Created in 1946 to help establish peace through international cooperation in a world ravaged by two colossal wars, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) hoped to change the “minds of men and women,” as its constitution says.

Lynn Meskell portrait

Anthropology Professor Lynn Meskell says countries seem to care more about getting their historic sites onto the World Heritage List in order to benefit from UNESCO’s brand rather than discuss conservation and preservation. (Image credit: Julie Hitchcock)

The agency aimed to achieve that mission through education, cultural exchange and conservation of heritage sites.

But that utopian ambition has gotten lost, according to Stanford anthropology Professor Lynn Meskell, who has spent the last eight years researching the history of the organization and its World Heritage program.

Today, most countries seem to care more about getting their historic sites onto the World Heritage List in order to benefit from UNESCO’s brand rather than discuss conservation and preservation, Meskell said.

Meskell calls for change within the organization and for an increased representation of minorities and indigenous populations at the discussion tables during UNESCO meetings. Her recent book, A Future in Ruins: UNESCO, World Heritage and the Dream of Peace, discusses her findings and recommendations.

The United States stopped paying its dues to UNESCO in 2011 and is scheduled to officially withdraw from the organization at the end of 2018, though it will remain a permanent observer of the agency. It is the second time the U.S. pulled out of UNESCO, having left in 1984, before rejoining in 2003.

Stanford News Service recently talked with Meskell about her research.


What inspired you to research UNESCO’s history?

I’ve always been fascinated by UNESCO. As an organization, it has a unique global reach and showcases some of the most famous archaeological sites in the world. It is supposed to represent an international vision for archaeology. And yet, most archaeologists don’t fully understand how UNESCO works and are not really an integral part of it.

Today’s UNESCO gives great importance to historians, philosophers, even anthropologists. But archaeologists don’t hold high-profile positions even within World Heritage, the organization’s flagship program, which is supposed to oversee more than 1,000 heritage sites across the world.

That paradox is what drew me to look further into UNESCO’s history.

It turns out that the discipline of archaeology and archaeologists used to be central to UNESCO’s mission during the organization’s early days in the 1940s under Julian Huxley, its first director. Back then, archaeology had this intellectual platform, and it was going to be instrumental in UNESCO’s utopian goal of changing the “minds of men” through education and cultural exchange.

For example, excavation, conservation and research were very much at the forefront of the massive international campaign in Nubia during the 1960s. That project included survey and excavation coupled with the dismantling and relocation of dozens of ancient temples and monuments in Egypt and the Sudan that were under threat from the rising waters of the Nile River. But after the 1960s, the organization’s focus shifted away from understanding the past through fieldwork and research to preservation of monuments, so from discovery to recovery.


What’s the biggest takeaway from your research?

When UNESCO was first created, the nations of the world came together to save each other’s sites. It was that simple. But the shared responsibility and care that was present in earlier UNESCO efforts, like the Nubia project, are now history.

Today, it’s entirely about political and economic gain. UNESCO is now just another arena for international tensions and solidarities. And unfortunately, the World Heritage program became just a tool in a much larger arsenal of nation-state politics.

Over the past eight years of my research, I sat through many World Heritage Committee meetings, and I noticed that when it’s time to discuss matters of conservation, most countries’ delegates don’t bother to participate. All they care about is whether their sites end up on the World Heritage List, so that they could use them in tourism strategies.

That shift in focus from conservation to inscription of sites was well under way in the 1990s when Italy, which brands itself as having the most World Heritage sites in the world, nominated 10 of its sites in one go.

More recently, the World Heritage meetings in Brazil in 2010, where there was a clear pact alliance among Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, showed that the inscription of sites is now a more concerted political and strategic effort. Countries create pacts and operate together to get their sites on the list and to stave off any danger listings, which could damage their reputations.

My biggest concern is that something that was designed as a mechanism for global peace is now being used to stimulate or resurrect conflicts. For example, Cambodia’s nomination of an ancient Hindu temple for inscription in 2008 sparked violent border clashes with neighboring Thailand. We now also see some countries trying to inscribe World War II sites and sites of recent genocides, which may inflame tensions anew.


What’s your reaction to the U.S. withdrawing from UNESCO at the end of this year?

I think it is shameful and sad. The United States was instrumental in setting up UNESCO and its World Heritage program. There were some very enlightened figures involved, including people like American conservationist Russell E. Train.

That history is something that the U.S. should be really proud of. But politics took over very early on.

One problem is that there is widespread ignorance when it comes to UNESCO. Some people think that a UNESCO inscribed site is not U.S. sovereign territory and that the United Nations somehow controls those sites. That is incorrect.

UNESCO will continue without the U.S. The agency has continued to operate after the U.S. first withdrew from UNESCO in the 1980s. And the U.S. still wants to nominate sites to the World Heritage List.

Other member states of UNESCO want their sites inscribed too, and they want that UNESCO brand.

So the number of World Heritage sites will just continue to multiply with less and less resources dedicated to conserving and monitoring them. For countries, it’s a win-win. They get their sites inscribed, and no one is really checking up on how they manage them.


How do you want to see the World Heritage program changed?

More effort should be directed toward representing the views and rights of minorities and indigenous groups within nations who are members of UNESCO. Those groups’ access to control of sites is a huge issue that comes up at World Heritage meetings year after year.

Obviously, funding is an enormous challenge, but that’s out of UNESCO’s hands for the most part.

For the member states who are part of the World Heritage Committee, my recommendation would be to adhere to the legal principles that they’ve ratified in the 1972 World Heritage Convention.

What’s staggering is how often conventions and international agreements are ignored, and there are really no penalties. This is the sphere of diplomacy. There are only carrots and no sticks. Powerful countries get away with incredible things. So how do you hold states accountable? How do you keep countries in line on issues like conservation, human rights? There is no simple solution to that.

The structure of UNESCO makes things difficult. Individual nations are ultimately the decision makers. It’s, after all, the United Nations. So, the same countries that break the rules have to vote on whether they will endorse certain regulations.

Media Contacts

Alex Shashkevich, Stanford News Service: (650) 497-4419,