Monday, August 9, 2010

Just What Is "Culture"? UNESCO and American Sensibilities

The Netherlands' NRC Handelsbad printed this op-ed on the early August anointing of Amsterdam's 17th-century canal ring zone by that European (yet curiously, global) behemoth: UNESCO. Arts consultant Michiel Van Irsel editorializes in characteristically Dutch euroskepticism, as the world already saw over the European Constitution referendum in 2005

Irsel advises readers to"pretend UNESCO does not exist," lest the specialness of the organization's sites devolve to become "more common than Starbucks."

Part of UNESCO's official mission is to protect locations of "outstanding universal value." Irsel's piece focuses on the impact of UNESCO's designation as it concerns Amsterdam proper, but it could be read so as to shed some very interesting light on the group's understanding of what constitutes human culture -- and whether its manifestations, from Angkor Wat to Zanzibar -- are worth safeguarding in perpetuity.

Certainly, the Paris-based organization enjoys both the money and the culture-expertise bona fides to garner respect within the world's cultural, historical and arts communities. But let's look at the way the numbers stack up: to begin with, the Aug. 2 announcement brings 21 more heritage sites into the fold, for a (whopping) total of 911. Nine One One.

This is precisely the kind of slapdash list-making that prompted In Transit, a New York Times blog, to report the news with the lead, "Will the entire known world eventually be a Unesco World Heritage Site"? The newest inductees comprise a tally that is actually smaller than the 26-per-year that UNESCO has been averaging. If the group keeps up its break-neck pace, the total will surpass 1,000 by 2014. 

A look at UNESCO's World Heritage List reveals several interesting nuggets about the group's relationship to (and, ostensibly, authority on) heritage when it comes to evaluating, naming and protecting cultural high places around the world. And something of a Western European focus could be read into UNESCO's choices for "world" heritage sites: over 20% of sites are shared between Italy, Germany, France, Spain and the UK. The tiny Belgium has 10, and the comparably petite Portugal, 13.

Here's the concentration of European sites in map form.

Compare all of this to how UNESCO has ranked (stood in judgment of?) sites in the United States since the country's inception in 1973. Contrary to most European nations, the US boasts a 3:2 ratio of natural to cultural sites, the two primary types of UNESCO labels, with 12 natural versus 8 cultural locations. 

The cultural sites form a list few Americans would come up with on their own. The Empire State Building is not mentioned, nor are Jamestown, the Golden Gate Bridge or Mt. Rushmore. The city of Washington is nowhere; apparently neither its iconic monuments nor its arts (as can be seen as the Corcoran, the Kennedy Center or the gigantic Smithsonian network) make the UNESCO grade. Its mostly hideous government buildings are not exactly objects of renown heritage-wise, but the decisions made in them could at least be recognized, to say nothing of the sweeping effects they render on culture, heritage and peoples -- daily and worldwide.

And you might interject that the Statue of Liberty and Philadelphia's Independence Hall are duly represented. Okay. But the disproportion of natural sites seems a decidedly outsider's view of what's worth preserving from a heritage perspective in the United States.  The glut of obviously ecology-conscious choices, when juxtaposed with the sense of an "American's America," suggests the UNESCO list is both incomplete and unrepresentative. In its ensemble, the UNESCO choices smack of an undercurrent of superficial knowledge on US history and its own unique, worthy points of heritage. 

Outstanding value, no question. Universal... well, that depends on who you ask.

This discrepancy is especially disconcerting given the absence of religion from the list of what UNESCO feels makes US heritage significant. Four of the 8 cultural sites are of Native American culture, and only one of these, a burial ground in Ohio, could be possibly construed as religious. The faith sites of Europe-descended Americans are conspicuously absent from the list. No Plymouth Rock, no Amish communities, no mention of the Christian (Protestant or Catholic -- or the Jewish, Mormon, atheist, agnostic, etc., etc.) symbols in the United States. For a country so viscerally proud of its religious freedom and diversity, UNESCO has missed the mark wildly.

This post could continue with a discussion of what some are calling the 'museumification of Europe'. At the same time, a number of European culture experts bemoan the perceived commodification of European art, as when the French temporarily exported hundreds of works from the Louvre to Atlanta and Abu Dhabi... More to come.

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