Berghahn Books Logo

berghahn New York · Oxford

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Youtube
  • Instagram


In connection with the 50th anniversary of the World Heritage Convention, celebrated November 16th, Berghahn is excited to feature an excerpt from The Best We Share: Nation, Culture and World-Making in the UNESCO World Heritage Arena by Christoph Brumann. The paperback edition is forthcoming April 2023!

Take advantage of the 25% discount on eBook and related paperbacks. Use code WHC22 at checkout, valid through end of November 2022.

Chapter 1: A Day in the Life of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee

Saint Petersburg on Sunday, 1 July 2012. After little sleep and a hurried breakfast with a Kenyan delegate, I board a small shuttle bus arranged by the organizers, which takes us to the conference venue across the Neva River. Our large hotel has conserved its socialist heritage rather well in terms of Spartan rooms and intransigent staff. Although by no means cheap, it is still one of the least costly options, so on the bus ride I am surrounded by participants from the not quite so affluent countries such as Cuba, Chile and Slovakia; the Saudi Arabian delegate may just have booked too late for the posher places. On the short ride, I joke with the Kenyan delegate about his own possible inscription on the World Heritage List, given that so much is listed these days, and chat with a South Korean university professor about the lunchtime event her delegation organized yesterday. Participants have dressed formally, with my own suit and tie not standing out.
The driver drops us off at the Tauride Palace, which usually houses the meetings of the members of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Passing by the registration tent, we enter the grandiose classicist building through an airport-style security check with metal detectors. The tables lining the walkway to the large foyer are filled with promotional materials about World Heritage sites and candidates, and there are also the TV screens where the Japanese private station TBS Tokyo shows its acclaimed World Heritage documentaries. Special desks have been set up for such purposes as booking excursions and arranging return flights. There is no coffee yet in the foyer, so I walk up the stairs to the meeting hall where the pews are slowly filling up. I chat with Japanese participants about the upcoming fortieth anniversary celebration of the Convention, which they will organize in the autumn in Kyoto. Delegates of the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) complain to me about the new style of decision-making that ignores their expert advice. I install myself in the back rows reserved to ordinary, nonstate observers. On my notebook computer and with the Wifi access offered by the organizers, I see that the deliberate destructions of World Heritage properties in Timbuktu, Mali, which Islamist insurgents have been committing for several days now, are dominating global news headlines. World Heritage is clearly in the limelight.

The Morning Session

Shortly past 10am and despite the troubling news, chairperson Eleonora Mitrofanova – the Russian Federation’s ‘Permanent Delegate’ (i.e. ambassador) to UNESCO – opens the morning session of the seventh day of the thirty-sixth World Heritage Committee session to routine business. Th is is the examination of this year’s nominations to the World Heritage List and, continuing with the cultural properties from the previous day, she calls up agenda item 36 COM 8B.37, ‘Schwetzingen: A Prince Elector’s Summer Residence’, a candidate submitted by Germany. As is usual when cultural heritage is concerned, she fi rst hands over to ICOMOS whose representative is also seated on the podium facing the semi-circular pews rising in front of them. Supported by a PowerPoint presentation, this retired French professor of technical history takes a couple of minutes to summarize the evaluation, which has been online for six weeks. He reiterates that the nominated property lacks ‘outstanding universal value’ or ‘OUV’, the precondition for World Heritage listing. Instead, it does not distinguish itself from many
other Baroque palaces and parks, so that ICOMOS advises rejection. As everyone is aware, adopting this verdict would seal the fate of the candidate by precluding submission of a revised nomination fi le in the future. Most states therefore quietly withdraw such bids ahead of the session, thereby avoiding a binding decision. But Germany has already done so in 2009 when Schwetzingen was up the first time and was also deemed unworthy by ICOMOS. Therefore, since extensive revisions of the nomination file have not improved the judgment, the delegation is determined to put up a fight.
Once the presentation is finished, the chair opens the debate, inviting the twenty-one Committee member delegations in the first rows to make their comments. To her right, the Director of the World Heritage Centre (the Convention secretariat) – an Indian nature conservation expert – assists her in giving the floor to the delegations in the order in which they raise their state name plates, turning them from horizontal to vertical in the groove of a small wooden block on their desks. The chair always calls up the state name, not that of the individual. The delegates then speak into their microphones for up to three minutes, using one of the two official working languages of English and French or the other languages for which treaty states have volunteered to sponsor interpretation (this time Russian, Spanish and Arabic). At the entrance, the several hundred participants in the hall have been equipped with small broadcasting devices with headphones for this purpose.
Colombia speaks first, followed by France, and soon the delegates find themselves embroiled in contention: Germany – itself on the Committee – complains that the ICOMOS evaluation, in addition to missing the full significance of the palace theatre, passes over the eighteenth-century mosque in the palace gardens, the oldest in Western Europe. Th e ICOMOS expert objects that this is just a small and unremarkable structure reflective of the Orientalist leanings of the time. Yet Qatar, Algeria and the United Arab Emirates declare themselves impressed by this symbol of religious tolerance and even propose immediate World Heritage inscription, a rather extreme turnaround; it looks as if the Germans have asked them for their support. In contrast, Switzerland, France and Senegal are sceptical, insisting on the difference to a real, functioning mosque, and this clearly upsets the German ambassador. Nobody brings up Timbuktu, where a World Heritage-listed mosque in continued usage is being mutilated while the Committee speaks. Th e Indian ambassador suggests ‘deferring’ consideration of the Schwetzingen
property, the one of four customary decision options that allows for the resubmission of a substantially revised nomination fi le no sooner than two years from now. With other delegations voicing support, a compromise seems in sight. But then, the Swiss ambassador loses his patience and calls for a vote. After some confused back and forth, the legal advisor – a UNESCO official on the podium that the chair consults over procedural matters – clarifies that the Swiss demand is for a vote on the original draft decision, which is the provisional decision text drafted by ICOMOS and the World Heritage Centre that was put online ahead of the session.
The German ambassador hastens to declare that her delegation would be quite happy with the suggested deferral, but this does not prevent the Committee from sinking into rare depths of confusion for the better part of an hour, with participants forgetting their most basic procedural routines. For one thing, the Swiss proposal diverges from the usual practice to vote not on the decision text proper, but on proposed amendments to it. As a two thirds majority is required for decisions regarding World Heritage inscription or non-inscription, this ends up turning the numerical advantage against the strict line Switzerland has been demanding, a fact of which the delegation appears mysteriously unaware. When others point out the breach of usual practice, the legal advisor insists that no amendments to the draft decision have been received from the Committee members, and the usual recipient of such submissions, the rapporteur – a diplomat from member state Mexico, also on the podium, who is tasked with recording the decisions – does not interfere. However, the decision text on the big screens in the hall has an edit marked in blue that foresees inscription for Schwetzingen and gives the aforementioned Arab states as supporters. It is common practice for the typists working in the back of the podium to add such edits in track-changes mode while the Committee is speaking, grasping the delegates’ intent even without special prodding. But nobody points out the obvious, namely that these edits are usually treated as amendments by the Committee. And if considered an amendment, the inscription proposal by the Arab states would have to be voted on first, as this is the decision option most removed from the original draft text, which foresaw non-inscription. However, unlike almost everyone in the room, the legal advisor cannot see the screen from her seat, as she later tells me.
It is strange to see that many speakers sense that something is unusual, with incredulous laughter rising at times, while nobody manages to put their finger on what exactly is wrong. The chair as the person best placed to do so – as she can speak any time, not just when her turn in the queue comes up – is confused too. She reminds herself belatedly that substantive debate must end after the Swiss call for a vote, forgetting that the motion must first be supported by a second delegation, only to then let the debate continue the very next moment; she leaves some delegates perplexed about exactly on what they are voting; and she claims that after the noninscription of Schwetzingen fails to receive the required two-thirds majority (unusually, no count of the show of hands is announced), the other decision options must be voted too, just to again drop that (incorrect) idea the very next moment. Several times, confused delegates, often signalling a point of order by forming a T with the state name plate and their arm, weigh in, usually only for interventions that reveal their own puzzlement. In the end and after having regained her signature self-assurance, the chair convinces the Committee that the deferral option is now their consensus, dropping her gavel to mark adoption when no objections are raised. The decision thus returns to India’s much earlier suggestion and had Germany withdrawn the bid entirely, the practical consequences (major revisions before resubmission) would have been the same. Small wonder then that the chair declares her intention to avoid further such ‘difficult and unpleasant situations’.

Read FULL Chapter Here

About the Author
Christoph Brumann is Head of Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle, and Honorary Professor of Anthropology at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg. His books include World Heritage on the Ground: Ethnographic Perspectives (co-edited with David Berliner, Berghahn Books, 2016) and Tradition, Democracy and the Townscape of Kyoto: Claiming a Right to the Past (Routledge, 2012).


Ethnographic Perspectives
Edited by Christoph Brumann and David Berliner

“…this excellent book provides thoughtful critiques of UNESCO, state organizations, developers, and the tourist bureaus that translate and reconfigure UNESCO policies in glocalizing ways. Several chapters interrogate the category of ‘World Heritage’ and at times seek to unsettle some of the taken-for-granted Euro-North American ‘humanist’ and ‘enlightenment’ ideologies that arguably underpin the UNESCO project. Whilst research into the distances between the discourses of World Heritage, the experiences of local stakeholders, and ‘local’ subjects is not new, this volume offers an original take on the extant literature through its very intimate portrayals of local subjects.” • Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (JRAI)

Read Introduction

Universal Discourse, National Culture, and Local Memory

Haiming Yan

World Heritage Craze in China makes a unique contribution to Chinese heritage preservation, demonstrating the application and impact of the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage and the present state of the art in this area… This monograph challenges the reader and the profession to reconsider Chinese cultural heritage preservation, and its characteristics and relations with politics and society in China.” • Antiquity

Read Introduction

Paperback edition forthcoming August 2023!
Life at a World Heritage Site in the Twenty-First Century

Mikkel Bille

“This new monograph by Bille deserves to be widely read as a lucid study of tensions between what he identifies as competing ‘universalities’ – though he also uses the arguably more precise term ‘universalisms’… His thoughtful, multi-layered analysis has a broad resonance beyond its ethnographic details and would surely be welcomed in tourism and heritage studies.” • JRAI (Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute)

Read Introduction

Contested Heritage in Dubrovnik

Celine Motzfeldt Loades

In 1979 Dubrovnik was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, which had consequences for the city’s broader cultural heritage. Walls and Gateways explores how this status intersects with the reconstruction and consolidation of identities and locality in the city’s post-war context. It analyses how representations, perceptions and uses of Dubrovnik’s heritage are embedded in particular cultural practices, materiality and place. In Dubrovnik’s post-war context, different uses of cultural memory and heritage provoke both dissonance and unity, shape practices and mobilize cultural and political activism.

Read Introduction

Stay connected
For updates on our Heritage Studies list as well as all other developments from Berghahn, sign up for customized e-Newslettersbecome a Facebook fan, follow us on Twitter and Instagram, and listen to our podcast, Salon B, on Spotify.