Historic Preservation and America in the World – Part 3

In Part 1 and Part 2 of Historic Preservation and America in the World, I tried to lay out twenty reasons why historic preservation ought to be a key component of US foreign policy.

In this last entry in the series are 10 ways the US government could do that. Others, of course, have more, different, and perhaps better ideas. But maybe these could be a starting point.

1. Follow-up services for visitors. Eight or ten times a year the State Department funds a multi-city tour for a visiting delegation whose primary interest is cultural heritage. Washington is nearly always on the travel itinerary and these groups are typically given briefings by US/ICOMOS, the National Park Service, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, the National Trust and others. Every indication is that the trips and the information received is appreciated and welcomed by the participants. In almost every instance members of the delegations will spontaneously say, “We could certainly use some on-site assistance on …” Sometimes the need is on the policy side, sometimes education, sometimes legal framework, sometimes other issues. But there is no follow up. The State Department should fund through US/ICOMOS, the National Trust or other entities follow-up services for visitors composed of teams of expertise in the specific areas that were defined by the visitors.

Heritage training in Medan, Sumatra, Indonesia

2. Conference scholarships. American preservationists have abundant opportunities to learn. Each year the National Trust, the Association for Preservation Technology, US/ICOMOS, the National Main Street Center and other organizations hold conferences, all of which are rich with educational sessions. Each year there are perhaps a dozen other preservation related national conferences on specific subjects. Through embassies, funds should be made available to pay for travel expenses and registrations for heritage conservationists from other countries to attend these conferences.

3. Short-course training. Related to #2 is the range of short courses for preservation professionals and advocates annually in the US. Included are courses put on by the National Preservation Institute, the National Park Service, the National Trust and others. In most parts of the world this type of training and information is simply not available. Again the funding could come through US Embassies, but reaching potential international participants could be done through efforts of ICOMOS, the International National Trust Organization (INTO) and other cross-border preservation organizations.

4. Development banks. Three items are high on the agenda of nearly all of the international and regional development institutions such as the World Bank, the Inter American Development Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and others. Those items are: urban development, small and medium size enterprises (SMEs), and sustainable economic development. The United States should use its influence within those institutions to make the protection and reuse of recipient countries’ historic resources as a central element in addressing those three issues.

5. Department of Interior international office. As the Federal agency most responsible for the implementation of historic preservation policy in the United States, the Department of the Interior as developed great expertise in a wide range of heritage conservation activities. The International Office within the Department of Interior should be fully funded and staffed in order to provide technical assistance internationally to countries in need of specialized expertise.

6. Federal agency expertise. Similarly other Federal agencies have in-house expertise in areas related to historic preservation. The Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Defense and others deal with issues where historic preservation is a vehicle, if not necessarily an end. This expertise could be provided to parallel departments in other countries. As an example, in 2003 then Secretary of HUD, Mel Martinez and his counterpart in the Spanish government hosted an exchange program in Spain involving experts from both countries in historic preservation. That effort was broadly deemed useful to both nations and similar activities should be undertaken regularly by other agencies.

Torzhok, Russia

7. Specific line item in foreign assistance. International aid programs at USAID and elsewhere should include historic preservation as a specifically targeted activity. What is often missed by donor agencies is that rarely is funding for historic preservation an end in itself. Rather there should be historic preservation funding where heritage buildings are the means to broader ends. These could include: job training, job creation, center city redevelopment, small business incubation, neighborhood stabilization, economic integration, affordable housing, education, and others. For example, instead of having a program that says, “We will build you a new school” have a program that says, “We will pay for the rehabilitation of a heritage building for a school.” Thus more than one outcome results from a single expenditure.

8. Ambassador’s Fund expansion. Although modest in total dollars, the Ambassador’s Fund has been used by many US Embassies with great success and is held in high regard by local recipients. They very much view it as the type of modest support that demonstrates respect for the local culture by the US Government. This program should be expanded significantly.

9. Taking the lead on Habitat Agenda item IV C-8. There are many elements of the United National Habitat Agenda with which the US government – rightly or wrongly – has significant dissent. There is, however, a specific portion of that agenda (Section IV C-8) that deals specifically with the conservation and rehabilitation of the historical and cultural heritage. The United States should step forward and commit to be a major proponent and funder of that element of the Habitat Agenda.

10. Trade negotiations. For decades the United States has actively negotiated numerous international, multilateral, and bilateral trade agreements. In spite of the recent collapse of the Doha Round of negotiations, more trade pacts will no doubt be ratified in the future. Trade negotiations are inevitably complex and as a result often produce unintended consequences. Among those could very well be the challenge to programs encouraging historic preservation through direct financial assistance or investment incentives. These could be interpreted as a violation of free trade provisions. Every trade agreement, therefore, should spell out that no country’s programs, the primary purpose of which is the preservation of heritage resources, will be interpreted as a violation of the given agreement. In some trade pacts, for example, it is spelled out that assistance to artists through the National Endowment for the Arts will not be considered a protectionist measure for a specific industry which might otherwise be considered a violation of the agreement. Language preserving the right of every country to have specialized programs for heritage conservation needs to be incorporated into every trade agreement.

Even if every one of the above were fully implemented, the total cost of the US taxpayers would be negligible relative to many of the expenditures currently being made to advance American interests internationally. Yet I firmly believe that the cost-benefit of such initiatives would be vastly superior to almost any current activity.

Finally, when was the last time that virtually every country in the world was on the same side of the same issue – India and Pakistan, Israel and the PLO, Africa and Europe, North America and South America? It was in the condemnation of the wanton destruction of the Buddhist statuary in Afghanistan by the Taliban – a historic preservation issue.


Conversely, in recent years perhaps the best example of the impact of symbolic healing was the restoration of the Old Bridge in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina funded by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the World Monuments Fund.

If there is one adjective that describes the impact of historic preservation it is that one – healing. Healing our cities, healing our neighborhoods, healing our downtowns, healing our small towns, healing our economies – all by healing our historic resources.

If historic preservation has proven to be such a healing tool in America, it needs to be a healing tool supported by America in the rest of the world.