World Monuments Fund, Time Honored, and John Stubbs

In 1965 a new historic preservation organization was founded – the World Monuments Fund. In the 40+ years since its founding, few organizations have had as large an impact internationally on our built cultural heritage as has the WMF.

While the WMF has numerous programs and projects, its largest and best known is the biennial World Monuments Watch. Every two years since 1996 WMF publishes and broadly publicizes its list calling “international attention to cultural heritage around the world that is threatened by neglect, vandalism, conflict or disaster.”Since this program began, nearly 550 sites in 79 different countries, on every continent (yes, including Antarctica) have made an appearance on the list…a few more than once. While the primary purpose of the list is to bring to the fore imminent risks to the built heritage of our world, the WMF does more than point out the problems. Nearly half of the listed sites have received funding which over the years has totaled more than $50 million in WMF grants which have leveraged investment by others of over $150 million.

Reflecting the incredible diversity of the world’s cultural heritage, listings have ranged from such international icons as the Taj Majal and Angkor Wat to far less known sites such as Levuka Township in Fiji and the Humberstone and Santa Laura Industrial Complex in Chile. To get a sense of the range of sites one only needs to look at the 2008 World Monuments Watch list of Most Endangered Sites.

Because of the magnitude of this effort, WMF begins soliciting nominations for the next listing nearly two years in advance. Already accessible are guidelines for nomination for sites for the 2010 list, which are available in English, Arabic, French, Italian, Spanish, and Chinese. Anyone – government, NGO, private person, local organization – can nominate a site, but now is the time to act. The deadline for submission of the nomination and related materials is March 15, 2009, so get moving!

Why has the World Monuments Fund become so successful? I think there are four reasons; 1) they have a fundamentally good idea; 2) they know how to partner; 3) they bring significant resources (both human and financial) to the table; and 4) they have a superb staff.

Although it is a non-profit organization (NGO) the World Monuments Fund operates like a great entrepreneurial private sector company. And they have identified this “niche” in the market that no one else is as comprehensively filling.

The partner list of the WMF is extensive and varied and ranges from American Express, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, the World Bank, and the Getty Conservation Institute on the international level and hundreds of national, regional and local governments and organizations around the world.

I noted earlier the direct grants WMF has made and the additional dollars those grants have catalyzed. But on other projects they also bring expert technical skills to address the specific issues of a particular site.But of the four reasons for success perhaps the most important is the people of the WMF. President Bonnie Burnham is the personification of the adjective indefatigable. Executive Vice President Lisa Ackerman came to the World Monuments Fund from the Kress Foundation, is well known in historic preservation circles and was the first recipient of the Ann Webster Smith Award for International Heritage Achievement given by US/ICOMOS. Recently joining WMF as Director of Research and Education is Erica Avrami about to finish her PhD at Rutgers University and with previous experience at the Getty Conservation Institute, as a preservation consultant, and as an adjunct faculty member at Pratt and the University of Pennsylvania.

But also at the WMF (and here’s the disclaimer – he’s a long time friend) is John Stubbs. I highly doubt that there is another person on the planet who has physically been to as many sites of international cultural importance as has John. I don’t know if there are any of the sites that have been listed on the Monument Watch that John has not visited, but if there are any, damn few.

So John has put this incredible hands-on experience into a new book – Time Honored: A Global View of Architectural Conservation. If, anywhere in the world, you are teaching a course on international heritage conservation, this should be your core text. If you are a student in historic preservation and have an interest in international issues, buy this book. If you are a professional, a civil servant, an interested amateur, or an advocate for cultural heritage in your own country, but want to understand your efforts in an international context, this book should be your next read.

The book ranges from the academic (Nomenclature Used in International Conservation Practice) to the theoretical (Who Owns the Past?) to the history of conservation (The Forging of a Discipline: The Late Eighteenth to Early Twentieth Century) to the very practical (Options for Involvement).

There is one downside to reading the book, however. Looking at the photos of places John has visited and sites that have been assisted by the World Monuments Fund, you’ll wish you had his job.