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The First International Document
for Diverse Cultural Values in Conservation:
"The Document of Nara"

Charles S. Rhyne
Reed College

a paper presented at the
Annual Meeting of
American Institute for the Conservation
of Historic and Artistic Works

St. Paul, Minnesota
7th June 1995

June 1999. When this paper was given in 1995, almost none of the world heritage documents mentioned were available on the Internet. Now links can be provided for nearly all of them.


I feel privileged to be a part of the general session at your annual meeting again this year, and to take part in the increasing interchange between conservators and art historians, which has been one of the most productive developments in our respective disciplines in recent years.

      I was extremely pleased to see that the AIC was including, as part of your annual meeting again this year, a broad-ranging session, focusing on a crucial topic that cuts across the traditional media-specific fields; because I continue to feel that there are significant alternative decisions in every conservation project, that every conservation decision is based - whether consciously or not - on underlying principles and approaches. And if this is true, how much better that we should be aware of them, and that we should debate them openly among ourselves, rather than to assume them uncritically.

      Being an historian, it is a treat for me to see these examined, not just as general philosophical ideas, but in the context of specific case studies; because just as I believe that each conservation decision should be considered consciously in relation to underlying principles, so I am convinced that the these principles can only be properly evaluated on the basis of a multitude of diverse case studies.

Other Papers

We have been treated today to a number of just such case studies, several of which relate in important ways to the material and ideas I shall be addressing in this paper.

      Several papers have dealt extensively with what I have been calling "Comparative Conservation", which I have found - at least in teaching - the most useful way of formulating all types of conservation questions, in order to get student - and I suspect all of us - to think critically about these issues. Once we recognize that there are different practices, principles and standards in different types of museums, or among departments within museums, for different types of materials, and for objects with different uses, and indeed in different countries; the obvious questions arise: "Why do we do things differently in different situations? "Are there good reasons for this? or is it just the way in which things have grown up piecemeal over the years?" "Can we learn from practices in other departments of our museums, from conservation practices on other types of materials or objects with different uses, and from practices in different countries?" "With such diversity, are there indeed any general principles and practices to which we might all subscribe?"

      Edward McManus, Glenn Wharton and Mary Stofflet, have examined the conflict between different uses, including museum display, loan, and preservation, and - especially fascinating for me - the conflict between the preservation of nature and of art in the same setting, especially where both are of recognized historical importance. Judging from her abstract, Alison Richmond's paper, which immediately follows mine, sounds like the most extensive attempt I have yet seen to deal with these comparative conservation issues, at least within a single museum.

      Several papers have dealt with the historical development of national and international charters, codes and guidelines: Robert Armbruster reviewing codes of ethics for architectural preservation; and Nancy Odegaard emphasizing the initiating role of NAGPRA legislation and the importance of that ongoing process. Most parallel to my own paper, Etienne Clement has reviewed the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import , Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, its ratification by individual states, and their formulation of national legislation to further the process; and Robin Thornes has examined international documentation standards.

      Catherine Sease is unfortunately unable to be with us, but was to have given us an indepth and up-to-date review of the difficulties in attempting to protect sites from looting. And I suspect you will notice connections with other papers as I speak.

This Paper

My paper, which I hope you will find relevant to many of these issues, focuses on a major, recent change in proposed international guidelines for preserving the world's cultural heritage. The "Document of Nara" is the first document drawn up by an important, representative, international body, that recommends diverse cultural standards for the conservation of the world's cultural heritage. It challenges us to reconsider our basic principles of conservation and deserves the fullest possible discussion internationally.

      It was formulated last November at a conference in Nara, Japan, and published in the December issue of ICOMOS News . In spite of its obvious importance, there has been (as far as I have been able to discover) no other publication of the document and no published comment, let alone critical review, even in the press. (If any of you know of any, I should greatly appreciate references.) I have photocopies of the document, as published in ICOMOS News , available for anyone who would like a copy.

      The preamble to the document states that "There is now an intention to foster further discussion in the National Committees and Regional Assemblies." I take that to be an open invitation rather than a restrictive one - in any case, a seminar I conducted at the Getty Conservation Institute in February and this paper are intended as contributions to that process.

History of Diverse Cultural Values in Conservation

We can understand the uniqueness of the Nara recommendations only by reviewing its predecessors among conservation charters and guidelines, to see how they have dealt with issues of cultural diversity. Because the modern heritage preservation movement originated in Europe, the formulators of early international charters were not as informed about non-European conditions and values as we have at the least the opportunity to be today. 19 of the 22 persons listed as having taken part in the work of the committee for drafting the 1964 Venice Charter - which has been the defining international document for the past 3 decades - 19 of these 22 persons were Europeans - no Asians or North Americans are listed in the official record.

      But in recent decades our concern for heritage preservation has expanded to include the entire world. As a result, cultural issues have come to the fore. Herb Stovel, head of ICOMOS Canada, wrote in his paper for last year's Bergen workshop (The Bergan workshop was an important international meeting, with published papers, held in Bergen, Norway, earlier last year in preparation for the Nara meeting); Stovel wrote: "The concern of contemporary conservation practitioners to ensure that their judgments do not unconsciously impose cultural values on others is an increasingly important part of conservation dialogues." In his opening paper, Jukka Jokilehto, head of architectural conservation at ICOM in Rome, concluded: "Conservation is not only keeping the material, but also recognizing this spirit, this 'non-physical' essence and authenticity of the heritage, and its relation with the society."

      This has called into question previous conservation standards as stated in the most influential national and international charters and guidelines. Since the publication of the Nara document in December, I have read through all of these that I could discover, with the considerable help of staff at the Getty Conservation Institute, at Parks Canada and on various national ICOMOS committees; but there is time this afternoon to mention only a few notable predecessors for the Nara recommendations.

      Although preceded by the Athens Charter of 1931, the defining document for the past three decades has been the 1964 Venice Charter . Though most of the provisions in this remarkable document have been retained in subsequent charters and codes, the closest it comes to recognizing the diversity of cultural values and the implications this has for conservation is the statement that

It is essential that the principles guiding the preservation and restoration of ancient buildings should be agreed upon and be laid down on an international basis, with each country being responsible for applying the plan within the framework of its own culture and traditions.

Theoretically, this allows for cultural diversity, but, in practice, this has been interpreted narrowly, following European practices originating in the preservation of stone monuments.

      The most influential subsequent document, and the first to recognize a shared responsibility for the cultural and natural heritage, was the 1972 World Heritage Convention. The "Convention for the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage" continues to be the primary instrument in international law, protecting natural and cultural sites of "universal" significance. The Convention's Secretariat, the World Heritage Centre, is established within the structure of UNESCO (which we are honored to have represented by Meisseur Clement at this AIC meeting). Cultural and/or natural sites are proposed by the state parties of the countries in which the sites are located, and are reviewed by the World Heritage Committee, the Convention's governing body. Sites that are judged to be "of such exceptional interest and such universal value that their protection is the responsibility of all mankind" are added to the World Heritage List and are eligible for international technical and financial aid and, to some extent, supervision. Of course, listing also stimulates support from the country in which the site is located, tourist dollars, and - one must add - in a few tragic cases, destruction by nationalist extremist pursuing ethnic cleansing, who have specifically targeted their enemy's monuments designated as World Heritage sites.

      The 1972 World Heritage Convention specifies that "It is for each State Party to this Convention to identify and delineate the different properties situated on its territory" and "Election of members of the Committee shall ensure an equitable representation of the different regions and cultures of the world", but the Convention goes no further in recognizing the implications which this diversity has for conservation.

      Recent revisions of the "Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention," (the Operational Guidelines are crucial in giving guts, specific directions to the broad principles laid down in the Convention itself); recent revisions in these Guidelines have incorporated types of sites previously underrepresented (for example: "groups of urban buildings," "towns," and "cultural landscapes"; and certain criteria (for example, a site that is "an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement or land-use which is representative of a culture"; or is "directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance") these recent revisions could be interpreted to include a much wider range of cultural values than has previously been recognized in world heritage decisions, but there is nothing in the guidelines to specifically call attention to this. There is an important potential overlap between this typological diversity, which has been expanding now for some years, and, on the other hand, diversity of cultural values - but this overlap has to be acknowledged - it does not produce recognition of other cultural values automatically.

      Recognizing developments within the profession and the tremendous growth in preservation internationally, many national and international bodies have reconsidered their statutes and codes of ethics and have approved and published revised documents. These revisions demonstrate that these conservation associations have been struggling with the issue of cultural diversity, but have not been able to formulate a position that accommodates this diversity while retaining basic principles of conservation.

      There is time to mention only two of these revised national documents: the charters and guideline of Australia ICOMOS and New Zealand ICOMOS. In 1984, the Australian national committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites adopted guidelines for the establishment of cultural significance, to accompany their Burra Charter. The guidelines include a section titled "Social value", which reads (in toto): "Social value embraces the qualities for which a place has become a focus of spiritual, political, national or other cultural sentiment to a majority or minority group." Although the word "sentiment" may not adequately capture what for some peoples is a deeply held belief, this was the first reference to spiritual values in any national or international conservation document.

      In October 1992, the New Zealand national committee of the International Council on Monuments and Sites adopted a "Charter for the Conservation of Places of Cultural Heritage Value." Recognizing the diverse cultural backgrounds of New Zealand peoples ("the indigenous Maori and Moriori of east Polynesian origin, and the pakeha, predominantly European migrants, and others who have settled in New Zealand since the early nineteenth century"), the New Zealand committee included a section on "Indigenous Cultural Heritage," which reads, in part

The conservation of indigenous cultural heritage value therefore is conditional on decisions made in the indigenous community, and should proceed only in this context. Indigenous conservation precepts are fluid and take account of the continuity of life and the needs of the present as well as the responsibilities of guardianship and association with those who have gone before. In particular, protocols of access, authority and ritual are handled at a local level.

In the section on "Conservation Processes," the New Zealand Charter includes a brief section titled "Non-intervention" that reads (in toto):

In some circumstances, assessment may show that any intervention is undesirable. In particular, undisturbed constancy of spiritual association may be more important than the physical aspect of some places of indigenous heritage value.

These sentences represent the most significant incorporation I have been able to find of diverse cultural values in any national charter or guidelines for preservation of the cultural heritage.

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The situation internationally has been altered dramatically by the adoption of The Nara Document on Authenticity, retitled in ICOMOS News the Document of Nara. This is the first international, heritage preservation document to give major attention to "the social and cultural values of all societies," to recognize that "Conservation of cultural heritage in all its forms and historical periods is rooted in the values attributed to the heritage", and to argue that "the protection and enhancement of cultural and heritage diversity in our world should be actively promoted as an essential aspect of human development". The Nara Document is certainly the first to argue that (and this is the most extreme statement in the document):

It is thus not possible to base judgments of value and authenticity on fixed criteria. On the contrary, the respect due to all cultures requires that heritage properties must be considered and judged within the cultural contexts to which they belong.

It is a powerful, provocative document that should be read and discussed by all concerned with the preservation of the world's cultural heritage. The most beautiful and moving statement in the document appears as the first provision following the "Preamble," to wit:

The diversity of cultures and heritage in our world is an irreplaceable source of spiritual and intellectual richness for all humankind. The protection and enhancement of cultural and heritage diversity in our world should be actively promoted as an essential aspect of human development.

Now, a few words about the origin and status of the Document of Nara. The Nara conference had been set in motion by a recommendation of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee in 1992. In preparation for the Nara conference, two preparatory workshops or seminars were organized with ICCROM and held in 1994 at Bergen, Norway and Naples, Italy. The "Summary Report" of the Bergen workshop states that "the aim of the expert meeting in Japan will be a proposal to the World Heritage Committee to clarify the application of "the test of authenticity" to World Heritage nomination, by revising and extending the definition of the various aspects of authenticity now noted in the existing Operational Guidelines." After discussion by national committees and no doubt revision of the recommendations, they will, we assume, be considered for adoption at the 11th general assembly of ICOMOS, to be held in Sofia, Bulgaria, in October 1996.

_    _    _    _    _    

One reason for the importance of the Document of Nara is that, unlike the revisions in the Australian and New Zealand charters and unlike NAGPRA in the United States, the values of indigenous peoples are not identified as uniquely different; with, therefore, unique provisions for the treatment of their objects, structures and sites. In the Nara document, there is no mention of indigenous peoples or their values. Cultural diversity is valued worldwide, and preservation practices should take into account the varying traditions, varying types of monuments, and varying environments of all peoples.

As such, the preservation philosophy underlying the document should encourage each of us to ask whether the preservation projects we are involved in day by day, regardless of their cultural origins, should be approached differently in any ways.

I wish these issues could be left in this complex, but at least relatively orderly state; but conscience forces me to mention one even more basic, underlying issue when we discuss, as I have been attempting to do, international charters and guidelines for preservation. This is the assumption that works of art, structures, monuments, sites, urban complexes, cultural landscapes, etc. that are recognized as having the most historical or artistic importance, for human beings, in any part of the world, from any culture, have "universal significance". Or, as it is sometimes put, "that cultural properties - in spite of all national and political differences - belong to all mankind."

Legally, those countries that have not yet signed the World Heritage Convention have not yet agreed to its provisions; but philosophically, the assumption has been that there is universal significance to the most important sites of historic and artistic achievement anywhere in the world, regardless. This philosophical position appears, in one form or another, in every international preservation charter and guidelines, often as the first provision. The Operational Guidelines for the World Heritage Convention opens with a characteristic statement:

The cultural heritage and the natural heritage are among the priceless and irreplaceable possessions, not only of each nation, but of mankind as a whole. The loss, through deterioration or disappearance, of any of these most prized possessions constitutes an impoverishment of the heritage of all the people in the world. Parts of that heritage, because of their exceptional qualities, can be considered to be of outstanding universal value . . .


This philosophical position again underlies the Nara Document . "It is important to underline a fundamental principle of UNESCO, to the effect that the cultural heritage of each is the cultural heritage of all." But this appears as provision number 8 and is followed immediately, in the same provision, by the statement that "Responsibility for cultural heritage and the management of it belongs, in the first place, to the cultural community that has generated it, and subsequently, to that which cares for it." This reflects the range of opinion within the expert group finalizing the wording of the Nara document.

More importantly, it reflects the fact that at the same time that the peoples of the world are achieving previously unprecedented global interconnectedness, we are also reestablishing our ethnic and cultural identities. In extreme cases, indigenous have stated that they do not accept the concept of "universal value" for the most important creations of all peoples; that they have no desire to possess or have influence over cultural properties of other peoples, but that they do want returned to them all of their own cultural property, which they consider belongs to them alone.

I do not believe that this assumption, so basic that we have never truly questioned it, has ever been freely debated in the international preservation community.

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