Thursday, July 25, 2019


Lynn Meskell, A Future in Ruins: UNESCO, World Heritage, and the Dream of Peace. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xxiii, 372. ISBN 9780190648343. $29.95.

Reviewed by Ross Burns, Macquarie University, Sydney (

Version at BMCR home site


Lynn Meskell sets out to examine the record of UNESCO on the investigation and protection of ancient monuments by returning to the aspirations of Julian Huxley, the British biologist and humanist who in his two years as UNESCO Secretary-General immediately after the Second World War, defined what he saw as the organisation's ideals emphasising considerably its commitment to 'world peace'. She traverses this broad theme across a considerable number of specific cases, particularly relating to the organisation's record following the adoption of the World Heritage program which introduced a program to apply a framework for international protection for sites that had previously been the responsibility of national states.

CHAPTER 1 ('Utopia')

Lynn Meskell outlines in her opening chapter the ideals that marked the opening years of UNESCO. She relies considerably on the aspirations of Julian Huxley, the British biologist and humanist who in his two years as UNESCO Secretary-General defined what he saw as the organisation's ideals. While Huxley's lofty idealism may have guided his directorship, it was never going to overcome the national objectives which the member countries of UNESCO brought to activities extending across all the organisations' fields of education, science, and culture. Huxley had put his thoughts down in his 1946 UNESCO, its Purpose and its Philosophy but it is not clear what efforts he made to have that vision adopted before his early resignation as Secretary-General. Although the book is largely related to the post 1972 work of the organisation on World Heritage, there might also have been advantages, too in noting the wider context of the organisation's hugely diversified roles, each of which could be broken down into a plethora of fields. In this context, archaeology is only a small fraction and indeed is neither mentioned in the organisation's charter nor in Huxley's apologia.

Meskell assesses UNESCO's workload against the criterion of the 'promotion of peace' as if this were a central task in its everyday work program. In fact, the UNESCO charter commits the organisation to 'contribute to peace and security'. Peace is an over- arching aspiration to which UNESCO as all world organisations should contribute, not something for which UNESCO was given specific tools or objectives. In a world exhausted by WW2, it was a natural response to see UNESCO's work as making a contribution to peace in the same way, for example, as the World Health Organisation's Constitution (1946) notes that the 'health of all peoples is fundamental to the attainment of peace and security'.

CHAPTER 2 ('Internationalism')

Having sketched an organisational work program seen as having abandoned Huxley's utopian goals and preferring managerialism and technical assistance, Meskell moves on to survey some of the great international archaeological rescue programs of the 1960s and 1970s, depicting them as abandoning 'UNESCO's foundational utopian promise' (page 29) by concentrating on 'conservation rather than archaeological excavation' (page 19).

The author gives a picture of the eager promotion of 'social engineering' (page 15) as an alternative to 'field archaeology' (page 30) which she sees as a casualty of the spectacular achievement of moving the Nubian monuments beyond the reaches of a rising Nile. In her narrative the Nubian campaign became trophy hunting opportunities with the major powers to advance their profiles in the Middle East by 'monumentalising and conserving' ruins (page 57) rather than interpreting them in their wider archaeological context—'recovering … privileged over discovery' (pages 58 and 122). The word 'archaeology', however, does not appear in the UNESCO Charter nor in the visionary creed of its founding Director-General.

CHAPTER 3 ('Technocracy')

This chapter gives a picture of the next wave of international rescue operations including Moenjodaro. Moenjodaro is given as an apparently unnecessary (i. e. expert-driven) example of resorting to engineering (this time a canal) to address salination. This is seen as necessarily ruling out further archaeological excavations and 'an exercise in repetitive failure and redundancy' though it is not explained how the salination problem might have been otherwise addressed and the deeper archaeological layers saved from the rising salts. Instead, Meskell interprets this as UNESCO opting for a 'technical solution, retreating further into its bureaucratic, managerial and expert-driven functions' (page 65).

It is in this context that the rise of the World Heritage (hereafter WH) program within UNESCO is examined. Meskell regrets that with the launching of the 1972 WH Convention, 'the organization had shifted towards a pragmatic, intergovernmental organization focused on technical assistance' (page 72). WH became the flagship program of UNESCO, 'building a bastion of peace in the minds of all people' (Secretary-General Mayor, 1992). This flagship was to some extent a deliberate effort to give the organisation a greater sense of relevance but one which faced a significant new challenge in the face of the US's withdrawal of its contribution (22% of the budget).

In passing, Meskell rightly identifies one measure which has marked the organisation's transition from the WHO model of an organisation of idealists and experts to a largely inter-governmental model. The Executive Board once selected from distinguished 'names' active in all the main disciplines, was now selected from lists of functionaries representing governments. The trend towards bureaucracy and routine was further embedded in a 'landscape of paper' to use one of Meskell's evocative turns of phrase (pages 67, 81, 83–4, 86).

CHAPTER 4 ('Conservation')

Meskell further explores the conservation of Venice, Pompeii, Myanmar and Panama as issues that were increasingly exposed to national as opposed to pan-human priorities. World Heritage became increasingly a process of gentrification. 'World Cultural and Natural Heritage is not so much about protection anymore, but instead about branding, marketing' (page 107), a badge of prestige. An international campaign to rescue Angkor Wat (inscribed 1992) gave a nod towards the old rhetoric of a 'common humanity' but in practice, Meskell regrets that UNESCO's 'norms still remain expert-driven' (page 114).

CHAPTER 5 ('Inscription')

Meskell's fifth chapter turns to the Preah Vihear temple on the Cambodian-Thai border to illustrate her theme of 'the intricate hyper-connectivity of heritage at a global scale' (page 119) linked to topics as diverse as access to oil exploration permits or Chinese railway plans. She argues that WH inscription has opened the gates to such vote-trading for strategic objectives. Such commoditisation of WH, she argues, has made sites listed on WH into a new target for international rivalry ('investing in the potentialities of political, military, monetary, and cultural transactions and gains' (page 140)).

After questioning the organisation's record over decades, Meskell concedes 'we must recognise that as an organisation with a global reach, for the past seventy years UNESCO has been influential in making that protection possible' (page 142). She is quick to add, though, that it might be impossible for any organisational framework to keep 'archaeology' above the fray given its lack of ability 'to reconcile fundamentally different worldviews' (page 142).

CHAPTER 6 ('Conflict')

Meskell looks in greater detail into the WH procedures for the selection of sites (1073 now on the list). In one of the most interesting parts of her analysis she argues that some member nations deliberately undertake WH nomination in order to pre-empt controversy. Taking the case of Ani, the capital of an Armenian tenth century kingdom (taken by the Seljuks two centuries later), which sits today on Turkey's frontier with Armenia, the promotion of the site is seen as a deliberate glossing over of the troubled history of eastern Turkey rather than resolving the memories of the past. UNESCO's 'conventions', she argues, 'do not make adequate provision for the adjudication or resolution of such conflicts' or allow it 'to impose a penalty or reverse the conflict' (page 147). A visit by this writer to Ani a few months before its WH listing confirmed that the site indeed had a long way to go to present its history coherently to the visitor. But it is better the process begin than not be undertaken at all.

Other examples are then addressed as instances of 'the ramping up of conflictual heritage' (pages 155, 213) (the Burma railway or Jerusalem, for example) in which again she sees a role for UNESCO in arbitrating underlying political disputes. Instead, she sees UNESCO as simply opting for 'impasse management' (pages 75, 161–2, 166–7, 169, 171); a betrayal, in her view, of the organisation's 'explicit mission to end global conflict' (page 168).

CHAPTER 7 ('Danger')

Meskell argues that regretting the loss of Syria monuments is seen as a 'fetishizing the loss of things over life itself' (page 180). This is a fair point given the often-exaggerated depiction of the extent of damage to Syrian sites in Western media. She also regrets that the flourishing WH industry may have become a tool for drawing attention to sites—'there is something specific about the World Heritage stamp that has rendered sites valuable targets' (page 192).

The argument concluding the chapter gives only passing attention to the factor that has greatly crippled UNESCO's capacity to do anything to assert its mandate more vigorously—the United States' revolving door approach to membership with three acts of withdrawing funds from UNESCO and now, under President Trump, departing the organisation altogether.

CHAPTER 8 ('Dystopia')

The significance of the final chapter's title is not clear since the book ends in a survey of the lessons of the destruction of Islamic buildings in Timbuktu and the subsequent handling over of one perpetrator to the International Criminal Court. Meskell rightly notes, however, that too many such crimes (as in the destruction of Muslim historic buildings in Saudi Arabia) have already been ring-fenced by higher political considerations.


At the end of this challenging, thoroughly researched and often insightful examination of the issues around World Heritage, Meskell summarises the theme that has marked much of its narrative: UNESCO's 'mission to change the ''minds of men'' has been hampered by the agendas of its primary constituents, the Member States' (page 223). Meskell concludes 'Julian Huxley knew from the outset the daunting task set for the organisation when he referred to the ''impossibility of UNESCO producing the rabbit of political peace out of a cultural and scientific hat''' (page 117). Perhaps then, it might have been more productive to accept from the start that the organisation is necessarily the work of a collection of member states with all the faults inherent in the sum of its parts.

While the book provides an often-revealing glimpse behind the scenes of UNESCO, a wider view of the impact of WH process might have drawn attention to the greatly positive boost the organisation's work has given to the presentation of monuments and sites to the world not simply as national trophies but as heritage of mankind. Travellers (not to mention locals) today could well regret the WH impact on Venice but we should not downplay the boost that WH listing has been given to numerous sites once off the map. WH guidelines have widened the spread of cultures recognised at some sites. Though among the 1073 sites on the WH list the results are admittedly patchy in some cases, one of the great achievements of the listing of Palmyra, for example, was to facilitate the presentation of a site that had once simply been seen as a single-themed 'Roman' site, into a complex tapestry of the many cultures that had inhabited the Syrian desert oasis.

More concentration on the disruptive effects of the Unites States' 'on again, off again' participation in what should be the peak body for the world's intellectual activities might have given further insights into the organisation's operational difficulties. To concentrate relentlessly on the negative in the picture of the normal to-ing and fro-ing of international relations while continually returning to the lofty (but undefined) benchmark of Huxley's 'humanism' can only aid the mindset that Trump draws on, depicting UNESCO as a waste of time and intellectual space. Given her admirable idealism, this, I am sure, was not Meskell's intention. However, by giving prolific ammunition to the organisation's critics, UNESCO is set up as an attractive target; its faults catalogued without adequate reckoning against its achievements. Nostalgia for a world body of self-defined 'humanists' is a little too vague to be entirely helpful in an increasingly bloody-minded world. It is better to have UNESCO and WH than nothing at all. That would truly be 'dystopia'.

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