President’s Message: Innovation and Increasing Engagement in 2024

A Message from ICOMOS-USA President Douglas C. Comer, Ph.D.

2024 will see critical changes for our national committee, changes driven by our increasing attention to the roles that culture plays in the dominant issues of our day: social justice and climate change. In 2023, we changed the name of our national committee to ICOMOS-USA, and the new year will see the launch in earnest of a membership drive for World Heritage USA, which is a supporting non-profit for our national committee. By extending our reach through supporting non-profit membership and the alliances that this will facilitate with organizations that have complementary missions, we will extend the reach, impact, and expand the membership of ICOMOS-USA. 

This past year we have been building new, innovative, timely programs; and reaching out to expand membership and engagement by means of our flagship events. We held our annual Symposium and Conference in San Antonio, Texas, in part because San Antonio has become the poster child of how World Heritage Site status can be a catalyst for other heritage programs and for multicultural involvement. Also, we are reaching westward, forming a Western Regional Chapter. 

The sessions in the Conference and Symposium in San Antonio were designed to advance key issues. They included greater and more productive involvement of Native American groups, and an examination of issues that our national committee shares with ICOMOS Mexico and how to take actions on these. There was also a session on moving sites on the Tentative List toward nomination and World Heritage inscription, and how both these Tentative List sites and sites already inscribed on the World Heritage List can benefit from the example that San Antonio has provided in enhancing social and economic benefits that flow from World Heritage Site status. 

Another session included the ways that we have expanded our International Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program. We are working on a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Mexico ICOMOS, like the MOU that we signed with Canada a few years ago. The interest in this program in Mexico is intense, as it is in other Latin American countries. 

There is a remarkable level of interest in both the Monuments Toolkit for making decisions regarding the disposition of monuments associated with slavery that we are developing under the guidance of Cequyna Moore, our Program Manager for the Toolkit, and in the International Underground Railroad Network to Freedom. This was also evident at the ICOMOS General Assembly, held in Sydney, Australia, in the fall of 2023. I suspect that questions sparked by this interest during the presentations would have continued for hours had there been time. We will further pursue these interests with Mexico and other Latin American ICOMOS countries in 2024. In addition to participating in these conferences, the Monuments Toolkit team organized similar events in Charleston, South Carolina, and San Diego, California, in 2023. 

Our widely acknowledged World Heritage Webinar program continued in 2023 under the leadership of ICOMOS-USA Vice President T. Destry Jarvis. Many of these focused on the role of Indigenous cultures and knowledge in heritage management; our efforts to promote social justice; and the contributions that heritage can make to climate change mitigation and to the 2030 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

During our San Antonio Conference and Symposium, we had strong representation from World Heritage Sites in the National Park Service. In 2024, we plan to develop Sister World Heritage Sites relationships World Heritage sites in other countries patterned after The NPS Sister Park program. Sister World Heritage Sites will include Yellowstone in the U.S. and Ngorongoro Crater and the Serengeti in Tanzania, and Mesa Verde in the U.S. and Monte Albán in Mexico. 

Speaking of Monte Albán, I would like to draw your attention to the extraordinary tours that our national committee will offer in the spring and next fall. These tours are timed to coincide with the amazingly beautiful Easter and Christmas celebrations in Oaxaca, Mexico. The central feature will be tours of nearby Monte Albán World Heritage Site, led personally by world-renowned archaeologist, Nelly Robles, who has published widely on Monte Albán and will share the innovative research now underway there.

Our Past is the Prologue to our Future

The steps we take now reflect the evolution of our parent international organization, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS). ICOMOS was named as the advisory organization to UNESCO on cultural issues in the World Heritage Convention. The World Heritage Convention is an international treaty that was formulated by the United States under the direction of President Nixon in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The United States was the first signatory to the treaty ratified in 1972. It is now the international treaty signed by more countries than any other. Easily the greatest influence on the content and structure of the treaty is the U.S. National Park Service. President Nixon thought that our National Park System had provided so many economic and social benefits to the United States that something similar would be good for the world. Under his leadership, the NPS sent personnel to the UNESCO office in Paris to work out the final form of the treaty.

The United States national committee was the first of what are now 110 ICOMOS national Committees. ICOMOS also has 31 International Scientific Committees. These committees provide international networks for exchanging ideas and best practices in numerous fields ranging from archaeology, architecture, planning, and tourism to earthen architecture, and the conservation of wood, glass, and mosaics. 

As this might suggest, our national committee has drawn its members from those employed in the heritage sector, in academia, or as professional practitioners. And our national membership has largely resided on the East Coast. We need more members from geographically and culturally diverse backgrounds to develop what we are calling a new heritage, a heritage that includes the stories, travails, and achievements of people from all backgrounds in the United States. For that reason, we formed the non-profit called World Heritage USA that supports ICOMOS-USA.

Increasing International Engagement

As we move into an environment that has developed ways to deal with COVID, our national committee intends to ramp up international engagement. We are the only organization in the United States that provides access to a network of international heritage practitioners and we must maintain and increase the leadership that is a part of our history. In 2023, we continued with our flagship International Exchange Program (IEP) hosting emerging professionals from countries around the world and providing opportunities for professionals in the United States to collaborate with colleagues in other countries. As we move into 2024, we are seeking to expand the IEP by means of agreements with government and private organizations. In 2023, one of our Board of Trustees members, Monica Rhodes, was elected to the ICOMOS Board of Trustees and another ICOMOS-USA Trustee, Nancy Pollock Ellwand, was elected to the ICOMOS Advisory Committee and to the Scientific Council. In addition, Executive Committee member and chair of the Advocacy Committee, Tom Cassidy, arranged a series of meetings with the United States State Department to encourage timely payment of dues to UNESCO that will activate U.S. involvement on the international scene. Also, I moderated a session at the United Nations in New York City on the use of culture to advance all the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. In 2024, we will work closely with the State Department and UNESCO on using culture and heritage to enhance social justice and environmental sustainability on a global scale.

ICOMOS-USA Membership Benefits

Members of ICOMOS-USA are eligible for membership in ICOMOS International Scientific Committees. The value of membership in an ICOMOS scientific committee can hardly be overstated: a member becomes part of a network of practitioners and scholars in their field all over the world. These members exchange the newest methods and thoughts in the fields that they represent through newsletters and in-person meetings. Members in ICOMOS-USA also receive an international ICOMOS card. This provides free entry or reduced entry to World Heritage Sites. This is especially so in Europe. In France, for example, there are special entrances for ICOMOS members to the Louvre, the Orangerie, and in fact, almost every museum and historic site in France. This also applies to the most frequently visited World Heritage Sites in any European country, as well as many World Heritage Sites in other continents. In the United States, many museums in historic houses also allow free entry with the ICOMOS card.

World Heritage USA Membership Benefits

The cost of membership to ICOMOS-USA can seem an impediment to some people. The cost of membership to World Heritage USA will be nominal and will provide access to the ICOMOS-USA monthly newsletter, our webinars, notifications about events, and reduced entry fees to ICOMOS-USA sponsored events. We will also establish collaborative relationships with other heritage organizations in the United States. Membership in World Heritage USA will be available soon.

Evolving to Confront Culturally-Based Issues Today

All these changes will prepare us to meet the challenges facing humanity today. They are truly global challenges. Climate change is global; the absence of social justice is global. Either alone will be enough to bring increased suffering to humanity. We need to deploy culture and heritage as a means by which to deal with them productively. To do that, we need to broaden our membership and support for our ICOMOS national committee and ICOMOS itself. With your commitment and support, we can do this!

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