UNESCO: Work and Travel Post-Committee Session

Even after the excitement of the World Heritage Committee faded, I stayed busy. During the last weeks of July and August, I did a lot of work to record and publicize Committee decisions, which gave me a new perspective on how the World Heritage Centre functions. Even once the main event of the year is over, there’s still a lot going on! Luckily, the pace of work was a bit slower, so I had the opportunity to travel a little as well (and visit some World Heritage sites!), which I’ll share more about at the end of this post — it’s hard to believe it’s my last one. What an amazing summer this has been!

After arriving back in Paris, I began working on notification letters for the States Parties. Although the Committee’s decisions are known to the public as soon as they are made, these letters serve an important role in maintaining an efficient, clear, and straightforward nomination process. For properties not inscribed, the letters provide information about the possibility of future success, and for sites newly added to the list, the letters include requests for more detailed geographic data and further instructions. I was given a lot of responsibility to prepare letters for all properties nominated to be added to the World Heritage List, in addition to proposed minor boundary modifications and boundary clarifications.

The work was often bureaucratic at times (once I had to reprint several letters due to a missed comma) but it was highly meaningful. I had to address, format, and finalize the text in each letter and double check to ensure that all information was correct. It felt really cool to be preparing letters to be read by the diplomats of each country.

I witnessed firsthand some of the challenges faced by the World Heritage Centre, such as the logistics of handling large transnational serial nominations, meaning World Heritage sites with multiple unconnected territorial pieces in multiple countries. This year, one of these properties, the Ancient and Primeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians, was extended to include nine additional countries, for a total of 12! Each country needed its own letter, addressed to its own ambassador, with all the geographic data of its dozens of territorial components. Pages-deep into printing all of these documents, I began to wonder how many beech trees had been chopped down to produce the paper needed for this bureaucratic requirement. Why not just use email? I learned, however, that old-fashioned snail mail remains the standard means of communication for international diplomacy at UNESCO. All nominations, requests from ambassadors, and everything else are handled by the postal service. A relic of a previous era? Perhaps. But it lends an air of officialdom as every piece of mail — outgoing and incoming — is meticulously numbered, labeled, and filed.

I also worked on uploading the text of the Committee’s decisions to the UNESCO website, as mandated by the Committee’s directives in the interest of transparency and public access. Despite the repetitive nature of this task, it was cool to think that I, an intern, was fulfilling this important legal requirement. All the work that I did during this internship, even the more mundane tasks, allowed me to learn something new about UNESCO or World Heritage. I feel that I’ve greatly deepened my understanding of these subjects and gained new insights from the firsthand experiences that I’ve had, both at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris and at the World Heritage Committee session in Krakow.

During the month of August, I also worked on researching the recent history of Committee decisions. I catalogued all decisions made from 2000 to the present and looked for trends in the overriding of advisory body recommendations. Since around 2006, the Committee has more frequently overruled negative recommendations. It was fascinating to learn a bit more about the history of the World Heritage program and the geopolitical factors that influence decision-making.

Now that I’ve come to the end of my time with UNESCO, I’ve started reflecting on what it means to be a participant in the Cardinal Quarter program, in which students dedicate their summer to public service. I feel honored and privileged to have had the chance to work at UNESCO and have a role, no matter how small, in its implementation of the World Heritage program. Despite its flaws and issues (which I’ve written about in my blog posts), I remain convinced of the crucial role the organization plays in the conservation of heritage. It’s been fascinating to see how UNESCO functions — and when it doesn’t — but I still believe in the value of its work.

Just for fun, here’s a list of all of the World Heritage sites I’ve visited this summer. This was my first chance to travel around Europe, and I was so excited to take advantage of it. I decided to visit as many sites on the World Heritage List as I could — and I think I was pretty successful.

Paris, Banks of the Seine
Palace and Park of Versailles
Chartres Cathedral

Historic Centre of Krakow

United Kingdom
Tower of London
Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey

La Grand-Place, Brussels
Major Town Houses of the Architect Victor Horta (Brussels)
Historic Centre of Bruges
Flemish Béguinages
Belfries of Belgium and France (visited the one in Brugge)

World Heritage in London!
Brugge, know as the Venice of the North for its beautiful canals

One of my favorites was Chartres Cathedral, located about 50 miles south of Paris. One of the most magnificent examples of medieval architecture, it stands as a testament to human ingenuity and faith. First built about 1,000 years ago, different parts of the structure burned down at different points in time and were rebuilt in the predominant style of the period. As a result, the cathedral is a mix of styles, from Romanesque to Flamboyant Gothic. It was fascinating to go on a guided tour and gain insights on the architecture.

Visiting Chartres

Moreover, Chartres is one of the few Gothic cathedrals to have almost all of its original stained-glass windows still intact. It was also interesting to consider Chartres through the perspective of heritage conservation, one of the key missions of the World Heritage Centre. The cathedral is currently undergoing a years-long controversial restoration, which has stripped away the dark, smoky stone interior, replacing it with a bright whitewash, done with medieval techniques and stone from the original medieval quarry. Recent scholarly work has indicated that the builders painted the stonework as such in order to make pilgrims feel like they are visiting a piece of heaven on Earth. Gone is the gloomy, cave-like space one usually expects of a Gothic cathedral, replaced with a bright space, reminiscent of the inside of a cloud. The whitewash accentuates the soaring vaults and columns, adding a transcendental dimension to this place of worship. The stained glass, newly cleaned and restored as well, glows beautifully in this new atmosphere. Nevertheless, the restoration has been the object of scathing attacks, with some scholars declaring that the cathedral’s artistic integrity has been desecrated, years of history wiped away. I balk at these criticisms, however. While the cathedral had looked dark for many years, that was the result of centuries’ worth of grime, soot, and overpainting. Dirt is not heritage, no matter how old it is. By recreating the interior built by medieval artisans, the restoration team resurrects their vision and allows us modern-day pilgrims to this site of worship and artistic achievement to experience the wonder felt by our medieval ancestors.

Written by Andrew Lokay ’20 is a FSI Global Policy Intern at UNESCO — World Heritage Centre in Paris, France.

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