On top of the world

Being part of a World Heritage Site can help museums attract visitors and form new partnerships, writes Deborah Mulhearn
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Deborah Mulhearn
The English Lake District, the Historic Dockyard Chatham in Kent and the slate industry of north Wales: these places have little in common except that they are all hoping to become world heritage sites.

Along with seven other sites, they are on the UK government’s “tentative” list to be nominated for consideration by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), which confers World Heritage Site (WHS) status.

It could be a long wait. The twin monasteries of Wearmouth and Jarrow are ahead in the queue, having already been nominated, and since the government slimmed down the process a few years ago and agreed with Unesco to put forward no more than one a year, none from the tentative list will be nominated until 2013.

Even then, there is no guarantee that Unesco will approve the listing. The most recent UK site to be inscribed as a World Heritage Site, in 2009, was the Pontcysyllte aqueduct and canal in north Wales, which waited more than 10 years.

Unesco set up the World Heritage Convention in 1972 to protect the world’s cultural and natural heritage.

Since then, 936 sites in 187 countries have been inscribed onto the world heritage list, ranging from the pyramids of Giza to the Taj Mahal and the Great Barrier Reef. The UK has 28 world heritage sites, from city centres to uninhabited islands.

The Giant’s Causeway, Ironbridge Gorge, St Kilda, Stonehenge, Durham Cathedral and Castle, and the frontiers of the Roman empire were among the first batch of UK sites to be inscribed in 1986 and celebrate their 25th anniversaries this year.

WHS status is conferred for “outstanding universal value” and brings recognition and kudos for their unique natural phenomena or cultural, industrial and historical significance, but no direct financial gain.

Sites must fulfil WHS criteria to retain their listing and can lose their status if they flout them. UK sites have to work with English Heritage to protect historic environments and controversies can arise – WHS status is threatened at the Giant’s Causeway and Liverpool Maritime Mercantile City because of plans to build, respectively, a golf resort and tall office blocks.

Most of the UK’s world heritage sites have museums within them and, while many of the museums worked on the bids, they often don’t overtly promote their status. Visitors to world heritage sites are not necessarily aware of the WHS status, what it means or the reasons for its bestowal.

So is it worth the long and frustrating process of reviews, feasibility studies, complex management plans and tussles with local authorities and private owners?

“Every WHS site is unique and all have different entry points,” says Mechtild Rossler, chief of the policy and statutory meetings section at the Unesco World Heritage Centre.

“Because museums operate at all levels, from local to national to global, they can provide layers of information to help visitors make historic connections and gain a better understanding of the value of WHS.”

The Historic Dockyard Chatham has been on the tentative list for many years and hopes to be the next UK nomination.

“The main issue for us is to protect what we have and change perceptions of the site,” says Bill Ferris, chief executive of the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust. The bid is based on the quality of the heritage and Chatham’s role in maintaining Britain’s global influence over two centuries.

“We are proclaimed to be the best example of a dockyard, with every stage of wooden warship building and with the dockyard defences still intact. The sightlines are the same as the ones Nelson saw.”

Despite its illustrious history and distance – 28 minutes by train – from London, Chatham is not a major destination, and Ferris is convinced that WHS status would be a quality stamp to draw in more visitors.

“There are very few drawbacks from a museum point of view,” agrees Steve Miller, chief executive of the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, which this year celebrated 25 years of WHS status, inscribed in 1986 for its role in the origins of the industrial revolution.

“There’s a world of difference here from St Kilda, where there are no people,” he says.

“We are a large inhabited site with residents, businesses and 10 museums and the visible symbol of the bridge that draws in 1 million tourists a year. We work with a multiplicity of partners from Telford and Wrekin Council to the Woodland Trust to keep standards of conservation, and everyone is on board.”

Working in partnership

Each Ironbridge Gorge partner has its own plan and also worked on an overall strategic approach for the 25th anniversary to coordinate branding and marketing material. There is also the Unesco-approved management plan, to be updated in 2012.

“It’s been a really special year that has raised the already high awareness of the WHS status, allowing us to reach new audiences,” says Miller. There is no need to restrict visitors as long as you put in the infrastructure, he adds.

“Tourism is an important part of the local economy and the WHS status is an essential part of this that works really well for us.” The City of Bath was inscribed in 1987 for its Georgian architecture and its Roman archaeology.

“It’s hard to quantify the benefits, but the WHS status is extremely relevant to us,” says Stephen Bird, the head of heritage services at Bath & North East Somerset Council and head of the Roman Baths.

“The raison d’être of Bath is the hot springs, and the main one comes up in the middle of our site. It’s a reminder that despite all the monumental architecture around us, the hot springs are fragile and ephemeral. We know very little about the geological system beneath them, and this has to be taken into account, for example whenever there is deep piling anywhere near the city centre.”

Working with WHS status

But the WHS status shouldn’t be a barrier to development, says Bird. Bath has introduced successful contemporary design onto the site, notably architect Nicholas Grimshaw’s plate glass Thermae Bath Spa building, which reflects the old buildings.

“People are concerned about change, but if you are working in the right materials and proportions, and have a robust management plan, you are not threatening the WHS status,” Bird says. “We don’t want to reproduce Georgian pastiche as it’s not innovative.”

In Liverpool, which was added to the world heritage list in 2004 for its historic docks, Pier Head and Georgian and Victorian centre, there has been continuous building activity.

The new Museum of Liverpool within the WHS area is a bold contemporary design, but one that respects its historic environment. “It’s a balance between commercial and cultural interests,” says David Fleming, the director of National Museums Liverpool.

“It’s a normal public space and people don’t want it over-preserved. The world heritage status should act not as a tyranny but as a pause for thought. Museum black boxes are not appropriate on a world heritage site, and the Museum of Liverpool is unusual for a museum in that it has views onto the site and the views have been the wow factor.”

The Merseyside Maritime Museum also plans to open up views that were blocked off when the Albert Dock buildings were renovated in the 1980s.

“Yes, the material may be sensitive but there are compromises with micro-climates. Conservation and environmental control is more advanced now so we have greater opportunities,” says Fleming.

“We should be making more of what’s outside so the visitor gets a sense of the river and docks while reading about emigration or the battle of the Atlantic,” he says. “It’s another way of reconnecting local people with their city’s history, and the reasons why it was inscribed as a World Heritage Site.”

Deborah Mulhearn is a freelance journalist

World heritage is about global citizenship

Durham’s World Heritage Site (WHS) visitor centre opened in June in a renovated almshouse on the city’s Owengate.

“The idea is to make more of the World Heritage Site status and help people appreciate it,” says Seif El Rashidi, Durham WHS coordinator, whose post was created three years ago to deliver the visitor centre and website project.

The centre gives an overview and uses information panels, terminals and interactive maps to explain what a World Heritage Site is, and local information about Durham and why it has WHS status.

“You’d be amazed how few people know,” says El Rashidi.

There is also a space for events and exhibitions and the centre acts as a forum for local people to air their views and concerns.

“World heritage is about global citizenship and responsibility and we thought the visitor centre should convey this in a contemporary sense,” says El Rashidi.

The 25th anniversary celebrations of gaining WHS status have ranged from events with African drummers to Polish spiritual choirs. The website, like the visitor centre, makes links to other local attractions and events.

“We were keen to promote the site before people get here,” El Rashidi says. “We wanted something captivating that didn’t read like a lecture.

Our focus is to improve the quality of the experience for visitors, to breathe new life into the spaces and inspire more people to visit, beyond those who we know already find heritage enjoyable.

Durham has many visitors but more are welcome. They are not a threat to the fabric of the buildings, which are defensive and robust.”

New ways to visit the world’s heritage sites

Nothing replaces the experience of seeing the genuine article, but not all world heritage sites are accessible. A conference in Edinburgh this month – I Know Scanning techniques, mobile and satellite technologies, apps and social media all have potential applications in heritage settings.

Rossler says: “We are looking at ways of linking sites that are remote or inaccessible, such as St Kilda or the Lascaux Caves, but also serial sites – places which are listed as one site, but are dispersed, for example the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route which covers sites from northern France to Spain, or large sites such as the Great Wall of China, Angkor Wat in Cambodia, or the 90-mile long Dorset and Devon coast.

“If people can see satellite images that give an overall view, Google Earth images, maps of the site, either on websites or at related museums and visitor centres, they will be better informed and able to plan their next steps, even book hotels,” adds Rossler.

New technologies could allow visitors to see objects in storage, exhibits from different collections that link to other WHS sites, small films and related material.

“There are fascinating opportunities for museums because they can give a local dimension and can add links to their pages,” Rossler says. “Remote viewing can help visitors, site managers, scientists and other heritage professionals.”

Where I’m Going: Remote Access to World Heritage Sites from St Kilda to Uluru (23-24 November) – will explore the opportunities new technologies can bring to Unesco world heritage sites and other cultural sites.

“We want to break down the barriers between new technology industries and the heritage sector,” says Mechtild Rossler, chief of the policy and statutory meetings section at the Unesco World Heritage Centre and a keynote speaker at the conference.

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