History of ICOMOS-USA

As the oldest and one of the largest of the 113 National Committees of ICOMOS, the U.S. National Committee (now ICOMOS-USA; formerly US/ICOMOS) has played a critical role in the conservation and protection of cultural heritage sites across the world for over half a century.

The roots of ICOMOS date back to the early 20th century. Prior to this time, architectural heritage and historic preservation were seen primarily as a national concern, with their scope rarely extending beyond any one country’s borders. However, in 1931, the League of Nations’ International Museums Office organized a meeting of international specialists to discuss the conservation of historic buildings. The conference resulted in the Athens Charter for the Restoration of Historic Monuments, which called for the establishment of national legislation to preserve historic sites and the creation of conservation organizations to protect our common world heritage—and with that, for the first time, heritage was thought of as a global concern that merited international conservation efforts.

The First International Congress of Architects and Specialists of Historic Buildings was held in Paris in 1957. The Congress recommended that countries lacking a central organization for the protection of historic buildings provide for the establishment of such an authority. It also recommended that all member states of UNESCO join the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM), based in Rome. The Congress agreed to have its second meeting in Venice.

Accordingly, in 1964, the Second International Congress of Architects and Specialists of Historic Buildings met and adopted a series of thirteen resolutions. The first created the International Charter on the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites, commonly known as the Venice Charter. The second, put forward by UNESCO, created ICOMOS to carry out this charter.

In June 1965, the Constitutional and First General Assemblies of lCOMOS took place in Warsaw, Poland, with delegates attending from 26 countries. From the very beginning, American citizens were intimately involved with the establishment of ICOMOS and its work in protecting international cultural heritage. The U.S. National Committee of ICOMOS, in turn, was organized a few short months after the Warsaw meetings, becoming the first of the National Committees to be set up under the ICOMOS umbrella.

Americans attending the 1965 Warsaw meetings included Carl Feiss, Robert Garvey, Richard Howland, Charles Peterson, and Hiroshi Daifuku. Howland and Garvey can be seen in the 2nd row of the photo above.

In 1972, ICOMOS was named by the UNESCO World Heritage Convention as one of the three formal advisory bodies to the World Heritage Committee, along with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM). As the professional and scientific adviser to the committee on all aspects of cultural heritage, ICOMOS is responsible for the evaluation of all nominations of cultural properties made to the World Heritage List with the criteria laid down by the World Heritage Committee.

In 1987, ICOMOS-USA hosted the 8th Triennial ICOMOS General Assembly and International Symposium in Washington, DC.  Meeting under the theme “Old Cultures in New Worlds,” the General Assembly attracted over 600 preservation leaders from around the world and remains the largest international undertaking ever conducted by ICOMOS-USA.

Two U.S. National Committee members have won the coveted Gazzola Prize, which is awarded once every three years by ICOMOS to recognize individuals or groups that have contributed with distinction to international cultural heritage. The first was Dr. Ernest Allen Connally, F.US/ICOMOS, in 1996. Pictured here is the presentation in absentia of the Prize to another American, Ann Webster Smith, F.US/ICOMOS, during ceremonies held in Xi’an, China in 2005.

In 2008 at the 16th ICOMOS General Assembly in Quebec, Canada, Gustavo F. Araoz, Jr., F.US/ICOMOS, became the first American to be elected ICOMOS President. Pictured here is a celebration of the reelection of Mr. Araoz at the 17th Assembly in 2011 in Paris, France. Araoz was elected to a third term in 2014 at the 18th General Assembly in Florence, Italy.

As we head into ICOMOS’s next half century, ICOMOS-USA continues to be a proud member of the worldwide ICOMOS alliance and a vital bridge linking preservation professionals in the United States with our counterparts in other countries. ICOMOS-USA is the gateway for U.S. preservation professionals and supporters to participate in worldwide heritage conservation activities. We facilitate the engagement of American ICOMOS members in information exchanges, conferences and symposia, and international specialized committees. Our organization promotes the sharing of information and ideas on important heritage conservation issues among preservationists around the world.

World Heritage USA was launched in 2023 to fundraise and carry out programs for ICOMOS-USA, with the goal of advocating more effectively for the World Heritage Convention and its goals in the United States and reaching more U.S. citizens who care about World Heritage, cultural heritage and international heritage preservation. We raise funds for ICOMOS-USA and develop and carry out programs to advance U.S.-based and international heritage conservation and knowledge exchange.