This April 18 is the 30th anniversary of the observance of International Day for Monuments and Sites, and coincidentally also the 40th anniversary of World Heritage Convention. The theme of the day is therefore World Heritage, and the particular focus is on the role of local communities in sustainable development at World Heritage sites.
Local communities are central to historic preservation. People have deep connections to the places where they live, even if the place is from a civilization long gone. Engaging local people -- not just governments -- in preserving sites is the one of the most effective ways to ensure their preservation.
One good example is our work at Taos Pueblo, one of the few cultural sites in the U.S. that is on the World Heritage list. The pueblo has been continuously inhabited for more than a millennium. Its inhabitants have passed the traditions of repair from one generation to the next. All this was interrupted in the 1970s when modern housing was created for pueblo residents. At that point, the use of the famous structures that inspired Georgia O'Keeffe was limited almost entirely to special ceremonies and events.
The tradition of conservation stopped.
Two years ago the Taos Pueblo cooperated with the National Park Service to place Taos on the World Monuments Watch, a biennial call to action for sites facing urgent issues. Since then World Monuments Fund has started a program with the pueblo to train young community members in the skills of preserving their adobe buildings. Our pilot project is at a building near the pueblo entrance that had been seriously damaged by fire. To repair it, trainees gathered materials from around the pueblo lands -- logs for the vigas (structural roof beams) and latillas (smaller logs placed on top of vigas) that support the buildings' flat roofs, and clay and straw to make adobe bricks to use in the restoration work. New doors and windows were fabricated following traditional designs to replace recent ones that were not authentic. As they worked, the trainees were taught by village elders about special words, stories, and processes that related to the work. As they learned how to work with their hands, they also learned a lesson about their history, and revived an oral tradition that had not been observed in decades.
With the completion of our pilot project, the community has found resources to continue this work on a much larger scale. The trainees will be able to find employment within the pueblo to continue what they have learned, and the residents are making plans that will put the buildings back into more active use. A rupture in tradition and in the vital life of the place is being healed.
Preservationists know that our work has a huge impact on local communities, by creating economic opportunities and bringing deeply held values back to the surface. Celebrating the International Day of Monuments and Sites is therefore a way of celebrating the diversity of the world's culture and respecting the traditions that make up the fascinating mosaic of our common heritage.
Follow Bonnie Burnham on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@WorldMonuments