During the latter half of the 20th century, the number of international charters and conventions dealing with the conservation and preservation of cultural heritage grew from a handful to literally dozens. What has been the impact of these documents on the practice of conservation? In what ways have they contributed to the field—and what are their limitations? Conservation put these questions and others to two specialists who have spent their professional lives dealing with both the principles and the practice of heritage conservation.

Cevat Erder is a professor on the faculty of architecture, and founder of the Department of Conservation of Historic Monuments at Middle East Technical University in Turkey. He is a founding member of the International Committee for Architectural Photogrammetry (CIPA) and the ICOMOS Committee on Earthen Architecture. He was a member of the Executive Council of ICOMOS from 1965 to 1974 and served as the director of ICCROM from 1981 to 1988.

Jane Lennon is an adjunct professor at the Cultural Heritage Centre for Asia and the Pacific at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. A founding member and past president of Australia ICOMOS, she participated in the drafting of the Burra Charter, which provides principles for conservation of culturally significant places in Australia. After spending nearly a decade managing historic places for the Victorian Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, she became a consultant on a wide range of heritage issues. From 1991 to 2003, she was a member of the ICCROM Council. In March 2004 she was appointed to the new Australian Heritage Council.

They spoke with François LeBlanc, head of the Field Projects department of the GCI, and Jeffrey Levin, editor of Conservation, The GCI Newsletter.

François LeBlanc: Cevat, during your professional lifetime, with the exception of the Athens Charter, you've witnessed the creation of all the heritage conservation charters and conventions, beginning with the Venice Charter in 1964. What has been the impact of all these documents on the practice of conservation?

Cevat Erder: Well, in my experience, they've had a very important effect on education and on the use of terminology. They provided the facility for explaining international attitudes. The Venice Charter was not exactly the first. It was sort of a summary of the previous recommendations in the field of conservation. Besides Athens in 1931, there were earlier resolutions and recommendations that fell into either the political category—expressing government intentions and attitudes—or the technical and professional category. I think the earliest political document was produced in 1899 by a conference in The Hague on the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict. This convention was revised successively in 1907, 1935, and 1954. On the political level, this is one of the most important documents for the conservation of cultural property and an indication at the international level of governmental responsibility for the conservation of cultural property. How effective was it? During the Balkan wars, this document was used by some of the conflicting parties, but the effect was not terribly positive because the moment a site was declared of international or cultural value, it was hit by the other side in the fighting.

LeBlanc: Sites became targets?

Erder: Exactly. Very recently the army officer who destroyed the Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia, in 1993, was captured. He is going to be tried in The Hague, and we will see if these documents are properly used against him.

On the technical and scientific level, I think the oldest international document is the one that was produced during a meeting in Madrid in 1904. This was a meeting of the International Congress of Architects. From their meeting we have a declaration for the conservation of cultural property and a classification of monuments—living monuments and dead monuments. This document also stated that conservation should be done by experts—one of the first recognitions at the international level of conservation as a profession.

The 1931 meeting in Athens was one of the first meetings where many disciplines were brought together in order to discuss conservation activities. During this meeting, one of the first charters in our field, the Carta del Restauro, was used as a reference. During the Second World War, there was complete destruction of cultural property in Europe, and after the war there were considerable conservation and reconstruction activities. As a result, an important international meeting of architects and technicians in the field of conservation was held in Paris in 1957. This was the first professional meeting completely devoted to the field of conservation. This meeting led to the 1964 Venice Conference—the second international meeting of architects and technicians in the field of conservation—which resulted in three important things: first, the Venice Charter, which was sort of a summary of all those documents that I previously cited and initially quite influential in the field of conservation; second, the foundation of ICOMOS; and third, the establishment of a training program within ICCROM for the conservation of architectural heritage.

Jane Lennon: When Australia came of age in conservation in the 1970s—joining the World Heritage Committee and ICCROM and setting up a chapter of ICOMOS—we tried to use the Venice Charter, but we found that it concentrated on aesthetic and historic values. That was a problem for us in addressing living cultural significance, especially because we have only 200 years of European settlement and 40,000 years of indigenous settlement. We had to confront quite different aspects of significance. We obviously took the principles of the Venice Charter, but we developed our own—the Burra Charter—which for us is very much a living document because of the need to ensure the continual education of our practitioners.

cevat erder

Erder: Well, the Venice Charter is actually a European charter, but from the moment it was declared, we find a certain adaptation of the charter to North American attitudes and then, of course, to Australia. Certainly the charter grew out of the fact that Europe had been destroyed by war and people were trying to rebuild their identity, while at the same time in North America, Australia, and even South America, people started basing their actions on the ideas of the Venice Charter. The charter, as soon as it was declared, was accepted almost as a legal document by certain countries in Europe, but within a few years everyone was discussing its values. What we have seen, even in Europe, have been attempts to rewrite the Venice Charter or to write another charter. The Venice Charter was certainly a starting point, but it was not sufficient. I see it as a base for discussion but not for application to every country.

LeBlanc: Jane, you've followed closely the evolution of the nature conservation movement. Have our colleagues in that field created and used charters to the extent that we do in the built environment? Are there lessons to be drawn from the environmental conservation movement?

Lennon: The nature conservation movement was very driven by the International Union for the Consideration of Nature [IUCN]. This was also a sister body at the World Heritage Committee advising on nominations of the "Best of the Best" in the natural environment needing international protection. But the whole notion of wilderness has been very difficult for us. We adopted it very blindly. In nature conservation, we were very influenced by American ways. But in Australia, the notion of wilderness denies Aboriginal occupation. In the decade since our 1992 High Court ruling that found there is native title in certain categories of land, people have had to forfeit the idea of an unpeopled primitive wilderness—which of course was never really the case in Europe. So what's happened here is that we have an Australian Natural Heritage Charter, which in a sense follows the three-step process outlined in the Burra Charter—assessing significance, developing the conservation policy and strategy, and implementing and evaluating it.

LeBlanc: Are there international instruments used with regard to the natural environment that are similar to the ones that we use in the field of monuments and sites?

Lennon: Yes, I think there's been a series of these, increasingly refined—for example, the Rio Declaration—and sustainability has become a major issue. These declarations come out of international meetings on the environment. So, yes, you can see developments in heritage conservation paralleled in the environmental movement.

Jeffrey Levin: Have they developed at the same time as cultural heritage charters and conventions, or subsequently?

Lennon: If you look at the English National Trust in the 19th century, its original mission was to preserve nature and aesthetic beauty. For a long time there have been international regulations dealing with wildlife conservation and protecting animals in certain areas, some of which started off as royal hunting reserves. But more universally, the environmental movement has taken off in parallel with the World Heritage movement. There were more conventions in the 1970s dealing with air and water conservation, and then an integration of these environmental elements at Rio in 1992. And now both movements are looking at issues of sustainability. So there's some room for interchange, I feel.

Levin: Following the Venice Charter, there's been a proliferation of international conventions and charters that try to remedy or address some of the shortcomings of the charter. How helpful do both of you think these agreements have been in shaping conservation practice and preserving cultural heritage?

Lennon: I think that ours has been a reaction against that proliferation. In Australia, we felt the need to keep a charter that included basic principles and a simple process that could be adapted as circumstances change. In the 1970s there were no Australian training courses, so in the beginning we either went to Rome or to York and a few to Columbia University in New York, where we were influenced by the Northern Hemisphere/European practice, which was very much fabric oriented. That didn't help us deal with arid and eroding sites and with Aboriginal culture, but we still tried to keep to the spirit of the Venice Charter. I think perhaps that these charters have led to some resistance to what really needs to happen at the World Heritage leadership level—and that is trying to reform operational guidelines to reflect both ICOMOS and IUCN principles. Yet there are these swings and roundabouts in the different concepts and the different approaches, depending on the continent and depending on the needs of that community for conservation.

Levin: Are you suggesting that this proliferation of documents has in some ways prevented progress within certain organization structures?

Lennon: I think so. I think that people who have helped develop these documents naturally want to champion them, and it's hard to change things in some ways.

Levin: Cevat, would you concur?

Erder: Not exactly. I think they've been very useful in helping to establish a certain type of terminology for the field.

Levin: What about national charters, such as the Burra Charter?

Erder: Because we are talking about culture—and culture is different in different countries, and concepts of the conservation of cultural values are also different—I think they are the best way to deal with the tolerance necessary to be able to see what is being developed by individual countries. There are certain basic concepts that experts are discussing and voicing as a result of their experience, which we can take advantage of. But when it comes to application, you are inevitably adding your own cultural values, your own cultural understanding or cultural approach. The best example of that was the Nara Conference on Authenticity in 1994. That is where the importance of the diversity of cultures and heritage was discussed. In my view, this is why one of the most useful conferences was the Nara Conference.

LeBlanc: Yet, Cevat, there is something that troubles me in all of this. Charters were developed to a certain degree for political reasons, but they were also developed to guide professionals who deal in conservation of the built environment so that they could agree on a set of principles when they intervene with this heritage. However, in the real world, it's architects who deal with historic buildings, engineers who deal with historic roads and bridges and structures, archaeologists who deal with irreplaceable sites, planners who deal with historic cities, and landscape architects who deal with historic cultural landscapes. Yet during undergraduate training, very few of these professionals are exposed to the international instruments that we've been discussing.

Erder: It's very difficult to say something on that. Since the Venice Charter, the population of the world has almost doubled. We are in a completely different world from when the Venice Charter was declared. What we have in front of us is a much larger problem.

I think the world of conservation has not declared itself as a necessity. Conservators are not actively participating in political activities for the overall recognition of conservation. They are keeping themselves quite silent. However, in spite of this fact, there is a difference between conservation in the 1960s and today. Today conservation has evolved into a science and a discipline of its own. If this is recognized and accepted, I think those working in the field of conservation of cultural property will be able to make themselves understood and more effective.

Lennon: I agree. Cevat is very wise to see how the context of cultural property has changed so much since Venice. For us here, even with our population of only 20 million, we confront urbanization and suburbanization of the coastlines and the abandonment of the interior as a changing landscape. What we have done with the Burra Charter is to make it understandable as a popular document. We've had a big campaign of promoting it to the local government authorities who approve new developments. Often the monument—the historic cultural property—is a very small percentage of some town or village, and the battle is to try to preserve it in a meaningful context. It demands a more reflective practice—and that comes back to training. Based on my observations at ICCROM and through traveling, I've found that the world of conservation practitioners keeps pretty much to itself. Practitioners are not getting involved in this broadening context. That's one of our challenges.

LeBlanc: What you both are saying is that the field of conservation has got to be much more engaged with people.

Lennon: Yes. You have to show leadership and have a base of the principles. That was the importance of the Nara Conference. It was a key conservation milestone when you look at authenticity and integrity. So there are some of these overriding principles that we have adopted all around the world, and yet we have to work out how to apply them in our own cultural context.

LeBlanc: The World Heritage Convention is now one of the most ratified international instruments developed through the United Nations system. Do you see a link between this international convention and the development of charters throughout the last 30 years?

Lennon: Well, there's a political framework of guidelines and principles, but it's also a matter of how different parties to the convention respond in practice. There's such a range of practice. I know from examining the cultural landscape category that although the guidelines are very obvious and the classifications are quite easy to understand, the applications in different national contexts vary enormously.

Erder: I would also look at it on a chronological level. In 1964, when ICOMOS was established, we had about two or three scientific committees. Today we have over 25 scientific committees that are very active. And with each passing year, the number of scientific committees increases, which means conservation is developing in such a way that one organization is not enough to express its necessities. For our first ICOMOS general assembly meeting, we were about 600 people. Now every time a scientific committee of ICOMOS meets, they have about 600 or 1,000 people—and when we have an ICOMOS general meeting, it's a festival.

So you can see there is a chronological development and an increase in organizations, such as the founding of the Lausanne in 1990. I think the subjects were the future of ICOMOS, the Venice Charter, and education. People who took part in Lausanne decided that the Venice Charter could not be touched—in fact, it was declared a historic document. I think this was a turning point. I'm not very happy with the word charter. It has a legal or political connotation and a sort of intensity in itself. But, as you know, conservation is becoming a terribly complex profession.

If you look at the scientific committees in ICOMOS, the reach of the field of conservation is very wide. If we are heading toward a scientific track—which I would like to call conservation science—it will be very dificult to set up definite rules that practitioners must adopt. I think we should look at conservation as developing on a scientific line. I have the impression that this will be the case whether we like it or not. For example, look at the conferences. In one year, there are more than 100 meetings in the world. The number will only continue to increase. People in the field of conservation should therefore also be politically engaged in the world of culture.

Levin: I wasn't saying that there's no need for international professional meetings, but I do wonder how useful it is for so many of these meetings to produce yet another document.

Erder: Well, I don't think we really need any other such documents. As you, François, were at the recent CIPA meeting in Antalya, you know it was a supermeeting. In 1968 we were only eight participants. In Antalya, there were about 600 participants giving papers on the use of technology for the documentation of cultural property—and CIPA is only one of the scientific committees of ICOMOS. We really don't need to control their development any longer in a very authoritarian way with charters. For example, there will be an attempt to propose a new charter at the ICOMOS general assembly meeting in China in 2005. This charter is called the Ename Charter, and it deals only with one small fraction of conservation—namely, interpretation. As you know, this is only one of many aspects of conservation.

Lennon: I agree very much with Cevat. I think we have the principles—or, if you like, what was once called dogma. There are these overriding principles that we understand. It's in the practice that there's this proliferation of expressions and applications—whether it's documentation or cultural landscapes or interpretation. We've kept the Burra Charter with its three steps as a way of doing this, and now the fabric base of it has been supplemented by looking more at meanings and associations. This keeps it living, it keeps oral histories, it keeps art and literature, and it keeps some of those things relevant as well. You build a much greater civil society and capacity for people to be more interested in those things, rather than just the fabric conservator. They're all looking at the same places, the same sites, but they're bringing that wider experience. We need to have conferences and discussions to look at this range of applications. And yet there are some overarching fundamental principles. That's the difference. It's in the applications that we're looking at variation while trying to maintain the fundamental principles of conservation.

LeBlanc: Yes, we have these dogmas and, yes, we have these instruments, but unless we as conservators or specialists become advisers to aboriginals, to property owners, to corporations, and we understand that there is a process these stakeholders have to go through to understand the value of the heritage that is under their care, and how they can deal with it with our help—unless we do that, I don't think we're going to be able to guide conservation of that heritage.

jane lennon

Lennon: The concept of assessment of significance and going through that process makes very explicit where there are conflicts. You have to put on the table what the range of values are and decide, so that everybody can see how the decisions have been made, which either are for or against conservation. This process is really quite fundamental to contemporary conservation practice—so that all the values are exposed and you can go ahead then without seeing the heritage in a one-dimensional or limited way.

Levin: I would guess that, for you, the concept of assessing values is one of those overarching approaches that indeed has international application—assessing values is a critical part of the process, no matter where it takes place.

Lennon: I would love it to be so.

LeBlanc: Are there topics or ideas that you would like to bring forward that we haven't discussed yet?

Lennon: I think one of the ideas in the questions posed about whether to develop more charters is more about this reflection and revision. I agree with Cevat that it's about the variety of approaches. I think we're not very good at evaluating how effective things have been. If we were honest, we would have to look at some of the failures and try to deal with that without it being an international diplomatic incident. I think there's humility in looking at approaches that haven't worked for particular regional situations and coming up with a reassessment of the values rather than abandoning conservation.

Levin: Jane, are you suggesting that the process of reflection and revision takes place best at a regional or a national level, as opposed to an international level?

Lennon: It would be very hard to do it internationally. In Australia, it's taken five years to get new national heritage legislation passed where we look at the national values. Partly that's been influenced by the desire to clarify what we would take to the World Heritage table. So we're looking at a tiered system—outstanding universal value has to come from many regions of the world, and all the examples can't be comparable. We're trying to look at national value ourselves as part of that reflection. I'm not sure whether other countries are making new legislation. So it's the political framework in which you look at the cultural heritage factors, as well.

Erder: Well, again I am referring to my experience. There were two scientific committees in ICOMOS—a committee on terminology and a committee on ethics in conservation. I still wonder why neither lasted very long. I have the impression that when you try to regularize things very definitively, you won't be very successful because you are dealing with culture. The other thing that I always wondered about is the profile of the conservator. We work in a very difficult world. What type of human being works in this field, really a very unrewarding field? We have to be passionate, hardworking, and stubborn in our dogma. To establish dogma is a human trait, I believe. However, we do not have the right to impose our dogma on others.

Levin: One impression that I'm taking from this conversation is that you both see a process in which questions and ideas are appropriately raised at an international level but really can't be answered at that same level. People have to go home to their own environments and address those questions in that setting.

Lennon: Yes, but I also think there's this need to feel part of the international community. As the only nation occupying a whole continent, we very much feel the need to be aware of the international context in which we work. Obviously the solutions have to be local. But I concur with what Cevat is saying about the political dimension and the technical dimension. Part of that belonging relates to the political and the international legal instruments and conventions and charters. Then it's the training and it's the profile of the conservators. I think what gives conservators their passion to continue the work, even if it's not very fashionable, is this feeling of belonging to a greater community with principles and practice. I don't think we need to be focused so much on charters. It's more about the process. We really have to look at assessment of values and this concept of significance and then go back and evaluate whether we're really conserving those values by a range of techniques. We need more debate about that at the professional level.

Levin: Are you saying that this proliferation of charters and conventions has perhaps distracted some from another kind of process that might have been more valuable to focus on?

Lennon: Yes. You just have to keep on with it and not be distracted by these things.

Erder: I agree. For example, when we started in the 1960s, we were talking about historic monuments. Now we are not talking at all about historic monuments. We are talking about cultural properties—including intangible ones. I am very happy to be part of that process in the dynamic world of conservation.