By Jeff Cody and Kecia Fong

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During the seventh century—along the Mekong River in what is now the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Lao PDR)—an extensive, fortified city flourished as an important regional trading center. For its inhabitants, the natural land formations near the city signified a holy site and inspired them to build temple complexes dedicated to Hindu gods. One of the most important temples came to be known as Vat Phou.

Fourteen hundred years later, the town of Champasak is home to the World Heritage site of Vat Phou. There, in spring 2008, twenty-five young conservation professionals from Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Myanmar, and the Lao PDR participated in a two-week workshop organized by the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) with three other partners: the Lao PDR's Ministry of Information and Culture, the Lerici Foundation, and SEAMEO-SPAFA (the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization Regional Centre for Archaeology and Fine Arts). Entitled From Risk Assessment to Conservation: Safeguarding Archaeological Complexes in the Mekong Region, the workshop was the inaugural event of the GCI's Built Heritage in Southeast Asia Conservation Education and Training Initiative.

Creating the Initiative

Although many domestic and international organizations are working in Southeast Asia, the region remains in need of more focused conservation education. In the early 2000s, the GCI decided that it wanted to complement the efforts of others in strategic ways by improving regional conservation practices and building a community of local conservation practitioners. The shape and direction of the GCI initiative developed from an assessment conducted by the GCI that identified several areas of conservation need:

  • archaeological sites,
  • materials conservation,
  • mixed archaeological and urban contexts,
  • urban development and conservation planning,
  • built heritage conservation education.

The needs assessment also raised questions. Should the educational work be geared to professionals from several Asian countries (with different languages, economies, and politics), as opposed to those from an individual country? If the intended audience comes from many countries, then where, geographically, should the GCI focus its activities? How, and with whom should partnerships be forged? How should instructors from outside the region teach participants who came from within the region? What would be the duration of the GCI's contact with any one group or the duration of any individual activity? This last question of duration touched upon issues of sustainability and capacity building.

With these questions and the needs assessment in mind, GCI Education staff designed an initiative with three overlapping components:

  1. field workshops for conservation professionals,
  2. didactic materials for conservation education, and
  3. meetings of topical interest for professionals in conservation and other related fields.

Each component is geared toward a particular audience. The field workshops, which are for practicing field professionals, are characterized by practical, problem-based learning on site. The didactic materials component is being developed collaboratively with Southeast Asian educators and practicing professionals to create region-specific case studies for use in academic and training programs. The meetings of topical interest are for professionals of diverse skills whose work impacts heritage conservation but who are not necessarily conservation professionals. Collectively these components, launched in 2008, address both formal and informal modes of learning at various stages of a professional's lifelong learning process.

The Initiative in Action

The field workshops are envisioned as a series of intensive activities that cohere around themes that vary according to the conservation challenges of a particular site. Participants represent a variety of skill sets, including, but not limited to, archaeology, architecture, landscape architecture, engineering, and urban planning; this diversity reflects the interdisciplinary nature of conservation and the reality of the professionals who actually perform conservation work.

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The 2008 Vat Phou workshop focused on assessing a site holistically as a dynamic, interconnected place, rather than as a series of disparate, static monuments, and it emphasized the importance of understanding the site in the context of its broader geographic and social dimension. By mapping layers of value over perceived risks to the site, participants were able to begin prioritizing risks and needs. The workshop promoted a practical, value-based methodology predicated upon identifying risk and prioritizing problems so that effective solutions could be implemented. In terms of pedagogy, multiple means were used to engage the participants, especially since the language of instruction (English) posed an inevitable challenge. In addition to formal lectures, emphasis was placed on more interactive teaching methods, which included guided discussions, participant presentations, group work, diagnostic fieldwork, and field trips.

The second workshop in this series—to be held at Chiang Saen in northern Thailand—will take place in November 2009. At this workshop, the concepts and methodology taught at Vat Phou will be reinforced and applied in a location where an urban settlement is developing in the midst of a large archaeological site. Community participation in conservation decisions is likely to be an important component of the curriculum. We anticipate that a core group of participants from the Vat Phou workshop will continue with the Chiang Saen workshop; thus, ample opportunity will be provided for learning and practicing new methodologies and for promoting contact within this evolving regional community of conservation practitioners.

While lifelong learning for professionals is essential, there remains a great need for didactic materials at the academic level. This was the clarion call of the 2008 Directors' Retreat (see Conservation, vol. 23, no. 2), organized by the GCI, where twenty leaders and practitioners of conservation programs in the Asia Pacific region related to built heritage gathered to discuss the gaps between the content of Asian Pacific conservation programs and the needs of the field. The GCI will take a leadership role in working with local educators and practitioners to develop region-specific case studies.

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The third component focuses on nonconservation profes-sionals whose work impacts heritage. They are often neglected but critical participants in heritage protection. Fostering constructive dialogues among several kinds of professionals was one of the key objectives of the recent forum held in Siem Reap, Cambodia, this past October. Coorganized by the GCI in conjunction with three other national and international organizations, the forum brought together forty Cambodian and foreign experts; these included developers, economists, planners, tourism officials, monks, and conservation professionals. They discussed how the rapid and often unregulated urbanization of Siem Reap can be detrimental to the historic resources of nearby Angkor Archaeological Park and its local residents. The forum's lively exchange of views underscored the importance of understanding the interrelationships between dynamic development and conservation—as opposed to seeing them solely in conflict with each other. The summary points resulting from the forum's discussions, including recommendations for action, will appear in a final report that will be sent to both APSARA (Authority for Protection and Management of Angkor and the Region of Siem Reap) and the Siem Reap provincial government.

The GCI's Southeast Asia Initiative—with its multifaceted design and diverse pedagogical approaches—seeks to engage a broad spectrum of conservation professionals. It is hoped that the three complementary components of the initiative will support learning and improved conservation practice, not just at a single point in the careers of Southeast Asian practitioners but at various stages of their professional lives.

Jeff Cody is a senior project specialist and Kecia Fong is a project specialist with GCI Education.