Reconsidering world heritage for the modern era

Through recent research, archaeologist and Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor Lynn Meskell has continued to highlight how World Heritage Sites have become flashpoints for conflict and out of touch with local communities. 

Group photo of students holding sign that reads 'The Lauder Institute.'.
Students of The Lauder Institute pose for a photo on March 4 while touring Huaca del Sol near Trujillo at the Moche Valley, in Peru. (Image courtesy: The Lauder Institute)

Lynn Meskell, an archaeologist and Penn Integrates Knowledge Professor, is tired of talking about heritage through the lens of Monuments Men.

“It’s very out of step with how people feel,” she says. 

What Meskell is referring to is the tendency for cultural heritage to be classified as material and, often, defined in Western terms. While romantics might look to the dark days of World War II as a sterling moment of cultural preservation, what’s lost in dialogue is how people living in today’s cultural sites—namely, UNESCO World Heritage Sites—actually perceive and value them. 

As part of a Penn Global Engagement Fund project grant, in collaboration with Vit Henisz of the Wharton School, Meskell examined public sentiment in cultural heritage sites around the world, from Kosovo to Libya. They covered an unprecedented number of sites in their analysis—every UNESCO World Heritage site inscribed since 1990, encompassing 80 languages. Findings, Meskell says, are often at odds with popular notions of how these sites operate and are represented by international organizations like UNESCO and NATO. 

In short, people living among the heritage sites are often shut out of the planning process, relocated as the sites are reshaped as tourism staples, and distrust the governments that nominate the sites for inscription and multinational business interests that step in once the sites achieve the designation. 

“I saw in Turkey first-hand as local people around the site were promised benefits to build hotels and restaurants, and as soon as the stamp of World Heritage was given, they were told it was never going to happen. Moreover, they no longer wanted archaeologists working with the community and were told to stay away,” Meskell says. “People understandably feel aggrieved.”

Archaeological site filled with stacked, dusty, aged bricks and surrounded by rocks..
The Archaeological Complex of Pachacamac, listed for the UNESCO Qhapaq Ñan, Andean Road System, Peru. (Image: Lynn Meskell)

The Taj Mahal, as another example, is a case of small-scale labor and livelihoods being stamped out in a larger effort to create a tourism industry that creates jobs but cultivates new problems in the process. Elsewhere, in Egypt and Jordan, tourism industries have been created at the expense of locals who no longer feel attachment to those spaces. What UNESCO intended, which was to use cultural heritage tourism as a tool to lift up developing countries, has actually produced a problem instead: “They thought this was the answer, and then two decades later realize they created the problem,” Meskell explains. 

Meskell will present her research in Rome and Sydney this summer but has already reported findings to NATO in Brussels in February. There, she spoke about the threat of these sites becoming flashpoints in war conflicts, essentially making them political leverage. There’s also a risk of NATO missing what local people value more greatly as cultural heritage—perhaps a church or a local museum—by way of only focusing on what is inscribed as World Heritage through UNESCO.

It’s happened already with Daesh (an alternative name for ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, she says, and Russia has tapped into on-the-ground sentiments in Ukraine to manipulate local feelings around identity and religion. 

“What I’m referring to, which is now being referred to as cultural heritage exploitation, is the use of either destruction of monuments—as we saw with Daesh—to rally support or win recruits, to show power or flex that power in the international community,” she explains. “And of course, on the other side we’re seeing Russia say, ‘We’re not destroying the World Heritage Sites, therefore we’re good citizens,’ but they’re destroying all the local sites that people are actually much more connected to.”

The larger concern is how cultural heritage can be increasingly weaponized by political forces, and the greater risk of missing what local communities are valuing the most. It’s particularly timely as more recent sites of global conflict become eligible for World Heritage inscription. Rwanda, for example, has applied for genocide memorial sites to attain the UNESCO designation. Meskell will lead a Perry World House expert meeting in November on exactly these topics.

It also begs a reevaluation of what a cultural heritage is.

Lynn Meskell standing in front of a glass display case at the Penn Museum.
Lynn Meskell is the Richard D. Green Penn Integrates Knowledge University Professor in the Department of Anthropology in the School of Arts & Sciences, a professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning and the graduate program in Historic Preservation in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, and a curator in the Middle East and Asia sections at the Penn Museum. (Image: Eric Sucar)

“What world heritage implies is absolute neutrality,” says Susan Lindee, the Janice and Julian Bers Professor of History and Sociology of Science in the School of Arts & Sciences (SAS). “[It implies] the location of sites relevant to all human beings, and it’s an invention of the postwar period. These sites are often large and beautiful, but they are not the only kinds of spaces where culture matters. There is a new sense in the heritage world today—that Lynn has played a role in generating—that says, ‘Giant stones are not the only important forms of heritage.’ Farming practices, music, religious centers, or systems for navigating social disagreements are also important.”  

The idea that World Heritage Sites capture a “transcendent absolute truth,” Lindee says, is a product of Cold War ideals of shared culture across all nations—of a singular “family of man” in which all core values are shared. Such perspectives have changed as anthropological fields, including cultural anthropology, biological anthropology, and archeology, have faced a reckoning in the second half of the 20th century, with changes in the colonial system, and new attention to Indigenous rights.  

Lindee’s own work has looked at how conservation of the Galapagos reflected European ideas that those in the Global South were unlikely to manage nature properly. A network of European and American scientists felt entitled and even obligated to intervene across Africa and South America.  

“What counts as destroying heritage? Who doesn’t matter and who’s left out of the debates? I think one of the guiding principles in these debates is, ‘Who actually should have control of these sites and to whom do they belong? The idea that they belong to a neutral ‘humanity’ seems difficult to sustain right now,” says Lindee. 

Policymakers like the United Nations and critics, she says, tend to have different answers to these questions. 

The topic of heritage is also growing in importance recently as definitions expand of what counts as a heritage site. The Bikini Atoll Nuclear Test Site in the Marshall Islands, for example, was inscribed in 2010. The residents, of course, had been forced off Bikini in 1946 so that it could be used for Operation Crossroads, the first major U.S. weapons test after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Continuing contamination makes permanent residence there today impossible, Lindee says. Identifying Bikini—a place where those who lived on and loved the atoll were forced out by the U.S.—as a site of World Heritage is almost an ironic reflection, Lindee suggests, on ideas about heritage and its audiences.   

Fiona Cunningham, an assistant professor of political science in SAS, studies technology and conflict and has recently researched how military capabilities are used to achieve political objectives. She’s engaged in conversations recently with Meskell about the idea of heritage sites being weaponized in global conflicts and it’s become an area of interest for future study for them both. 

Cunningham says she’s observed how nuclear powers seek ways to leverage the threat of a nuclear war without explicitly threatening to use nuclear weapons, and nuclear heritage sites could be a new way of accomplishing that—particularly if, for example, a site like Chernobyl were to be added to the World Heritage List. In practice, the attention to these sites can draw in international actors who might otherwise not see themselves as having a stake in the conflict; it’s similar to Pakistan’s ability to draw the United States into its conflicts with India in the twilight days of the Cold War by signaling that it might assemble its nuclear weapons.

“I see heritage sites as being part of a broader search for coercive leverage,” Cunningham says. “International countries are constantly looking for resources that will help them gain an edge over their adversaries without spilling over into hot conflicts or the most destructive types of conflict. And the interest is how do they get creative about getting an advantage while skirting the threshold of disaster.”

In the future, Meskell is interested in further exploring how cultural heritage is weaponized and continuing to ring the alarm to international organizations like NATO, where she recommended the organization be less reliant on UNESCO for its cultural heritage policies and collaborate more with independent researchers. But she’s also eager to teach the next generation of scholars and business leaders about the nuances of cultural heritage sites. 

Archaeological site with diamond-shaped stones featuring scaffolding around them.
Chan Chan UNESCO World Heritage site, Peru. Meskell led a group of two dozen students of The Lauder Institute on a trip to Peru in March. (Image: Lynn Meskell)

In March, she led 24 students from the Lauder Institute to Peru with a theme of “Global Heritage, Desert Cities, and Living Legacies,” traveling from Lima and up the coast to Chiclayo, visiting museums, pyramids, and more. The intention was to showcase examples of how cultural heritage can be managed thoughtfully—in collaboration with local communities, through private-public partnerships, and with assurances local communities will benefit from conservation and are able to contribute to it and keep it alive in a meaningful way.

As someone who grew up in the tourist city of Antalya, Turkey, Sidar Alagoz, a student in the Africa General program at Lauder, says he learned a lot from the Peru trip about intangible culture and keeping heritage sites active places for local communities—through events, outreach to government, accessible pricing, and other strategies. As a business student, it’s prompted thoughts about how to make conservation sites more financially sustainable and is a continued area of interest for him that has led to conversations with the mayor of his hometown, he says. 

“I grew up in heritage. I saw these problems. My family, we got our fair share of it,” Alagoz says. “In the long run, maybe not the short run, I see myself taking steps from what I learned there.

“Any businessperson who’s going to work internationally needs to have the right interdisciplinary toolkit in order to navigate these intricacies, and that’s what I want to do.”