US/ICOMOS International Symposium on World Heritage and Social Justice

By Melissa Stevens

US/ICOMOS held their International Symposium and Conference, U.S. World Heritage and Social Justice in the 21st Century on Nov. 12,  2020. According to the US/ICOMOS website, the symposium “promotes the conservation of world heritage and stronger connections to the global heritage community through advocacy, education, and the international exchange of people and ideas” 

The virtual symposium featured distinguished speakers from around the world discussing the relationship between World Heritage sites and issues of social justice. Many of the speakers reflected on the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and its global impacts on heritage interpretation, management, and discourse. The BLM movement has brought racial and social justice issues to the forefront of public consciousness on a global scale and has been a catalyst for widespread activism and policy change. The sessions illuminated the fact that these conversations have a long history in heritage research and practice. 

Traditional approaches presented “heritage” through a Western lens, celebrating colonialism and reflecting European tastes and values in the creation of monuments and the designation of World Heritage sites. Missing from these representations of heritage was the history and cultures of non-western societies and specifically the victims of slavery and colonization. Criticisms of this narrow view of heritage eventually grew into meaningful changes in the ways that UNESCO and individual nations have considered heritage and how to best define, manage, and protect it. However, work continues to be done to address issues of systemic racism and marginalization and to ensure that recognition of “World Heritage” is truly inclusive of the world’s rich cultural diversity. 

The first day’s theme was Social Justice, Civil Rights, and Slavery. The plenary featured a conversation between Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Lonnie G. Bunch III and former National Park Service (NPS) Director and Advisory Council on Historic Preservation Expert Member Robert Stanton. Each reflected on their experiences as African-American leaders in a largely White-dominated field and addressed the question of why they work in heritage. 

According to Bunch, “history is about today and tomorrow” can be a tool for racial justice by making what was invisible visible and illuminating the historical “arc of justice.” Stanton noted that nations must acknowledge their difficult histories to ensure a better future for everyone. The men agreed that heritage institutions like the NPS and the Smithsonian should model the diversity that they wish to see embraced by society by hiring a diverse staff and telling diverse stories. 

The day’s sessions focused on racial justice from a global perspective. In the session International Examples of Monuments Associated with Oppression, the speakers discussed the reevaluation, reclamation, and revision of monuments associated with oppression in the United Kingdom, Portugal, Latin America, and the Caribbean. In the U.K., monuments depicting heroes of the British Empire have become sites of cultural reckoning, where the tradition of romanticizing violent imperialism is confronted and rejected through protest, graffiti, and removal. In Lisbon, Portugal, a government-sponsored monument is about to be erected as a memorial to the victims of the Portuguese slave trade, recognizing their humanity, their suffering and resistance, their contributions to Portuguese society, and the lasting impacts of slavery. 

The monument will be placed in the city center, traditionally an area of exclusion for the city’s Black residents, and will include outdoor space for gathering and reflection as well as an interpretive center. Amidst the political turmoil of several Latin American countries in recent years, colonial monuments have become objects symbolizing popular fury at oppressive forms of power, both historic and contemporary. However, they have also ignited new creative expressions of national heritage that center the voices and cultures of Indigenous people after a long history of deliberate erasure by colonial and post-colonial powers. 

The second day’s theme Social Justice and Indigenous Peoples featured a plenary by Native American Affairs Liaison for the National Park Service Dorothy FireCloud. FireCloud’s obvious passion for ensuring that Native Americans feel welcome in national parks is personal and she has made it her goal to ensure that parks are open for traditional use and that native people can tell their own stories in park interpretations. 

Firecloud described how many native people feel unwelcomed in their own ancestral homes when they visit national parks that have been established on native lands. She has worked diligently to change this by updating signage and interpretation to include native voices, by creating programs that encourage the hiring and leadership training of native park staff, by working to ensure that native communities can continue traditional use of park lands, and by strengthening collaborative relationships between native communities and the NPS. Firecloud added that there is still much work to be done but that she is encouraged when she hears stories of park rangers telling native visitors “Welcome home.” 

The sessions on Day two focused on discussions about World Heritage and Indigenous peoples’ struggles for social justice, interpreting indigenous homeland World Heritage Sites, and diversifying and decolonizing World Heritage. Experts from around the world shared examples and best practices for democratizing World Heritage and ensuring that Indigenous communities are not just “consulted” in the interpretation and management of their heritage, but that they are leading the conversation and central in the decision-making. The co-management structure of the Uluru World Heritage Site in Australia was presented as a model of equitable joint management between Indigenous communities and state agencies, in which the management system is rooted in Aboriginal law and there are staff and facilities dedicated to cooperative management efforts. Glacier National Park was established as the first international peace park in 1932, and it occupies a trans-boundary landscape between the U.S. and Canada that includes Blackfeet lands within and adjacent to the park. The NPS and the Blackfeet Tribe signed the first treaty in almost 100 years when they set out to restore free-ranging bison to a landscape that includes park and tribal lands. 

The final session of the Symposium recognized the enormity of the work that still needs to be done to decolonize World Heritage, including the need to increase the representation of non-western cultures and stories, to stop privileging archaeological and architectural evidence in determining Outstanding Universal Value, to include more meaningful engagement with living communities, and to open up opportunities for heritage communities in low-income countries to participate in UNESCO.