Saving World Monuments
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JEFFREY BROWN: An ancient Roman city famed for its marble, a 1960s visitors’ center at a national park in Pennsylvania, an 8th century mosque in Afghanistan — what they have in common is inclusion on a list of 100 sites of historic and cultural significance now threatened by a host of problems including natural disasters, armed conflicts, pollution and even 21st century sprawl.
The list of sites from 55 countries on all seven continents was put together by the World Monuments Fund, an international privately funded organization. Its president, Bonnie Burnham, joins us now and welcome to you.
BONNIE BURNHAM: Thank you.
JEFFREY BROWN: What’s the goal in issuing this list?
BONNIE BURNHAM: It’s to call attention to sites around the world that are in peril, but also give a platform to local people, groups and governments that are trying to save them.
JEFFREY BROWN: And how are the sites chosen?
BONNIE BURNHAM: They’re chosen by a panel. These local groups nominate them to us from amongst three or four hundred nominations. Each round we choose 100 sites. We have about 10 experts from around the world serving on the panel. So, we don’t actually select them ourselves. We manage the process.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I mentioned some of the threats that endanger these sites. Tell me a little bit more about that. What are the common problems?
BONNIE BURNHAM: Well, the same kinds of problems that affect people or the environment in adverse circumstances affect buildings. It can be pollution. It can be natural catastrophes, war. But buildings are unique. And someone has to take care of them. And we’re concerned about the ones that are falling between the cracks because either there isn’t a community to look after them or the people who are concerned about them don’t have the resources.
JEFFREY BROWN: So let’s look at a few examples.
BONNIE BURNHAM: One of the sites that we’ve had on several watch lists is the ancient Egyptian monuments at Luxor. First, the Valley of Kings was listed and now the entire West Bank of the Nile, at the place of Ancient Thebes. It’s a very complex situation involving too much tourism, too much development, a rise in the water table as a result of the building of the Aswan Dam, more agriculture encroaching on the monumental sites as a result. And there are archeologists throughout the area who are working against the clock to try to excavate ancient monuments and sculpture that are in the ground that are deteriorating very, very rapidly as a result of all of this.
And what the watch listing is calling for is a plan for the whole area that will protect the sites and use these economic generators to support the preservation rather than to undermine the very thing that people go there for.
JEFFREY BROWN: And everything that makes it on to the list comes with a plan for renovation or restoration, right?
BONNIE BURNHAM: Everything comes with a proposal.
JEFFREY BROWN: A proposal and a hoped-for plan.
BONNIE BURNHAM: A hoped-for plan. And the action plan of the person who nominates is one of the criteria by which we judge the proposals. We don’t want to list sites for which there’s absolutely no hope, nothing that can be done.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you have a number of religious sites listed. And I was interested to see that in a number of cases, the problem seemed to be a lack or a loss of congregation. In other words, there’s no one left to really care for the site.
BONNIE BURNHAM: That’s right. This is certainly a common problem all around the world and a theme of the watch program since we started it in 1996. Churches losing congregations is not so surprising, but many of the churches and religious sites and buildings that have been built are some of the greatest buildings we have embellished with really wonderful works of art, built by wonderful architects.
One example that we have on our current list is the synagogue in Serbia in the ex-Yugoslavia. It’s just been beached essentially out of the way throughout the Communist period when religion was suppressed; also the congregation greatly diminished as a result of the Holocaust. And we’ve known about the importance of this synagogue for years, but it’s been impossible to do anything until just the last year or two. Now, communications are open. The local community is interested. There is still a small Jewish community left in the town. And everybody’s working together. That’s the moment when we can really have some positive change occur.
JEFFREY BROWN: Now, people might expect to see an ancient site or religious site. But I was amazed to see on your list an airport, a 20th century airport.
BONNIE BURNHAM: Exactly. Well, engineering works are also examples of human achievement and also frequently they encapsulate a moment in time that it’s very hard to describe in any other way. And airports are certainly a good example of that. There are several important airports around the world today that are facing big preservation challenges, even the TWA Terminal in New York City.
But the one that we’re listing is an airport building in Helsinki. It’s a beautiful, modern building. And it was — the site of the first public international aviation terminal. So it embodies all the values that people associated with air travel and what it would do to open up the world.
And today, it’s been decided, we think arbitrarily by the city of Helsinki, that the building can be torn down, the site developed for suburban use. And we think they can choose a better site. The airport is still in use for private aviation. And it’s rare when we are dealing with buildings that we consider to be monuments that they’ve preserved their use, systematically over time even if it’s a relatively short time. And so we’d like to see that perpetuated.
JEFFREY BROWN: This is an interesting lesson for people and still somewhat controversial the idea that buildings from our own period need to be renovated, restored, conserved.
BONNIE BURNHAM: Modern buildings are just beginning to come into their own. It’s a subject of much debate within the field. We don’t have as clear a view about what’s important when it’s 50 years old or even less than we do in some things thousands of years old and greatly revered within our culture.
So modern buildings often just disappear overnight without much public awareness that this is something that’s going to happen; they’re not well protected by landmark laws. Typically, buildings under 50 years old are not eligible for protection. And those — even those that are older than that, there just isn’t the same kind of public recognition that these are worth saving and so you reach the turning point when the public has to advocate much more strenuously to save buildings whose future’s already been sealed.
JEFFREY BROWN: There’s one site I have to ask you about because it was the coolest picture I saw. It’s called the hanging flume in Colorado. Tell us what that is.
BONNIE BURNHAM: This is one of the surprises of the watch list and one of the things we cherish about the list is the fact that sites turn that up we had no idea existed, that anything like it existed in the world. And one is the hanging flume. It’s a 20-mile long man made structure hanging on the side of a cliff in Colorado, which was used to carry water in a hydraulic mining operation to extract gold ore without having to excavate essentially. And the water was used to bring pressure to the mining operation. We don’t know exactly, but this was a huge enterprise to construct this thing.
And it’s, in fact, the Colorado Bureau of Public Land that is trying to save it. And now the area, although somewhat remote, is an area that’s visited a lot by eco-tourists, people hiking so it could become a way of interpreting the history of the area if it can be saved.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. And a full list of the endangered sites is available on your Web site at –
BONNIE BURNHAM: Wmf.org. And we hope people will go and see all the wonderful things we’re trying to save.
JEFFREY BROWN: Okay. Bonnie Burnham of the World Monuments Fund, thank you very much.
BONNIE BURNHAM: Thank you. It’s a pleasure.