village of Battir. Eman Alassi argued for its defense against political issues during the last session of the conference.

One of the most original aspects of this Conference was the encouragement of relationships between in-site attendees and outsiders. Apart from the above mentioned cards, a whiteboard was presented. People could post notes on it with comments about topics interesting to them, doubts, critiques —evidently, constructive criticism— and contributions. This activity was highly successful and will be the basis to elaborate on the document on Best Practices. This document feeds from the formulae followed in the previous conference: groups made up of people with different nationalities and ages joined together in order to discuss and fill in several cards about possible best practices related to World Heritage and its management. It is hoped that the adoption of these documents, resulting from collective experiences and work of this Second Conference’s participants, will be as welcomed as the document on Best Practices of the First Conference was.

The whiteboard with notes

Since we started speaking about the power of social media, we are going to finish with the same power —although with more productive aims. The entire conference was broadcasted via live streaming video as well as Twitter with comments on the communications and activities in three different languages: Catalan, English and Spanish. Both Twitter and Facebook accounts of the Conference, working since September of last year, experienced an important growth during the Conference —achieving the target of interacting with non-attending audiences.

During the discussion groups with social media streaming on the left

Therefore, we can conclude that participation is the most remarkable aspect of the Conference as a whole. It was aimed at both physical attendees and virtual ones, professional and non-professional individuals.

Despite the efforts, there are some questions that are worth to look at: Is it possible-positive- to encourage this sort of participation in other spheres of life? How could we deal with the different existing views on Cultural Heritage? Can we include (all/some of) them in the management of heritage resources? Are they equally important -why is that so?

During the visit to talayotic sites the last day


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