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Protecting Monuments of the World

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People have always lived next to or in the remains of those who lived before them. Structures of older cultures or the house of their grandfather - sometimes seen as old rubbish or source of cheap building materials - can be places of wonder and stories. Ancient temples were re-used as churches and mosques, walls disassembled and used to build houses. A first academic interest in these remains can maybe be seen in the Renaissance period, when scholars got interested in the remains of the antiquity.

A first real understanding for older cultures, excavations and research came in the 19th Century. Slowly an understanding for the need to protect the remains of history started to take shape and manifested itself in a few first laws. At this time it was usual to reconstruct a certain state of a monument and make additions in the historic style, which of course were based on guesses, and the results resembled the long-gone original buildings only by chance or not at all. A late example of such a well meaning but probably very inaccurate reconstruction of Knossos, Greece, which attracts many tourists every year, who may think that the place once really looked like that. It would take until the early 20th Century until the protection of ancient monuments really became an important issue.

Ancient monuments are not just a nice thing to visit on your holidays, they are a document of the past and of different cultures. Through them we can learn about others and about ourselves. If an ancient monument is destroyed this is irrevocable, no copy can bring back what is lost.

The Athens Charter

In 1931, experts came together in Athens at the 'First International Congress of Architects and Technicians of Historic Monuments'. The result were seven resolutions, which can be seen as the base of modern protection of monuments in the western world.

The Athens Charter recognises that every individual monument is unique and needs unique ways of preservation and restoration - which means that what is right for one site or object is not necessarily right for another. Restorations should only be done when really necessary because it is more important to preserve the state of a monument and protect it from decay and destruction. Every restoration alters the monument. Before any action is taken experts have to analyse the situation and be involved in the project to avoid irrevocable mistakes.

The use of new materials and techniques is allowed if it is necessary for the consolidation of ancient monuments, but the character of the monument should be preserved. A way to protect each monument from deterioration has to be found though thorough analysis. If - in the case of archaeological excavations - preservation is not possible, the monument should be studied, documented and then reburied to be protected. In the case of ruins, fragments should be reinstated at the right place (called anastylosis); if new additions are needed to do this they should always be distinguishable from the original parts.

Attention should be given not only to the monument as such, but also to its surroundings. Therefore new buildings erected in the vicinity of an ancient monument have to respect the historic character and whole groups of buildings can be protected - which does not mean that new buildings cannot be built in a contemporary style.

International organisations for the protection of historic monuments should be created and the collaboration of experts from different countries is encouraged. National laws have to be passed to protect the monuments of each country. Additionally every state should list their historic monuments. Education of the public is recognised as another important aspect of the preservation of historic monuments.


In 1945, shortly after the end of WWII, 44 nations came together in a conference in London to discuss how to prevent another war and how to unify the world and create a dialogue and respect between different cultures. The result was the founding of UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

In 1946 ICOM, the International Council of Museums, was founded. This organisation is an international network of museums and a partner of UNESCO. One of the goals of ICOM is the protection of tangible and intangible heritages.

After starting work mainly on educational projects, one of UNESCO's first projects concerning ancient monuments was its involvement in the campaign to save the temple of Abu Simbel in Nubia, which was in danger of being flooded due to the erection of the Aswan Dam. By the end of the 1960s the temple had been moved higher up the mountain above the new water level.

Through UNESCO another organisation was founded in 1959 in Rome: ICCROM, the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property. This intergovernmental organisation specialises on researching new ways of preservation and restoration, organising training programmes and workshops all around the world and it has one of the world's most important libraries for conservation. It is an advisory body to the World Heritage Committee and collaborates with other international organisations, universities and research centres.

The Venice Charter

In 1964 the 2nd International Congress of Architects and Technicians of Historic Monuments took place in Venice. The resulting new charter can be seen as an addition to the Athens Charter, which defines some aspects in more detail. It consists of 16 articles and was signed mostly by European countries as well as UNESCO, which had the chairmanship in the congress.

A monument is defined as not only the single architectural work but also the urban or rural setting in which is found the evidence of a particular civilisation, a significant development or a historic event. This historical evidence has to be protected. The monument as well as the environment it stands in has to be preserved and no integral parts of the monument should be removed because every monument is linked to a location. At the same time every monument should get a useful purpose for society which does not alter its structure.

Every monument must be treated as a historical document, and restorations must respect the original substance of a monument. Although it is allowed to 'close holes' where original parts are missing to make the appearance of a piece of art whole again, the new additions always have to be distinguishable, while at the same time harmonising to the original. New materials and techniques can be used to consolidate a monument if they have been proven to work. Additionally, restorations should always be reversible when possible.

The contributions of all periods to a monument have to be respected and only in exceptional cases unity of style should be a goal. This would mean destroying later additions or alterations, which are themselves documents of history. Ruins and excavations have to be preserved but not reconstructed. Only original parts should be put back in place. The research on such a monument should not destroy its meaning as a historic document. All work that is done on a historic monument must be documented.

The charter also makes suggestions for the teaching of restoration and preservation at universities. An international scientific magazine should cover topics around ancient monuments to keep everyone informed.

Suggestions for the better international collaboration and exchange are made and the importance of national law is reinforced as well as the need for an international organisation concerned with the preservation of monuments. The charter also underlines the importance of UNESCO, ICOM and ICOMOS in the whole process.

In its last paragraph the charter mentions that the congress is concerned about the planned destruction of the Maison du Peuple in Brussels, a masterwork of architecture from the 19th Century. It was demolished only a year later to be replaced by a skyscraper.


The Venice Charter was also the birth of ICOMOS, the International Council on Monuments and Sites, an organisation which works for the conservation and protection of cultural heritage places. In this organisation experts from different areas collaborate to improve the protection of historic sites. ICOMOS is one of the advisors in the World Heritage Committee of UNESCO and helps to decide whether something should be included in the list of World Heritages.

A second organisation, ICICH, the International Committee on Intangible Cultural Heritage, does similar things as ICOMOS but in the area of intangible heritage, eg rituals, oral traditions, performing arts and traditional crafts. The ICICH acts as an advisor to ICOMOS.

The World Heritage Convention

Following the rescue of Abu Simbel and other monuments, UNESCO and ICOMOS prepared a draft convention for the protection of cultural heritage. However, inspired by a similar project in the USA, IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, proposed to UNESCO to also protect the natural heritage of the world. This led to a single document concerning the protection of natural and cultural heritage of the world. The Convention was adopted by the general conference of UNESCO in 1972.

The Convention defines criteria for the inclusion of sites to the list of World Heritages as well as what has to be done to protect them. Every state that signs the Convention agrees to protect World Heritage sites and national heritages on its territory. In return these states get assistance in preserving their heritage for future generations. This is done not only through the help of experts but also the World Heritage Fund. Additionally, inclusion of a site to the list raises public awareness which can bring money to the area through tourism.

The first meeting of the World Heritage Committee took place in 1977 in Paris. A first list of World Heritage Sites was published in 1978 and contained 12 sites. The Committee, which consists of 21 members from all around the world, has an annual meeting in which it discusses existing World Heritage sites as well as nominations for new sites to add to the list. When a country suggests one of their sites for the World Heritage list, the suggestion is first reviewed by ICOMOS and IUCN. They then make recommendations to the Committee, which can decide if the site is put on the list or not, or if additional information is needed.

Planning for the Future

Today the list of World Heritage Sites consists of over 900 items and the convention has been signed by 190 countries. In addition to the Venice Charter more and more documents are created concerning the protection of specific types of monuments, like whole towns or underwater heritages. There is of course also a large number of historic sites of national importance and national laws to protect them. Still, many important monuments all over the world are in danger or have already been destroyed by wars, natural influences, human greed and the search for resources. On a smaller scale this includes town councils tearing down valuable historic buildings to erect apartment blocks or offices. Everything that is gone will be lost forever and no later reconstruction can bring back what is gone - a document of the history of a culture.

The awareness of the importance to preserve ancient monuments and historic buildings has largely increased, at least in the western world, also because it has been recognised as a source of income through tourism. There is however still a lack of appreciation for documents of more recent history, which can lead to ridiculous projects like the reconstruction of the fa├žade of a long-gone building from reinforced concrete through tearing down important places of our own era.

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