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Sustainable Development

Oliver Parodi
Ignacio Ayestaran
Gerhard Banse

Part 2. Epistemic Topics, Knowledge and Ethical Dilemmas

Cultural Heritage: Dilemmas of Preservation in the Midst of Change

Caroline Y. Robertson-von Trotha

Texte intégral

  • 1 The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology – a university of the state of Baden-Württemberg and a nation (...)

1This paper provides a short overview of the history of the UNESCO conventions pertaining to culture and their understanding of the cultural goods considered worthy of protection. After a conceptual shift to the more extensive term “Cultural Heritage”, UNESCO now also takes the documentary and intangible cultural heritage into consideration. This paper provides an overview of the current conditions of university programmes in Germany and examines the KIT1 research topic “Cultural Transmission – Digital”. The second part of the paper considers the inner dialectic of “Preservation and Change”, one that is also implicit within the UNESCO Cultural Heritage Programme. The conventions pertaining to cultural heritage are critically analysed, and some problems – or rather unwanted effects – that accompany the awarding of the title “World Cultural Heritage” are brought up.

1 Status Quo

1.1 UNESCO Conventions and Programmes Pertaining to Culture

2From the beginning, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization aimed at contributing to the preservation of peace by fostering co-operation among different peoples. One primary focus of this contribution was the preservation and protection of cultural heritage. In the 1945 Constitution of UNESCO, we read in Article 1 that it is UNESCO’s task to “maintain, increase and diffuse knowledge: By assuring the conservation and protection of the world’s inheritance of books, works of art and monuments of history and science” (UNESCO 2001). Several conventions state this matter more precisely in the following years. In 1954, the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict was established. In 1961, the International Convention for the Protection of Performers, Producers of Phonograms and Broadcasting Organizations was signed. In 1970, signatories committed themselves to the Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property.

3A further important step on the way to the protection and preservation of the world cultural heritage was the 1972 convention that 185 states have now ratified or at least accepted. Central points of the World Heritage Convention are: first, the expansion of the protective activities of UNESCO; second, the explicit distinction, for the first time, between material and intangible cultural heritage; and third, the breaking up of the limited concept of “cultural property” in favour of “cultural heritage”. The terminological change of direction from describing cultural goods as heritage instead of property is particularly significant (cf. Weigelt 2007). The concept of property was bound up with a Euro-American perspective that characterized cultural goods first and foremost as tradable commodities in economic markets. By contrast, the concept of cultural heritage places more emphasis on cultural goods as symbolic objects with specific, independent identities, and on their being much more than merely tradable commodities with monetary value. Protecting the cultural and natural heritage thus implies conserving the cultural good within its own tradition and preserving it in the context of a living culture.

  • 2 The extensive literature on the topic of intellectual property rights should be referred to here: H (...)
  • 3 Cf. for an example of immaterial cultural heritage, the “Karneval von Binche”, Lefébure 1982.

4The conceptual shift to an expanded notion of cultural heritage paved the way for increased consideration of intangible cultural goods that are entirely excluded from any notion of property.2 With the 1992 Memory of the World programme, UNESCO intensified its efforts at the preservation of the documentary cultural heritage. “The Memory of the World” comprizes a register of transmitted collections of culturally significant written documents, film documents, and sound documents, so that these may first be secured and, second, be made accessible electronically. Two further conventions for the preservation of intangible cultural heritage were established at the beginning of the 21st century: the 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage and the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.3 Despite the somewhat paradoxical and far-reaching implications of the certification of intangible cultural goods, these conventions may be considered great successes in that they give expression to UNESCO’s increased efforts regarding the world’s cultural diversity (cf. Meyer-Rath 2007). Both conventions have been accepted or ratified by almost 100 states. The normative effects of the conventions are often overlooked, yet should not be underestimated. Following the conventions and the UNESCO programmes, in 1992 the European Union established the Convention for the Protection of the Gastronomic Diversity of Europe, which was completely revised in 2006. The EU member states are thus carrying on UNESCO’s efforts at protecting the intangible cultural heritage in a thorough and independent way.

1.2 Sensitization and Education Programme

5The preservation of the cultural and natural heritage, as it is freshly formulated in the 1972 Convention, is now being pursued on a second path. Since 1992, UNESCO has linked sensitization to the idea of preservation with the promotion of academic education and research. In the realm of education, the organization is working on developing a corresponding educational system. Toward this goal, in 1992 UNESCO began establishing UNESCO professorships within the framework of the UNITWIN Programme, and the holders of these posts co-operate internationally with other professors. In Germany, nine professorships have been founded since the end of the 1990s, and most recently the Professorship for the Material and Intangible Cultural Heritage of UNESCO at the University of Paderborn. Other countries – such as Spain, Sweden, or the USA – seized the opportunity to establish collaborative professorships as early as the mid-1990s.

Higher Education’s Engagement with “Cultural Heritage”

6Within this process, higher education began taking up the notion of “cultural heritage”. The Masters programmes that are now offered in Germany reflect the many different focal topics. At the Brandenburg Technical University Cottbus, Masters degrees in “World Heritage Studies” have been offered since 2001; and at the Technical University of Dresden, Masters degrees in the “Preservation of Historical Monuments and Urban Development” have been on offer since 2003. The Masters programme in the “Preservation of Historical Monuments” has been a part of the University of Bamberg’s curriculum since 2006, and the Masters in “Cultural Heritage” has been a part of the University of Paderborn’s curriculum since 2008: they are the two most recent examples of UNESCO’s expanded promotion of education. At the KIT’s Centre for Cultural and General Studies (the ZAK), the course module “Historical Dimensions of Cultural Practice/Cultural Heritage” has been offered since 1990 within the framework of an interdisciplinary minor in Cultural Studies – which is an option for students of all majors in the KIT, as well as students of the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design and the Karlsruhe University of Music.

Research in the Realm of “Cultural Heritage and the Dynamics of Change”

  • 4 For instance, the special fields of research “Preservation of Historically Significant Buildings” a (...)
  • 5 The topic of cultural memory was discussed at an international interdisciplinary symposium conducte (...)

7Research in Germany is also increasingly devoted to the realm of cultural heritage,4 and takes up topics from very different disciplines.5 Alongside the specialized research of the various disciplines, the need for interdisciplinary approaches is becoming increasingly apparent. Thus, in 2007 within the “Technology, Culture, and Society” area of competence at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), a focus was placed on the newly established “Cultural Heritage and Dynamics of Change” field of competence. This field of competence includes interdisciplinary aspects such as architectural theory and the history of art and architecture, as well as disciplinary research in the realms of renovation and restoration. With regard to the history of science and technology, the focus is on ethical, professional, and cultural developments, as well as on dialectical processes of preservation and change. Within this framework, the new project “Cultural Transmission – Digital” takes up the material and intangible aspects of cultural heritage with regard to preservation and transferral in the digital age. Here, the many great current and future social challenges that this process gives rise to are at the centre of the research. Legal aspects of immaterial property rights and technological issues surrounding digitalization and its consequences represent further important problem areas. Multidisciplinary research projects keep their sights on the interplay among cultural heritage, cultural diversity, the formation of modern identities (on this topic, cf. Assmann/Friese 1999; cf. also Robertson-von Trotha 2009), and conceptions of social responsibility. Here, processes of change stand in a complex relational network between constraints on the one hand and the necessity to adapt and renew on the other; between the readiness to take on the new and the responsibility of preserving the “old” cultural goods. Change thus implies a complex arrangement of conscious and unconscious processes, most of which are not controlled. The researching and prediction of intended and unintended consequences thus becomes an important task.

2 Dilemmas of Preservation in the Midst of Change

8The world’s cultural heritage is diverse in the forms of its expression. UNESCO thus makes the fundamental distinction between material and intangible cultural heritage. According to the 2003 UNESCO Convention, intangible cultural heritage comprises “the practices, representations, expressions, knowledge, skills – as well as the instruments, objects, artefacts and cultural spaces associated therewith – that communities, groups and, in some cases, individuals recognize as part of their cultural heritage” (UNESCO 2003). By contrast, the material cultural heritage denotes those cultural goods that are of a physical nature – such as historic buildings or nature – and that have special significance. According to this, the material cultural heritage, which UNESCO would like to designate “World Cultural Heritage”, should be unique and historically authentic (cf. UNESCO 1972).

9Nevertheless, the material and intangible expressions of cultural heritage per se are liable to change. Changes in the environment damage buildings, and artistic forms of expression are passed on from generation to generation in different ways. The concept of preservation thus forms a tension with “natural” change. In this context, three theses are of particular significance:

  • First of all, a symbolic increase in value occurs through UNESCO’s certification of cultural heritage, something that the cultural artefact in question has never previously experienced. Such certification can lead to a rupture in the traditional way of dealing with the cultural heritage at hand. The physical appearance of a place or an object can be altered through the programme of preservation. In particular, internationalization and the effects of the media alter the perception and memory of cultural goods.

  • Second, the certified cultural heritage often forms a tension with a culture of commemoration and a culture of tourism (a “heritage industry”), as can be seen from the example of Grimm’s Fairy Tales (see below). The increased cultural tourism that comes with the distinction of being designated “world cultural heritage” can also lead to new ecological problems on the local level: the Pyramids of Giza demonstrate this quite clearly.

  • Third, the interests of local actors – both private citizens and public figures – with regard to a cultural heritage site (and thus also to the cultural heritage certification) might very well contradict the interests of UNESCO. The cultural good becomes a symbolic venue and the site of a struggle over political interests. This point will be more closely examined with reference to the documentary cultural heritage.

2.1 The Internationalization of Memory

10Since 5 November 2008, UNESCO has been officially registering intangible cultural goods in its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. As early as 1992, it began compiling the Memory of the World register. Being placed on either the list or the register is tantamount to being certified as a particularly unique and authentic cultural good. By being certified by UNESCO as documentary world heritage – i. e. within the process of heritage production – cultural fragments are dislodged from their integrated and habitual use. At the same time, these certified fragments experience a second life as representatives of themselves: a chosen cultural product is supposed to be an exemplar of its original cultural significance and the accompanying original culture.

11This process gives rise to far-reaching problems, however – problems that can be illustrated with the example of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Grimm’s “Children’s and Household Tales” was included in the Memory of the World register as an exceptional national cultural narration, one that is exemplary of the German narrative culture. In the rationale behind this distinction, it is stated that the collection of fairy tales is “next to the Luther Bible, the most well-known and most widely distributed book worldwide of German cultural history” (UNESCO 2005). This rationale is a one-dimensional, exclusively nationalistic interpretation. Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm – who were moved by a romantic and patriotic spirit – compiled the fairy tales in two volumes in order to stylize them as the primary source of German stories. For the Brothers Grimm, the fairy tales were the remnants of ur-German myths that had been buried by history. From the beginning, the collection was therefore a revaluation of a certain cultural good, namely of stories transmitted orally in local contexts to stories that were fixed (i. e. written down) in an excessively nationalistic context. It is exactly this perspective of “authentically German” fairy tales that the Grimm Society in both the days of the German empire and the time of National Socialism eagerly encouraged and promulgated (cf. Hemme 2007, pp. 230ff.). By stressing only the national context of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, the UNESCO description falls short. In being described as representatives of a single German culture, the tales undergo an evident re-interpretation.

12At the same time, placing a cultural good onto the Memory of the World register is tantamount to an explicit internationalization of memory. The Grimm Brothers’ anthology is thus consciously internationalized. At this point, the fairy tales are reinterpreted a second time. The collective memory is transformed, and transferred from the realm of “genuine” national memory to that of a more global memory. The iconic tales of an initially romantic and patriotic context became part of a national context, then a National Socialist context, and then the context of the Federal Republic, before finally becoming heritage fairy tales of a globalized world. The programme of preservation is thus also a programme of contextual change and of revaluation. In several respects, it leads to an altered reception and perception of the certified cultural good.

13A further central problematic is that of the preconditions of versions that bear the mark of cultural socialization, and with which cultures observe and judge themselves. The different regional reinterpretations that could take place parallel to the internationalization of memory should be emphasized: new specific perceptions can be produced in this way, but this can also lead to the strengthening of previously existing stereotypes.

2.2 New Media and Memory

14Regional and national cultural goods are now perceived globally thanks to new media, i. e. cinema, television, and the internet. The internationalization of the memory of cultural heritage can no longer be conceived of without global media. Global media cultures are part of the international boom of commemorative sites. The medialization of memory leads to a decontextualising of and a break in the traditional ways of dealing with cultural heritage. For example, the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp has undergone a massive increase in worldwide visibility since it was included in UNESCO’s 1979 list of world cultural heritage sites. At the same time, pop culture representations of holocaust memorials have spread across the world through mass media. These representations, which are often abbreviated and inadequate, are taken up within specific contexts of national memory, and are thus entirely bound up with these contexts. The reception of these memories thus clearly does not lead to a rich and differentiated understanding of the history of the Holocaust.

2.3 Heritage Industry: Cultural Tourism versus Ecological Sustainability

15The internationalization and global medialization of cultural memory has caused new and very concrete problems that bring the dilemma of preservation in the midst of change into sharper focus. The worldwide reception of local cultural goods has in the past few decades given impetus to a form of tourism that can be subsumed under the concept of “the heritage industry”. In Anglo-American research, the heritage industry is understood as a boom in the economic reception of history. It is that late modernist form of industry that offers cultural goods as reproducible products and that presents cultural sites as museums or theme parks. The problematic dimensions of the heritage industry can be seen in the history of the reception of “Grimm’s Children’s and Household Tales” after 1945 and the so-called “Kassel Cultural Struggle” that resulted from it.

16The destruction of the Grimm Brothers’ former homes and the loss of part of their estate during the Second World War brought about the founding of the Grimm Museum in Kassel in 1960. It remained “firstly a classical museum with an educational task and instructive presentations centred on texts” (Hemme 2007, p. 236). In 1975, the cultural and touristic “German Fairy Tale Route” was established. It connects the places where the Brothers Grimm lived and the locations and landscapes that are supposed to be the original homes of their fairy tales. The German Fairy Tale Route runs along 600 kilometres of tourist sites that include towers and castles, and thus follows an explicitly economic goal. The Grimm Museum found itself increasingly caught up in the wake of the Fairy Tale Route. Local political interests made the shift from the preservation and fostering of the local and regional cultural memories to the building up of a touristic entertainment culture. This had direct consequences on the Grimm Museum. Kassel’s cultural budget moved in the direction of tourism, so “that the Grimm Museum began to act in a noticeably more ‘touristic’ fashion in order to make up for dwindling profits” (Hemme 2007, p. 239). With UNESCO’s 2005 certification of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, there was a marked increased in calls for better economic use of the Grimm’s “global brand name”. A fairy tale amusement park was publicly discussed, and economic experts drafted reports on how to best commodify the Grimm heritage. The contentious question of how the tradition and cultural heritage was to be dealt with escalated in local public life to a veritable “Kassel Cultural Struggle” (cf. Hemme 2007, pp. 240ff.).

17The problems of the heritage industry are not merely ideational ones brought up in discussions of the appropriate intellectual manner in which to approach the cultural heritage. It becomes apparent that the heritage industry also causes material problems and raises questions of material and ecological sustainability. Venice and its canals, which were recognized by UNESCO as world cultural heritage in 1987, are a telling example of this. Due to rising sea levels, the canals of Venice are now 20 centimetres higher than they were at the beginning of the 20th century. The city is threatened more often than ever with flooding. Moreover, in order to address the needs of increasing tourism, the port entries were repeatedly deepened, which allowed flood tides to penetrate easily into the city canals. An expensive and ecologically controversial system of locks at the port entries now protects the city from flooding. Most of all, UNESCO’s certification of Venice has led to a boom in tourism. Hundreds of private motorboats carry the daily flood of tourists through Venice. This increased traffic in the canals is clearly threatening some of the city’s infrastructure. For a long time, preservationist have criticized the fact that the beating of the waves threatens the structures of the houses. The high-revving ship propellers increase oxygen levels in the water and consequently contribute to a rise in putrefactive bacteria on support pillars and the facades of buildings. The city structures are thus threatened not only by the rising sea levels but also by the ever increasing level of tourism, and especially boat traffic. The certification of Venice as a world cultural heritage site thus intensifies the problem of the sustainability and preservation of the old historical city and its canals.

18The ecological sustainability of many world cultural heritage sites is in question. The Sphinx and the Pyramids of Giza are certainly among the most famous of the ancient wonders of the world. Since 1979, they have been UNESCO cultural monuments. Here too, one can see how the increased tourism resulting from this distinction can lead to a physical transformation of the site in question. Heritage tourism often lacks local sensitivity for the necessary protection of cultural sites and their surroundings. At the Pyramids, garbage and other environmental problems have been on the rise for years, and are threatening to spoil the ecological sustainability of the site. Air pollution, traffic problems, and the fact that the city of Cairo itself is drawing ever nearer to the cultural heritage site are of particular concern. Moreover, the number of tourists has grown to such an extent that increased security measures have been needed to control the rising flood of visitors and protect the Pyramids and the Sphinx. In a co-operative project implemented by the Ministry of Culture and the National Security Services, a fence was completed in 2006 to supposedly protect the plateau of this cultural heritage site, at a cost of eight billion euros. Although the Egyptian Minister of Culture has stressed that the fence does not have a negative impact on the appearance of the Giza Plateau, it does clearly alter its outward appearance. Although it would have been even more difficult to safeguard the plateau’s original appearance without the fence, it is evident that the attempt at preservation does indeed lead to an alteration of the site.

2.4 Local Interests versus World Cultural Heritage

19A further topic worthy of criticism is often underestimated. As a UN organization, UNESCO pursues joint international interests and thus can often end up entirely at odds with the regional or local cultural institutions, and can also find themselves in conflict with local representatives. Such a conflict situation can be seen in the discussions surrounding the building of the Waldschlösschen Bridge in Dresden.

20Dresden’s Elbe Valley has been on the UNESCO list of world heritage sites since July 2004. The Elbe Valley is described as an exemplar of a German cultural landscape that unites the countryside and the city, nature and architecture: “The 18th-and 19th-century cultural landscape of Dresden Elbe Valley extends some 18 km along the river from Übigau Palace and Ostragehege fields in the north-west to the Pillnitz Palace and the Elbe River Island in the south-east. It features low meadows, and is crowned by the Pillnitz Palace and the centre of Dresden with its numerous monuments and parks from the 16th to 20th centuries” (UNESCO 2008). Just two years after receiving UNESCO’s honours, this wide-ranging cultural landscape was placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger – with the repeated threat of removing the Elbe Valley from the list of world heritage sites by 2009 at the latest. The cause of this was the building of the Waldschlösschen Bridge in Dresden, which was supposed to help relieve the pressure on Dresden’s other bridges across the Elbe. Critics – and the UNESCO organization is one of them – view the construction as an absurd project from the traffic point of view, one that will not take pressure off the city centre’s traffic but will rather increase it while also destroying the natural landscape. Since 2006, the media have been closely following this “Dresden Bridge Dispute”. So far, it has been impossible to reverse the planning of the bridge politically, because the citizens of Dresden voted in favour of the construction of the bridge in a public decision. A legal complaint about the constitutionality of this vote was not taken up by the Federal Constitutional Court. In their May 2007 decision, the federal judges confirmed that the will of the voters manifested in the public decision is not superseded by international law, for the “signatory states of the Convention hold explicit sovereignty in those states in whose sovereign territory the protected sites are found, and they have recognized the existing property rights therein” (BVerfG 2009). Even as UNESCO pursues the protection of Dresden’s Elbe Valley as world cultural heritage politically (through committee resolutions and certification) and in the media (through press releases), it is contradicting the fully democratic vote of the local citizens who are also the cultural representatives of the Elbe Valley. As expected, in June 2009 UNESCO took away the Elbe Valley’s status as world cultural heritage and thereby reproached the local cultural representatives for not giving adequate care to their cultural goods. In such a case of a world heritage site that comprises both the city and the surrounding cultural landscape, the problem of preservation in the midst of change is especially difficult to resolve. This demonstrates the importance of UNESCO serving an educational role and the necessity of strongly linking UNESCO’s programmes and conventions with its educational task.

2.5 Private versus Public Interests

21A final important aspect should be mentioned. In the culture industry, various private and public players often compete on the local level over the right to interpret the collective history. Private actors in particular generate economic resources in close cooperation with the tourism industry. Such an industry can be seen at the site of Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin (cf. Frank 2007). The public side sees the former border checkpoint as a “cemetery” for victims of the Wall during the days of a divided Berlin, while the private side views it as a simulated touristic place where one can relive the Cold War. On the local level, private actors use Checkpoint Charlie for their own profit by charging for group photos with actors dressed up as Soviet soldiers. In this sense, the place is a scene where the borders between a memorial culture and an entertainment culture are constantly being traversed.

22Finally, UNESCO world cultural heritage can be used as a political instrument for pushing through interests. At the moment, this can be seen in the central Spanish province of Soria and the proposal surrounding the archaeological site at Numancia (cf. The Olive Press 2008, p. 8). Numancia is the historical scene of a battle between Rome and the Celtiberians in 133 BC. Since the regional government recently approved a company’s plans for constructing a residential, recreational, and commercial complex there, the local population in co-operation with Spain’s Open University (UNED) is circulating an online petition in an attempt to have the UN recognize Numancia as a world cultural heritage site. The goal is to force the protection of the archaeological site by having it be declared world cultural heritage. This example emphasizes the fact that public authorities cannot be trusted always to protect the cultural heritage. On the contrary, private individuals and initiatives are often decisive.

3 The Outlook, and a Selection of Possible Questions

23Cultural heritage per se finds itself in a bind between preservation on the one hand and change on the other. It is clear that UNESCO’s outstanding efforts to preserve cultural memorials can bring about a change in memory as well as a change in physical appearance. If the situation continues to develop along its current lines, four main questions come up: Is UNESCO’s general framework suited for the preservation of world cultural heritage in the sense of sustained development? On both the global and local levels, do UNESCO conventions lead to a greater sensitivity to dealing with cultural heritage? In the accompanying research and teachings, is the holistic approach towards material and intangible culture taken into adequate consideration? And finally: How are we to deal with disputes that arise from conflicting interests or a lack of sensitivity? – These are surely worthwhile questions for an interdisciplinary field of competence that examines cultural heritage and the dynamics of change.

24[This article has already been published in German in Parodi, O.; Banse, G.; Schaffer, A. (eds.): Wechselspiele: Kultur und Nachhaltigkeit. Annäherungen an ein Spannungsfeld. Berlin 2010, pp. 263-274.]



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1 The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology – a university of the state of Baden-Württemberg and a national research centre in the Helmholtz Association.

2 The extensive literature on the topic of intellectual property rights should be referred to here: Hafstein 2007; Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 1998, 2004; Wendland 2004.

3 Cf. for an example of immaterial cultural heritage, the “Karneval von Binche”, Lefébure 1982.

4 For instance, the special fields of research “Preservation of Historically Significant Buildings” at the KIT, “Cultures of Memory” at the Justus Liebig University in Gießen, and “Literature and Anthropology” at the University of Konstanz.

5 The topic of cultural memory was discussed at an international interdisciplinary symposium conducted in co-operation with the city of Karlsruhe; cf. Dreier/Euler 2005; cf. also Assmann 2006.


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