Lynn Meskell. A Future in Ruins: UNESCO, World Heritage, and the Dream of Peace. 400 pp., illus., notes, bibl., index. Oxford University Press, 2018. $29.95 (hardcover)
Histories of heritage seem to be having their moment in the sun. Within the past year, Christina Luke’s A Pearl in Peril: Heritage and Diplomacy in Turkey (OUP, 2019) has been published, as has Lucia Allais’s Designs of Destruction: The Making of Monuments in the Twentieth Century (Chicago, 2018). Lynn Meskell’s A Future in Ruins: UNESCO, World Heritage, and the Dream of Peace is the third part of this (unintentional) trilogy. Part history and part anthropology, the volume puts the operation of UNESCO’s heritage concept in historical perspective, detailing the development of that notion and its institutional governance from the interwar period to the present day. As Meskell admits (xxi), her own disciplinary background in archaeology means that she concentrates on the “cultural” side of a concept that also deals with “natural” sites, most famously through the 1972 Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. That limitation aside, however, throughout the volume Meskell charts the intertwined histories of heritage and UNESCO in a way that is, to my knowledge, unparalleled in its depth.
The book’s argument unfolds over eight chapters. The initial two of these chapters are the most straightforwardly historical, while the rest combine history and anthropological reflection. The first chapter, “Utopia,” deals with the creation of UNESCO and its interwar genealogies, and in particular the early imbrication of the organization with archaeology. The second, “Internationalism,” deals with the ways in which the vagaries of archaeological fieldwork challenged UNESCO’s organizational capabilities as, throughout the 1960s, its International Campaign to Save the Monuments of Nubia took place in Egypt and Sudan. The chapter also marks this work as the moment in which UNESCO’s mission changed from one of global humanism to intergovernmental technocracy, and as the moment—Meskell wearing her interests on her sleeve—in which archaeologists lost any influence over the organization. Chapter three, “Technocracy,” continues this account of UNESCO’s development, discussing UNESCO’s shift to becoming a “standard-setting agency and the world’s clearinghouse for culture” (66). The chapter also details the bureaucracy and “landscape of paper” (81) that this process has involved.
The rest of the book details the outcomes of that process in some detail. Chapter four, “Conservation,” notes how the 1972 World Heritage Convention’s “original mandate to protect and conserve the world’s most important heritage places has gradually been replaced by an international desire to secure and mobilize that brand” (93). And the following chapters explain further the changing ways in which UNESCO’s move to technocracy has been entangled with global political interests at various levels. Chapter five, “Inscription,” details how that shift has become imbricated with the transactional nature of geopolitics, often at the cost of local community interests. Taking a different tack to the geopolitical theme, chapter six, “Conflict,” then details how the inscription of world heritage sites is often tied to territorial disputes. Of necessity, meanwhile, the final two chapters of A Future in Ruins reflect on the ways in which the movement of UNESCO’s mission away from the humanist Dream of Peace alluded to in the book’s subtitle has resulted in increasing alienation and contestation around heritage. Chapter seven, “Danger,” discusses how UNESCO has at times promoted objects over people at the same time as having unwittingly created “winners and losers” (201) tied to the promotion of particular civilizational discourses. Finally, chapter eight, “Dystopia,” reflects on why UNESCO has failed “to embrace a world of difference” (204) through the development of heritage, and what the organization might now do about it.
Luckily, Meskell’s suggestions in response to the failure of UNESCO’s post-war utopianism are useful and sensible, rooted in deep knowledge of the organization and of processes of heritage-making themselves. “Recognizing that this [heritage] is a field of contestation” (219), and that it is also one that rests on global inequalities (222) are incontestable moves that UNESCO needs to make before any sort of organizational change is possible. And as Meskell states, the outcome of this process “may not entail inscribing [world heritage] sites on a list at all, but rather allowing communities to determine their own paths” (227). As anyone even vaguely familiar with the (often dubious) processes of inscribing world heritage should agree, such an outcome would indeed be preferential to the ethical morass that such acts of inscription currently constitute.
My one quibble with the volume stems from the issue which Meskell confronts at the start: the book is very much written from the perspective of someone whose background is in archaeology. This book is, then, a history of UNESCO and its role in the constitution of heritage as a global phenomenon. It is clearly, though, not the only history possible (nor, to Meskell’s credit, does it pretend to be). Doubtless other readers will disagree, but occasionally I wondered if the case made for archaeology throughout the volume was always merited. For example, Meskell writes from the perspective of someone who has been involved at the site of Çatalhöyük in Turkey in some of the most high-profile archaeological work based around developing the discipline as an ethical, socially-engaged field (the site, at appropriate moments, makes appearances in the volume). She also notes, realistically, that “archaeology is an imperfect discipline” (225). But can recent changes in the field, as Meskell (225–6) suggests, “prove instructive when thinking about how UNESCO’s conventions, understandings, programs, and interactions could have been differently conceived and undertaken”? I’m not so sure.
Archaeology is a changed (or changing) discipline, there is no doubt. But all too often the field’s imbrication with community and aid-led approaches still seems to reproduce the power of an institutional center that is, truth be told, not one that has the best interests of those communities at heart. Witness the flood of funding for archaeological training in (non-Western) countries: who is being trained, and why? Current conversations about decolonization only go to emphasize such questions: all too often archaeological work can be criticized for perpetuating asymmetrical power relations. UNESCO needs to get its heritage work in order, but it is far from being the only institution in that position. That criticism aside, A Future in Ruins is well worth the time of interested readers—and, hopefully, of anyone involved with UNESCO itself.