By Jean-Louis Luxen

We have come a long way since the drafting of the Charter of Athens in 1931 and the Charter of Venice in 1964. Today there is widespread agreement on the definition of heritage as a social ensemble of many different complex and interdependent manifestations, reflecting the culture of a human community. The concept of conservation represents an insistence on harmony, over time, between a social group and its environment, whether natural or human-made, while the protection of this harmony is perceived as a major aspect of sustainable human development.

There is no question that international debates have deepened and expanded the notions of heritage and conservation. This evolution has included the drawing up of charters and conventions, which in turn has given impetus to further developments. In the course of the last few years, there has been a considerable increase in such documents. There are now dozens of them, constituting hundreds of published pages.

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Scientists and conservation experts regularly refer in their studies and practices to the principles contained in these documents, which are intended to be universal in scope. It is generally believed that these principles make possible advancement in at least three major areas: in practice, in doctrine, and in the dialogue among cultures.

Today, however, questions are being raised as to the reality of these contributions. There is growing unease over these conventions and charters—the relevance and authority of which are sometimes contested.

With regard to practice, some critics cite examples in which the norms laid out in charters and conventions are not respected, either through ignorance or by deliberate choice. Diverging interpretations can also be observed, with professionals opting for contradictory interventions in the name of the same principles. In terms of doctrine, many people criticize these texts for seeking a common denominator and often for being too general. At the same time, the proliferation of documents appears to undermine their credibility. Some compare texts and raise questions regarding their coherence, suggesting that their juxtaposition creates confusion and leaves too much room for differing interpretations. With respect to international dialogue, charters and conventions are criticized for having a high rate of failure. Imbalances between different regions and types of heritage have led to different approaches to conservation, fueling tensions and undermining exchanges of ideas and experiences. In addition, the multilateral approach to heritage is losing ground in the context of international cooperation.

Yet, unquestionably, in a context of rapid social change, there has been tremendous progress in heritage conservation over the last 40 years. It is important to remember these advances in order to have an enlightened view of the contributions made by these documents.

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Practice, Doctrine, and Dialogue

With regard to practice, the norms expressed in charters and conventions have had a positive effect all over the world. Their general message has been acknowledged, and recommendations have been widely followed. In nearly all countries, professionals have drawn up inventories of heritage, often accompanied by thematic reports and scientific publications. Official services have been established, creating a systematic policy on conservation and providing a framework for the management of sites. Despite divergences and errors, in general such practices seek to follow standards considered universal, as laid down in international texts. In addition, the public has become increasingly sensitive to the cause of protecting heritage.

With respect to doctrine, significant progress has been made. In the 1970s, convergence between cultural heritage specialists and environmental conservationists—at that time already more efficiently organized at the international level—led to the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. There has been progress in bringing movable and immovable cultural properties—and tangible and intangible heritage—closer together. The way has also been opened to incorporate different types of heritage, including industrial, vernacular, and 20th-century heritage, as well as cultural routes. Through examination of the conditions under which heritage can be considered a resource, the economic aspect of heritage is being taken into account. The questions asked have graduated from "how to conserve?" to "why conserve?"—and then to "for whom to conserve?" To a large extent, the drawing up of new charters and conventions is the result of the extension of the concept of heritage. What sometimes appears to be a proliferation may simply be a reflection of new realities that are more varied and complex.

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As for international dialogue, the exchange between professionals and the different cultures of the world produced by the process of formulating principles is improving practices and strengthening doctrine. Fruitful dialectics have been established at national and international levels, with different parties contributing ideas and experiences, comparing them with others, and making advances possible in terms of quality and innovations. Africa and Oceania, for example, have shed light on the importance of the intimate relationship between culture and nature. They have highlighted the intangible dimension of physical heritage and triggered the examination of the meaning and values of heritage in all acts of conservation and restoration. Another example is the Far East, which has placed emphasis on the importance of traditional crafts and skills as a cultural heritage in their own right, based on the original concept of "living cultural treasures." The search for a universal dimension for norms that are more in line with the rich diversity of heritage and culture has led to a new definition of the concept of authenticity, as demonstrated in the Nara Document on Authenticity (1994).

Although international standards are not applied with the same rigor everywhere, this is more the consequence of the economic and social conditions of the different countries and regions rather than the result of differing cultural approaches. This is true even among European countries. Admittedly, norms were originally influenced by the European—and even the Mediterranean—context, but they have been enriched considerably by contributions from other regions of the world. After all, the conservation and restoration methods of Japanese temples or Chinese tombs follow a long tradition of rigor, which applied the concepts of the charters before they were even written. And management methods based on strong traditional customs and practices are considered to be the equivalent of "management plans"—and, as a matter of fact, are sometimes more effective.

But while successive charters, conventions, and recommendations should be considered as both the source and the reflection of considerable progress, doubts linger among some, and criticism persists. Because of this, steps should be taken to avoid compromising the credibility of all these texts.

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Terminology and Scope

Before an analysis of these highly varied documents is carried out, it is important to define their terminology and scope. Unfortunately, confusion frequently prevails in this area.

"Conventions" and "recommendations" emanate from intergovernmental organizations such as UNESCO, the Council of Europe, and other public international agencies. Once conventions—such as the Convention on the Illicit Traffic of Cultural Property (1970), the Convention on Biological Diversity (1992), or the European Convention on Landscapes (2000)—are signed and ratified, they are binding for the member states. Although "recommendations" do not have the force of law, they bring together for public authorities and other stakeholders highly recommended management guidelines. Examples include the Recommendation Concerning the Safeguarding of Landscapes and Sites (1962), the Recommendation for the Protection of Movable Cultural Property (1978), and numerous recommendations by the Council of Europe. These norms are considered public inter-national law, and before being adopted and applied, they are subject to meticulous preparations and consultations between states to ensure the widest possible consensus.

"Charters," "codes of ethics," "principles," and other "documents" have moral rather than legal authority. They usually set forth principles and codes of good conduct that professionals set for themselves to serve as guidelines for their practices. The virtues of this self-regulatory collective approach include its flexibility and its ability to adapt to change. This category includes the charters of Athens and of Venice, the specific charters on Historic Gardens (1987) and Cultural Tourism (1999), and the codes of ethics of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) and the International Council of Archives (ICA). To acquire strong moral credibility, these norms need to be the outcome of very broad consultations, involving as many professionals as possible from all regions of the world.

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It should be noted that a fertile relationship can grow between charters and conventions of varying scopes. Thus, the Charter on Underwater Cultural Heritage (1996) prepared the ground for UNESCO to adopt the Convention of 2001 on the same theme. Likewise, it frequently happens that public authorities responsible for museums refer to the ICOM Code of Ethics or that courts base their decisions on the principles of a given charter.

All these documents form a considerable corpus of norms to be combined with national and regional legislation in each country. In addition to cultural heritage, they cover regional and urban planning, as well as the protection of nature and the environment. There are not many who can claim to have complete knowledge and understanding of these norms, and it is easy to understand why most people get lost in the profusion of documents.

Effective Dissemination

Frequently these norms are not well disseminated. A striking example is the lack of knowledge of the Recommendation Concerning the Protection, at National Level, of Cultural and Natural Heritage, adopted in 1972, in the same year as the widely known Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. While these UNESCO texts are complementary, the Recommendation is much more comprehensive and concrete, and hence more useful for everyday management—but it is not nearly as well known.

On the whole, better dissemination is required so that the stakeholders can refer to the texts themselves, preferably in their native language. These texts are far from being readily available, and they are even less available in accurate translations. Another factor is that these texts are not always accompanied by detailed and clear commentaries that would make them more understandable to the managers of sites and construction projects. Because of this lack of knowledge, an initiative is often taken to prepare a new charter for a problem already dealt with. For example, the ICOMOS Charter for the Conservation of Historic Towns and Urban Areas (1987), also known as the Washington Charter, did not contribute anything new to the Recommendation Concerning the Safeguarding and Contemporary Role of Historic Areas, adopted by UNESCO 11 years earlier! Not enough emphasis has been placed on the need to review existing documents before aspiring to innovate. In general, priority should be given to the broad and effective dissemination of existing texts. While efforts have been made in this direction, especially through Internet sites, they remain inadequate.

It should be acknowledged that the formulation of norms is, in many cases, very general, since they seek to cover a wide variety of specific situations. Consequently, this general formulation leaves the door open to differing interpretations. Efforts have been made to overcome this difficulty by developing guidelines geared toward the particular circumstances of a country. Thus, the recently adopted Principles for the Conservation of Heritage Sites in China (2002) consist of two distinctive parts: the "Principles," of general scope, and the "Commentary," which deals in a detailed and explicit manner with Chinese heritage. Another example is the Burra Charter, which provides a synthesis of the latest ideas on conservation applicable to Australia, with a very clear outline of the decision-making process.

In the same spirit, more practical manuals can also be proposed to guide site managers and decision makers on the measures to be taken day by day. The management guidelines for World Cultural Sites and the guidelines for risk preparedness, published by ICCROM, convert the major principles of charters and conventions into advice on management. Similarly, the World Tourism Organization has taken the initiative to publish the handbooks Visitor Management and Congestion Management in Cultural and Natural Sites. These publications illustrate the Global Code of Ethics of the organization and the charter on Cultural Tourism in concrete terms, using models of good practice. The time is clearly ripe for the publication of works that are simple, clear, inexpensive, and available in several languages.

Indeed, it is simple and clear language that is often missing. There is an unfortunate tendency to develop a specific jargon and concepts whose definitions are not obvious to all, especially given language differences. Thus, the problems raised and the vocabulary used during the discussions on the implementation of the Convention on the World Heritage and, more specifically, in the latest version of the Operational Guidelines, are probably fully understood by no more than 200 people worldwide—and perhaps not by even a single site manager.

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Another difficulty that has arisen relates to the adaptation of norms to changes in ideas, social life, and techniques. This is why revising conventions can turn out to be a problematic exercise. It required many years, for example, to adopt the Additional Protocol to The Hague Convention of 1954. Another example is provided by the recent adoption, in 2003, of the Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Heritage, at a time when it appeared impossible to many states to extend further the concepts and arrangements of the convention on the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. But was a new convention really necessary? Some people question whether this was the moment to treat the intangible aspect separately instead of carrying out a more in-depth study on the relationship between the physical and intangible dimensions of heritage.

As for charters, ICOMOS has decided not to update the 1964 Charter of Venice and instead has opted to adopt complementary charters dealing with specific types of heritage and new themes. This approach has led to the drawing up of new texts of unequal value, superimposed over already existing ones, a practice that intensifies the impression of proliferation. In this regard, the option chosen by ICOM and ICA of periodic but infrequent revisions of their codes of ethics seems more appropriate. This is also the approach made in respect to the Burra Charter, which is revised from time to time.

Affirming Universal Values

At a more fundamental level, the credibility of conventions is compromised when they fail to attain their objectives. This is true of the World Heritage Convention, ratified by a record 178 states, which is consequently the flagship of the fleet of conventions. The goal of this idealistic text is to identify the sites "of outstanding universal value" and to promote their good conservation through international cooperation. However, it is recognized that the imbalances in the World Heritage List between the various types of heritage and the different regions of the world undermine its ambition to be truly representative. Despite determined "global strategy" measures taken since 1994 to remedy this situation, the imbalances persist and are becoming more marked. This is because international cooperation in the area of heritage is, in fact, a reflection of more general conditions that prevail in the world today: unbridled economic liberalism, glaring inequalities between countries, identity claims that are sometimes in conflict, and the crisis currently affecting multilateral institutions.

Very frequently, the main motive behind the development of a site—and even its inclusion in the World Heritage List—is to promote tourism, with economic imperatives that neglect good conservation principles. Buffer zones, traditional urban areas, or the natural environment around protected sites are being altered completely by economic pressure, especially in developing countries. Or, quite simply, the lack of resources prevents certain countries from compiling the nomination file required to have their heritage recognized. And when, in order to ensure fairer representation, new categories of heritage are identified, such as cultural landscapes or cultural routes, it is again the countries with the necessary resources that are the first to submit nomination files.

Another well-known negative factor is that heritage is often used as a tool of national, and even chauvinistic, affirmation, in total negation of the evidence of the various influences, absorbed over time and space, that are reflected in heritage.

This self-centered attitude is also seen in the instances of leading nations displaying reluctance to be part of world governance based on international law. In the field of heritage, the relatively low level of ratification of the Convention on the Illicit Traffic of Cultural Property (103 countries) and The Hague Convention (110 countries) are examples. Is it therefore surprising that some countries question the universal character of values that are supposed to serve as the foundation of world governance—including human rights and the principles advocated in the field of heritage?

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This is why nongovernmental organizations have an important role to play in the name of civil society. Because they have the necessary distance from the political authorities, it is up to scientists and professionals to remain in active contact, to stimulate the debate, and to highlight constantly the universal values of heritage and the basis for its conservation—authenticity, integrity, management plans, integrated conservation, reversibility of interventions, and the presentation and interpretation of sites. Today, taking into account new communication technologies, a priority is to respond to the increasing demand of visitors for a plural and interactive reading of heritage and the cultures it reflects. We must reject the prospect of a "clash of civilizations" by reaffirming the need for a dialogue among cultures.

Used wisely, recommendations, charters, codes of ethics, and other handbooks continue to be vital tools for the protection of heritage. Because there is already a considerable corpus of normative texts—a reflection of the impressive extension of the concepts related to heritage—priority should be given to the dissemination of these documents, through public awareness campaigns and training, and to their effective implementation. It would also be very useful to adapt international norms to the specific situations of regions or countries, in more accessible, explicit, and detailed guidelines and in the local language—a process already undertaken in some places. In addition, there is a need for practical handbooks on specific topics, such as visitor management and interpretation.

Given that there is a constant need for intellectual development and progress in practice—through the international exchange of ideas and experiences—it is probable that new conventions, charters, and the like will be drawn up. One would hope that more normative texts would be developed only if they bring added value, avoid divergent interpretations, and reflect a wide consensus among heritage professionals and different regions of the world. In grappling with all of these issues, we should not lose sight of what is—or should be—the ultimate objective of heritage conservation: the affirmation of universal values and the encouragement of mutual understanding.

Jean-Louis Luxen is the former secretary-general of ICOMOS. He is currently president of Culture, Heritage and Development International ASBL (CHEDI), which is based in Brussels.

Abstracts of cultural heritage policy documents discussed in this issue of Conservation—with links to full-text documents, where available—can be found on the Getty Web site at