Archival back-stories of international heritage conservation

Archives are fantastic, if somewhat underappreciated, resources for heritage research. Over the past few months, we have been digging deep into governmental archives in Norway researching Norway’s first term on the World Heritage Committee in the 1980s.

About the blog

A blog from NIKU.

NIKU is an independent institute within the wider field of cultural heritage in Norway and beyond.

The blog is part of research project examining Norway’s first tenure on the World Heritage Committee (1983-1989) launched to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Norway’s ratification of the World Heritage Convention.

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The World Heritage Committee is the governing body of UNESCO’s 1972 World Heritage Convention. As the first Nordic country to ratify the convention (in 1977), Norway was also the first of the Nordic countries elected to the 21-member strong committee in 1983. The official records on the committee are found on the convention’s webpages and provide a useful starting point for gaining an overview of the composition of the committee and its decisions. The material from the governmental archives in Norway, however, provide us with the back-stories: Flicking through the thin telex transcripts and typewritten documents, one gets a glimpse into financial and bureaucratic constraints and personal engagements of international heritage conservation long before the age of Internet and cheap flights.

Costs of participating

Then as now the World Heritage Committee meetings were often hosted by one of the States Parties on the committee: During Norway’s tenure from 1983-89, meetings were hosted in Florence, Buenos Aires and Brasilia in addition to the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. However, looking through the list of participants of the World Heritage Committee meetings during the period, we noticed a pattern which stands in stark contrast to the grand meetings today: There were no meetings where all the committee members were present. In fact, Malawi—elected to the committee the same year as Norway—never attended a single meeting during its tenure!

A letter from the Norwegian Embassy in Paris to the Ministry of Education outlining the importance of Norway attending the 1984 Committee meeting in Buenos Aires provides some insights into why: The embassy pointed out that communal travel arrangements from Paris to Buenos Aires had been made, costing 17 100 NOK or 42 762.67 NOK when adjusted for inflation. Today you could almost book an entire holiday for the price of airfare for one person attending one meeting—deemed mandatory—in 1984. Looking back, the costs are even more astonishing: In 1984, that ticket alone, with the airfare not even covering getting all the way from Oslo to Buenos Aires, was the equivalent of nearly two months average salary in Norway.

Entering the international stage

Going through the archival material, it becomes clear that Norway’s ratification and the following push for membership on the World Heritage Committee was originally driven forward by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the diplomatic corps in Paris. The heritage agency (Riksantikvaren) was reluctant to join, partly due to the concerns that increased workload associated with UNESCO conventions was outweighing the benefits of ratifying the convention. However, by the early 1980s scepticism had been overruled; the heritage agency had sent in several World Heritage nominations and it was the then Director-General, Stephan Tschudi-Madsen, who was put forward as Norway’s candidate for the committee. At the time Tschudi-Madsen had taken an active role on one of the Advisory Bodies to the World Heritage Committee, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS).

The archival material showcases how his international positions also provided new opportunities for engaging in international heritage conservation more generally. As a Norwegian-American research team, it was in particular one of several events Tschudi-Madsen attended in the mid 1980s that captured our interest: his trip to Washington and a still timely entitled conference: “The crisis in cultural heritage: Why preserve the past?” hosted by ICOMOS US.

Tschudi-Madsen was invited to prepare a presentation and chair a session on “Triumphs in Restoration and restoration”. He put together an impressive nearly 20-page paper for the occasion. However, the cringe-worthy note of thanks sent to the ICOMOS US President after the conference revealed an unfortunate crossed-wires experience moderating a panel in the United States: “I so much wanted to do my best and did so little. I felt for the first and only time in your wonderful country that I brought a clumsy, old-fashioned European harp along, and no one asked me to play.“

That document, and others found in multiple Norwegian ministry archives help fill in the back-story of Norway’s first tenure as a member of the World Heritage Committee. Most of the background research findings come from letters, memos, meeting and expense reports, and official correspondence from other State Parties to the convention. Tax dollars at work, interesting people, and politics is a recipe not only for an interesting read, but the materials also help us gain a better understanding of how diplomacy and international relations have been part and parcel of the World Heritage Committee long before its much noted politicization of the 2010s.

About the project

The project is funded by NIKU and carried out by Herdis Hølleland and Jessica Phelps. We would also like to thank the Directorate for Cultural Heritage, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Climate and Environment and the National Archives for making the material available for the project.

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