Lynn Meskell


On her book A Future in Ruins: UNESCO, World Heritage, and the Dream of Peace

Cover Interview of February 06, 2019

The wide angle

While it is true that UNESCO status bestows a level of international prestige upon ancient sites, for archaeology as a discipline the organization means very little. World Heritage might offer the only truly global platform to showcase the world’s most famous archaeological sites to a global public, but it has had minimal impact upon the history of our discipline. I wanted to understand why. I soon discovered that archaeologists, like many other scholars, had no great admiration for the organization and are more likely to summarily dismiss, misrepresent, or criticize UNESCO and its World Heritage List than to acknowledge its achievements. Educating ourselves about UNESCO then seemed to me the first step, and this project began as an exercise to understand the workings of World Heritage. It was nothing short of a discovery to find that the discipline of archaeology was originally part of UNESCO’s early intellectual momentum and had even extended back to its illustrious predecessor, the League of Nations. And while there was an archaeological component to UNESCO’s famous Nubian Monuments Campaign to save and study the sites and temples in Egypt and Sudan scheduled for submersion with the completion of the Aswan Dam, this was short-lived.

Many critical accounts and analyses of UNESCO have been written, coupled with official histories and narratives by well-placed insiders. Together they tell the story of an imperfect organization that began with midcentury optimism but rapidly devolved from an assembly of statesmen to a tyranny of states. Originally a globally oriented organization, UNESCO was transformed into an intergovernmental agency, a mere shadow of its former ambition for a world peace and mutual understanding between peoples. The overreach of powerful governments has come to permeate all aspects of its functioning. This is reflected in the workings of many of its high-profile programs, including World Heritage — the program that seeks to identify, protect, and preserve outstanding cultural and natural heritage sites around the world. While there are considerable problems, as this book reveals, they should not detract from UNESCO’s achievements in creating a planetary concern for heritage preservation and its ability, however circumscribed, to exert pressure on its member states to honor the treaties that they have ratified.