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Vincent L. Michael, Ph.D. Headshot

Cultural Authenticity in the 21st Century

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At last May's Forum on Global Heritage in a Developing World, I was struck by the following words from young Chinese economist, Yan Zhang: "Authenticity should not be static. It should be dynamic and evolving."



Enshrined in the Venice Charter of 1964, "authenticity" has always been a keyword in the lexicon of heritage conservationists. Generally speaking, it means avoiding conjectural reconstructions and insisting on historical evidence to support methods. But while that definition is largely scientific, Yan's words more accurately portray authenticity as a moving target.



For over a decade, I've watched heritage preservation evolve in two major ways. First, there was the shift from purely archaeological and architectural monuments to an increased emphasis on intangible heritage: folkways, languages, music, arts, costume, ritual and other traditions. Second, we are now recognizing heritage preservation as not just a series of international curation standards, but a dynamic process whereby a community determines which elements of its past should be carried into the future.



Last December, ICOMOS adopted The Paris Declaration: On Heritage as a Driver of Development. A year earlier, UNESCO released The Power of Culture for Development, while the UN adopted a resolution emphasizing "culture" as a contributor in achieving the Millennium Development Goals. Documents like these signal a new international consensus: that the preservation of cultural heritage, built and intangible, is not simply a historic or scientific luxury, but a fundamental way to advance societies.



In part, this new consensus reflects the influence of Asian culture, which believes that heritage is contained not simply in artifacts, but in the process of creating and using those artifacts. Authenticity may be achieved by preserving an artifact as it was; it may also be achieved by preserving the method of making that artifact. My own experience working with the Weishan Heritage Valley in Yunnan, China, began with efforts to preserve ancient music and folk traditions; only later did we move to preserve historic buildings, districts, sites and structures.



Last year, when Global Heritage Fund (GHF) restored a courtyard in China's Pingyao Ancient City, conservationists had to reconstruct the missing yaodong, a traditional parabolic arched brick structure that anchors Pingyao courtyards. Our team had extensive documentary evidence to support its original appearance, but more importantly we had access to the living tradition of yaodong construction -- a craft not yet lost in Shaanxi province.



If we're going to view heritage preservation in terms of a community bringing elements of its past into the future, we must also consider the world as a community. That was the idea behind the 1972 World Heritage Convention, which has since inscribed hundreds of World Heritage Sites. This year, the convention celebrated its 40th anniversary, but a majority of our endangered sites -- especially in the developing world -- languish without any international attention.



To address this challenge, GHF exclusively invests in the preservation of heritage sites in developing countries -- regions where per capita income is less than $2 per day. In the next 20 years, these sites can generate over $100 billion annually, creating business opportunities and millions of new jobs. With a holistic Preservation By Design methodology that combines conservation science, master planning, partnerships and community development, GHF strives to make heritage preservation a fulcrum for poverty alleviation, economic development and long-term sustainability.



To make projects of this scale successful, national and international support are critical, which is why GHF secures matched funding from local sources, both private and public. To protect findings at Göbekli Tepe (Turkey), what some are calling the world's oldest religious site, GHF partnered with the Turkish government and the German Archaeological Institute (DAI) -- excavating since 1994 -- to build a new walkway that accommodates visitation and excavation yet respects the authentic landscape of the site. Similarly, partnerships with government, municipal authorities and universities have been central to GHF's work at Pingyao, China's first banking capital.



In the 1980s it seemed the sole economic value of heritage preservation lay in tourism dollars. Today, major Asian sites like the Great Wall and Angkor Wat reinforce this idea, but they also demonstrate the dangers of catastrophic tourism development. Lijiang, China, inscribed to the World Heritage List in 1997, was converted from a living city with a diverse economy, to a tourist site with no indigenous raison d'etre. Likewise, in 2007, we argued against a plan in Weishan that would have moved government and local functions outside of town to a new site, leaving the historic city exclusively to tourists, void of its indigenous character.



Conservation techniques must retain the authentic artifacts and folkways of a place, not simply for tourists, but for the people actually living there. Heritage economics have evolved over the past two decades to demonstrate not only the value of tourism and real estate, but also the fact that well-managed sites tend to circulate more money within the local economy, providing broader and more sustainable uplift in developing countries.



Preserving historic sites remains a challenge for all nations. Too often it is relegated to the curatorial ghetto rather than integrated into broader community planning efforts. Recently, Western businesses and developers have taken advantage of tax incentives by investing in heritage sites, but those incentives remain lacking in developing countries where businesses and local governments tend to see heritage sites in terms of tourism dollars, overlooking authenticity and the immense potential of these sites for socioeconomic development.



To convince the public and private sectors that heritage preservation drives development, GHF has enlisted two dozen scholars and experts to develop a new study on "Heritage Economics." By analyzing the growth and development of global heritage sites over the past 10 years, the study will identify the full range of long-term socioeconomic impacts of both tangible and intangible cultural heritage, evaluating and producing strategies for truly sustainable heritage conservation in the coming decades.



Authentic places have proven to attract ongoing financial and human investment -- not by dwelling in a static past, but by embracing a community's roots in its dynamic evolution.