Culture, Environment and Heritage:
Forging New Alliances to Create a Sustainable Future for the Past

World Heritage USA Annual Meeting and
2nd Annual International Symposium    

Washington, DC, 20-21 March 1999

Co-sponsored by the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation, George Washington University, and the National Park Service


How can one put value on heritage? What is culture worth?

In an era of shrinking resources and competing demands for government and private resources, both heritage and arts organizations are faced with this challenge far too frequently. In the U.S., the response has been to justify expenditures as an investment, to document increased property values in historic districts or to calculate the revenues generated by heritage tourism, museums and performing arts organizations. In programs developed by the World Bank, governments and private foundations, the role of culture and cultural heritage is currently being promoted as a foundation for social and economic development throughout the world.

This appeal to the bottom line seems particularly Western and very much of the moment. At other times and places, the appeal has been more spiritual or frankly political. In 19th century Japan, preservation of royal and religious sites was seen as a way of combating the threat of Westernization. Likewise, during the same time in the United States, heritage sites were often used to speed up the adoption of majority values by immigrants. In the Soviet Union during the 1970’s, preservation organizations provided one of the few safe ways for citizens to protest against the state. Today, in the Eastern European countries, especially the newly-formed republics, preservation is seen as a way of retrieving national identity which had been repressed by Soviets for several generations.

Whatever the time or the culture, the way that people organize and interpret the objects, buildings and landscapes of their past is reflected in the institutions and legislation that they create. To have long term resonance, programs must appeal to the head and the heart. They must be embraced by both politicians and the people who live with the resources. This raises many questions. For example, is it appropriate to use standards and philosophies developed in and for the West in non-Western cultures? Is heritage tourism a magic solution for funding conservation work or a new threat to authenticity? Are there success stories of integrating preservation into planning efforts as economic and political structures are radically changing in Eastern Europe and other locales? Finally, how can benefits identified from programs abroad be used to strengthen the position of preservation in the U.S.?

To seek some answers, the World Heritage USA invited an illustrious group of specialists from the US and abroad to share their vision at the World Heritage USA II International Annual Symposium.  These proceedings illustrate how leaders of key ICOMOS National Committees and experts from the World Bank, the Getty Conservation Institute, the Aga Khan Trust and others explore and seek to strengthen the links between heritage preservation and the greater conservation spectrum from culture to the national environment.

Presentations highlighted attitudes towards heritage and culture among various ethnic groups and geographic regions, with case studies of preservation programs which have been shaped by these attitudes. Specifically, 4 sessions were planned to addressing the challenges through a global approach, and then focusing on the Islamic World, the Americas and Eastern/Central Europe.

The Symposium also explored successful approaches developed by other cultural and environmental organizations and identify opportunities to turn competition into cooperation, always aiming to make heritage preservation more appealing, more fundable and, ultimately, more sustainable.