White Paper

This paper was originally drafted for the Global Colloquium of University Presidents, held on April 12–13, 2016 in New Haven, Connecticut, USA. The Colloquium led to the formation of the Global Consortium for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, whose 4th annual meeting is scheduled for October 2021 in Pretoria, SA.


The focus of the original paper was to support the formation of a new world-wide consortium of large organizations, whose primary focus would be on public diplomacy in support of the preservation of cultural heritage. Over time, the focus of the Global Consortium has broadened. On the one hand, the large public organizations have pretty well met the goal of public announcements in support; on the other, the Consortium has spread the “big tent” wider to encompass more organizations (including smaller ones), and also a range of practitioners and communities.


The paper has been updated in preparation for the Pretoria meeting by Consortium Management Committee members, who felt that it was still basically sound and did not need to be redrafted. Most of the updates are included in the text, except for this new paragraph concerning the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic:



The major impacts of Covid on the cultural heritage sector have been the lack of in-person access to sites, collections, performances, and demonstrations of cultural heritage, due to prudent closings of sites, museums, galleries and venues and the huge fall-off in travel. With these closings there has been a devastating loss of income to people, organizations and communities that benefit from such visitation. Organizations have tried to adapt by providing digital visitation and access, but these formats do not offer visceral, compelling engagements comparable to the in-person experience. And cultural organizations have not yet figured out how to monetize digital access, either by charging virtual visitors or by generating substantial sponsor support. To some degree this challenge is spurring problem-solving and innovation, driving efforts toward higher quality digitization and better forms of presentation. But the sector is still largely in a relief mode—with U.S. heritage organizations using PPP and CARES funding, as well as Ford Foundation grants, and numerous international organizations using government funds and ALIPH Covid-grants to make it through and stay in business.


This loss of income threatens the continued existence of many of the organizations charged with the preservation of cultural heritage. The impact of the pandemic on education threatens a generation of cultural heritage professionals. All in all, this is a situation that makes the need for the Global Consortium and other like-minded groups even greater than it was in 2016, when the Consortium was launched.



Cultural heritage is the essential record of human existence and identity. It is the thread of continuity for which people search when the rhythm of everyday life has been shattered - disruption generates nostalgia and a seeking for traditions, real or otherwise, that symbolize stability. Cultural heritage has long been recognized by scholars in constructing and reconstructing political, social, aesthetic, environmental, technological, and religious history. It is often connected to natural heritage. It is preserved in museums and collections, libraries and archives, places of worship, architectural and archaeological sites, monuments, and entire cities and landscapes. It is woven into the fabric of our contemporary communities and day-to-day lives, manifested in language, performance, traditions, and other intangible representations of our existence. And it’s implicated into politics too, nationalist and transnationalist alike[1].


Cultural heritage plays a direct role in preserving and enriching the communities in which it is sustained. Many communities/polities/elites/ states use or build upon their cultural heritage sites, collections, and practices as resources for economic development, tourism, and commerce, as well as for shared identity, knowledge, creativity, resilience, and a sense of community, even nationhood.


Cultural heritage may also be misused or manipulated to exclude, isolate, and stigmatize communities within a population, or to demonize perceived enemies. Elements and markers of heritage may be destroyed, banned, or severely marginalized.  In fact, in some cases particular elements and markers of heritage—tangible and intangible—may be publicly celebrated and aggrandized by some in a manner that inculcates disrespect for and diminishes the civil or human rights for others.


Although cultural heritage can be quite resilient it is not a renewable commodity. To slow or stop the natural deterioration of materials that comprise physical cultural heritage requires significant investment, which can compete with other societal needs. Of course, the challenge of intentional destruction is many times worse. The task of sustaining living cultural heritage — preserving traditions, practices, languages, and beliefs — in the face of constant social change often becomes subject to considerable community and generational tensions[2].


The preservation of cultural heritage is not a new topic - its roots go back hundreds of years. Over the past century elaborate systems of local, national, and international law have been created, international organizations (e.g., UNESCO[3], ICOM[4], ICCROM[5], ICOMOS[6]) established, new preservation techniques and strategies developed, and research performed on cultural heritage as practiced by local communities.


There are more than 1,000 UNESCO-designated World Heritage sites; these sites receive special attention and funding support from host governments, mainly because they are highly visible, attract numerous visitors, and generate considerable economic benefit. But many other, more numerous manifestations of tangible and intangible cultural heritage around the world receive little attention or support, leaving local communities to protect them with limited financial and technical assistance.


There is no single, monolithic way of understanding cultural heritage, so approaches to preservation must reflect and respect a diversity of perspectives, especially those of the communities in which heritage is embedded. Historical perspective is also important; it often illuminates the contemporary context.


Cultural heritage is frequently contested. Difficult questions of preservation “for whom” and “by whom” arise[7], whether within cultures or between cultural contexts. There are issues of control over intangible heritage – how practices might be regulated and encouraged; over artifacts – where they should reside and whether they should be repatriated; and over sites – how they should be conserved and integrated into their communities. Post-colonial relationships, arbitrarily constructed national boundaries, local government and politics, migratory populations – all come into play in these preservation issues.



The preservation of cultural heritage presents major challenges even in circumstances of peace and prosperity; the challenges are exacerbated in times of emergency and crisis. Beyond the ravages of time and nature, cultural heritage is vulnerable to manmade challenges including use or neglect, deliberate destruction, theft, and illicit trade.


Natural disasters – earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, and drought – take their toll. Climate change and pollution degrade the natural and material environment and impact the livelihoods and traditions of people. Acid rain damages the built environment. Rising sea levels threaten sites located near the coasts. Different approaches to risk management and disaster reduction are required for seismic and non-seismic areas. Control of climatic conditions for collections is a concern for museums worldwide, particularly in humid and tropical regions.


Poorer countries and regions, the most vulnerable areas in the event of disasters, may find it difficult to find funds to preserve cultural heritage since other needs, such as those related to food, shelter, and health, take priority[8]. Economic development and tourism relying on cultural heritage deserve particular attention. These activities generate much-needed revenues but they may overwhelm a site or a tradition. In order to balance preservation and development, new methodologies are needed for economic analysis, urban planning, conservation, and control of access.


Recent years have seen the reappearance of cultural cleansing in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Communal strife and civil war have led to the shelling, bombing, and systematic destruction of buildings, archaeological remains, and places of worship. Looting of cultural sites has reached industrial scale, museum collections have been plundered, and the proliferation of forgeries is fueling the growing market for cultural artifacts.


There is a global need for preventive conservation of cultural heritage. Compared to a purely remediative approach, successful prevention can limit loss, reduce costs, and provide broader options for intervention.


Although celebrated, contested, and endangered, cultural heritage and its preservation are not studied in a sufficiently comprehensive way. Many institutions have performed research and made teaching commitments to the history, languages, literature, and material culture of modern and ancient civilizations whose heritage is under threat. But their efforts are often partial and fragmented -- much more could be done with increased resources and coordination.


More effective cooperation across disciplines is necessary, as several examples will show.  Human and environmentally induced damage to works of art is complex; protection requires cooperation over a broad range of physical sciences, social sciences, and humanities, in many cases at or beyond the frontier of current knowledge. Mitigation of looting and illegal trade requires methods for establishing provenance, plus knowledge of the economics of the trade, of the underlying legal framework, and of international relations. Combating the forgeries that abound in the growing market for cultural artifacts requires expertise and training in the multi-disciplinary craft of authentication.


Accidents too present a risk to cultural heritage, particularly built heritage, and collections. Historical buildings require considerable maintenance and the updating of infrastructural, safety, security, and mitigation systems. Collections often require climate controls and a variety of protocols to ensure their security and accessibility. When physical systems become outdated or fail or when stewardship is lax due to lack of training, expertise, staffing or funding, buildings and collections become especially vulnerable to fire, flooding, and other accidental damage. 


These limitations highlight the importance of exact digital recording and of virtual site preservation and re-creation, which in turn will require new forms of technology. Digital facsimiles do not replace the object itself, but they provide unique and valuable preservation and distribution options.


There have been great strides in the rapid, high quality digitization of endangered two-dimensional manuscripts (Hill Museum and Manuscript Library and British Library particularly) and high-resolution 3D scanning and reproduction of heritage sites, artworks, and artifacts (Iconem, Factum Arte, Smithsonian particularly). Concurrent with the technological advances have been agreements and commitments to the widespread sharing and accessibility of such materials both to the communities from which such materials originate as well as to worldwide audiences. 


Even if all these approaches are undertaken, there will still remain limitations on preserving cultural heritage. Researchers will have to address the obsolescence of legacy technologies such as film and other media. Approaches will be needed for the conservation and tracking of “born digital” materials such as digital manuscripts and computer-based works of art. In order to be effective, these advances will have to reach the local organizations who are actually engaged in digital preservation. Such an approach will not only preserve a record of cultural heritage; it may also keep alive the ability to speak the languages, perform the arts, and make the objects.


There is urgent need for systematic efforts to investigate a wide range of potential preservation strategies, to perform case studies, to make information on best practices available to local leaders and practitioners, and to create data useful for risk management on a global scale. There is also opportunity to learn from experience in other fields, such as climate change, and the preservation of ecosystems and endangered species.


Only tentative first steps have been taken in the use of computing and information technology in preservation. Systems need to provide continual access to data – otherwise the unused data rapidly become stale and undecipherable.  Valuable data – ranging from satellite images and advanced laboratory measurements, to data acquired in the field through smart phones – is currently lost for lack of infrastructure for capture, storage, and analysis. New machine learning and advanced analytics are needed in order to convert massive data into information, which can assist the cultural heritage community in key areas such as material preservation, the prevention of illegal trafficking, and the development of reliable economic models. This community -- professionals, teachers, and students -- also needs robust and reliable hardware and software for sharing information and resources; they cannot continue to depend on the ad hoc use of transient social media designed for other purposes.


Recognition of the need to preserve cultural heritage at a scale sufficient to address the challenge has been increasing in recent years. Internationally, intergovernmental organizations like UNESCO and ICCROM, NGOs such as the Blue Shield, IFLA, ICA, ICOMOS, and ICOM have improved awareness and tried to enhance their programs. In 2016 the U.S. passed the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act which has brought numerous federal agencies and organizations together to coordinate in preparing for and responding to cultural heritage threats and emergencies around the world.  A new foundation, ALIPH, the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in conflict areas, came online in 2017 with an $80 million grant program to address cultural heritage damaged or threatened by conflict. The British Council, the Prince Claus Fund, Arcadia, the U.S. Ambassador’s Fund, and the Aga Khan Trust for Culture among others have increased funding for endangered heritage. With enhanced political will and increased fiscal support for cultural heritage preservation, it is incumbent on the university and research community to rise to the challenge of providing a more robust intellectual infrastructure for pursing and engaging in such work.


In the final analysis the success of cultural heritage preservation will depend, not only on the community of professionals, but on support from an informed and interested public. There is no substitute for interaction between the professionals and the public; this will require new modes of communication through the Internet.



The preservation of cultural heritage is arguably one of the grand challenges of the contemporary world, comparable to other grand challenges such as world health or environmental sustainability.


We -- the participants in the UN Global Colloquium, and more generally the World’s research universities, institutes, museums, and libraries -- are particularly well positioned to forge an effective response to these challenges. No single institution has all the resources, talent, facilities, and programs for a comprehensive solution to the challenge of preserving cultural heritage - individual institutions cannot meet the need alone. A collaborative consortium of cultural institutions can have a significant and much greater impact through education and research, and by assuming a leadership role in advocating for public support and financial sponsorship of preservation.


[1] The UAE could be a case study in a systematic (consultant-driven) project that seeks to outfit the still-nascent polity with a distinctive culture, history, and identity, one driven in no small part by the creation of ‘heritage’. A very different example would be the EU, which has funded archaeology etc. so as to ‘record’ and ‘document’ pan-European forms of culture

[2] And then there is the question of faux heritage. As an example consider Notre Dame in Paris, that largely 19th-century creation of a certain kind of French medievalism. The surface debate concerns the private funding that poured in to ‘rebuild’ it. A more interesting set of questions concerns the projection of a distinctly French Catholic past in a secularizing and increasingly diverse society

[3] UNESCO=United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization

[5] ICCROM=International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property

[7] And, of course, what is worth preserving. How much funding is the current Indian government pouring into preserving Islamic or Buddhist sites? How vigorously have the Saudis preserved Christian sites in Arabia? Cf. the construction/preservation of Han culture in China (or, at the very least, the emergence of ‘Han-centrism’ in Chinese politics since the 1990s).

[8] The challenging facing the poorer countries and regions is exacerbated by the rich elites who find it difficult to resist seizing the spoils of cultural destruction. A good example is the US/European/Gulf States market in antiquities, which ISIS was only too happy to feed by digging and smuggling.


Important Dates
Conference Duration
27 October 2021 - 29 October 2021
14 September 2021 - 29 October 2021 [CLOSED]
Call For Abstracts
14 September 2021 - 29 October 2021
Global Consortium for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage
Salomé Le Roux
Contact Email
[email protected]
Contact Number
+2772 213 8238
  • Knowledge sharing
  • Impact of COVID-19 and current initiatives in Africa
  • Repatriation, access & co-curation