Tanja Vahtikari: “World Heritage Cities between Permanence and Change. International Construction of ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ and Local Perceptions at Old Rauma from the 1970s to the 2000s”. Lectio praecursoria 9.2.2013

Filosofian maisteri Tanja Vahtikarin väitöskirja “World Heritage Cities between Permanence and Change. International Construction of ‘Outstanding Universal Value’ and Local Perceptions at Old Rauma from the 1970s to the 2000s” tarkastettiin 9.2.2013 Tampereen yliopistossa. Vastaväittäjänä toimi professori Luda Klusáková (Charles University, Praha) ja kustoksena professori Marjaana Niemi.


Hundreds of thousands of people every year stroll through the gardens and enter the hallways of the great manor houses in the English countryside. When, in the course of the twentieth century, these estates and the lifestyle they represented became impossible to maintain, many of them were turned into conservation sites and visitor destinations. In the process, the country house became one of the emblematic symbols of Englishness, an image that has been circulated widely in print and in film – one recent example being the popular television series Downton Abbey. This type of interest in upper-class pasts is by no means limited to England – in most European countries and beyond, the elite architecture is considered a key element to national identity. But so are increasingly today the more ordinary lives and their surroundings.

Just two weeks ago, as Islamist militants fled the historic city of Timbuktu before it was recaptured by Malian and French troops, they set fire to a library containing manuscripts from the 14th to the 17th centuries. Last year, after seizing the city, they destroyed three sacred tombs, key to Malian patrimony and part of a World Heritage site in Timbuktu. The Islamist militants were by no means the first to harness the destruction of historic objects in the service of revenge and warfare. We only need to remember the systematic destruction of Warsaw in 1944 by Nazis, or the shelling of the city of Dubrovnik by the Yugoslav People’s Army in 1991.

Both of these developments, taking place in distinct contexts, can be analyzed within the common conceptual framework of ‘heritage’. To offer a short definition: heritage is a selective relationship with the past taking place in the present. In other words, heritage is as much about today and tomorrow as it is about yesterday. Heritage has many present-day functions, such as the commemorative, the social, the political and the economical. In light of this ‘presentness’, it is hardly surprising that heritage often is a controversial resource.

The relationships with the past conveyed by heritage involve artifacts, buildings, places or practices that we people somehow see worthy of keeping. As shown by several authors on critical heritage studies, materiality is an integral aspect of heritage, but there is more to it than the physical remains of the past. Thus, rather than seen as merely remnants of the past, heritage should be seen as an active social process and a discursive construction shaped by specific circumstances. Heritage is not self-defining; its conservation and representation always involve selection.

Many researchers have identified an accelerating concern for the past and its memorialization in Western societies since the 1960s. American geographer David Lowenthal wrote in 1985 that “to an American, the landscape of the 1980s seems saturated with ‘creeping heritage’”. Even though as a historian I am reserved towards some of the most history-less conclusions (Lowenthal’s work, however, does not fall within this group), which suggest that the recent concern would be a novelty – which it surely isn’t – it seems well warranted to claim that in our post-industrial and late-modern society heritage has come to play a central role – be it in revitalizing economies and urban spaces, or in claiming identities.

Since the nineteenth century, there has been an inseparable link between modern nation states, nationalism and conservation. Historic buildings and sites were, and they continue to be, key constituents in the construction of national identities, inclusive of certain sub-identities, and exclusive of some others. However, parallel to the dominant national concern has been the internationalization, or globalization of heritage. International cooperation in conservation became established by the early twentieth century. This was also the period when the idealistic idea of the ‘common heritage of humankind’ begun to gain ground, first in the writings of individual intellectuals (e.g. John Ruskin), and later on within the institutional framework of the League of Nations. The globalization trend intensified in the post-Second World War period and especially since the 1960s. This coincided with the overall growing concern for environment and the growth of international tourism.

The key promoter of the idea of global heritage has been UNESCO with its 1972 adopted World Heritage Convention. The implementation of the Convention and the building up of the World Heritage List, today with almost one thousand cultural and natural sites, guides the global heritage concern by constantly defining and redefining what constitutes heritage, and by offering the highest-level forum for professional conservation. It has also significantly contributed to the world-wide unification of valuation and management practices. Finally, UNESCO has introduced the concept of ‘outstanding universal value’, which it considers a fundamental condition for inclusion to its List.

My research explores the construction of this global concept from its beginning until the present in the context of cities. The focus is placed on the expert valuation discourse and the politics of representation. This is important both because reflections regarding cultural significance have become key to the idea of heritage, and because by means of the World Heritage List UNESCO aims to create a kind of “educational archive” of the world’s history (Rico 2008). By exploring World Heritage concepts, I hope to illustrate the role of UNESCO, and its advisory organization, ICOMOS, in actively constructing heritage meanings. During the past three decades the international professional heritage field has undergone major conceptual changes, especially with regard to what is seen as worthy of preservation and based on what values. In my research I have explored the ways in which UNESCO has been able to respond to these widening conceptualizations of heritage in society.

When examining the case study, Old Rauma in Finland, my research further investigates the interpretation and use of the global concepts locally. The focus is placed on the views of different groups having a stake in the articulation, valuation and management of Old Rauma. The discussion begins by exploring the process through which Old Rauma became a historic city. It ends with an analysis of the recent local debate concerning the building of a large shopping centre on the northern side of Old Rauma, in an area which had been defined as part of the World Heritage ‘buffer zone’.

Why, then, cities? Apart from the fact that the issue has not been widely discussed so far, it seemed warranted to study World Heritage cities especially for two reasons: first, because as heritage places historic cities with their resident populations are complex and diverse (especially in comparison individual monuments); and second, because heritage has become to play such a visible role in the life of many – if not all – contemporary cities.

The two-scale approach applied in this research meant the use of a broad data. The main sources included UNESCO documents and reports and the statements written by ICOMOS on the qualities of World Heritage nominated cities – altogether 220, both accepted and rejected. They also included various archival and other written materials concerning Old Rauma, as well as interviews with local stakeholders.

World Heritage in the beginning of the twenty-first century is very different construction from the one in the late 1970s. Through several interrelated stages, the World Heritage community from the early 1990s onwards renewed its philosophical basis in relation to what constitutes cultural heritage. This reassessment may be understood as a movement from monumental and tangible perception of cultural heritage towards more anthropological, vernacular and intangible understanding, and towards pluralization of value. It may also be understood as a changed emphasis from the conservation of lost cultural traditions towards protection of living cultures. Moreover, the shift may be described as a partial reconsideration of a ‘modernist’ definition of heritage on which the Convention has essentially been based. Finally, the early 1990s’ reassessment should be seen as a move towards accepting the idea of representativeness aside those of universalism and globally applicable standards.

I consciously use the word ‘towards’, because when viewed through the lens of ICOMOS statements concerning cities, it becomes obvious that many of these attempts have remained halfway as part of the actual valuation practice. Despite that a broader understanding of what constitutes a World Heritage city has ensued over the years it has proven difficult for ICOMOS to go beyond the traditional perspectives. My research furthermore shows that a uniform, and unifying, language has been used in the valuation of cities, something which has been significantly influenced by the standardized process of nomination, evaluation and designation. The question, however, remains, how pre-structured should these descriptions be without hiding and losing the specific senses of the places?

My research contributes to the understanding of the existence, operation, and power of an internationally working “authorized heritage discourse”, as defined by Australian archaeologist Laurajane Smith (2006). The World Heritage Convention was drafted in conformity with this discourse, and has so far largely remained within its parameters. The analysis of ICOMOS evaluations, even though comprising a diversified construction, has made explicit that the dominant conceptions of heritage are slow to adjust.

The Old Rauma case shows that when interpreted and implemented locally, international conceptualizations such as World Heritage are inseparably bound up with the historical context of a place, and the earlier meaning making related to it. In Rauma this revolved around the understanding of Old Rauma as a lively wooden town. World Heritage was used by various stakeholder groups for purposes of identity making and to promote their own interests in the negotiation over place meanings, especially during the shopping centre debate. In other words, World Heritage was used as a tool in the construction of heritage narratives of local origin.

The case of Old Rauma also shows that in the localized context, outstanding universal value gets interpreted in a novel way, in many ways often disconnected from the official statements by ICOMOS and UNESCO. It equally suggests a lacking functionality of certain World Heritage related concepts, such as buffer zones, if they are not included in the national legislation. UNESCO is constantly moving to strengthen its position as an international stakeholder. In opposition to certain other examples such as those of Vienna and Dresden, Old Rauma so far has been largely unaffected by the international control. Thus, in the world of cultural globalization and globalized memory work, Old Rauma as World Heritage still provides a locally and nationally framed example.

In my work I discuss the discursive formation of heritage, role of experts, politics of representation and the integration of international concepts into the local level. At this point, I would like to remind us all about UNESCO’s mission to save exceptional places of culture and nature to posterity of the humankind. This noble cause is by no means questioned in my research, even though the key concepts and valuation practices have been critically scrutinized. Nor is the purpose of historic urban environments questioned in any way – they exist so that we would remember and so that we are able to locate ourselves in the chain of generations.

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