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How do we preserve treasured monuments from being ‘loved to death’?

October 11, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: They’re under threat by war, the environment, economic development, and much more; 67 sites in 41 countries and territories are on the 2014 World Monuments Watch released this week. Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: The list includes the famous and little-known, ancient and modern, urban and remote, among them, the world-renowned destination of Venice, overrun by giant cruise ships and tourism, and Myanmar’s capital of Yangon, as development encroaches on a historic city center, with its vast array of temples and colonial architecture.

In the U.S., six sites were singled out, including the 48-year-old Gateway Arch in Saint Louis, experiencing corrosion that threatens the symbol of westward expansion. Bonnie Burnham is president of the World Monuments Fund, which developed the list. And welcome to you.

BONNIE BURNHAM, World Monuments Fund: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: First, explain, what are the criteria that get something on this list? What are you looking at?

BONNIE BURNHAM: We’re looking at sites that are on the cusp of going in the wrong direction, where they’re facing some kind of physical issue, some kind of development-related threat, sites that have been through catastrophes, and even sites that are pregnant with opportunity, and we feel that by making — bringing more public attention, we can change it, the situation for the better.

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JEFFREY BROWN: You have got different examples, different themes. One obvious one that we cover on this program all the time is war, notably today Syria. So, tell us — tell us — give us an example of what’s been happening there to cultural artifacts and sites.

BONNIE BURNHAM: We have put all of Syria on our watch list because there are so many wonderful sites in the country that are in harm’s way, especially the urban ones in the cities where there’s been a lot of fighting.

But even in the countryside now, the place is so disrupted, people are looking for places where they can camp out if they’re refugees. They’re staying in monuments that have not been disturbed for hundreds of years. There’s a lot of looting going on. And it’s just a situation of general disturbance. We’re concerned about what’s happening now, but we’re also concerned about the future.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, because how much can — I mean, how much can happen while the violence continues?

BONNIE BURNHAM: Can’t do much except express concern, but as soon as it’s over, assuming it will be over, we would like to make sure we get it right when the time comes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another very different — different type of example is what I mentioned in our introduction, Venice, which has the opposite problem from Syria, I guess, too much attention, right, too much love.

BONNIE BURNHAM: Well, Venice is being loved to death.

And we have been concerned about it for a long time, with this huge escalation in the numbers of people that are there now, even more in a year than the — far more than the population of the city. And these giant tour boats, no one really knows exactly what kind of environmental impact they’re having.

JEFFREY BROWN: Those are stunning photos when you see the cruise ship over the whole city, overlooking the city.

BONNIE BURNHAM: Well, they’re staggering, and there are so many of them now that in the highs seas and in Venice, there’s never a moment when you’re in the famous Serenissima, the most beautiful city in the world, when these boats are not in the harbor.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so it’s not a — that’s not a new problem, and the city government has known about this. What’s the status of the debate over whether to somehow lighten the load on the city?

BONNIE BURNHAM: We understand that the mayor of Venice is very interested in having a dialogue, and he’s interesting in expression of concern from outside. He’s turning to the international community and saying, help me to bring this into balance, because it’s not his decision alone. There are a whole bunch of government agencies that have some voice. And, of course, it’s very economically beneficial to the city. And, at the same time, you really have to think about the impact.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, speaking of economics, another — another area on your list of many sites is — is what happens when there’s economic development, whether there’s a recognition of the cultural heritage.

And one example is Yangon, Myanmar. Now, it’s a country that is opening up in a way.

BONNIE BURNHAM: Absolutely.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, it’s a positive development, and yet you’re citing the potential for some problems.

BONNIE BURNHAM: That’s it.

It’s a very dynamic environment. There are many, many people interested in investing there. Businesses can’t find places to have their offices. And, at the same time, the government, with all that it has to do to struggle to get on its feet, has not really confronted the question of what will happen to Yangon, this beautiful colonial city.

And, in fact, they have moved the government agencies out of Yangon, to a new capital, leaving a lot of very important monumental buildings to an uncertain future.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let’s take one American example, the one I cited in the introduction, the Arch in Saint Louis. It’s formally the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

Now, I think a lot of people are going to be surprised, as I was, that it would be on the list. It’s corrosion?

BONNIE BURNHAM: It is corrosion.

And I guess that the overarching theme of the watch list is about vigilance, and knowing what’s happening at level of your community in terms of things that you treasure. And in this case, it’s the National Park Service facing a conundrum. Many of these great modern monuments were built in very experimental ways, and we don’t have standard procedures for how to address problems of this kind.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that leads to my last question, because what happens next? You create this list. What happens to these monuments and sites once they’re on it? What do you hope for?

BONNIE BURNHAM: Each and every one of them has a strategy.

In some case, they’re looking for a higher level of recognition, as in Myanmar, where the — in Yangon, we were just talking about, where the local heritage organization has already created policies, but the government hasn’t adopted them yet. And that’s really their main objective.

In other cases, it is other kinds of advocacy, as with Venice. We want them to know that every — people around the world care. And in some instances, they really need money and technical support, and we do what we can to provide that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, you know what? We will continue this conversation online. We will look at some other examples.

But, for now, Bonnie Burnham is the head of the World Monuments Fund. Thanks so much.

BONNIE BURNHAM: Thank you. Very nice opportunity.