By Dario Gamboni

The concept of "world heritage" is a relatively modern one. As French author and statesman André Malraux wrote in 1957, "for a long time the worlds of art were as mutually exclusive as were humanity's different religions." He noted that "each civilization had its own holy places," which now, however, were "being discovered as those of the whole of humanity." Malraux observed that for the first time, "dying fetishes have taken on a significance they never had before, in the world of the images with which human creativity has defied the passage of time, a world which has at last conquered time."

Although this concept of world heritage is one of the 20th century, it builds upon older concepts, such as the "historic monument" and "cultural property." It shares with them the idea that certain objects possess a symbolic value that transcends their use and that a collective interest in their preservation takes precedence over owners' rights to use or abuse their property.

The concepts of monuments and heritage originated in cultic objects and practices crucial to the identity and continuity of collective entities such as family, dynasty, city, state, and, most important, nation. The idea of a historic monument implied an awareness of a break with the past and the need for a rational reappropriation (or a retrospective construction) of tradition. Its artistic dimension further required the autonomy of aesthetic values that had appeared in the Renaissance. The crisis of the French Revolution—which made a historical and artistic interpretation of the material legacy of the ancien régime indispensable to its survival—accelerated this evolution. The term vandalism, with its reference to the devastation of the Roman Empire by "barbarians," condemned attacks against this legacy by excluding their perpetrators from the civilized community.

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The art theorist Quatremère de Quincy, protesting against the looting of Italy by the French armies, expressed an early formulation of the idea of world heritage in 1796: "the riches of the sciences and the arts are such only because they belong to the universe as a whole; as long as they are public and well maintained, the country with which they are lodged is irrelevant: it is only the guardian of my museum." In this prophetic view, ownership became stewardship, and rights gave way to duties. However, the "universe" it evoked was still limited to "civilized Europe," and protection applied essentially to Rome, heir to Greece and the "capital city of the Republic of the arts."

In the 19th century, the development of capitalism, industry, and technology, together with the belief in progress and modernization, led to an enormous increase in the destruction of material culture. Confronted with this destruction, English critic John Ruskin asked from his generation that it become a steward instead of an owner. In reference to historic buildings, he wrote in 1849: "We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us." Ruskin regarded restoration as the worst form of destruction because it meant "a destruction accompanied with false descriptions of the thing destroyed."

But the construction of a national heritage—as a decisive contribution to the definition, promotion, and celebration of national identity—implied a considerable degree of intervention and was often predicated upon the manipulation or obliteration of earlier, competing cultural, regional, or transnational entities. On a larger scale, colonialism, ethnology, and the development of museums encouraged the destruction, the selective preservation, and the appropriation and concentration in the West of relics from the material culture of the whole world.

A growing consensus about the importance of cultural heritage and the necessity to protect it was finally prompted by the two world wars, unprecedented in their inclusion of civil targets and means of destruction. Cultural heritage thus became included in the attempts to achieve an international management of conflicts and to limit the damages and sufferings inflicted by wars.

International Protections

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Measures for the protection of cultural heritage were adopted in the Hague Peace Conferences of 1899 and 1907, but they had little effect during the First World War. Nonetheless, by then, "vandalism" had become an argument of propaganda, and the parties in conflict accused each other of intentional destructions. Other attempts at heritage protection followed, such as the Pact of Washington in 1935 (also known as the Roerich Pact) and the creation of a commission by the League of Nations in 1938.

The most important breakthrough came after the Second World War, in the context of the new international treaties and institutions, with the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict of 1954 (the Hague Convention). Its text made the idea of world heritage a central argument for the adoption of international rules. It stated clearly that "damage to cultural property belonging to any people whatsoever means damage to the cultural heritage of all mankind, since each people makes its contribution to the culture of the whole world."

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In the 1960s and 1970s, UNESCO adopted several recommendations and two conventions dealing with the protection of cultural property. The 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property reflected the expansion of the notion of cultural heritage and the construction of its national versions in developing countries. The 1968 Recommendation Concerning the Preservation of Cultural Property Endangered by Public or Private Works and the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage were in response to the impact of the worldwide expansion of technological progress and modernization in a time of peace. The introduction to the 1972 Convention declared that while the responsibility for ensuring conservation of the elements of world heritage situated in its territory lies primarily with each state, "it is the duty of the international community as a whole to cooperate in ensuring the conservation of a heritage which is of universal character." A World Heritage Committee was made responsible for the establishment, updating, and publication of a World Heritage List and a World Heritage in Danger List. The protection of heritage benefited increasingly from private institutions and nongovernmental organizations such as the World Monuments Fund, created in 1965, and, more recently, the International Committee of the Blue Shield (ICBS), formed in 1996 by the International Council on Archives, the International Council of Museums, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, and the International Federation of Library Associations.

The creation of the ICBS followed the war in the former Yugoslavia, which was an internal rather than an international conflict and which was rooted in competing claims about identity, turning the elimination of cultural property into a major weapon instead of a by-product of military operations. The conflict prompted a critical assessment of the Hague Convention and resulted in the Second Protocol to the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.

At the conference on the Second Protocol in 1999, the director-general of UNESCO, Federico Mayor, noted that the recent assaults on the heritage were "part of the attack on the people themselves" and left an enduring trauma "because of the much greater difficulty of people's rehabilitation when everything dear and known to them has been swept away." The Second Protocol extends application of the Hague Convention to internal conflicts and takes into account progress in international humanitarian law, such as the statutes for an International Criminal Court, which makes crimes against cultural property an extraditable offense. It also plans to place under enhanced protection cultural property designated as "of the greatest importance for humanity" and to elect a committee in a manner that ensures "an equitable representation of the different regions and cultures of the world." But the Second Protocol has yet to reach the minimum of 20 signatories that it needs before it can become operational.

The Impact of World Heritage

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What has been the impact of the concept of world heritage on attacks against art and cultural property? To answer that question would require a long inquiry, complicated by the fact that for all its protective intent, the notion and its expansion are part of a process of modernization and globalization that has considerable destructive implications. In a sense, "world heritage" is an ambulance that follows an army and tries to precede it.

The summary account given above can suggest that all would be well if the international measures adopted for the protection of cultural heritage could be implemented. But although things would certainly be better, there are more fundamental problems. One of them is the ambivalent character of listing. Claiming for certain objects a special attention and protection has the simultaneous and sometimes more real effect of abandoning other objects to environmental, economic, or political hazards. This character can be minimized, but it is inevitable to the extent that preservation and destruction are two sides of the same coin. "Heritage" results from a continuous process of interpretation and selection that attributes to certain objects (rather than to others) resources that postpone their degradation. Quatremère de Quincy and Ruskin tended to advocate a sort of passive preservation. However, we have come to recognize that designating something as heritage is a critical act, leaving no object untransformed.

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This reality gives a great weight to the author and to the criteria of this selection, particularly when there exist competing authorities about, and definitions of, a given heritage. In this sense, the concept of world heritage suffers from the fact that it amplifies an idea originating in the West and tends to require an attitude toward material culture that is also distinctly Western in origin, as critics of the "religion" or "cult" of heritage point out. For French architectural historian Françoise Choay, the "ecumenical expansion of heritage practices" is supported by the globalization of Western values and references, and this worldwide conversion is fraught with difficulties, resistance, and misunderstandings. And while "cultural consumption"—for instance, by tourists—is often crucial in providing the incentive and the means for preservation, it can result in the physical and intellectual destruction of the cultural objects being "consumed."

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David Lowenthal—author of The Past Is a Foreign Country and Possessed by the Past—also ties the particular focus of preservation to the global diffusion of nationalism and capitalism, which makes "material relics precious symbols of power and icons of identity." While recognizing the benefits of material preservation, he emphasizes its costs, contradictions, and problems—for instance, the segregation of the past and the stress engendered by multiple claimants, since "a material relic can be in only one place at a time." He also reproaches it with excluding other ways of coming to terms with a legacy (more common in other cultures), such as preserving fragments, representations, or processes rather than products. Even if they are meant metaphorically, the terms cultural property and cultural heritage connote physicality and ownership, suggesting that collective memory is supported primarily by tangible goods. Professor Frank Matero notes that "for some traditional societies, the concepts and practices of conservation are often viewed as antithetical to the role of continuing traditions." But that tradition is dynamic, he adds, and even when conservation professionals intervene as cultural "outsiders," they can shape conservation treatments and policies in a "culturally appropriate" way—that is, in accordance with the beliefs and values of the relevant groups. However, what if there are conflicting beliefs and values, or if those beliefs require material elimination rather than preservation?

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The Buddhas of Bamiyan

Major steps in the protection of cultural heritage often follow the acknowledgment of failures. A recent case in point could be the Taliban's decision to eliminate all pre-Islamic artifacts in Afghanistan—and especially their destruction of the two fifth-century giant statues of Buddha located in Bamiyan. These acts were condemned by international institutions as an assault on world heritage—the General Assembly of the United Nations termed them an "irreparable loss for all mankind"—but they could in no way be prevented. As a result, UNESCO has established a special policy to rescue as much Afghan heritage as possible, supporting nonprofit organizations working to take cultural objects into safe custody.

As with many earlier iconoclastic actions, there are diverse and often contradictory indications about the Taliban's motivations and purposes. Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar's edict of February 26, 2001, stated that the statues "should be destroyed so that they are not worshiped now or in the future." This is consistent with the general ban on images, including family photographs, imposed upon the Afghan population by the Taliban rulers, whose ultraconservative culture is influenced by their Pashtun ethnic origin and their adherence to the Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam. The official religious motive must therefore possess some relevance; according to one source, a visit to the Bamiyan statues by Italian Buddhists triggered the decision, and it is more generally noted that Taliban clerics had objected to pre-Islamic figures on display in the briefly reopened Kabul museum.

However, no one could ignore the fact that the Buddhas at Bamiyan had lost their religious function over a millennium ago, and that other Islamic authorities and countries unequivocally protested against their elimination. Moreover, the Taliban's own official position previously had been to protect Afghanistan's cultural heritage; in July 1999, Mullah Omar had issued a decree inspired by international conventions.

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Other factors must therefore have been involved—some regarding military operations and internal politics, others regarding international relationships. The Bamiyan province houses the Afghan Shiite Muslim minority, and in the months and weeks preceding the edict, it had changed hands several times between the Taliban and the opposition. The cave surrounding the largest statue of Buddha had even been used by one of the Taliban's opponents to store ammunition, until the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan's Cultural Heritage (SPACH), an organization created in 1994, had obtained the removal of this hazard.

There are several international factors to consider. According to some commentators, the order to destroy idols served to cover up the widespread smuggling of valuable pre-Islamic artifacts out of the country, especially toward Pakistan—smuggling that could only be carried out with the connivance of Taliban authorities. But many signs relate the decision to destroy the Buddhas of Bamiyan to the Taliban's frustration at failing to achieve international recognition and to the economic sanctions imposed upon the country by the United Nations Security Council because of its alleged links to Islamic terrorism. Mullah Omar's edict was issued while a SPACH delegation was in the country and during an international conference organized by UNESCO in Paris that was focused on the fate of cultural heritage in Central Asia.

The Taliban's failure to obtain recognition by the United Nations—which, by the way, made it impossible to nominate the Bamiyan Buddhas for the World Heritage List—weakened the position of the moderates among them, who had obtained the reopening of the Kabul museum. It may also have turned the concern for the statues expressed by the international community, whose ostracism the Taliban resented, to the monuments' disadvantage. Returning or reducing the Buddhas to their original religious function (against all evidence to the contrary)—and exercising upon them the most radical right of the owner—amounted to a provocative affirmation of sovereignty, not only upon the territory and the people but upon the values.

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If this interpretation is correct, the Taliban refused to take part in the world cult evoked by Malraux, instead subjecting it to the primacy of their understanding of Islam. This meant defining the Buddhas as idols but attacking them as works of art and icons of cultural heritage. A Taliban envoy later declared that the decision had been made "in a reaction of rage after a foreign delegation offered money to preserve the ancient works at a time when a million Afghans faced starvation." The Taliban's disingenuous expressions of surprise at the outrage caused by their act—Mullah Omar was quoted as making the typically iconoclastic statement, "we're only breaking stones"—can also be understood as a criticism of Western materialism. This criticism is typical of a movement that, in the words of one commentator, "draws vitality from the perceived evils of foreign cultural imperialism."

Like the emblem developed in the 20th century to signal monuments worthy of special protection, the notion of world heritage, intended as a shield, may instead act as a target. This is hardly surprising. The history of iconoclasm shows abundantly that the act of symbolizing—tying certain objects to certain values—sometimes has contradictory effects. It recommends certain objects to the care of those who share these values but attracts the aggression of those who reject them or who feel rejected by them. In 1915, Hungarian historian Julius von Végh wrote that "even our age of rational thinking and middle-class self-control" did not prevent art from being endangered, "all the more as it stands today more than ever at the center of interest of all civilized people, a world of its own, a guarantee for the modern spirit and thus, at the same time, its Achilles heel, the point at which the cultivated may most easily be touched."

Within Western societies today, attacks against works of art often spring from situations or feelings of exclusion and from the absence of access to legitimate means of expression. On the world level, the real success of the idea of world heritage will depend upon the degree to which the universalism born of European Enlightenment comes to be perceived as truly universal, rather than appearing as a new form of colonialism or the cultural face of economic globalization. This cannot be provided by Malraux's "imaginary museum"—a "world of images" unified and devoid of conflicts. Instead, what we will need is a forum in which several worlds, with differing visions of heritage or legacy, can come into contact, communicate, and negotiate those differences.

Dario Gamboni is a professor at the Institute of Art History of the University of Amsterdam and the author of The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution.