The World Heritage Convention: a UK Perspective

Muirhead 112, University of Birmingham
Thursday 28 April 2016 (17:30-18:30)

This lecture will look back to the origins of UNESCO and the introduction of cultural conventions, particularly the 1972 World Heritage Convention. Since 1972 definitions of heritage have expanded to become much broader and inclusive, yet World Heritage Sites, by their very nature are places that are unique or exceptional in global terms.

This divergence poses a number of challenges. The criteria for achieving Outstanding Universal Value, the concept that is at the core of the Convention, have been set by experts and nominations for WHS status are led by specialists so how best can inclusive approaches to world heritage, in which often diverse communities can participate, be developed? And of what relevance is world heritage to the wider communities beyond the 29 WHSs in the UK and its overseas territories?

The World Heritage List is dominated by relatively prosperous countries with longstanding systems for the identification and protection of cultural and natural heritage. How can a more balanced and credible List be developed when so many countries have an understandably limited capacity to develop successful nominations? And, with 192 countries, often with very different approaches to heritage management, that are party to the Convention, the UK can sometimes find itself at odds with the broad consensus view about how best to manage and protect WHSs. In particular the concept of “constructive conservation” can clash with less flexible approaches to protection.

 In all these circumstances how best can the UK seek to ensure that world heritage and the ethos of UNESCO are, and are seen to be, forces that can deliver social and economic as well as environmental benefit?

Henry Owen-John is an archaeologist by profession; he started volunteering on excavations in school holidays, before gaining an honours degree in ancient history and archaeology from Birmingham University in 1976. He worked for the Glamorgan Gwent Archaeological Trust from 1977 to 1991, directing rescue excavations, and helping to develop the Trust’s archaeological planning advisory service to local planning authorities in south-east Wales.

 Henry then moved to English Heritage, initially as Inspector of Ancient Monuments for north-east England, before taking up management positions from 1998; from 2004 to 2014 he headed the planning and conservation team for north-west England, which advises local planning authorities on proposed changes to significant historic assets and places and offers grant aid towards heritage at risk. Following the division of English Heritage into the English Heritage charity, which operates the National Collection of properties open to the public, and Historic England, which is the government’s advisor on all aspects of the historic environment, he is now Head of International Advice at Historic England. This role focuses mainly on advising government and others on how best to meet obligations that flow from international heritage conventions, particularly those adopted by UNESCO.

Henry is a member of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists and a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries. Since 2006 he has served as a Commissioner on the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales, of which he is currently the vice chairman.